2016 - Issue Three

Symbiosis Regained: Resolving the Omnivore’s Dilemma

Katrina Ten Eyck Download Article

Pollan, Michael, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History in Four Meals (Penguin, 2007).

All omnivores face the dilemma of what to eat. In his popular book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan is interested in the modern-American-omnivore’s dilemma. For this omnivore has lost the traditional cultural food knowledge necessary to guide his eating decisions and is, therefore, particularly vulnerable to the lure of advertising, technological innovations, and fad diets. Moreover he is particularly vulnerable because he knows little and sees even less of how and where his food is produced.

The vastness of the United States, combined with its specific industrial farming practices, means that thousands of miles can lie between where food is grown and where it is eaten. This opaqueness allows for a myriad of practices to lie concealed and then camouflaged by advertising. Pollan’s research illuminates the dark spaces within American food systems, which he then proceeds to map out: industrial agriculture, organic-industrial agriculture, and what might be called “beyond organic” or local farming. In following the lines of food production, Pollan gives the reader valuable awareness of all that remains hidden when one purchases cellophane-wrapped chicken legs, a plastic box of organic spring lettuce mix, free-range eggs or a McDonald’s Happy Meal. But even more interestingly, Pollan wants to understand what corn, or a cow, or an egg is. And only because Pollan is interested in what food is is he able to articulate that what we eat affirms a way of conceiving what the world is, our place in it and our relationship to animals, plants and soil. This, for Pollan, is the real modern food dilemma.

Pollan begins by looking at industrial agriculture, but only when he meets Joel Salatin, a Virginian farmer, does he encounter someone who is explicitly thinking about what food and animals are, and farming accordingly. Salatin suggests to Pollan that the best way to determine which farmers are “organic” would be to take a look at their bookshelves—because their farming will be an extension of their worldview. The philosophical founder, so to speak, of the organic movement was Sir Albert Howard (1873‒1947), who attempted to combat the mechanistic thinking that had reduced fertility to three essential soil inputs: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. This scientific breakthrough reconceived plants as machines that needed these three inputs and consequently disregarded the entire micro-cosmos that is humus, the world of organisms, manure, and plants working in a cycle to generate fertile soil. Howard saw that such thinking in agriculture would fragment the complex and symbiotic relationships on a farm. In his view, the health of the soil, plants, animals, and humans were of one piece; and to begin to break apart these ecological relationships by conceiving of one part in mechanistic terms would tear asunder the entire system, leading to the mechanization of each layer, the consequences of which would inevitably impact human health.

On Salatin’s Polyface Farm one can see healthy ecological relationships in action. In contrast to the monocultures found on industrial farms, at Polyface Farm one finds pasture lands, beef cattle, egg-laying hens, broiler chickens, pigs, rabbits, grapevines, an orchard, and forest land. Each part is related to the whole, and each part is considered in its wholeness. Salatin employs the word holon (crafted from the Greek holos, whole, and the ending -on, as in proton or neutron) to capture the fact that on a healthy farm the wholeness of a cow or a blade of grass must be cared for, which allows it to also be a part of the entirety of the farm—an intricate ecosystem. Thus, the fact that, after grazing a pasture, cows leave behind manure with bugs, fly larvae, and other undesirable creatures which may be dangerous for them offers an opportunity for Salatin’s chickens to do their symbiotic work.  The chickens love to peck through the cow droppings, essentially sanitizing the pasture as well as moving the fertile manure around, effectively preparing the pasture for another cycle of grass growth. Or we could say that the cows have prepared the way for the chickens by mowing the grass and leaving tasty morsels that nourish their bodies and eggs. And the chickens, in their turn, have served us by converting grass and bugs into nutrient-dense eggs. In Salatin’s words, “in an ecological system like this everything’s connected to everything else, so you can’t change one thing without changing ten other things” (213). His farm functions in a circular way, each plant and animal living in relation to another, both nourishing and being nourished by the other, all the while the natural predilections of every animal are observed.

Industrial farming stands in stark contrast to the ecological, mutually beneficial relationships that Salatin cultivates at Polyface Farm. It has abandoned nature’s own way of working, adopting artificial substitutes. Along with the discovery of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium as essential fertilizers was the discovery that one could chemically produce nitrogen. This meant that natural sources of nitrogen, and thus the ecological relationships that provided nitrogen for soil, could be disregarded and chemical factories employed instead.

Since the mass production of nitrogen became possible, farms have been fragmented into parts that serve an industrial system. Once upon a time, a farmer could at least sustain his own family’s diet, and one saw variety similar to Salatin’s on farms across America. Now all one sees from fence row to fence row is corn or soybeans. The farmer’s task is, in effect, to grow one part, one cog, for the industrial machine. In the words of an Iowan farmer Pollan visited, “We’re on the bottom of the industrial food chain here, using this land to produce energy and protein, mostly to feed animals. Corn is the most efficient way to produce energy, soybeans the most efficient way to produce protein….” (54).

In a mass economy, corn is prized because it can be stored for a long time, turning it into something more than food—a commodity. It can be traded; speculated in and against on the stock exchange. It can also be standardized and relied upon to produce consistent products. Furthermore, corn lends itself to a variety of transformations, enabling it to become an ingredient in nearly every item in the grocery store.

Although our grocery stores seem to offer a bountiful variety, the truth is that we ever more reject the differences that would come with locally based agriculture: “[We] prize consistency, mechanization, predictability, interchangeability and economies of scale” (201). Supermarket chains prefer to purchase from suppliers who can guarantee a uniform product throughout their network of stores, and thus they favor purchasing from enormous farms instead of local farms. Moreover, animals fed a standardized corn crop will tend to produce meat that can be labeled according to USDA standards. A small local farm, by contrast, will yield a limited amount of produce, limited precisely by the scale of its land and the number of animals it can healthily sustain. Also, meat from grass-fed animals and eggs from free-roaming chickens reflect the qualities of the particular pasture land of a farm. That is to say that Salatin beef will taste like Salatin beef, and most likely different from beef raised in Montana, over a thousand miles away.

Industrial agriculture seems to offer its greatest benefit in producing cheap food. However, most of the real costs of this food are hidden. Pollan lists some of these uncalculated costs: soil erosion, dwindling populations in rural areas, bankrupt farmers, antibiotic resistant microorganisms, food poisoning by E. coli O157:H7, growing health problems in the general population, farm subsidies that keep corn cheap, the toxic manure lagoon produced by every feedlot, nitrogen runoff poisoning our rivers, the Gulf of Mexico, and the ocean resulting in a “eight-thousand-square-mile zone so starved of oxygen nothing but algae can live in it” (83), as well as the military power needed to secure Middle Eastern oil.  

In researching the major organic food system, Pollan discovered that here, too, industrial logic holds sway. Certainly, organic farms are using alternative methods of pest and weed control along with organic fertilizers, and yet the industrial food system pressures them into monoculture planting, and overworking the soil with similar results in soil degeneration. The overall cost to the soil and water is less than with conventional chemical interventions, but it still remains unsustainable—albeit more profitable. Furthermore, both systems require a massive amount of fossil fuels to function. In the case of organic produce, petroleum is required to refrigerate and quickly ship food across the country.

In short, Pollan shows that modern industrial agriculture is a no win game. Not a few farmers feel trapped in an unsustainable system, both in the sense that they live on the edge of bankruptcy and that the practice is bankrupting the earth. Only companies which process corn into a myriad of products—everything from animal feed to cornstarch to the mysterious ingredients listed on the label of any processed food—are making profits.

It would seem that one can support such a system of food production only if one accepts a mechanistic conception of the human body (i.e., as a machine for which any input of calories and protein will suffice) and holds an implicit faith that technology will rescue us from its costs. Otherwise, one would have to make an “almost heroic act of not knowing, or, now, forgetting” (84) how this system works in order to eat its products..

In the final part of his book, Pollan examines philosophical vegetarianism à la Peter Singer. Pollan comes to see that Singer’s views are those of a sentimental urbanite living far from any farm land, let alone an ecological farm such as Salatin’s (where even a vegetarian diet requires animal manure). Moreover, the power structure of master and slave that Singer critiques simply is not in place at Polyface Farm. Pollan recognizes as much, but his analysis nevertheless falls short. What he fails to articulate is that at Polyface Farm one glimpses relationships among the soil, plants, animals, and humans that are characterized by generosity. It is astounding that the droppings of a cow can feed a chicken, that a turkey’s romp through a vineyard can fertilize it and control pests, that a pig can burrow through three months of cow manure sprinkled with corn and woodchips, simultaneously feasting and roto-tilling fertilizer to be used on the farm. Salatin’s stewardship, which prepares feast after feast for his animals, serves his animals’ health as they, in turn, serve his. What seems to be on display at Polyface Farm is the generosity that animates the symbiotic relationships among animals and human beings in an ecosystem.  Pollan repeatedly tells us that certain crops and animals have evolved to rely upon humans—corn and chickens for example. Is plant and animal dependence upon humans really an evolutionary tactic, as Pollan so often suggests, or is it an enduring feature of the world that species relate in this generous fashion? Pollan makes a better case for answering this question affirmatively than he seems to realize.

Katrina ten Eyck is a wife and mother. She lives in Switzerland.