Michael Pollan on Oprah

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.

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52 Comments »

  1. [...] makes clear, Pollan rarely lets the facts get in the way of an argument that suits his agenda. Link. Spread the [...]

  2. Natalie said

    Good memory! I was really hoping you’d have a response to Pollan. I watched the show and found myself getting angrier and angrier at him. He came off as a meat advocate, especially at the end of the show. I really like your point that by not eating meat, you’re still supporting farmers–just different farmers. I wish someone had said that to Pollan at the time.

    • Adam Merberg said

      Yeah, that was really weird. Listening to Pollan, you might think that the alternative to eating meat is not eating anything at all. It may be the case that there are more small farmers raising meat than growing beans, but I can say for sure that there are locally grown beans available in Berkeley, where Pollan and I live.

      • Eric B. said

        Can you tell me more about these beans? What kinds? What price? Organic? Combine- or hand-harvested or some intermediate method? Are they beans from a local food system or are they beans from the global commodity agricultural system that just happen to have been grown nearby?

      • Adam Merberg said

        I can answer some, but not all, of your questions. I’ll try to do a bit more research when I’m in Berkeley again. They are organic and from a local food system, but I’m not sure how they are harvested. One of the farms is Full Belly Farm, whose website mentions that they are selling cranberry beans to CSA members at $5 a pound (I’d expect them to be a bit more expensive for non-members). They grow other kinds as well, but I don’t have a list.

  3. Fifivixen said

    Michael Pollan is an Ass!!! I will always give him credit because it was his article “Power Steer” that turned me vegan but he is a huge hypocrite. His body language on the show yesterday was uncomfortable when he was not involved and when the focus was on veganism. His comment about not wanting to put a damper on the ‘vegan revival’ that was occurring at the show was typical of him not wanting to hear the benefits that people were expressing of their vegan experience. The show itself was really bad in that it gave Cargill good PR. The Cargill PR woman talked about respect for animals etc. which was BS. They managed to convey that the cows don’t feel pain because of the bolt and even Oprah repeated that aloud. Do they realise how many times the bolt misses? That was their 5* plant. An Oprah user ‘gardener1234′ who used to be a slaughterhouse inspector commented about how this plant was probably the cream of the plants and that in his either 18 or 25 year experience as an inspector, he saw how awfully animals were treated at slaughterhouses and as a result does not eat any animal products. The show was sad. Michael Pollan was an idiot with his smirking comments. Kathy Freston was a terrible advocate for veganism with all that processed food that she kept pushing at people. I think she was between a rock and a hard place and didn’t say what she truly felt in order to be able to be palatable to the masses but it ended up being trite, inane and not the message to get out. Sadly, the winners here were Cargill and Pollan with different agendas but one not close to veganism.

    • Mary said

      Well said.

    • Flynn said

      Fifivixen, Cargill and Pollan were absolutely not the “winners.” Cargill and Pollan were doing what they were expected to do. He defends meat. Cargill defends their profits.

      It was an hour-long show, take away 15 minutes for commercials and there were 45 minutes to present the idea of veganism to billions of worldwide viewers, give the meat folks the feeling that it was a balanced show (so they wouldn’t sue again), follow up with staff about the week-long challenge, take an individual to a store to cover much-used vegan items like Earth Balance and non-dairy milks, and allow Michael Pollan to give his comments in the context of his role as food expert for the Oprah show. That’s a lot of content for 45 minutes.

      It wasn’t promoted as an expose on animal suffering. It was an introduction to veganism. It wasn’t a show for vegans. It was a show for Oprah’s audience and I guarantee she and her producers know far better than any internet critic what moves that audience.

      Regarding the food, people seem to have missed the part about the producer dumping all the foodstuffs with animal ingredients in her fridge. That was the reason for going to the store—to replace those items and to introduce ingredients that would allow her to duplicate the meat-based meals her kids were used to. Obviously, she didn’t need to throw out her vegetables since they don’t have meat in them, so it’s reasonable to assume she had veggies at home. Additionally, Kathy is personal friends with Tal Ronnen so she plugged his Gardein line. The only other “processed” food I saw highlighted was Tofurky. And I’d much rather someone eat a Tofurky sausage made from organic soy, non-GMO ingredients, and a minimal ingredients list than something from GMO-soy-Lightlife/ConAgra or that Cargill plant.

      But back to winners, your own comment refers to a former slaughterhose worker that watched the show, then commented about the reality of slaughter, and admitted (for all Oprah’s viewers to see) that he no longer eats animals because of his experience. That will make many people think. As has the show. The internet is afire with comments from people saying they were contacted by friends and family asking for more info, or declaring a desire to be veg or to adopt Meatless Mondays. There’s no doubt, animals won on Tuesday. To dismiss the influence that is Oprah because she didn’t show worse animal footage, or better food footage, is to be both ungrateful and lacking in reality-based expectations. Go read the comments throughout the Vegan Challenge Starter Kit pages on Oprah.com and see for yourself how many people are saying they want to try it. For pete’s sake, Kathy Freston’s book went to #1 on Amazon after the show—clearly people wanted to learn more. I don’t think Cargill has a book for sale at Amazon, so again, winners = animals!

      • fifivixen said

        If animals were the winners then I am thrilled and have no issue with being wrong. Yes, it is great that Kathy’s book is #1 and may it stay up there long. I do however think it was great PR for Cargill and wouldn’t be surprised if they now put stickers on their meat saying – comes to you from a Cargill plant or something equally awful! Well, the discussion has begun and that’s a good start.

  4. melly said

    I thought the show was very ‘light’ on the subject. I think there was a lot missing on the subject like how much pollution all those cows cause. The environmental impact of eating meat. I also thought it left viewers with the impression that all meat comes from a factory like that when MFA and PETA will show you they don’t. Those small little farms are few and far between and most people do not want to spend the extra money to pay for the animal’s well being. If the audience could see the waste produced by animal they would have been surprised. I also think showing where milk comes from and what happens to the male calves would have been helpful. It seemed to come at the issue from a health perspective. I think some way more delicious meals could have been presented. No one would die if they had pasta without meat in it. If you stay away from North American food and eat ethnic it’s so easy to eat vegan. I did think that Pollan was a meat advocate – I have not read his books but I have no intention of reading them now. I would have much preferred to have Dr. Neal Barnard as he would have been much more informative.

  5. [...] Here's Kathy Freston's take on "veganizing your meals" – if anything this is good when you have vegan guests (like me!) over for dinner. Ecorazzi takes a super-positive approach (as always) while the Food for Thought blog takes a more skeptical one. Lastly, here's a great piece on Pollan's remarks, specifically about meat: "Michael Pollan on Oprah." [...]

  6. Ben said

    Didn’t see the show, so I am an uninformed commenter. Just what the world needs! I have to say that Pollan’s belief that veganism is iffy because there are lots of “processed” vegan foods is absurd. Even if I grant that meat-eating can be healthy (and I don’t grant that), virtually every meat-eater is eating “processed” junk meat. They’re not eating like Michael Pollan claims to eat. They’re eating fast food. They’re eating garbage from buckets and boxes. They’re eating stuff you microwave.

    • Anne said

      I eat meat and I don’t even own a microwave. My freezer is currently full of beef from a cow that was raised on a pasture just up the road. I virtually never eat fast food or junk food. Although there are lots of wonderful vegetarian and vegan dishes that I enjoy, I would never eat fake meat. If I want meat, I eat real meat from an animal that was raised and killed humanely.
      Yes, that is possible. I have raised and butchered my own chickens. I’m not saying they didn’t experience any pain at alll, but their death was far more humane than what they would have experienced living in the wild (not that chickens would even exist in the wild anymore if people hadn’t domesticated them for food 100,000 years ago). While they were alive they seemed to have a great time walking around looking for worms and bugs and seeds in the garden.
      You’re never going to get a large percentage of Americans (or any other nationality for that matter) to become vegans. However, by educating people about the nastiness of industrial meat production, and supporting small farmers who raise meat humanely, more and more people will have an alternative and will choose to stop buying factory “farmed” meat.
      Also, I am wondering what vegans use for amending their garden soil. No animal manure, no bone meal, blood meal or fish meal… so what do you use? I know, we could use humanure, but the USDA is never going to approve that (nor will the American consumer accept it) in our lifetimes.
      If you want to eat a vegan diet, that’s fine with me, but don’t criticize those of us who choose a different path – one that I think will ultimately lead to greater changes in animal welfare and good nutrition.

      • Adam Merberg said

        Also, I am wondering what vegans use for amending their garden soil. No animal manure, no bone meal, blood meal or fish meal… so what do you use? I know, we could use humanure, but the USDA is never going to approve that (nor will the American consumer accept it) in our lifetimes.

        I have written about this extensively on this blog. Animals don’t make nutrients. When there are nutrients in manure, bone meal, blood meal, fish meal, etc, it’s because the nutrients already existed in something the animals ate. Though you wouldn’t know it from reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Polyface Farm requires copious amounts of grain to replenish nutrients exported in food, and it doesn’t leave us less dependent on synthetic fertilizers than grain agriculture.

      • Your argument that those animals are killed humanely hinges on a comparison–that conventionally slaughtered animals are killed worse.

        Our argument is that the comparison, even if it is genuine, doesn’t matter. Regardless of how much pain is involved or what other people do, that animal’s life was taken away. He or she was sentient and you took away their sentience.

        It makes no more sense to say I am a humane murderer because my neighbor kills three times as many people as me and in a drastically more painful way.

      • John said

        Anne, having raised and slaughtered your own chickens you are way, way farther down the path of accepting moral responsibility for the decision to eat an animal than 99.9% of meat eaters. Personally I’d be willing to concede some ground on the moral argument and say that if a person is willing to slaughter and butcher an animal themselves then they have a right to do so. My guess is 95% or more of current meat eaters would not be able to stomach the physical reality and moral responsibility of cutting an animal’s throat, firing a bolt into their head, etc. and watching them die right in front of them, and meat consumption would practically disappear overnight. The problem with modern meat production, whether at a family farm or a factory farm, is that it completely insulates consumers from the physical reality and moral question of killing an animal to please their taste buds. People in developed countries don’t need to eat meat to survive as our ancestors did, we do it purely out of habit and convenience.

      • Anne Taliaferro said

        Adam M – I will look for the information you wrote about soil fertility not being dependent on animal inputs. I just stumbled across this blog because I had heard about this particular Oprah show, and hadn’t seen it, so I did an internet search to try to find some video clips. This was one of the sites that came up in that search and it caught my eye.
        Clearly, I am not a vegan or a vegetarian. I don’t think it’s morally wrong to raise and kill animals for food. I don’t think you are wrong to believe that, and unlike vegetarians, I think vegans truly live their beliefs. I wish you were able to respect my position, but I suspect you won’t be able to, because it appears that this issue is totally black and white for you.
        I said that I respect vegans for living their beliefs, but I am kind of amused/irritated by ovo-lacto vegetarians who make that decision because they don’t want animals to die so they can eat. What do they think happens to the dairy bull calves or to the cockerels? Sure, they don’t have to kill them themselves, but most meat eaters don’t kill their own food either – as John pointed out.
        My son used to work at the farmer’s market selling pork. His customers frequently wanted to know about how the animal was raised, but when he got to the part about how the animal was slaughtered, they became very uncomfortable and really didn’t want to hear about it.
        I don’t think that most people would stop eating meat if they had to kill it themselves though. I think they would just have a better understanding of where their food comes from. That’s how it was up until the last few generations.
        Anyway, I think we just have a different idea of morality – sort of like some people think homosexuality or abortion is immoral. You aren’t going to convince me that humans are not intended to eat meat, or that it’s morally wrong to do so, and I guess my point was that I don’t think you’re going to have much success at convincing a very large percentage of the population of that either.
        So if you want to be vegan, more power to you. And of course, you’re welcome to continue your proselytizing but it will likely have no greater effect than the proselytizing done by any other religious sect. If your goal is to reduce the suffering of farm animals though, promoting humane farm practices would probably be more effective than trying to convince people not to eat meat.

    • Flynn said

      Anne, you can do some searching for veganic farming/agriculture. There is a farm in upstate NY that is growing large quantities of food for their wildly popular CSA using veganic techniques. There is another in Northern California. You should be able to find them both with a simple search. I just discussed it with my gardener the other day. The NY folks raised questions years ago that were mocked at the time but have since been taken up and proven to be true by a major university. They’ve proven that steroids, antibiotics, and pesticides are not breaking down in manure—even when it is hot-composted. Unfortunately, the majority of manure for commercial agriculture comes from factory farms. The university proved that the plants raised under this manure soak up the pesticides and other nasty bits still remaining in the manure. Of course, this means the only truly organic produce is grown veganically or is grown under manure from known-by-the-grower animals whose feed source can be verified as organic. That’s an interesting point that most are unaware of, but more to your point, people most definitely are growing enough produce to run a business on using veganic practices. My gardener turned down an offer of manure after he researched this himself.

      Regarding your comment about us vegans not moving people more than “any other religious sect.” First off, coming from a family with Mormons in its past and having a boyfriend that was raised Mormon, the idea that religious proselytizing doesn’t work is utterly absurd. More churches are what I see, not less. I know how successful my boyfriend was in converting folks to his (former) beliefs during his mission in Venezuela. In fact, he’s often joked about re-purposing his missionary education for the benefit of the activist community, specifically because their tactics *did* work so well.

      As for eating animals, you are convinced you won’t be convinced that humans are not intended to eat meat. There are plenty of sources talking about the differences between the digestive systems of true carnivores and herbivores. Fact is, humans are far more similar in makeup to herbivores than carnivores. But this is not my issue because “intention” is not my concern. I believe humans can evolve beyond the need to take life from sentient beings simply for the sake of their appetite alone.

      But what really interests me is that while you’re willing to continue debating here with vegans, you seem to be completely unaware of the fact that not a one of us vegans was *born* vegan. We all thought eating meat was normal, and right, and likely did it daily before we were exposed to new info that made us reconsider the whole situation. Every vegan found that information compelling enough that we decided it was necessary for us to give up the flesh and secretions of animals despite having been raised to believe it was to just normal, but also necessary.

      The fact is, you and every other person on the planet are potential future vegans. People far less likely than you have made the decision to adopt a compassionate diet and lifestyle. And, in case you’re unaware of what folks were talking about on this page, it’s the fact that Michael Pollan was on Oprah’s show about veganism. Oprah is one of the *world’s* *most* *influential* *people.* When she gives the topic of veganism not only her attention, but the time and attention of 400 staff members for *an entire week,* I think it’s safe to say, vegans have arrived. The things we are doing are clearly working!

      When I was growing up I never heard the word vegan. Now I know happy, healthy vegan children. 15 years ago, I had a hard time getting vegetarian food. Now I can walk into any number of exclusively vegan restaurants. More vegan products are coming to market everyday. More vegan cookbooks are coming out every month. More vegan restaurants are opening every year. Veganism was listed on numerous trend lists for 2010 as “one to watch.” More celebrities and young people are going vegan. More Americans are suffering from diseases of affluence (animal consumption). Many are turning their health around thanks to a vegan diet. More people are learning about the incredibly destructive aspects of animal agriculture on our planet. At a time when many want to be as green as possible, folks are embracing the fact that nothing is better for the health of the planet than a vegan diet. More and more people are learning about and becoming concerned about exploitation and abject poverty the world over. When they learn how much grain and water are used to feed animals, they see the injustice of letting a majority go hungry while a minority happily sits down to a steak dinner.

      Anne, we’re coming for you (so, totally kidding). But, make no mistake, we are growing in numbers, our message is being heard, and we are having an impact. Go Vegans!

      • Anne Taliaferro said

        Yeah, actually after I posted that remark about religious proselytizing I realized that I was probably wrong about that. I have a difficult time understanding how or why it is successful, because it’s never made any sense to me. But I must admit that it seems to be. Although it sounds like you and your boyfriend ultimately rejected those ideas, as have many other people I know who once believed religious dogma.
        As I said, I have no problem with y’all being vegans, and I do understand that having someone as influential as Oprah giving veganism so much airtime is a big deal. I just wish you weren’t so critical of Michael Pollan.
        He has done and continues to do quite a bit to bring attention to the way most of our food is processed. I listened to The Omnivore’s Dilemma as a book on tape on a cross country trip about 5 years ago, and my husband and I have completely changed the way we eat. Most of our kids had already moved out of the house, but our youngest also got to where he couldn’t stand the thought of going to fast food places with his friends.
        I don’t think we should ever say never, but the chance that I will become a vegan is about as likely that I’ll become a mormon. (Zero to none).
        However, my travels down this new food path have led me to sell my house in the city and move to a 19 acre piece of land where we are starting to raise our own food. The manure and animal bedding that we use for our compost will have no steroids or antibiotics or any of that crap in it.
        I used to say that if I couldn’t kill my own meat I shouldn’t be eating it, and a few months ago I was able to test this out when our chickens came of age. We bought a “straight run” of 25 Rhode Island Red chickens. Usually when people buy chickens for eggs they just want the females, so the hatcheries end up killing the unwanted males. We raised all ours until we could tell who the boys & girls were & we kept one rooster and 12 hens. We killed and ate the rest of the roosters. Judging from how frequently the rooster “has his way” with the hens, I think they are much better off with a 12 to 1 ratio. The offal from the roosters went into the compost with the leaves we had raked up during the Fall, and it will all go into the garden once it’s completely composted.
        I plan to get a dairy cow in a couple of months, and we will eat her offspring and feed her extra milk to the chickens and to the pigs we plan to get.
        We will also have goats that we intend to raise in the forest to help us clear out some of the blackberries and poison oak. This forest would naturally be Oregon White Oak, but the previous owner planted a bunch of Fir in there, and he planted so thickly that the trees are really spindly & a lot of them are falling over. So we want to clear out a lot of the fir and allow the Oak to be the dominant species again. Once the goats have gotten most of the brush cleared out we’ll put the pigs in there to root it out some more. They can also eat the acorns from the oak trees. Our goal is to have a self-sufficient system where each component supports the others.
        Now again, I’m not trying to debate y’all in the sense that I want you to stop being vegans, but I do wonder why there is such a market for all the fake meat and dairy products and such. You can make perfectly lovely vegan meals with whole foods that you can grow yourselves. That fake stuff turns me off as much as coffee whitener, or cool whip.

      • Adam Merberg said

        I just wish you weren’t so critical of Michael Pollan.

        You know, I can understand why you wouldn’t like some of the more strongly-worded comments, including some on this site. I dislike the tone of some of the comments here, too.

        However, I disagree with the idea that we should avoid being critical of somebody just because he’s done a lot of good (and I agree that Pollan has). On this blog, I have documented numerous instances of Pollan misrepresenting both facts and vegetarian ideas. For example, see my first post, where I looked at Pollan’s review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and four other books. The piece badly misrepresented Foer’s work and in fact showed no evidence that Pollan had actually read the book.

        If my problem with Michael Pollan were simply that I disagreed with him on meat-eating, I’d content myself to simply express my difference of opinion. But my objection to Pollan’s work is that he tends to kick a certain group of people (of which I am a member) in the shins from time to time. And I think that it’s perfectly reasonable to point out that he’s doing that, even if it means criticizing somebody who has been a positive influence.

      • Eric B. said

        Adam M., it’s true that animals “don’t make nutrients” and that the nutrients found in animals, as in manure, bone meal, etc., were first in whatever the animals ate, but that misses the point if we’re talking about fertilizers. I can haul one pick-up load of animal bones from the local butcher and bring close to 100 lbs of phosphorus home (something my soils are particularly low in); I’d have to make approximately one hundred trips hauling the same weight of hay to bring home the same amount of phosphorus. The point is that animals *concentrate* nutrients such that they can be transported and applied where needed. To try to do the same with vegetable matter would mostly be impossibly inefficient.

        John, you suggest that 95% of meat eaters couldn’t stomach butchering their own meat. That’s probably an exaggeration, but isn’t the real issue that we’re a society of helpless consumers. 95% of us won’t change the oil in our own cars, wouldn’t consider cutting firewood to heat our homes, or wash our babies’ diapers. How many vegans could stomach the manual labor of growing their own soybeans to make their own tofu? Surely not even 5%.

    • Anne Taliaferro said

      Adam M – I guess I was unaware of the shin-kicking activity. Anyway, I think informing people about how most food is produced, as Oprah has done is a good thing. Maybe they’ll decide to become vegan as you have, or maybe they’ll choose to buy animal products that have been raised in a more humane manner, and eat less meat as I have. If a large enough number of people make either of those changes in their eating habits, it will improve animal welfare.
      One thing I’ve been wondering – suppose everyone on the planet decided to become vegan tomorrow. What would you want to see happen to all the farm animals? Would you want to have them sterilized so they couldn’t reproduce & then just let the remaining ones live out the rest of their lives?

      • Adam Merberg said

        Yeah, that’s pretty much what I’d support, though I don’t think there’s much chance of everyone going vegan overnight. Anyway, many vegans are supporters of farm animal sanctuaries, so that might give you some clue.

  7. Ryan said

    “Pollan claimed that animals on certain farms live happy lives but have just one bad day.”
    The same could be said of children killed by drunk drivers. Even if those children came from the most loving of homes, their deaths still count as an argument against drunk driving.

  8. fifivixen said

    I commented on this blog earlier today and called Michael Pollan an Ass. I apologise to asses because they are much nicer than Michael Pollan and being an animal lover it was unforgivable of me to be mean to the ass. Michael Pollan is a hypocrite and a sham. That is who he is. He doesn’t live by his words especially not eat food, not too much, mostly plants!

  9. John said

    I love this post but I disagree with the comments here and that I’ve seen on other vegan sites that Oprah’s show was a joke and Michael Pollan is an idiot. I think it was great pro-vegan exposure overall. Yes it diluted the truth of the horrors of factory farming. Yes there were too many jokes about gas. Yes Pollan doesn’t see that eating meat is completely unnecessary to our survival. But getting that image of the just-killed cows hanging upside down as the blood drained out of them to all of the viewers of Oprah’s show was invaluable. Having Michael encourage them to think about where their food comes from and to recognize the the horrors of factory farming is a good thing. I don’t worry that he has made the personal decision that meat eating is morally acceptable because I think most people who do as he says will come to the opposite conclusion. And having Kelly simply define veganism for viewers and stand there as a healthy representative of the lifestyle is a good thing.

    My suggestion for all vegans is don’t throw moral outrage in the faces of people who eat meat, they will simply drop that cognitive curtain that almost all of us had for much of our lives before we changed to being vegan or vegetarian and their behavior will not change. Don’t get exasperated that facts about meat-eating get diluted or that representation of vegan/vegetarian lifestyles isn’t perfect. The goal is to change behavior and changing behavior that is this deep-rooted, no matter how insanely cruel it is, is going to take time. We’ve faced the facts about eating meat and factory farming, we need to face the fact that changing the cultural attitudes about eating animals in a country of 300 million is not going to happen overnight. If we patiently run the truth over people’s minds in a way that doesn’t cause that cognitive curtain to drop, over time it will wear away the mental blocks for some people like water washing silt down a brook. Then they will start running the truth over people’s minds and eventually that gentle brook will turn into a rushing torrent heading over a waterfall and we will get to the significant change that is needed.

    • Anne said

      How likely do you think it is that people will become vegans compared to the likelihood that they will demand changes in the way meat is produced, be willing to pay higher prices for meat that is raised humanely (and maybe eat less of it since it will be more costly)?
      If you really want to see real change, why not go for something that has a chance of actually happening?

      • “If you really want to see real change, why not go for something that has a chance of actually happening?”

        Because the idea is not to fight for any arbitrary sense of change. X and Y are things we can do, Y is easier, more likely to happen. Let’s do Y.

        I see the logic. But X and Y are not on an equal plane. You are arguing that instead of going right after demand, promoting veganism, we ought to teach people (lying) that it is morally acceptable to continue to exploit animals provided certain (ineffective) safeguards are taken.

        The difference between the X and Y here is slavery/nonslavery. I agree, nonslavery is easier, but we’re against slavery, that’s why we’re not going for it.

        Furthermore, promoting humane exploitation sanctifies the animal industry. It allows us to feel better about consuming animal products, and helps the industry to adopt productivity-efficient means of processing animals. It’s the polar opposite of what animal rights people are fighting for. That’s why we’re not going for it.

    • Flynn said

      “great pro-vegan exposure overall” = YES!!! THANK YOU!! John, I was thrilled to see this after all the negativity and complaining I’ve been reading for days.

      Just so you know, poop, bathrooms, etc. are not atypical subject matter for the Oprah show. She famously laughed over and discussed poop often with Dr. Oz. Her audience is quite used to discussions about poop. And, of course, Dr. Oz was a proponent of multiple BMs, and of folks being aware of what’s going on with their digestion. The jokes were Oprah’s way of saying ‘we’re pooping and that’s GOOD!’ Vegans that aren’t familiar with her show seem to be interpreting it as a bad thing as though it was a criticism of the vegan diet—trust me, it wasn’t. Many of Oprah’s viewers are in the once-a-week camp, so anything that can help them move more goods is good!

  10. Lori Theis said

    After watching Pollan on Oprah I am convinced he is in bed somehow, someway, with the industry. If not, why at every turn of the conversation did he have to insist that meat consumption was a *good* thing, and “not evil” if done according to what he deems acceptable. If he wasn’t receiving some kind of compensation from the *alternative* meat growers industry I can’t imagine why else he would be so adamant. Also, why so little mention of the environmental costs of meat production, whether homegrown or factory farmed? Why did he feel the need to interrupt Freston when she was talking about her personal moral objections to eating animals? Pollan needs to be exposed for the hypocrite that he is.

    • Anne said

      Is your passion for veganism fueled by some kind of kick-back from companies that produce fake meat made from tofu?

      • Adam Merberg said

        I actually agree that it’s silly to suggest that Michael Pollan was paid by the meat industry. Maybe he just likes meat.

      • Yes, I’m sure Pollan is just a lost person.

      • Whether he is paid by the industry or not, we simply can’t make those claims. There are plenty of claims we can make against Pollan’s movement and those are his statements made in plain english.

    • Ke said

      As an animal ethicist and researcher this sort of sentiment is what makes dealing with a lot of the members of the vegan community difficult. Consumption is a moral quagmire! There are ethical dilemmas to every choice I have been able to look into or theorize about when it come to stuffing our gullets with food and sheltering ourselves from the elements. Our population has grown so large that the most beneficial decisions for the environment and animals (wild and domesticated) would require programs of human control that make N Korea look sweet and gentle. What I am getting at is that vegans (and some vegetarians) have prioritized one element of the moral situation – that’s great! But there are a lot more issues to tackle (some vegans do this as well) such as where the food comes from, how it was produced, how it was transported, what other industries are supported by purchasing the product, what the human cost was, how many animals were poisoned/shot/trapped to protect the crops, etc etc etc. Pollan has done an excellent job starting to map out some alternative moral issues beyond the basic vegan debate, what I particularly like about Pollan’s approach is his honest critique of the science of nutrition and soil health – honing in on the fact that we grossly oversimplify nutrients in order to have a simple conception of a “balanced diet”. Pollan is not perfect, but there is no reason to malign him just because his position does not line up perfectly with your ideology when he is actively exploring ethical dimensions of consumption.

    • Ash said

      I watched the show today on TV and I must say, knowing nothing about Michael Pollan other than the fact the he wrote some books on food, he definately came across as conceited and self-righteous in his advocacy for meat-eating. I can understand why you would think he was paid by the meat industry.

  11. brocnut said

    Pollan’s argument that we should “support the farmers that are doing good things” really pissed me off when I was watching the show. People don’t buy products just to support the people producing them. People buy products because they LIKE the products. No one should go around buying stuff just because, “Oh it keeps this company in business!” What kind of a stupid reason is that? This society is capitalistic. You either sell what the public is willing to buy or you go under. Well, I’m not willing to buy meat. Plain and simple. I don’t want it, so I’m not buying it.

    That’s like telling someone to buy an iPod because, “Apple is a great company and they’re doing some really great things!” What the hell kind of reason is that to buy something??

    (Not that I’m comparing Apple to meat companies. I love Apple!)

    • Eric B. said

      Well said. It is a stupid argument. (And I raise animals for dairy and eggs and meat.)

  12. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Adam Kochanowicz, Stephanie Belding and A J S P, Adam Merberg. Adam Merberg said: Michael Pollan on Oprah: http://t.co/YEiQOXG [...]

  13. Michele McCowan said

    Did you notice the body language? By the end of the show, Michael Pollan could not have been leaning farther away from Kathy while she spoke. He was practically falling out of his chair, trying to get away from her. Watch it again and notice the change…interesting to say the least.

    • Adam Merberg said

      Are the clips you’re referring to available online?

    • fifivixen said

      Oh, I so agree about the body language. He was shrinking into his chair to be disassociated with the whole vegan conversation.

  14. Mikko Lahtinen said

    “(I’ll have an update related to that calculation in the near future, by the way.)”

    This is very interesting. I hope to be able to read it soon. Thank you for the time and effort you have already put into this.

    I think that the Oprah episode was pretty good promotion for veganism. It covered a lot of good points in quite a short time and was seen by large audience. There is always something to complain about, but for me at least this episode was very positive experience if you stop to think about the big picture.

    • Adam Merberg said

      Thanks for your comment, Mikko. I’m going to aim to get that post up this week. However, I am traveling and my internet access is not great, so I can’t make promises.

  15. Gerardo Tristan said

    Please read this amazing article on the Atlantic and you all can understan more Pollan et all:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/print/1969/12/the-moral-crusade-against-foodies/8370/

  16. [...] joined. There have been mixed emotions about the show: Was it sugar-coated? Should Michael Pollan have even been there? Did the footage of a Cargill slaughterhouse correctly represent the true horror of animal [...]

  17. Edanator said

    Great podcast about the Oprah vegan episode:

    http://coexistingwithnonhumananimals.blogspot.com/2011/02/episode-46-oprah-goes-vegan-vegn.html

    If you can, I highly recommend you download the podcast instead of reading the blog post (which is basically just the podcast transcript).

  18. Joe Snow said

    excellent article. I couldn’t agree with you more. I was disappointed with Pollan.

  19. Wait… why are people so obsessed with animal-based fertilizers? The topsoil we’re busily destroying is mostly plant-based compost, just because there’s more plant matter in the world (by a matter of several times) than there is animal matter.

    Good compost, like good miso, takes years. Continental topsoil took millions of years to build up. Why is it okay to sacrifice other ecological regions to get animal-based fertilizers?

  20. Liz said

    I think that people tend to skip over when defending the consumption of meat (though I’ve no idea why) is that there ARE animals that can consume and transfer energy to us that we wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Like you said, both cows and sheep, as well as a variety of other animals, CAN be strictly pastured. Other animals, like goats, are able to eat plants that are not only unable to be digested by humans, but are downright poisonous. A few chickens, if they are not overcrowded, can not only forage for most of their food, but are also useful in sustenance gardening (a handful of bantams confined will destroy a garden, but if the garden is bigger, they will both give eggs, be used for meat once in a while, and peck the garden just enough to make it fruit more readily). The argument against most of this is that the pastures can be used better growing food for human consumption–but this is not always true. There are many types of land that are impossible to farm consistently (the soil being too poor, too rocky, too inaccessible), but are fine to pasture animals.
    Basically, while we currently eat WAY too much meat, cutting it out altogether in the name increasing available food for humans isn’t actually feasible. Animals are able to obtain energy (and therefore transfer it to us) from places where we simply can’t. That may change in the future, but for the moment, that is the reality of it.

  21. Janet said

    After watching that Oprah episode, I like Kathy Freston more and Michael Pollan less. A whole lot less.

  22. I recently did a post about Michael’s statement on that show..about how the animals have “one bad day.”
    It’s at freeheelvegan.com “One Bad Day”
    Thanks- from a vegan who used to be a Michael Pollan fan

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