Rhetorical Analysis: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Being a renowned environmental journalist, food and the issues surrounding it has been the major Michael Pollan’s subject. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Pollan draws attention to the fact that nowadays supermarket’s isles are as much dangerous in terms of poisonous foods as woods in Prehistoric days were. Undoubtedly, in present time it takes longer time to see the effect of food on human organism but both a wild toadstool and modern fast food French fries saturated with trans fats are equally toxic to a human being. Therefore, it is natural that now, more than ever, one continually thinks about what to eat or, as Pollan formulates the eternal question, “What should we have for dinner?” (1). In his book, Pollan investigates a number of threads of inquiry such as meat industry, dairy industry, industrial farming vs. organic farming, as well as fast food, processed food, vegetarianism, and the culture of food. Using all rhetoric strategies, Pollan shows how differently a particular type of food, for example beef, is made and eventually tastes and, thus, he leads the reader to a more conscious choice about his or her meals.
With a number of books on food under his belt, Pollan has a good command of the topic. Pollan’s arguments are strengthened by his detailed and in-depth investigations of all the main processes on the farm or in a slaughter house and scientific explanations of the way particular plants function or nutrients interact with each other. As the problem of what to eat exists in everyone’s life, the book addresses a wide audience. Furthermore, as Pollan states in Introduction, America has been experiencing the “national eating disorder” for decades already. Therefore, tracing down the way food appears on our tables sheds light to the problem of overweight and obesity.
With the help of rational explanations Pollan singles out the ways we get food and the ways it is produced. Thus, people buy it in a store or at a market or grow it themselves. With the purpose to demonstrate his credibility Pollan decides to cook four meals with products obtained in the three different ways and compare the taste, experience, and price, and, what is very important, to see to the bottom of each food chain and to learn everything about it in order to be able to make his food choice conscientiously. Pollan’s appeal of ethos generates emotions in the reader with detailed descriptions of meals, author’s feelings when consuming them, and with enumerating reasons behind the present state of affairs in the food industry.
As it was already mentioned, one of the lines of Pollan’s inquiries is the production of beef. For a more credible investigation Pollan buys a steer and raises it on an industrial farm, thus having a first-hand experience in the conditions of feeding, living, and slaughtering cattle. Pollan claims that we are not only what we eat but also what the food we eat is made of affects our bodies (84). Pollan bombards us with the revelation that basically people subsist on a monoculture diet of corn because it is in the basis of all modern technological processes. Not only pigs and poultry are fed on corn but also non-grain eaters such as cows and salmon. Pollan reveals that the reason for such popularity of corn is first and foremost government assistance. Specific government policies resulted in overproduction that had to be used somehow. “Corn’s triumph” became “a disaster for the people who grow it” as much as for those who eat the end product of farm factories. Not only does corn take its toll on animals’ health and environment but also it affects health of the people who consume these food animals. Pollan claims that “the fats created in the flesh of grass eaters are the best kind for us to eat” because they are less saturated, fewer in number, and “may help reduce weight and prevent cancer” (267). Additionally, milk, meat, and eggs from grass-fed animals contain omega-6 and omega-3 important for human organism. The ration of these fatty acids is extremely important for human health. Because of evolutionally unnatural diets of feedlot animals, now conventional nutritional thinking that salmon is better for heart than beef because of higher levels of omega-3 no longer takes hold. Pollan explains, “if the steer is fattened on grass and the salmon on grain, we might actually be better off eating the beef” and the reader can conclude that if both species are fed on corn, nutrition-wise it does not matter what to choose. The bottom line is, “The species of animal you eat may matter less than what the animal you’re eating has itself eaten” (Pollan 269).
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Pollan’s argument against so much corn in agriculture looks particularly strong when the reader learns that feeding cows a diet unnatural for their species brings many troubles to animals’ health and environment. “The short, unhappy life of a corn-fed feedlot steer represents the ultimate triumph of industrial thinking over the logic of evolution” (Pollan 68). Cow manure used to be an ideal fertilizer for fields and now it is toxic waste because of corn and soy as their main meal option. If farmsteads used to keep cattle, poultry, pastures, and fields and it was a continuous cycle where animal feces fertilized the ground that later fed them, then now monoculture farming factories have to solve the problems of waste, animals’ fragile health, and sustainability. However, critics argue that while Pollan “presents overstated case against science”, his result is “an argument layered with contradiction and distortion” and that his arguments look as if he is against science in general (Merberg). Merberg offers to “criticize science done badly but embrace good science as a vital part of a better food system.”
Pollan establishes a rapport with the audience from the first pages adopting friendly ‘we’ and posing rhetorical questions that everyone asks themselves on a daily basis: “What am I eating? And where in the world did it come from?” (17). Providing startling statistics about growing rates of obesity in the USA Pollan mentions a paradoxical situation in those European countries whose approach to food choices is based on “such quaint and unscientific criteria as pleasure and tradition” and as a result their people are “healthier and happier in their eating than we are” (3). Thus, Pollan acknowledges that American people are now confused about what is healthy to eat because there was time when fat was considered an absolute evil, while now carbs take the biggest share of the blame. The author tries to understand how we are influenced by what we eat and how we eat.
Reading all the gory details about raising cows and steers and slaughtering them some may assume that the author has in mind a call to vegetarianism. However, Pollan argues that, along with dairy, meat is definitely necessary for healthy lifestyle but it needs to come from correctly-fed animals. At that, Pollan claims that the label “organic” does not necessarily mean that animals are indeed free range and range-fed (134). Often organic farms are ,in fact, industrial farms which indeed do not use antibiotics and use less of chemical fertilizers but nevertheless their animals have never seen a blade of grass, have been fed on corn and for them “access to the outdoors” mostly means “not so much a lifestyle … as a two-week vacation option” (157). Yet still, there are small organic farms that make a small amount of produce, not on an industrial level, but that are both healthy to eat and environmentally sustainable. Referring to beef, Pollan remarks that due to corn feed people got used to a year-round fresh beef in supermarkets while it used to be a seasonal meat to be eaten in late fall and winter (253).
Telling in details about technological processes in farming Pollan cleverly remembers to mention what emotions they stir up in him. Thus, the author intertwines scientific facts and real life situations he had concerning the issue, and the reader is more inclined to believe his arguments. Therefore, Pollan’s arguments are developed in a close connection with experts’ opinions, statistics, and personal experience. That image of a hands-on investigator who picks a steer to be raised for him and slaughters a pig with his own hands dilutes the descriptions of technological, chemical and physical processes with a personal note, which helps the author to hold the reader’s attention. Also, Pollan lends a great deal of the book space to the mouth-watering descriptions of cooking processes, which make the reading all the more fun.
Pollan arranges the chapters from the worst food choice (tasteless fast food) to the best (a scrumptious self-cooked Sunday dinner). The idea to place the detailed description of meals at the end of each chapter is great because it is the best illustration of Pollan’s arguments involving all sensory mechanisms such as taste, smell, and touch. After visiting industrial and organic farms Pollan takes a journey to the wood to hunt boar for the meal he will make from scratch and see how it feels to procure food by himself. This meal turns to be the most rewarding in terms of taste and pleasure. However, despite the clear evidence that the last meal is the best, Pollen says that it is impossible to have it every day. Being a highly rewarding experience, it is nevertheless extremely time consuming.
Despite the industry appropriating the word “efficient”, Pollen proves that, in fact, small farms are much more efficient because they sustain themselves and work in harmony with the nature. The point of view that it might be futile to fight against industrial giants who crash small-scale farmers with their low prices and big volumes is refuted by Pollen saying that nowadays it is very easy to “opt out” because of the Internet (248). Of course, not for every business; artisan broiler business is more artisan than cattle business since farmers are not allowed to process beef and pork themselves (250). In fact, beef business is more efficient if a farm raises both cows and chickens because thus “the efficiency [is] represented by turning cow manure into chicken eggs and producing beef without chemicals” (214).
Some critics found Pollan’s arguments “too nice” claiming that they would like Pollan to be “more prescriptive about how we might realistically address our national eating disorder” (Kamp). Indeed, Pollan does not offer large-scale decisions on a governmental level. However, if everyone stays conscientious about their food choice, probably that would make a difference. Pollan offers us to approach the matter of food in a conscientious manner, not being obliged to always eat slowly and forsake fast food altogether, but be aware of what we eat.
Contrasting two absolutely different types of meals in terms of price, time spent to consume and to prepare, pleasure derived from eating, and nutritional diversity, Pollen argues that both a fast food takeout and a slow Sunday meal made of self-gathered and self-produced foods are extremes which should be better experienced occasionally. Indeed, the beef patty from McDonald’s cheeseburger Pollan found tasteless in contrast to a braised leg of wild boar hunted by him. Nevertheless, he advocates to forsake processed foods and fast food altogether. On a daily basis it is still good to use all conveniences of the civilization; it just should be done in full understanding of the fact that “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” (411). The ultimate goal of Michael Pollan in writing a book on omnivore’s dilemma is to raise awareness of what is the compound of what people eat: “You are what you eat” is a truism hard to argue with, and yet it is, as a visit to a feedlot suggests, incomplete, for you are what what you eat eats, too. And what we are, or have become, is not just meat but number 2 corn and oil” (84). Claiming that people should look to the bottom end of the food chain, Pollan does not insist on a complete rejection of, for example, fast food, rather he offers to treat it as “a kind of Thanksgiving in reverse” to make sure that such bland food is not worthy to be consumed on a regular basis. A little bit of knowledge will help to drop next weekend not to the supermarket nearby but to the local farmer’s market for a fresh pound of grass-fed beef.