Archive for June, 2010

Michael Pollan sets the tone

A few days ago, I wrote about Michael Pollan’s first substantive mention of vegetarianism in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. His attitude toward vegetarianism was not a respectful one. His dismissiveness persists as he sets up for his debate with Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. He writes,

Vegetarianism is more popular than it has ever been, and animal rights, the fringiest of fringe movements until just a few years ago, is rapidly finding its way into the cultural mainstream. I’m not completely sure why this should be happening now, given that humans have been eating animals for tens of thousands of years without too much ethical heartburn. (305)

In the most literal interpretation, there isn’t anything negative in the statement “I’m not completely sure why this should be happening,” but such a comment has certain overtones in popular use. The suggestion seems to be that it doesn’t make sense that vegetarianism is starting to take hold these days because eating meat is something we’ve always believed is okay.  But social movements are so often based on the rejection of culturally ingrained ideas, and in any such instance there’s a time when a defender of the status quo might make a statement like the one Pollan makes here.

Pollan continues,

But it could also be that the cultural norms and rituals that used to allow people to eat meat without agonizing about it have broken down for other reasons. Perhaps as the sway of tradition in our eating decisions weakens, habits we once took for granted are thrown up in the air, where they’re more easily buffeted by the force of a strong idea or the breeze of fashion. (306)

Yeah, perhaps vegetarianism is all about fitting in.

Pollan goes on to introduce Peter Singer’s vegetarian treatise,

Animal Liberation, comprised of equal parts philosophical argument and journalistic description, is one of those rare books that demands you either defend the way you live or change it. Because Singer is so skilled in argument, for many readers it is easier to change. (307)

To say that Singer is “so skilled in argument” is something of a backhanded compliment. The insinuation is that his book isn’t effective because it presents good ideas but because Singer is clever. He doesn’t convince readers to change by presenting good ideas but by tricking them into changing.

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A note on animal rights literature

In my reading of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’ve reached Michael Pollan’s chapter on the ethics of eating animals. This chapter includes a debate with the text of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, with quotes of a few other animal rights supporters weaved in. I’ll take issue with a number of Pollan’s counterarguments, but I don’t count myself as a follower of Singer (or any other animal rights philosopher). My criticism of Pollan’s counterarguments should not be interpreted as endorsements of Singer’s arguments. In particular, this means that if you have other unrelated objections to Singer’s arguments, I won’t necessarily be interested in responding to them.

I generally don’t think that discussions of animal rights philosophy make for effective advocacy. However, it happens that Pollan has brought such a discussion to a wide audience, so I’ve decided to do what I can to add to that conversation (albeit to a much smaller audience).

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Another look at the national eating disorder

In my first post on The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I addressed Michael Pollan’s claim that the United States has a national eating disorder. I want to revisit this because he devotes a section (section 4 of chapter 16) to the same idea later on.

Earlier, Pollan introduced the national eating disorder by writing,

So violent a change in a culture’s eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder. Certainly it would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating. (2)

I’m not so convinced. Nor, for that matter, am I sure that Pollan is convinced. He points to France as a country that has a food culture that “successfully navigates the omnivore’s dilemma” (301) but then admits, “American fast-food habits are increasingly gaining traction even in places like France” (303). France has a bit more in common with us than that, though. As of 2006 (when The Omnivore’s Dilemma was first published), forty-two percent of France’s population was overweight, and  Pierre Dukan now claims that his high-protein diet has 2 million followers in France.

Pollan claims that “we place our faith in science to sort out for us what culture once did with rather more success” (303). As evidence for the failure of nutritional science, he points to a few food fads, notably the low-carb diets that became popular a few years ago. I have to object to the claim that following a low-carb diet is placing one’s faith in science, though. Pollan tells us that avoiding carbs is the new orthodoxy, but the low-carb diets have been controversial within the scientific community.

A somewhat broader point arises when Pollan writes,

What is striking is just how little it takes to set off one of these applecart-topping nutritional swings in America; a scientific study, a new government guideline, a lone crackpot with a medical degree can alter this nation’s diet overnight. (299)

If true, this might be evidence that we’re susceptible to food fads, but it’s less clear that science is the problem. Putting one’s faith in science is not the same as following a “lone crackpot with a medical degree,” nor does it mean acting on a single scientific study. And government guidelines, as Pollan writes in In Defense of Food, are influenced by political pressures as well as science.

On a more basic level, I think it’s a mistake to cite our susceptibility to weight-loss diets like that of Dr. Atkins as evidence that following science is making us unhealthy. People tend to go on weight-loss diets because they perceive themselves to already be unhealthy. As I mentioned in my first post on the national eating disorder, seventy percent of Americans claim to eat “pretty much whatever they want,” so I can’t help but wonder if people tend to turn to science only after they believe they have a problem.

Pollan also neglects to tell us that culture hasn’t always done all that well at telling people what to eat. For instance, nutritional science deserves credit for saving countless lives from beriberi, a deficiency syndrome that was once common in societies eating large amounts of white rice. According to a Time article from 1951, rice-dependent cultures took too much pride in eating white rice to begin eating brown rice, whose vitamin B1 content is sufficient to prevent beriberi.

This isn’t to say that science is necessarily a better guide than tradition, but that the idea that tradition is always a good guide to eating is something of a fantasy. Good science can make important contributions to our diets, even at the expense of traditional orthodoxy.

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In case you were wondering…

As Michael Pollan begins the final part of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, something a bit surprising slips in: “I had decided that this meal should feature representatives of all three edible kingdoms: animal, vegetable, and fungi” (277). In case you were wondering how seriously Pollan considers vegetarianism in the upcoming chapter 17, just know that he goes in having already decided to include animals in his foraged meal.

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A vegetarian at Pollan’s table

As far as I’ve noticed, the first sign of Michael Pollan’s dismissiveness toward vegetarianism in The Omnivore’s Dilemma comes at the dinner table with his friends Mark and Liz and their sons Matthew and Willie. He writes,

Matthew, who’s fifteen and currently a vegetarian (he confined himself to the corn), had many more questions about killing chickens than I thought it wise to answer at the dinner table. (271)

Pollan doesn’t simply tell us that Matthew is a vegetarian, he tells us that he’s currently a vegetarian, as though it’s just a fad that he’ll get over some day. In a review worth reading in its entirety, B.R. Myers has more to say on Matthew and the questions left unanswered:

But doesn’t Pollan say in his introduction that the pleasures of eating are “only deepened by knowing”? And if it is so natural to kill and eat animals, and so sentimental to think otherwise, why is the vegetarian the only one who can stomach the details? Pollan can’t be bothered telling us why Matthew became a vegetarian. We are clearly meant to take it for a mere teenage phase, nothing a restriction of his options won’t cure: “He confined himself to the corn.”

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Minutiae, pages 209-273

I have very little to report here, but there are a couple of things. Unfortunately, I lost some notes I had been keeping and was too lazy to save, so it’s possible that I missed more than usual this week.

  • Pollan writes of Bev’s slaughterhouse, “But his artisanal enterprise was being forced to conform to a USDA regulatory system that is based on an industrial model—indeed, that was created in response to the industrial abuses Upton Sinclair chronicled in The Jungle….The specifications and costly technologies implicitly assume that the animals being processed have been living in filth and eating corn rather than grass” (250). I haven’t been able to find sources on this, but I’m having trouble making sense of this time frame. Specifically, the standards that were created as a response to The Jungle were the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. It’s my understanding that the use of corn to feed animals wasn’t common before the introduction of agricultural subsidies during the Depression. UPDATE (6/28/2010): Commenter Scu clarifies this.
  • On page 269, Pollan misspells the word “krill.”

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Local food and Belgian chocolate

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan stops to buy a few ingredients to supplement the food from Polyface Farm for his local meal. He makes an effort to buy local ingredients to preserve the meal’s “bar code virginity,” at least until he addresses dessert:

I also needed some chocolate for the dessert I had in mind. Fortunately the state of Virginia produces no chocolate to speak of, so I was free to go for the good Belgian stuff, panglessly. In fact, even the most fervent eat-local types say it’s okay for a “foodshed” (a term for a regional food chain, meant to liken it to a watershed) to trade for goods it can’t produce locally — coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate — a practice that predates the globalization of our food chain by a few thousand years. (Whew . . .) (263)

There’s a lot that I don’t understand about this paragraph. First is the underlying premise that buying local is all-or-nothing. Pollan can’t get local chocolate, so it’s okay for him to get the chocolate that was produced in Belgium. There’s no need to consider chocolate that was produced closer to Virginia. (Of course, any chocolate is going to be made from ingredients grown in much warmer climates, but processing these ingredients in Belgium increases fossil fuel use and decreases transparency for the American eater.)

Then, there’s a failure to acknowledge that chocolate is a luxury. Nobody really needs chocolate, so if local is better and chocolate can’t be local, isn’t it better to make a dessert that can be made from local ingredients? I don’t mean to say that Pollan shouldn’t buy the chocolate but that perhaps it shouldn’t be so “pangless” and that a more coherent set of local values would at least acknowledge that some compromise is made in the purchase of chocolate.

What’s most baffling to me, though, is Pollan seems to have a certain contempt for his local values. Pollan considers it fortunate that there is no local chocolate, because that means he’s free to buy the “good Belgian stuff.” His values seem to serve primarily as a restriction (albeit one that can be skirted). I realize the paragraph may be somewhat tongue in cheek, but I can’t think of any other values that would receive this kind of treatment from a believer. For example, many environmentalists drive gasoline-powered cars, but what environmentalist would ever say anything like, “Fortunately, there’s no public transportation in this city, so I’m free to drive my car guiltlessly”? Most environmentalists would advocate for an option that was more consistent with their values, but Pollan appreciates not having the values-based choice.

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