A new tone?

Erik Marcus forwarded me a couple of recent audio files with Michael Pollan talking about vegetarian-related issues. One was a CBC interview (“Have Your Meat and Eat It Too – Part Two”, direct link) in a segment on the ethics of eating animals. The other was his speech to Britain’s Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). I have to say that I was generally pretty happy with both of these.

In the CBC segment, Pollan comes in twice, from about 20:28 to 33:21 and at the end from 47:35 to 51:40. (Be advised that the two interviewees in between Pollan’s segments are anti-civilization activist and The Vegetarian Myth author Lierre Keith and a guy who doesn’t think we can distinguish between killing animals and killing plants). Pollan essentially rehashes some of the arguments for meat-eating that he made in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I much prefer responding to printed text instead of audio, so I’ll address most of his points when I get to them in the book. (He did make some comments about needing animals to cycle nutrients, a topic I wrote about yesterday.)

There’s a lot for vegetarians to appreciate in Pollan’s CBC interview. He talks quite candidly (around 23:15) about the fact that people will need to eat less meat if they’re only going to eat the kind of meat he considers justifiable. He even says that eating meat more responsibly will be less democratic (in the sense that it will be less affordable), and that eggs should probably cost a dollar or two each (around 25:30).

In his second section, he emphasizes that vegetarianism is “a completely defensible choice” and says,

I have a deep, deep respect for vegetarians for the reason that unlike most people, they have thought through the consequences of their food choices. They have made a decision that those choices reflect their values whether they’re moral, ethical, or environmental, and they’re acting on that.  So that’s in a sense what everyone should do is undergo that process of reflection and understanding the food chain they’re part of. (48:20)

He also goes on to raise the question of whether Americans are drinking too much milk, suggesting that its estrogenic effects may be bad for us.

The RSA talk was about his book Food Rules, and so most of my quibbles with that talk will be addressed when I read that book or In Defense of Food. He does also take questions, though, and there’s something for vegetarians there, too. As in the CBC interview, he professes his respect for vegetarians, and also expresses disagreement with a questioner who calls the vegetarian diet  “one of the most unhealthy” (around 42:20). Later (around 48:30), he goes on to say that everybody should kill their own meat at some point to decide whether they’re okay with eating animals.

If there’s one criticism I have here that I don’t expect to arise in his books, it’s a few small points about health. In the CBC interview (around 47:55), he talks about it taking more work to be a healthy vegetarian and needing to plan meals to get enough protein and B12. Personally, I haven’t really found this to be the case, but maybe Pollan didn’t get past the learning curve in the short time he tried vegetarianism.

In the RSA talk, oddly, he says that we actually don’t need that much protein. He also mentions (around 48:10) that “meat protein gives you exactly the amino acids you need, but if you combine rice and beans, you also get exactly the ones you need.” Some vegetarians may see this as a nod to the discredited theory of protein combining, but I don’t think that’s what this is. He doesn’t say that people need to eat rice and beans at the same meal to get all the essential amino acids, just that combining them will give you the ones you need. That’s a true statement. It might have been nice if he’d clarified that you don’t need to eat the rice and the beans together, but for an unprepared oral statement, I think he did pretty well.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that some vegetarians simply wanted Pollan to stop “slamming the door in their faces.” If these pieces (along with his new website) are any indication, he just might have done that. He still talks about why he eats meat, but in both clips, he frames this as a respectful difference of opinion with vegetarians. If this had been Pollan’s tone in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and his subsequent statements, this blog probably wouldn’t exist. (I’d still be annoyed by some of the factual errors, but not enough so to start a blog about them.)


1 Comment »

  1. Delianth said

    Pollan is right that the human body needs a ridiculously small amount of protein in comparison to what we believe we need, but that bit about needing to eat both beans and rice (as in the example) is not true, actually. The protein myth drives me crazy. You may not know this, Adam, but an essential amino acid, medically, is an amino acid that your body can’t synthesize on its own. Out of the 22 amino acids the human body requires, only eight are actually essential. From the Wikipedia page (which is pretty hard to falsify, since the information is so widespread), they’re listed as:


    Also, cystine, tyrosine, histidine and arginine are required by infants and growing children.

    Here is a page on the nutritional distribution of medium-grain brown rice from Condé Nast, the makers of Self magazine – hardly an organization hellbent on disproving that tired old protein myth.

    The amino acid structure can be accessed by clicking the blue “more details” button on the left side, underneath the “Protein & Amino Acids” table. It lists 19 amino acids. All of the eight essential amino acids are present, as are the four others required by children.

    As you’ll see, brown rice contains all of them. Full stop. It is not missing certain amino acids. This vegan food contains All. Of. Them.

    Let’s try corn, now.

    Oh look, same answer. All are present; not a single one is missing.

    Well, that’s just for grains, right? Let’s go look some fruit, everybody likes to use fruit as an amino-acid-deficient whipping boy.

    Deglet noor dates.

    Etc. Etc. So there.

    Anything after that is just quibbling about ratios and amounts. But you don’t need all that much protein (less than 5% at any given period of your life past infancy), and there’s not any sane way you can argue that your body is just a passive sieve that can only absorb so much protein… Living organisms tend to be better than that.

    So I want everyone to just shut up about how you need to eat beans and rice or beans and corn or whatever to get all your amino acids… Unless you’re a child eating only mangos or guavas (the only fruits I found that didn’t have all 12 of the listed amino acids; they were missing cysteine), the only way you’re going to avoid getting enough amino acids is by starving yourself. Which, given the popularity of calorie-restricting diets, is a definite possibility, I’ll admit.

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