My letter to Michael Pollan

I just sent a letter to Michael Pollan. I submitted it through the contact form on his website. Here is the text of that letter. I’ve added proper formatting since the comment form doesn’t support it, but it is otherwise unchanged.

Dear Professor Pollan,

A little more than two months ago, I was dismayed to read a claim you made in the New York Review of Books: “Animal rights advocates occasionally pick fights with sustainable meat producers (such as Joel Salatin), as Jonathan Safran Foer does in his recent vegetarian polemic, Eating Animals.” When I read this, I couldn’t help but think that you hadn’t given Foer’s book more than a cursory glance. I think that if you had given the book a more careful reading, you would have seen that Foer was much more respectful than you give him credit for.

The book’s only mention of Joel Salatin is in a lengthy quote by Frank Reese. It’s true that this mention isn’t flattering, but Foer doesn’t endorse Reese’s criticisms of Salatin. Concerning sustainable farmers, Foer writes, “Paul [Willis], Bill [Niman], Nicolette [Hahn Niman], and most of all Frank [Reese] are not only good people, but extraordinary people. They should be among the people a president consults when selecting a secretary of agriculture. Their farms are what I want our elected officials to strive to create and our economy to support.” Is this your idea of fighting words?

I hope that you will take the time to read Eating Animals, now that you’ve written what was ostensibly a review of it. In fact, since I pass North Gate Hall daily, I’d like to offer to lend you my copy.

Your article in the New York Review of Books inspired me to take the rather unusual step of starting a blog devoted entirely to criticism of your work. I wrote about your comment on Eating Animals in more detail at http://wp.me/pW3bH-6. You can also find a properly formatted copy of this letter at http://wp.me/pW3bH-bi.

I think that your comments about Jonathan Safran Foer both in the New York Review of Books and in your April interview with The Huffington Post reflect a tendency to assume that any vegetarian who criticizes your work is an “animal-rights purist” who won’t be content until you unconditionally condemn meat-eating. I won’t deny that these purists exist, but I think that there are many vegetarians who are frustrated because they feel that your treatment of vegetarianism has sometimes been distorted and disrespectful. Moreover, I would argue that your mention of Eating Animals in the New York Review of Books was both of those things.

Over the last two months, I have completed a thorough reading of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and I have blogged about numerous factual errors, misrepresentations of sources, and weak arguments contained therein. These are not restricted to the topic of meat-eating, and many of them are science-related.

One objection that I have raised that relates to both science and meat-eating comes in your chapter titled “The Vegan Utopia” when you write that the vegan food chain would be more dependent on chemical fertilizer than the current food chain because “fertility–in the form of manures–would be in short supply.” On the face of it, this is a rather dubious claim because we’d need to grow considerably less grain than we do now.

I think it’s also worth looking at the nutrient issue a different way. Any time we use a piece of land to grow food, we remove some nutrients from that land, whether that food be a plant or an animal. Unlike most animals, though, we don’t tend to return most of those nutrients to the land when we’re done with them. Instead, we quite literally flush them down the toilet. If we take enough food from our plot of land, that land is liable to run out of some nutrient eventually, unless we somehow replenish its nutrients. It’s worth pointing out that animals are not a source of the biologically-available nitrogen that is so often limiting. There’s plenty of nitrogen in animal manure, but because the animals on a farm don’t fix nitrogen, they have to get it from food sources. In particular, this means that animals aren’t going to leave more nitrogen on the land than they eat off of it.

In the absence of chemical fertilizers, the job of replenishing nitrogen necessarily goes to the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the roots of leguminous plants. Animals can certainly help to divert some nitrogen off of pastures and into our food supply. It’s possible that grazing might even increase the rate of nitrogen fixation by these bacteria, although I wasn’t able to find any evidence of this in the literature. In any case, I think it’s quite significant that even at Polyface Farm, the clover and other legumes growing in the pasture are not sufficient to replenish the nitrogen that’s removed in food. Although you write that “The chief reason Polyface Farm is completely self-sufficient in nitrogen is that a chicken, defecating copiously, pays a visit to virtually every square foot of it at several points during the season,” it simply isn’t the case that Polyface Farm is completely self-sufficient in nitrogen. The nitrogen in a chicken’s manure comes from feed, and most of that is grain from off the farm.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, you trivialize that input, writing that Polyface meat looks “an awful lot like the proverbially unattainable free lunch.” I don’t think the amount of feed is trivial at all. In fact, using data from The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pastured Poultry Profit$, and some calorie data, I did a rough calculation (available at http://wp.me/pW3bH-9H) that suggested that the grain in the broiler feed contains forty percent more calories than the farm’s output.

I understand that this calculation is back-of-the-envelope quality. Certainly, if you have done (or seen) a more accurate calculation, I would be interested in looking at it. However, I’ve tried to choose numbers that would favor Polyface. Furthermore, I have not even accounted for the feed for the layer hens, the turkeys or the pigs.

This raises the question of whether it might be more efficient to simply grow grain to feed people. I’m sure that the inputs required to grow feed grains are not the same as would be used to grow human-edible grains, but I think this at least shows that there’s a calculation worth doing and that the Polyface meal probably isn’t as close to a “free lunch” as a reader is led to believe.

I have to think that if it would indeed be more efficient to simply grow food-grade crops, the environmental case for eating meat from farms like Polyface would be much weaker than you make it out to be. As nice as it might be to talk about putting animals on a farm so that the farm resembles an ecosystem, it becomes much less compelling if that farm merely outsources its environmental degradation to a grain farm down the road.

Returning specifically to the subject of nutrients, I think it confuses matters to say that we need animals on farms to “complete the nutrient cycle,” as your website does. That suggests that animals return to the farm the nutrients that we have removed. As the example of the Polyface broiler feed shows, they don’t eliminate the need for outside inputs. They might allow for seemingly more benign inputs (feed versus chemical fertilizer), but we should be mindful of the cost of producing those inputs. (If completing the nutrient cycle is your goal, the natural approach would be using human manure for fertility.)

On a different subject, I couldn’t help but notice that in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, you don’t mention a single thing you ate in your time as a vegetarian. This was a particularly glaring omission in a book that described at least ten meat-based meals (four in exquisite detail). Even this January, nearly two years after you began advising people to eat mostly plants, the meals you consumed over five days (as reported in Grub Street New York) were remarkably low on plant proteins.

I think you might be a more effective advocate for a diet of “mostly plants” if you talked about more of the plant-based foods you eat. There is a certain strain of foodie culture that sees plant-based cuisine as inferior. I can’t help but think that such attitudes are reinforced when the most prominent advocate for eating “mostly plants” doesn’t find many plant foods worth talking about. Aside from that, many people simply don’t know what to eat other than meat. (Perhaps you have a memory from your time as a vegetarian of telling somebody you didn’t eat meat and hearing in response, “Then what do you eat?” or “Where do you get your protein?”)

With that in mind, I wanted to offer to introduce you to some of the plant-based cuisine in the area. There are a number of restaurants in the area that specialize in fine plant-based foods made from local and sustainable ingredients (and no meat substitutes or highly processed foods). I’d like to invite you to join me for a meal at one of these places. I’m not looking to start a conversation on animal ethics; I suspect that’s a matter on which we’ll have to agree to disagree. However, I do believe there is a conversation to be had here on such topics as vegetarians, science, and plant-based food. Let me know if you accept, and we can discuss a time and location.

I understand that this letter (and my blog) may come across as a hostile gesture, but I really don’t mean it that way. I do very much appreciate the work you do to remind people that their food comes from somewhere. However, I think that when we discuss the food options that are available to us, we should do so in a balanced and accurate way, and I have felt the need to speak up where that could have been done better.

I am interested to know what you think about all of this. In particular, if you feel that I have misrepresented your work in any way, I hope you will let me know.

Sincerely,
Adam Merberg

P.S. I plan to post our correspondence to my blog, with the exception of any information pertaining to the time and location of any meeting between us. Please let me know if you prefer that anything else remain off the record.

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10 Comments »

  1. Miles said

    Awesome. I hope he responds.

  2. Mirkat said

    Excellent letter. I hope you will be able to post a response soon.

  3. Natalie said

    What a respectful letter. I’m anxiously awaiting his response.

  4. Molly said

    Nicely done, Adam. I’m impressed, and I wish I had your eloquence.

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  6. [...] book, I still don’t see much evidence that he has given it more than a quick skim. My offer to lend him my copy still stands, as does my suggestion that we discuss this and other issues over [...]

  7. [...] The Omnivore's Dilemma In response to Michael Pollan’s assistant’s email reply to my letter, here’s what I wrote: Dear [...]

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    There is no dilemma here. When anyone mentions Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, my response is usually: “Don’t get me started!” There are many arguments to be made for why he shouldn’t be allowed the last word on……

  9. [...] the letter I sent to Michael Pollan a couple of months ago, I pointed out that for somebody who advocates for [...]

  10. [...] a diet of mostly plants, which is why I offered to introduce Pollan to some plant-based food when I wrote to him over the [...]

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