Time is money. Or at least, that is what we all have come to believe. Assembly line industrialization has provided the modern consumer with a world of good—perfectly identical products, low costs and efficient production. And this formula has appeared to work pretty well so far, from cars to clothes to cosmetics. But according to Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, there is one item that has not benefited from this mass production and standardization, one item whose quality has not improved due to consumer culture. And that item is something we must ingest on a daily basis: food.
The nationwide commoditization of food was sparked by the rapid industrialization of food and the usage of factory farms. In the first section of his book, Pollan discusses the industrial meal and the reality of most farms in modern day America: a factory of monoculture crops and frighteningly enclosed animals. But most of us are willing to shut a blind eye to the environmental and inhumane consequences of these practices, because we are so far removed from our food that it’s become hard to connect steak with a living, breathing being. But the commoditization of growing and producing food proves to have serious penalties; despite the idea that all food is inherently equal. But Pollan contests that as much as we might want cows to be milk machines, chickens to be egg machines, and plants to grow to our beck and call; these are living entities we are dealing with. The industrial process doesn’t work with living beings as well as it does with artificial products because, like humans, the stuff we make our food from requires proper nutrition and certain conditions to prosper. Therefore, Pollan reveals that by eating our factory farmed food, we sacrifice wholesomeness, or nutrition for quantity.
The commoditization of food has led to the oversimplification of natural systems. The factory food industry is based off the belief that all proteins, fats, and nutrients are created equal. Thus, it would be appropriate to feed steers the meat from deceased cows, because protein is protein, fat is just fat. This oversimplification is, well, simple. It makes our lives easier, and we can justify the feeding of our farm animals recycled foodstuffs. Unfortunately, like the belief in the inherent equality of food, all nutrients are not inherently equal. By feeding steers the remains of other dead cows, the factory farm industry becomes faced with the onslaught of Mad Cow Disease. So, by feeding our chickens corn devoid of nutrition, we eat chicken devoid of nutrition. By feeding steers meat full of infectious prions, we in turn, consume steaks full of infectious prions. It is here that Pollan asserts that we are not only what we eat, but what we eat eats too.
Perhaps what is the most striking about food culture today is how far away society is removed from their food. Perusing a supermarket nowadays, it has become exceedingly difficult to determine the geographical origins of a product, let alone its exact ingredient list. Pollan wraps up the book with his take on “personal” food, or food that he has in some way gathered or hunted himself in an effort to actually be a part of producing, not just consuming. This is not an extremist suggestion to revert back to our old hunter-gatherer ways, but a means to prove that being closer to our food allows for a greater understanding of our impact on the natural world. This is the “omnivore’s dilemma”: choice. Choosing industrial food is fast and cheap, but incredibly impersonal. By buying it, one doesn’t really know where it came from, and how humanely (or inhumanely) it was produced. But when faced with the alternate choice of buying from a local farm or organic, the alternate is definitely more costly on a monetary level. Which leads to the question: what determines the true cost of a product? The conventional dollar and cents value does not reflect the true cost of nutrients and biodiversity lost, and the draining of nutrients from the soil. By becoming more intimate with our food choices, Pollan asserts that we gain a greater understanding of the impact we make on our environment, and how “wholesome” the food we are consuming actually is. It is our belief in the oversimplification of food and nutrients that has caused this sort of dietary epidemic. And while time is money, money also can’t buy everything.