Archive for May, 2010

The most common element in our bodies

My copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma reads,

Carbon is the most common element in our bodies—indeed, in all living things on earth. (20)

In fact, the human body is about 65% oxygen and 18% carbon by weight. If we look at the number of atoms, carbon ranks third, behind hydrogen and oxygen.

This error doesn’t appear to have grave implications for Pollan’s larger point. Nonetheless, I find it troubling. It bothers me precisely because the information is so elementary. I distinctly recall learning from a textbook in my fourth-grade class that I was mostly oxygen, so I’d certainly hope that a science journalist writing about biochemistry would be familiar with it.

Maybe Pollan was well aware that oxygen accounted for most of our body weight, and this just somehow happened anyway. Mistakes happen. But if The Omnivore’s Dilemma had been carefully reviewed before publication by people who were knowledgeable about the relevant material, it’s hard to imagine that an error this basic would have slipped through.

This doesn’t discredit the entire book, of course, but it will influence my reading of the rest of it. If Pollan doesn’t accurately represent the things that are familiar to me as a layperson, it’s much more difficult to trust the deeper scientific claims that he makes. It’s entirely possible that these claims are correct, but I’ll want to do some research and see for myself. This is a task that will be made difficult by the absence of citations, but I’ll do what I can.

For what it’s worth, a later printing of the book, previewable on Google Books, makes a sort of correction,

After water, carbon is the most common element in our bodies…

I know what he’s trying to say here, but I still have to quibble. I read this to means, “Water is the most common element in our bodies, and carbon is the second most common element in our bodies.” This, of course, is nonsense because water is not an element. Pollan would like us to be excluding water not from the list of elements but from the bodies in which we rank the elements. This is arguably more of a language error than a content error, so I won’t say anything more about it.

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Our national eating disorder

Michael Pollan begins The Omnivore’s Dilemma by lamenting the role of experts in our food choices. He writes,

For me the absurdity of the situation became inescapable in the fall of 2002, when one of the most ancient and venerable staples of human life abruptly disappeared from the American dinner table. I’m talking of course about bread. Virtually overnight, Americans changed the way they eat. A collective spasm of what can only be described as carbophobia seized the country, supplanting an era of national lipophobia dating to the Carter administration. (1)

This didn’t exactly match my recollection of how the low-carb craze went down. I knew that a substantial minority of the country went on the diet, but in my own life, I’d most often heard the Atkins diet discussed as a subject of ridicule.

Of course, my own experience need not be representative of the nation, so I decided to look into it. Pollan doesn’t cite any sources or give data to back up his claims, and the numbers I could find tell a far less dramatic story. NPD Group reported that low-carb diets peaked in February of 2004 when 9.1% of Americans identified as followers of these programs. ACNielsen reported that sales of white bread dropped by 4.7% in 2003. Thus, while the low-carb fad had a noticeable impact on our collective eating habits, it was not as far-reaching as Pollan would have us believe.

To Pollan, the “violent” (2) change in our cultural eating habits is evidence of “a national eating disorder” (2),  which he posits would not have been possible in a culture having “deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating.” He tells us that such a culture “would probably not…feed fully a third of its children at a fast-food outlet every day” (3).

Pollan points out that Italy and France “decide their dinner questions on the basis of such quaint and unscientific criteria as pleasure and tradition, eat all manner of ‘unhealthy’ foods, and lo and behold, wind up actually healthier and happier in their eating than we are.” We are, he says, “a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily.”

But would a people obsessed with healthy eating really feed a third of their children fast food every day? Would such a people consume high-fructose corn syrup in huge quantities, as Pollan will soon tell us we do? Indeed, the USDA reports that in a 2000 survey of a nationally representative sample of 2,000 adults aged 18 and older, 70% reported eating “pretty much whatever they want.”

It’s hard not to wonder if our national eating disorder is one of thinking too little about what to eat rather than too much.

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The road ahead

In the coming days, I’ll begin a relatively long series of posts on The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I have read the book twice already, and I have fairly extensive notes based on these readings. My plan is to go through the book a third time, and write a set of posts following the order of the book. I expect that most of the posts will be short, ideally making a concise point. When I think it will be useful, I may write longer posts to tie together points made in the shorter posts.

From my referrer data and comments I’ve received so far, it’s my understanding that most of my readers want to hear about animal-related issues. There will be plenty of that, but I’ll write about other things, too. Where I think Pollan misrepresents science, I’ll say so, and I’ll have at least one post where I argue that certain criticisms of McDonald’s are misguided.

After I work my way through The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’ll start on his more recent books. I don’t plan on going back to his non-food-related works because my interest is mostly in Pollan’s food politics. I will cover current writings and statements as things come out.

Thanks for reading. I hope I can make it worth your time.

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Missing the point on Slow Food

In the same New York Review of Books piece that I wrote about on Monday, Michael Pollan discusses Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini:

Ever the Italian, Petrini puts pleasure at the center of his politics, which might explain why Slow Food is not always taken as seriously as it deserves to be. For why shouldn’t pleasure figure in the politics of the food movement?

The suggestion here seems to be that we have only two options when deciding on the role of pleasure in food politics. Either we follow Petrini’s lead and put pleasure front and center, or we take the position that pleasure shouldn’t “figure in the politics of the food movement.” Of course, it’s a false dichotomy. One might, for example, believe that food should be enjoyed but that treating workers, animals, and the planet with respect is more important than one’s personal pleasure.

The more serious flaw here, though, is Pollan’s contention that detractors of Slow Food are objecting only to the movement’s emphasis on pleasure. As Kim Severson explained in the New York Times, some have been put off by “what they saw as elitism and an inflated sense of importance.” Slow Food doesn’t merely emphasize pleasurable eating. It pushes expensive, gourmet foods. This is a criticism to which the movement has responded in the past, for example, in a post by Brian Sinderson on the Slow Food USA blog:

It is, however, easy to understand why people think it may be true, that we are just a bunch of well-heeled yuppies stuffing our craws with foie gras, even though what we are truly about is genuine salt-of-the-earth stuff, and not just figuratively. Our purpose in celebrating all these wonderful, unique (and yes often “gourmet”) foods is not a way for us to demonstrate some ill-conceived moral superiority…but rather it is our attempt to preserve the histories, traditions and cultures that make each of us who we are.

That explanation might sound reasonably compelling, at least until you read two paragraphs further:

Petrini said it very well on his recent US tour. “A gastronome who is not also an environmentalist is an idiot. An environmentalist who is not also a gastronome is, well, sad.”

There might not be anything moral about it, but that’s certainly a claim to superiority. That line happens to be one of Petrini’s favorite maxims, and the Slow Food founder explained it a little bit more in an interview with The Globe and Mail last year:

A gastronome has a vision that is more holistic, interdisciplinary and complex. A gourmet just focuses on the pleasure of the dish. He is an egotist.

Thus, when Petrini uses the term “gastronome,” he’s talking about somebody with a complex relationship to their gourmet food. Certainly, that sounds better than the “gourmet” Petrini denounces as an egotist, but it doesn’t make his denunciation of non-gastronomes much more reasonable.

After I fractured my jaw last spring, my mouth was wired shut for three weeks, I was unable to chew for another three weeks, and hard foods were off-limits for six weeks more. Silly as this might seem, as my mandible became more free, a few actions that had once seemed ordinary came to hold a certain element of triumph. The acts of opening my mouth, chewing, and biting hard foods carried with them the statement that I had overcome a rather unpleasant ordeal, and it was remarkable to be able to do these things again. While the sense of triumph has faded somewhat over the months, biting into a crisp apple or a crunchy almond continues to give me a certain pleasure which I suspect many gastronomes couldn’t even begin to understand.

I don’t mean to advocate for the promotion of mandibular fractures to enhance gastronomical pleasures. Nor do I claim that this appreciation confers upon me any superiority. The point is that culinary pleasures are complex, shaped by one’s experiences and attitudes. When Petrini says that an environmentalist who is not a gastronome is sad, he insinuates that my enjoyment of an apple is somehow less worthy than the pleasure he derives from eating foie gras or caviar, simply because my food is less fancy. It’s bad enough that this attack is unprovoked, mean-spirited and narrow-minded. Consider also the fact that some of the people it targets are making a deliberate choice to eat in a less damaging way, and it becomes pretty hard to take Petrini seriously.

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Michael Pollan, Jonathan Safran Foer, and the bigger picture

I had hoped to be moving on from Michael Pollan’s comments on Eating Animals by now, but after I finished composing my last post, I realized that the situation nicely demonstrated a point that I consider important. So I’m back with at least one more post about Foer. At least this post will make a different point.

In the Huffington Post interview, Pollan said, “Well, look, nobody is anti-meat enough for the animal-rights purists, except for someone who says that eating meat is morally indefensible.” There’s probably some degree of truth to this statement. I’m willing to believe that there are animal rights activists who won’t be satisfied with any book that doesn’t condemn meat-eating in absolute terms.

What I think Pollan’s comment lacks, though, is a bit of context. Not all vegetarians are “animal-rights purists.” More importantly, it isn’t just the purists who have criticized Pollan’s stance on vegetarianism.

As evidence, I’d point to the receptions that The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eating Animals have received within the vegetarian community. Although it’s true that Foer comes away from his research as a vegetarian, he certainly doesn’t say that eating meat is morally indefensible. He even calls his book is “an argument for another, wiser animal agriculture and more honorable omnivory” (244).  If vegetarian criticism of Pollan were rooted exclusively in objections to his condoning meat eating, than we’d expect the vegetarians who were frustrated with Pollan to have similar criticisms of Foer.

I don’t think that’s the way things have gone. VegNews Magazine’s review of Eating Animals called Foer “the antidote (and perhaps heir apparent) to Michael Pollan” and described him as “Pollan-esque without the disingenuousness.” At Vegan.com, Erik Marcus wrote that The Omnivore’s Dilemma was a “flawed masterpiece,” but that Eating Animals was “legitimately a masterpiece.”

At least some of the vegetarian criticism of Pollan, then, can’t be explained away by objections to his condoning meat eating in some form. The difference in the way that the two books were received might be explained in part by the fact that Foer makes an argument for vegetarianism, but I think it should not be overlooked that The Omnivore’s Dilemma presents an argument against vegetarianism.  I’ll look at that argument much more closely later, but for now I’ll just say that Pollan doesn’t seem to take the discussion very seriously, even if he devotes a long chapter of his book to it. Early in the discussion he suggests that the spread of vegetarianism might be a product of “the breeze of fashion” (306); he later expresses pity for the “tofu eater” because “Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris” (362). His dismissiveness persists to the present day, most recently exemplified by his review of Eating Animals that showed precious little evidence of his having read Foer’s book.

Pollan suggests that vegetarians won’t be happy unless he unconditionally denounces meat-eating, but I think many vegetarians would give him more credit if he’d engage their ideas more respectfully. And even if there are some “animal-rights purists” who won’t be satisfied until Pollan champions their cause, that doesn’t invalidate the criticisms of those who want him to stop slamming the door in their faces.

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Michael Pollan on Jonathan Safran Foer, Part II

In an interview with Huffington Post interview last month, Michael Pollan was asked,

HP: Jonathan Safran Foer seems sort of hellbent on directing lots of his ire at you, and people like Joel Salatain, saying you don’t grapple with meat and Salatan’s(?) farm is a joke. Others have said Food Inc wasn’t anti-meat enough. How do you respond to those types of accusations and how does it bode for the effort to actually, positively change the food system in America?

In fairness to Pollan, this was a terrible question based on dubious premises. I’m puzzled by the claim that Foer “seems sort of hellbent on directing lots of his ire at [Pollan].” It’s true that Foer rebuts a number of Pollan’s arguments against vegetarianism, but he does so in a calm and respectful tone, rather than the irate tone suggested by the question. And as I discussed in my last post, it was Frank Reese (and not Jonathan Safran Foer) who described Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm as a joke. The interviewer also confuses matters by simultaneously asking about some statements attributed to Foer and further criticisms attributed to nebulous “others.”

I think the bit about Foer saying that Pollan doesn’t “grapple with meat enough” is also deserving of attention. I’ve certainly heard Foer say that The Omnivore’s Dilemma didn’t discuss meat eating very much. I know he said that when he spoke in Berkeley last year, and I’ve probably seen some video interviews where he said something similar. But this was never a criticism of Pollan’s book. Instead, it was an explanation of why he had written Eating Animals when The Omnivore’s Dilemma already existed. His point wasn’t that Pollan’s book was bad because it didn’t talk about meat eating enough. His point was merely that there was room for a book about factory farming and meat-eating.

Here’s Pollan’s answer:

MP: Well, look, nobody is anti-meat enough for the animal-rights purists, except for someone who says that eating meat is morally indefensible. So there’s certain people that are never going to be satisfied by any message short of ‘Don’t Eat Meat,’ and that’s not my message.

In terms of the argument that I don’t grapple with meat, I would refer Jonathan and anyone else to Chapter…hold on, I can dig it out… (flips through book)…it’s a very long…Chapter 17 of Omnivore’s Dilemma, “The Ethics of Eating Animals.” And that is where I try to grapple with the best arguments against meat eating, which in my view are Peter Singer’s arguments, and defend a very limited kind of meat eating, which is the kind I do, which is to say from sustainable farms where I think the presence of animals contributes to the most ecologically sustainable system that you can have, and I argue in favor of meat eating in this very limited way for environmental reasons, not for any others — that there are certain circumstances where animals are allowed to live the best possible life on these farms and have a merciful death. And I would count Joel’s farm — people disagree about that — I don’t know if Jonathan has been on Joel’s farm — he relies on Frank Reese, I think, so as a journalist I would go there before I attacked a farmer for his methods. And has Frank been there? I don’t know. But there’s a lot of farmers who throw stones at one another.

Look, I feel like I’ve grappled with meat eating quite a bit, it’s a really hard issue, and I welcome Jonathan’s contribution on that issue. I don’t agree with him. I think in principle he accepts the idea that there is a good farm, where animals are better off having lived and died than not having lived at all. So then the issue becomes: what is that farm? And I think even Peter Singer would agree with that. Is the issue that you can’t justify meat eating under any circumstance or are we disagreeing on the circumstances under which you can justify it? And that’s a question for Jonathan. i think he’s saying the circumstances, and that there isn’t enough of that kind of meat to justify it. But I basically agree that industrial animal agricultural is horrible from any number of perspectives, environmental, ethical, moral, karmic, but I do think that there is a way to design an animal agriculture that is better off having than not having, and lots of people in the animal rights community would agree. I think one of the changes you’ve seen in the animals right’s community in the last five or ten years is a lot more interest in mitigating the worst abuses of animal agriculture — even PETA and Peter Singer have worked hard to negotiate a better animal agriculture, which I think is a more realistic goal than abolition.

Pollan does show some evidence of familiarity with Eating Animals. He knows that Foer’s favorite farmer is Frank Reese. He also seems to know that Foer “accepts the idea that there is a good farm.”

His answer isn’t enough to convince me that he has actually read Eating Animals, though. In particular, he doesn’t seem to know that Foer’s book includes multiple quotes from Chapter 17 of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Like his interviewer, he doesn’t seem to know that it isn’t Foer who calls Polyface Farm a joke. While it’s hard to figure out exactly what Pollan thinks Foer believes, he might be surprised to learn that Foer does not advocate for abolition or tell his readers that they shouldn’t eat any meat. He might also be surprised to learn that Foer is a member of the Board of Directors of Farm Forward, one of those organizations that works toward “mitigating the worst abuses of animal agriculture.”

This being an interview rather than a review of Eating Animals, I don’t think it’s necessarily problematic for Pollan to come in having not read Foer’s book. I’m sure Pollan’s a busy guy, and he can’t find time to read every food-related book that’s published. But if he hasn’t read the book, it would be nice for him to acknowledge this in his answer instead of answering based on speculation and hearsay.

That said, I do hope that Pollan will read Eating Animals. In fact, I pass North Gate Hall almost every day, and I’d be more than happy to stop by to lend him my copy. I say this not because I want to change the way Michael Pollan eats but because I hope he’ll come to see that Foer isn’t an “animal rights purist” but somebody who is genuinely interested in having a respectful conversation about the issues. Perhaps it will also change the way Pollan approaches that conversation.

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Michael Pollan on Jonathan Safran Foer

Michael Pollan 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.

This is at best a gross misrepresentation of Foer’s book and at worst largely false.

Joel Salatin and Polyface Farm are mentioned exactly once in Eating Animals. And here’s what the book says,

Michael Pollan wrote about Polyface Farm in The Omnivore’s Dilemma like it was something great, but that farm is horrible. It’s a joke. Joel Salatin is doing industrial birds. Call him up and ask them. So he puts them on pasture. It makes no difference. (113)

That might sound like Foer is picking a fight, but here’s the thing: Foer is actually quoting poultry farmer Frank Reese. Foer never endorses this rhetoric. While he doesn’t shoot it down, either, he lets a lot of people with opposing views have their say.

One might point out that Pollan’s sentence might be interpreted to say that Foer was picking a fight with sustainable meat producers in general, rather than Salatin specifically. Yet this claim would hold up little better. Although he is uncomfortable with the idea of eating their products, Foer is always respectful in his discussion of these farmers. He writes,

In another direction, though, the vision of sustainable farms that give animals a good life (a life as good as we give our dogs or cats) and an easy death (as easy a death as we give our suffering and terminally ill companion animals) has moved me. 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. (242)

Does Michael Pollan really consider those to be fighting words?

It’s hard to read Pollan’s sentence about Eating Animals and believe that he’s read the book. Perhaps he briefly skimmed it. Maybe he got the idea that Foer was picking a fight with Salatin from the Huffington Post interviewer last month who incorrectly claimed that Foer said Polyface Farm was a joke (that interview will be the subject of another post in the near future).

Perhaps Pollan thinks he’s given vegetarianism enough consideration in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and that he therefore doesn’t need to read Eating Animals. But if he’s going to write a review of Eating Animals, he should first read the book with some attention to detail. Elementary school students have to read books before they write reviews, and so should professional journalists.

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