Many believe that industrialization and mass production have had a positive impact on the world of business and mankind alike, but is this really so? It is a fact that people do not have to pay exorbitant prices for shoes, bags, clothes, or food any longer because of mass production. But, on the other hand, what are the consequences of goods produced on a mass scale. Michael Pollan, in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, points out that in a country like America, where the major portion of food comes from corn, because it is mass-produced, there is no wonder that people develop eating disorders. This is because “from eating too much of the same thing when crops were good, and not enough of anything when they weren’t,” (Pollan, p. 279), the man puts his diet out of balance. To overcome this predicament, Americans are always on the lookout for the “best diet” and have developed the “omnivore’s dilemma” when it comes to decisions relating to food. The significant question is, what are the alternatives? A person need not become a hunter or gatherer to resolve the omnivore’s dilemma. With conscious choices and determination to find the origins of one’s food, one can overcome the omnivore’s dilemma and determine a balanced diet.
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The issue that Pollan raises in his book is, “we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world” (Pollan, p. 411). This implies that they eat because they need to exist as part of nature, and whatever they eat comes from nature. However, if this were the case, America would not encounter the omnivore’s dilemma. From burgers to soda to ice cream, everything in America is mass-produced. This trend is so rampant that it is difficult to distinguish where food comes from. Pollan describes an American meal as “the myriad streams of commodity corn, after being variously processed and turned into meat, converge… at KFC or Pizza Hut or Applebee’s” (Pollan, p. 109). To confront this problem, Pollan decides to investigate a meal he has prepared for a group of people and discovers that it is not just industrialization that needs to be put on trial. From the food-producing chain comprising of various food production farms and industries to the supermarkets which sell them and the media which makes so much hype about the so-called intelligent nutritional wisdom, all influence the way Americans perceive food. Food and nutrition have evolved as an industry itself.
Pollan upholds the view that there is really no real meal for the average American because he or she largely relies on fast food for meals and does not care where it comes from. People eat Subway’s salads because the company’s market propaganda touts it as healthy. People eat McDonald’s meals because they vouch for their nutritional value. However, people do not have any guarantee that the ingredients of these meals come from ethical, healthy, or even natural sources? Having taken a deviation from traditional culinary culture, Americans do not value whether an “apple is organic or conventional” or a fish is “wild or farmed” (Pollan, p. 5). The omnivore’s dilemma continues because people ignore the need for healthy food and buy packages from the supermarket shelf, rather than choosing to use food from natural sources.
On the other hand, those who pay attention to what they eat, as Pollan does, would discover that most of the American food comes from unethically constructed and manufactured food processes. From soda to Chicken McNuggets, from chicken fillet to coriander, food ingredients are mass-produced, genetically engineered, and fertilized. To explore the reasons why Americans are not concerned about the food they eat or its source, Pollan conducts an experiment of hunting and foraging and discovers that a meal is tied with the natural systems that man depends on (Pollan, p. 280). If people make an effort, they will come to know that “yeast that leaven our bread” (Pollan, p. 10) comes from some natural source, processed, and then comes out in its powdered state; the meat in a McDonald’s burger comes from the meat of cows raised on feedlots in Kansas (Pollan, p. 65), and corn comes from agricultural farms which genetically engineer them to have the required nutritional values. When a person becomes conscious of the meal he or she consumes, it becomes easy to determine what is good and what is not good for his or her health.
However, it is more difficult to determine what is ethical or what is not. Pollan (304) asserts that if we knew how animals are slaughtered for meat or what constitutes rearing of animals, people would be less inclined to eat meat. Apparently, there is no humane way to take the life of an animal for the purpose of eating its flesh, be it fish, chicken, or cows. As Pollan writes, “eating meat has become morally problematic, at least for people who take the trouble to think about it” (Pollan, p. 305).
Personally, I do not see anything wrong with eating meat. Men keep animals for several purposes. In this context, the word “domesticate” means the process of raising animals for a certain purpose. “Domesticated” animals are different from animals living in the wild because the animals that humans keep are meant to be domesticated and to serve mankind. Animal domestication started in the Neolithic age for the purpose of preserving meat as a food resource. During these times when people had a poor harvest, food resources became scarce, insufficient to feed all people. Thus “domesticated” animals could become great food resources for them during such situations. This is why humans practiced animal domestication. Since then, domesticated animals have been high-quality protein food resources for mankind. There is no point in arguing about equality or morality in consuming animals because they are meant to be domesticated by people in nature’s cycle. Domestic animals are supposed to be food resources as domesticated plants or crops. This is the reason why farm owners breed animals and raise them in the same manner as they grow plants or crops. I believe vegetarians will eat meat to survive when there is no food resource for, let us say, environmental issues like the ice age. Nowadays, we have abundant food resources that have various nutritional values. So, even if we choose not to eat meat, there are many alternative foods for protein. Therefore, animal rightists could argue about animal rights and animal suffering since we have plenty of foods to eat other than meat. But, I will eat meat because it tastes good and I like it. In my view, “domesticated” animals are just a source of food. So, I do not feel any guilt eating “domesticated” animals. As Pollan says, “Without us eating them, they would not exist at all” (Pollan, p. 310).
To examine the validity of Pollan’s claims, I decided to prepare a meal instead of buying one. Conscious of the result of Pollan’s investigation, I picked up each product with care at the supermarket to prepare a meal of fried chicken and salad. I chose Perdue Homestyle Chicken Breast, which is a commercially raised chicken. Richard C. Auletta, in his article “Defining ‘Free Range’” published in The New York Times, states that “Perdue chickens are free to roam in very large houses that are well ventilated and very bright.” So, he claims that chickens live here in hygienic conditions, as compared to where free-range chickens live since they are under human control. He also points out that “commercially raised chickens are not living in cages and are not force-fed. Besides, they are not given any hormones or chemical growth stimulants.” Therefore, I chose Perdue chicken over free-range chicken. Since chickens live in sanitary conditions and are not given any hormones in Perdue farms, Perdue Chicken Breast removed my omnivore’s dilemma.
My contemplation of the original source of my chicken breasts did not deter me from preparing my meal. I continued and marinated the chicken with Kikkoman soy sauce, manufactured in Japan. Similarly, the garlic and onions, which I ground in a mixing machine with a dash of sea salt to marinate the chicken, came from Mexico. While I did not know the cost involved in farming and hiring pickers for these bulbs, I could only imagine the efforts it took to cultivate, harvest, and then transport them from Mexico to America. After waiting for 15 minutes, I stirred the fried chicken in oil from olives grown on a farm in Italy.
To make a simple tossed salad, I chose organic vegetables. The salad was an array of salad leaves, cherry tomatoes, onions, nuts (in packets), tossed in olive oil, and coriander leaves from my window pot. The meal was topped with homemade ice cream and locally produced soda.
I know this cannot be compared to a simple meal purchased from McDonald’s. But I was aware of the origin of the food ingredients I consumed, albeit not all of them. I was uncertain of the origin of the nuts. The chicken, for example, was mass-produced, perhaps by a farmer with no ethics about killing them. The olive oil, garlic, and onions were imported from other countries, and I have no idea who owned the farm or how they operated it. The salad was made up of mass-produced, organic vegetables, which, in my view, should have more nutritional value than conventionally grown food. Organic vegetables are much more expensive and naturally grown without fertilizers, according to the farmers. Frankly, I am not sure whether organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally grown foods, and I could not find any difference between them. Still, I choose organic food for my meal. The label ‘organic’ has a magical power to make people believe it is more nutritious. Also, I just do not want to ingest any pesticide, whether it is “tolerable” or not. Like others, I am also obsessed with the idea of a balanced diet. I would rather consume a nutritious meal than spend on food that comes from unknown sources and has little health value. The sea salt and coriander were naturally produced, which is a matter of consolation to me. In finding out about the origins of the ingredients of my meal, I felt I was part of the food chain. It satisfied my curiosity besides resolving my dilemma in choosing the right food.
In addition, my experiment with food has made me realize that one’s food chain is a combination of mass-produced and organic food, and some even homegrown. Certain products are imported from faraway lands, and I have no way of knowing the conditions of the farms or how they export food items. This has proved that finding the origin of food and deciding the right thing to eat is not as difficult as most people believe. In fact, it is better if we do not depend too much on fast food. In fact, if people act rationally, they can make the right decisions. If they have any concerns regarding mass production and the use of pesticides or other chemicals, they should voice these issues to the industry or producers. But, more importantly, they need to be conscious of what they eat. One need not become a hunter-gatherer, as it is impossible in today’s fast-paced lifestyle, but can make a compromise for one’s meal. Adopting culinary methods that would enhance nutritional values can be a means to resolve the omnivore’s dilemma. Finding out a meal’s origin and making a conscious choice of rejecting those which are unethical and harmful for health is another approach. In doing so, choosing the food items which are beneficial to health becomes easy. Once this consciousness is regularly practiced, it would be easier “to know about its provenance and its price” (Pollan, p. 409). Spiritually, it would be easy for one to understand the bounties of the earth and thank nature for providing those resources to mankind. As Pollan writes, “The meal was more ritual than realistic because it dwelled on such things, reminding us how very much nature offers to the omnivore, the forests as much as the fields, the oceans as much as the meadows” (410). In the process, one hopes to learn to appreciate the food chain and its constituents more, to make ethical and conscious decisions.
- Auletta, Richard C. “Defining ‘Free Range’” The New York Times, 1996.
- Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The Penguin Press, 2006.