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.

1 Comment »

  1. Rachel said

    Thank you so much for this intelligent and considered piece. I read the NYT article shortly after reading “Eating Animals,” and found it really disingenuous, but couldn’t have explained why nearly as well as you did.

    I love this line: Foer isn’t an “animal rights purist” but somebody who is genuinely interested in having a respectful conversation about the issues. What gives Foer so much credibility is that he is interested in exploring the issues with an open mind, and not someone who comes to this inquiry with an agenda. To portray him as a “purist” (when he isn’t even vegan) with an agenda is sloppy, lacks intellectual foundation, and is rife with inconsistencies, if you look closely.

    I enjoyed Omnivore’s Dilemma, and found it informative, but at the end, Pollan’s refusal to be intellectually and logically consistent and take the arguments to their unpopular conclusion, that we should stop eating meat, is that book’s greatest weakness.

    I applaud Foer for having the courage to examine the issues logically, and refusal to shy away from an unpopular conclusion, and for the faith he has in his readers.

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