Humans have evolved to eat a wide variety of food. From roots and grains to fruits and vegetables to meat and nuts, it seems like no other animal on Earth can eat like we can, especially since we learned how to cook. This adaptable eating ability allowed our ancestors to survive whenever regular food supplies ran low. But that was then, and now our omnivore nature turns a simple question like “What should we have for dinner?” into a serious conundrum. Beyond health, taste, and convenience, there are also ethical and environmental effects to consider, as many modern food production practices can be cruel to animals and unsustainable for farmable land. Further, most fruits, vegetables, and meat have become available year-round thanks to advances in production, refrigeration, and transportation—a fact that only complicates the omnivore’s dilemma and takes an additional toll on the environment.
Author Michael Pollan dissects all the different ways we eat by putting food into categories based on how it’s made: industrial, organic, or hunter-gatherer. He then goes to great lengths to track the food in these categories from production to plate. In the industrial category, he visits standard agricultural and animal farms, focusing the production of corn and how it infiltrates virtually every processed food on the market in surprising ways. In the organic category, he looks at a few different types of organic farming, from the barely-not-industrial to a family-owned farm that takes “working with the land” to the next level. In the hunter-gatherer category, Pollan recruits an acquaintance to show him how to hunt, kill, skin, and prepare his own dinner.
I came away from this book with a much better understanding of today’s very long food chain and the problems that come with it. Thankfully, it was not all doom and gloom. Conquering the omnivore’s dilemma all boils down to striking a balance between convenience and sustainability. Just as it’s unreasonable to ask everyone to hunt and grow their own food, it’s equally unreasonable to ask less than 1% of the U.S. population to produce all our food. Somewhere between these two extremes lies the answer. According to Pollan, if you curb your appetite, eat with the seasons, and commit to finding and paying a little extra for local, sustainably grown food, you’ll never again dread the question, “What’s for dinner?” And that’s food for thought.