This afternoon, I found myself having a bit of spare time, and knowing that Michael Pollan would be a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s program about her One-Week Vegan Challenge, I tracked down a television to watch the show. Where I have been able to find video or transcripts, I’ll use direct quotes and provide links, but otherwise I’m going to have to rely on my notes and use paraphrases.
Pollan started off well enough, praising the idea of Oprah’s vegan challenge for raising awareness about our dietary choices. He also said he didn’t think people should eat meat if they’re not willing to look at the way it’s produced. He went on to give vegans credit for animal welfare reforms and praised Meatless Mondays for introducing people to the idea of eating meals without meat.
Alas, it wasn’t long before he gave me something worth writing about. Of his own deliberations on the ethics of eating meat, he said,
I came out thinking I could eat meat in this very limited way, from farmers who I could feel good about the way the animals lived, and luckily we have a great many farmers like that now, we have a renaissance of small-scale animal farming, and that we’re not feeding them grain and taking that away from people who need that food.
I was almost inclined to let this slide because Pollan is talking mostly about his own personal feelings on the issue. Even though I don’t feel good about the way the animals on small farms are treated, I could agree to disagree with Pollan on that.
However, I do have to wonder if Pollan overstates the number of farmers that produce meat without feeding animals grain. Ruminants like cows and sheep can be fed exclusively grass, but production of pork and poultry tends to include some grain feed, even on small farms. Indeed, my calculations have led me to believe that Polyface Farm (presented in The Omnivore’s Dilemma as a model for good agriculture) is less efficient than simply feeding grain to people. (I’ll have an update related to that calculation in the near future, by the way.)
Pollan went on to explain two of his reasons for not endorsing a vegan diet. His first: “There are great farmers in this country who are doing really good work, and they need to be supported.” By this reasoning, it is irresponsible to advocate against meat consumption because it deprives these farmers of needed income.
I can’t say I find this a compelling reason to eat meat. It rests on an implicit assumption that meat production is something that should happen. Even if we accept the claim that there are meat farmers doing great work, it should be noted that there are also small farms growing plant-based foods, including calorie-dense foods like beans. Shouldn’t these farmers also be supported? Given that most of us have limited appetites and financial resources, we can only support so many farmers. Eating only plant-based foods certainly narrows one’s choice of farmers, but it doesn’t preclude supporting smaller farmers.
Pollan’s second concern regarding vegan diets was about overconsumption of processed foods, though he did acknowledge that one could be vegan without eating processed foods. I think it needs to be pointed out that food processing is a very general term. As Carlos Monteiro wrote (in a column that earned Pollan’s approval),
Much writing that criticises food processing makes little sense. Practically all food and drink is processed in some sense. Various forms of processing are neutral or benign in their effects. Many foodstuffs as found in nature are unpalatable or inedible, and some are toxic, unless prepared or cooked. Further, all perishable foods, unless consumed promptly, need to be preserved in some way.
The issue is not food processing in general. It is the nature, extent, and purpose, of processing. More generally, the issue is the proportion of meals, dishes, foods, drinks, and snacks within food systems, in supermarkets, and therefore in diets, that are ‘ultra-processed’. These characteristically are ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat ‘fast’ or ‘convenience’ products, most notably in the form of fatty or sugary or salty snacks and sugared drinks. These are best all seen as the same sort of ‘edible food-like substance’ or, as I call them, ‘ultra-processed products’ (UPPs).
“Processing” includes not just hydrogenation of soybean oil and the manufacture of high-fructose corn syrup but also more benign processes, like chopping vegetables (and other things you might do with a device called a “food processor”) and baking a dough to make bread. I suspect that Pollan would agree with me that there’s nothing wrong with chopping a few carrots but that you’d be better off keeping trans fats off of your plate. Most vegan substitutes (like mock meats and vegan cheeses) probably fall somewhere in between these extremes. Though I personally eat these products only very rarely, I have seen no reason to believe that they are particularly unhealthy, and some of them are not even very heavily processed. (I might also add that there’s a certain irony to arguing against vegan diets based on a blanket rejection of “processed” foods when the meat industry’s preferred euphemism for slaughter is “processing.”)
For me, the most noteworthy part of the show came near the end. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any video or transcript from that section, so I have to work entirely from memory. Various Oprah staffers were talking about some of the health benefits they had experienced in their week on a vegan diet. Pollan interrupted, saying that he didn’t want to rain on their parade but that there isn’t anything evil about meat and eating it once in a while is fine. It seemed like sort of an awkward place for such a comment, given that the subject of conversation had been health, rather than ethical considerations.
The conversation shifted to animal concerns, and Kathy Freston explained that she is vegan because she can’t look an animal in the eye and say that it should suffer to satisfy her appetite. Pollan claimed that animals on certain farms live happy lives but have just one bad day (I’m not convinced). He then went on to argue that our system of meat production is brutal but added, “It’s really important to reform that system, not just turn our backs on it.”
Like his earlier argument for supporting small farmers, this is an argument that seems to rest on an unexplained assumption that we need to have some meat production. In the past, Pollan has made environmental arguments for certain kinds of meat farming, but he didn’t do that here.
Anyway, I’d be interested to hear readers’ reactions to the show. Also, I hope you’ll let me know if you think I’ve misremembered something.