A decade after ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ Michael Pollan sees signs of hope

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photo credit: inhabitat

Author: Michael Pollan

In the 10 years since I wrote “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” many things about the American food system have changed for the better, but perhaps the most important development — and potentially the most challenging to the long-term survival of that system — is the fact that the question at the heart of my book has moved to the heart of our culture.

I hasten to add this is not my doing. When I wrote the book, Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” and Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics” had already helped pique the curiosity of Americans about the system that fed them. Yet, in general, all writers can really do is lift a sensitive finger to the cultural breeze and sense a coming change in the weather; very seldom do they actually change it themselves. (Or as one of my mentors once explained, “Journalists are at best short-term visionaries. Any more than that, no one would read them.”) In fact, during the four years I spent researching the book, most of the time I felt like I was late to the story. Something about the public’s attitude toward food and farming was already shifting underfoot, and I became convinced my book was going to be dated on arrival. Food safety scandals, such as mad cow disease in England and outbreaks of E. coli contamination in fast food hamburgers in America, had raised disturbing questions about how we were producing meat. At the same time, climbing rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes had led many to wonder if perhaps Americans had developed a national eating disorder of some kind. Food, which is supposed to sustain us and give us pleasure, was making people anxious and sick. Why?

Well, I wasn’t as late as I feared, and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” found a much larger audience than I ever dared to hope. It turned out that millions of people shared my curiosity about where our food comes from and concerns about how it is produced. What’s more, the asking of those questions by large numbers of people, and the surprising answers they yielded, set into motion a certain economic and political momentum. As I wrote in the introduction (though to be honest more in hope than expectation), “If we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat.”

And so we are. Some remarkable changes have taken place in the food and farming landscape since the book was published in 2006. Consider this handful of statistics, each in its own way an artifact of the “where-does-my-food-come-from” question:

There are now more than 8,000 farmers markets in America, an increase of 180 percent since 2006. More than 4,000 school districts now have farm-to-school programs, a 430 percent increase since 2006, and the percentage of elementary school with gardens has doubled, to 26 percent. During that period, sales of soda have plummeted, falling 14 percent between 2004 and 2014. The food industry is rushing to reformulate hundreds of products to remove high fructose corn syrup and other processed-food ingredients that consumers have made clear they will no longer tolerate. Sales of organic food have more than doubled since 2006, from $16.7 billion in 2006 to more than $40 billion today.

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