24 November 2013

Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5, I'm as surprised as you are.

Michael Pollan is one of those food types who has spent a lot of time pushing a lot of anti-scientific ridiculouslessness, especially about genetic modifications of food. It makes it difficult to take a lot of what he has to say at face value, as well as his approaches on issues of food and the "right" way to do agriculture and food gathering.

On the other hand, there's nothing inherently wrong with his point of view regarding the moral, ethical, or even preferential issues with food collection and production. You don't need to be a slave to science while still being uncomfortable with some of the practices in agriculture and meat production. Pollan truly spends more of his time in this book on those issues than real science.

So The Omnivore's Dilemma, in a sense, is a great book when you look at it through the lens of someone who is interested in understanding their food. The production aspects (good, bad, or indifferent), the historical contexts of agriculture, and so on, they're all really interesting reads.

Where Pollan falls flat, beyond his lack of credibility on the scientific aspects, is his connections. He spends a significant amount of time with Joel Salatan of the Polyface Farm, someone who is one of those crunchy libertarian types, but you'd never really understand that most of his problem is regulatory rather than about the actual food supply. He spends some time with ethicist Peter Singer, who is extremely controversial with some questionable points of view on everything, although you'd never know it reading the text. Even nods to PETA and such along the way certainly pulled me out of the text a bit - you can have a serious nonfiction read about food, or you can go along with unserious sources and points of reference. You can't have both.

Overall, I'm surprised to say that this is worth reading. Whichever direction you fall in the basic debates, you'll probably find something of value. There is a "reader beware" concept to go along with it, but it's not enough to toss this into a pile, never to be seen again.

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