Archive for July, 2010

My letter to Michael Pollan

I just sent a letter to Michael Pollan. I submitted it through the contact form on his website. Here is the text of that letter. I’ve added proper formatting since the comment form doesn’t support it, but it is otherwise unchanged.

Dear Professor Pollan,

A little more than two months ago, I was dismayed to read a claim you made 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.” When I read this, I couldn’t help but think that you hadn’t given Foer’s book more than a cursory glance. I think that if you had given the book a more careful reading, you would have seen that Foer was much more respectful than you give him credit for.

The book’s only mention of Joel Salatin is in a lengthy quote by Frank Reese. It’s true that this mention isn’t flattering, but Foer doesn’t endorse Reese’s criticisms of Salatin. Concerning sustainable farmers, Foer writes, “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.” Is this your idea of fighting words?

I hope that you will take the time to read Eating Animals, now that you’ve written what was ostensibly a review of it. In fact, since I pass North Gate Hall daily, I’d like to offer to lend you my copy.

Your article in the New York Review of Books inspired me to take the rather unusual step of starting a blog devoted entirely to criticism of your work. I wrote about your comment on Eating Animals in more detail at You can also find a properly formatted copy of this letter at

I think that your comments about Jonathan Safran Foer both in the New York Review of Books and in your April interview with The Huffington Post reflect a tendency to assume that any vegetarian who criticizes your work is an “animal-rights purist” who won’t be content until you unconditionally condemn meat-eating. I won’t deny that these purists exist, but I think that there are many vegetarians who are frustrated because they feel that your treatment of vegetarianism has sometimes been distorted and disrespectful. Moreover, I would argue that your mention of Eating Animals in the New York Review of Books was both of those things.

Over the last two months, I have completed a thorough reading of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and I have blogged about numerous factual errors, misrepresentations of sources, and weak arguments contained therein. These are not restricted to the topic of meat-eating, and many of them are science-related.

One objection that I have raised that relates to both science and meat-eating comes in your chapter titled “The Vegan Utopia” when you write that the vegan food chain would be more dependent on chemical fertilizer than the current food chain because “fertility–in the form of manures–would be in short supply.” On the face of it, this is a rather dubious claim because we’d need to grow considerably less grain than we do now.

I think it’s also worth looking at the nutrient issue a different way. Any time we use a piece of land to grow food, we remove some nutrients from that land, whether that food be a plant or an animal. Unlike most animals, though, we don’t tend to return most of those nutrients to the land when we’re done with them. Instead, we quite literally flush them down the toilet. If we take enough food from our plot of land, that land is liable to run out of some nutrient eventually, unless we somehow replenish its nutrients. It’s worth pointing out that animals are not a source of the biologically-available nitrogen that is so often limiting. There’s plenty of nitrogen in animal manure, but because the animals on a farm don’t fix nitrogen, they have to get it from food sources. In particular, this means that animals aren’t going to leave more nitrogen on the land than they eat off of it.

In the absence of chemical fertilizers, the job of replenishing nitrogen necessarily goes to the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the roots of leguminous plants. Animals can certainly help to divert some nitrogen off of pastures and into our food supply. It’s possible that grazing might even increase the rate of nitrogen fixation by these bacteria, although I wasn’t able to find any evidence of this in the literature. In any case, I think it’s quite significant that even at Polyface Farm, the clover and other legumes growing in the pasture are not sufficient to replenish the nitrogen that’s removed in food. Although you write that “The chief reason Polyface Farm is completely self-sufficient in nitrogen is that a chicken, defecating copiously, pays a visit to virtually every square foot of it at several points during the season,” it simply isn’t the case that Polyface Farm is completely self-sufficient in nitrogen. The nitrogen in a chicken’s manure comes from feed, and most of that is grain from off the farm.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, you trivialize that input, writing that Polyface meat looks “an awful lot like the proverbially unattainable free lunch.” I don’t think the amount of feed is trivial at all. In fact, using data from The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pastured Poultry Profit$, and some calorie data, I did a rough calculation (available at that suggested that the grain in the broiler feed contains forty percent more calories than the farm’s output.

I understand that this calculation is back-of-the-envelope quality. Certainly, if you have done (or seen) a more accurate calculation, I would be interested in looking at it. However, I’ve tried to choose numbers that would favor Polyface. Furthermore, I have not even accounted for the feed for the layer hens, the turkeys or the pigs.

This raises the question of whether it might be more efficient to simply grow grain to feed people. I’m sure that the inputs required to grow feed grains are not the same as would be used to grow human-edible grains, but I think this at least shows that there’s a calculation worth doing and that the Polyface meal probably isn’t as close to a “free lunch” as a reader is led to believe.

I have to think that if it would indeed be more efficient to simply grow food-grade crops, the environmental case for eating meat from farms like Polyface would be much weaker than you make it out to be. As nice as it might be to talk about putting animals on a farm so that the farm resembles an ecosystem, it becomes much less compelling if that farm merely outsources its environmental degradation to a grain farm down the road.

Returning specifically to the subject of nutrients, I think it confuses matters to say that we need animals on farms to “complete the nutrient cycle,” as your website does. That suggests that animals return to the farm the nutrients that we have removed. As the example of the Polyface broiler feed shows, they don’t eliminate the need for outside inputs. They might allow for seemingly more benign inputs (feed versus chemical fertilizer), but we should be mindful of the cost of producing those inputs. (If completing the nutrient cycle is your goal, the natural approach would be using human manure for fertility.)

On a different subject, I couldn’t help but notice that in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, you don’t mention a single thing you ate in your time as a vegetarian. This was a particularly glaring omission in a book that described at least ten meat-based meals (four in exquisite detail). Even this January, nearly two years after you began advising people to eat mostly plants, the meals you consumed over five days (as reported in Grub Street New York) were remarkably low on plant proteins.

I think you might be a more effective advocate for a diet of “mostly plants” if you talked about more of the plant-based foods you eat. There is a certain strain of foodie culture that sees plant-based cuisine as inferior. I can’t help but think that such attitudes are reinforced when the most prominent advocate for eating “mostly plants” doesn’t find many plant foods worth talking about. Aside from that, many people simply don’t know what to eat other than meat. (Perhaps you have a memory from your time as a vegetarian of telling somebody you didn’t eat meat and hearing in response, “Then what do you eat?” or “Where do you get your protein?”)

With that in mind, I wanted to offer to introduce you to some of the plant-based cuisine in the area. There are a number of restaurants in the area that specialize in fine plant-based foods made from local and sustainable ingredients (and no meat substitutes or highly processed foods). I’d like to invite you to join me for a meal at one of these places. I’m not looking to start a conversation on animal ethics; I suspect that’s a matter on which we’ll have to agree to disagree. However, I do believe there is a conversation to be had here on such topics as vegetarians, science, and plant-based food. Let me know if you accept, and we can discuss a time and location.

I understand that this letter (and my blog) may come across as a hostile gesture, but I really don’t mean it that way. I do very much appreciate the work you do to remind people that their food comes from somewhere. However, I think that when we discuss the food options that are available to us, we should do so in a balanced and accurate way, and I have felt the need to speak up where that could have been done better.

I am interested to know what you think about all of this. In particular, if you feel that I have misrepresented your work in any way, I hope you will let me know.

Adam Merberg

P.S. I plan to post our correspondence to my blog, with the exception of any information pertaining to the time and location of any meeting between us. Please let me know if you prefer that anything else remain off the record.


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First of all, I’ve posted a slightly modified version of my review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma at If you’ve read my full review, it’ll be pretty boring, but if you want to vote on whether it’s helpful, I’d appreciate that.

I’ll have at least one more post related to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, probably within the next week or so. However, you can expect the posting around here to become less frequent. My original plan was to move on to In Defense of Food, and I’d still like to do that. However, for the next few months, I won’t have enough time to post daily or even a few times a week. I might just go through In Defense of Food slowly, or I might postpone it until I’m less busy. Whatever I decide, I do plan on keeping up with anything new that might happen.

If you want to continue following this blog, you might find it helpful to subscribe to the RSS feed or the email list on the right side of the page. For those who aren’t familiar with RSS feeds, they’re a great way to keep on top of news from multiple sources. I follow a few dozen RSS feeds in Google Reader, and it’s much more convenient than visiting all of the sites individually. I also signed up for Twitter (@AdamMerberg) this afternoon, and if you want to follow me there, I’ll do my best to keep you updated on my new blog posts (provided that I can figure out how to say anything in 140 characters).

I’ve taken a rather unorthodox approach with this blog. So far, I haven’t put much effort into getting people to read it, but I’ve put a lot of time into writing and researching it. The reason for this was that I always envisioned my review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma being the most useful thing I’d write here. Many of my other posts are too specific to be of very wide interest, but they help to support the broader points in the review for those who want that kind of detail. Since The Omnivore’s Dilemma came out four years ago, I decided there was no reason I needed people to be reading the posts as soon as I wrote them.

Now that I’ve posted my review, I plan to put a bit more work into building a readership. I have a few strategies in mind, but I’m interested in hearing suggestions (either by email or in the comments or, I suppose, on Twitter if they’re short enough) from anybody who has them.

Finally, I want to thank everyone who has been reading this blog for doing so. I’d especially like to thank those of you who have commented or emailed me to offer support, criticism, and useful information, as well as those of you who have helped to disseminate my posts through social media, blogs, and other channels. It’s been an incredible privilege to have your attention.

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma: My Review

When I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma for the first time two summers ago, I was taken aback by a relatively innocent passage in his section on the Supermarket Pastoral food chain:

Taken as a whole, the story on offer in Whole Foods is a pastoral narrative in which farm animals live much as they did in the books we read as children, and our fruits and vegetables grow on well-composted soils on small farms much like Joel Salatin’s. “Organic” on the label conjures up a rich narrative, even if it is the consumer who fills in most of the details, supplying the hero (American Family Farmer), the villain (Agribusinessman), and the literary genre, which I’ve come to think of as Supermarket Pastoral. By now we may know better than to believe this too simple story, but not much better, and the grocery store poets do everything they can to encourage us in our willing suspension of disbelief. (137)

I had certainly never looked at organic food this way. I grew up eating organic food, my parents having discovered organics several years before the US Department of Agriculture began its certification program. When I asked what this word “organic” meant, my mother told me very simply that it meant the food was grown without pesticides. Over the years, I had to tweak that definition for such considerations as chemical fertilizer, but that was pretty much what I thought of when I saw foods labeled organic. I saw no “rich narrative,” no “well-composted soils on small farms,” and no heroes or villains. Nor did I see any reason to be surprised (as Pollan was) by a microwaveable organic TV dinner. That’s not to say that I was born with a detailed understanding of the workings of organic farming. I knew next to nothing about farming, but I never saw any reason to fill in the blanks with these kinds of stories.

I suspect that Pollan is right that Whole Foods would like us to think of these stories. Regardless, I’d venture to guess that he and I experience shopping at Whole Foods about as differently as two people might experience the same grocery store, given his fascination with stories and my own devout literalism.

Having been through The Omnivore’s Dilemma two more times since my initial reading, I’ve come to believe that Pollan’s passion for stories explains a lot about the book. For one thing, it does much to explain the book’s popular success. Not only does Pollan like stories, but he’s good at telling them. In naming The Omnivore’s Dilemma one of the ten best books of 2006, the New York Times called Pollan “the perfect tour guide,” praising his writing as “incisive and alive.” Even B.R. Myers of The Atlantic, in a review that condemned the work as “a record of the gourmet’s ongoing failure to think in moral terms,” conceded that “Pollan writes of the role of corn in American life in such an improbably thrilling manner that I have to recommend the book.”

At the same time, his fixation with stories helps to explain why the book troubles me in some ways. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, stories aren’t just a way to communicate facts while keeping the reader engaged. One might even say that the facts are secondary to the stories. Rather than base stories on the facts, Pollan chooses stories to fit an overarching reactionary thesis: The best way to eat is following nature and tradition, and our attempts at progress only make things worse. The facts, then, are worked into his narratives, but sometimes they don’t really fit.

Science is one victim of Pollan’s reactionary thesis. Nutritional science receives part of the blame for America’s health problems. “We place our faith in science to sort out for us what culture once did with rather more success” (303), he writes. Yet much of his evidence that “we place our faith in science” lies in our susceptibility to weight-loss diets and food fads that aren’t supported by scientific consensus. Moreover, he seems oblivious to the successes of nutritional science in curing nutrient deficiencies, some of which existed in traditional diets. (To be fair, I do recall Pollan devoting an entire sentence to this point in In Defense of Food.)

Science also receives unfair treatment in the agricultural context. Pollan attempts to summarize parts of Sir Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament, which he calls the organic movement’s bible. Yet he makes Howard’s work out to be some sort of anti-science treatise, when it just isn’t. Pollan concludes from Howard’s treatment of humus, “To reduce such a vast biological complexity to [nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium] represented the scientific method at its reductionist worst” (147). While Howard offers plenty of criticism of modern agricultural science in particular, he does not criticize the scientific method more broadly. Indeed, he even calls aspects of conventional agriculture unscientific, proposes a few scientific experiments, and expresses his hope that science be among the tools of the agricultural investigators of the future. Howard’s work isn’t an argument against science. It’s an argument for better science.

Pollan’s chapters on the fast food chain are probably his strongest, but even there he occasionally oversteps. For example, he suggests that E. coli O157:H7 live only on feedlot cattle, when the scientific literature indicates that this deadly strain of bacteria is about as prevalent in grass-fed cattle. Later, he goes on to include one of the active ingredients in baking powder on a list of “quasiedible substances ” (113), apparently because of its chemical name. In both of these instances, he criticizes something new — feedlots in the first and baking powder in the second — with the effect of making something traditional seem more appealing.

The primary beneficiary of the reactionary narrative is the pastoral food chain, as represented by Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm. Even as Salatin describes his farm is a “postindustrial enterprise” (191), he explains that in some sense his farming methods aren’t really new at all; they imitate the ecological relationships that exist in nature. To Pollan the farm is “a scene of almost classic pastoral beauty” (124). Its product, he says, “looks an awful lot like the proverbially unattainable free lunch” (127).

Pollan credits Salatin’s farming methods with revitalizing Polyface’s soil without chemical fertilizers. In particular, he writes,

The chief reason Polyface Farm is completely self-sufficient in nitrogen is that a chicken, defecating copiously, pays a visit to virtually every square foot of it at several points during the season. (210)

It’s hard to tell whether he grasps the fact that the nitrogen in the chickens’ feces comes from the food they eat, eighty percent of which is grain-based feed from off the farm. What is certain, though, is that he doesn’t raise the question of what is happening to the land where that feed is grown. We would expect from the earlier chapters that the corn and soy in the feed was grown on a farm that was less classic, less pastoral, and less beautiful than Polyface, so it’s striking that Pollan should choose not to look further. He also doesn’t bother to discuss the question of whether that feed grain might be more efficiently used to feed people directly. Either of these questions would be raised in a more fact-driven work, but there’s simply no room for them in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as the answers might not fit the thesis.  (Of course, when Pollan later mentions “a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris” (361), he’s talking about the vegetarians.)

As for the chickens, Pollan buys into Salatin’s argument that they are a purely artisanal product. He doesn’t mention that they are the same Cornish Cross hens that in the context of his Whole Foods meal represented “the pinnacle of industrial chicken breeding,” and which “grow so rapidly…that their poor legs cannot keep pace” (171).

Pollan also points out that Salatin’s pastures remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There’s no mention, however, of the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from Salatin’s hugely inefficient distribution system, which involves large numbers of cars traveling long distances to the farm. (This omission comes even after he’s told us about the fossil fuels used to transport his industrial organic fruits and vegetables from distant farms.) When Pollan tells us that one customer drives 150 miles each way to the farm, it’s merely to be taken as proof of the quality of Polyface meats. There’s no mention of any environmental impact.

Where Pollan’s dedication to his reactionary thesis is perhaps most obvious is in his discussion of vegetarianism. For although there are prominent conservative vegetarians (Matthew Scully among them), vegetarianism today is rooted in a progressive idea. It requires us to accept that we can do something, namely eat, better than our ancestors did it. Indeed, Pollan 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)

Vegetarianism is something new, and his preferred hypothesis for its recent success is the weakening of our traditions:

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)

Being something new and representing a challenge to age-old traditions, vegetarianism simply doesn’t fit with Pollan’s reactionary message. In the reactionary view, it doesn’t make much more sense than high-fructose corn syrup or factory farms. As such, it doesn’t receive serious consideration.

Even before his section on the ethics of eating animals, there are signs that he won’t take his debate seriously. He tells us, for example, that his friends’ son is “fifteen and currently a vegetarian” (271), as though vegetarianism is merely a teenage phase. He also makes no secret of the fact that he’s already made the decision to go hunting even before tackling the ethical issues associated with eating animals.

Pollan gives up meat for a while, inspired by an argument of Peter Singer: “No one in the habit of eating an animal can be completely without bias in judging whether the conditions in which that animal is reared cause suffering” (312). Yet he identifies himself as “a reluctant and, I fervently hoped, temporary vegetarian” (313), so it’s not at all clear that the experiment does anything to lessen his bias.

As a vegetarian, Pollan struggles with the social ramifications of eating differently. He points out that “my new dietary restrictions throw a big wrench into the basic host-guest relationship” (313) and decides, “I’m inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners” (313). Yet he’ll find himself able to justify only a very limited kind of meat-eating, which likewise represents a “personal dietary prohibition.” He then proceeds to discuss his alienation from traditions like the Passover brisket, apparently not allowing for the possibility that traditions might evolve over time. This rigid view of tradition is an odd one considering his plans to hunt an unkosher pig.

Pollan then moves on to a discussion of animal rights philosophy. He claims to be debating Peter Singer, but he’ll quote Matthew Scully when it better suits his point, never acknowledging any significant difference between the writers. Other times, he’ll just quote Singer out of context.

Pollan eventually argues for meat-eating on the grounds that it serves the interests of domesticated species, which would cease to exist if people didn’t eat them. He doesn’t do much in the way of building up the argument, only hinting at how the interest of a species might be defined and not even beginning to explain why such an interest is more important than the individuals.

Instead of building that argument, Pollan relays a story intended to show that animal activists are out of touch with nature. As Pollan tells it, The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service need to kill feral pigs to save Santa Cruz Island’s endangered fox, and the animal rights and welfare people oppose the plan out of a single-minded concern for animal welfare. However, the very same Humane Society op-ed that Pollan cites to prove this point actually includes a substantive discussion of the project’s ecological goals. Moreover, Pollan does not address any of the more scholarly objections to the project, such as Jo-Ann Shelton’s argument that the restoration of Santa Cruz Island is motivated by human interest.

Pollan then launches into a section called “The Vegan Utopia,” where he points out practical difficulties of a vegan world. First, he reminds us that harvesting grains kills animals. It’s a true statement that people who care about animals should keep in mind, but Pollan goes on to suggest that we would minimize animal deaths by basing our diets on large ruminants. That claim is an apparent reference to a study that was quickly debunked. He then argues that a vegan world would force places like New England to import all of their food from distant places. It’s a dubious claim in view of existing production of soy, wheat, and vegetables in New England. He even goes so far as to suggest that the vegan food chain would be more dependent on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers than our current food system. Thanks to the inefficiency of feeding grain to animals, that claim is almost certainly false.

As Myers has pointed out, Pollan does not mention a single thing he ate in his time as a vegetarian. Over the course of the book, Pollan describes at least ten meat-based meals, four of those in exquisite detail, so it’s telling that he doesn’t consider vegetarian cuisine to be worth writing about.

Pollan goes hunting, shoots his sow, and even enjoys the experience. Yet when he finds himself disgusted by the sights and smells of cleaning the pig, Pollan can’t help but take one more jab at vegetarians. He expresses pity for the “tofu eater” for his “dreams of innocence” (361), seemingly rejecting the idea that we should even try to do better.

In spite of all these points of contention, I should acknowledge that Pollan gets plenty right in the book. There’s a lot that’s wrong with modern industrial food production. Making bad changes to our food supply has had profound negative consequences for the environment, public health, and animal welfare. On these topics, Pollan can remain faithful to his reactionary thesis while still representing the facts reasonably well. And so a reader learns about things like the psychology of supersizing, the environmental toll of growing corn to feed ruminants, and the miserable life of a battery-caged layer hen.

I suspect that many people find the information about industrial animal agriculture more powerful because they come from an author who so roundly rejects vegetarianism. After relaying the horrors of forced-molting and cannibalism in battery cages, Pollan writes,

I know, simply reciting these facts, most of which are drawn from poultry trade magazines, makes me sound like one of the animal people, doesn’t it? I don’t mean to (remember, I got into this vegetarian deal assuming I could go on eating eggs), but this is what can happen to you when…you look. (318)

It’s much harder for a reader to dismiss a message as the sentimental ramblings of one of the “animal people” when it’s coming from somebody who enjoys beating up on vegetarians.

In this way, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a book that bring awareness about important issues to a wide audience. The fact of it being such an enjoyable read further expands that audience. However, it should be at most a starting point for those learning about where their food comes from because the underlying reactionary premise sometimes leads Pollan astray. We live in a world that is increasingly unnatural and unlike the one that shaped our cultural traditions. Our population is growing, our planet is warming, and our values and lifestyles have evolved. It doesn’t make sense for our food chain to remain in the past. As innovations like battery cages and high-fructose corn syrup show, not all ideas are good ones, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to make progress. The future will present us with new challenges, and we’d do well to keep an open mind to new solutions.

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The free lunch

I had hoped to be posting my review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma by now, but I’ve been a bit sidetracked by a calculation that’s just been begging to be done.

Michael Pollan writes that Polyface Farm produces what looks “an awful lot like the proverbially unattainable free lunch” (127). I’ve pointed out before that Polyface does use feed grains from other farms. What I want to look at is how Polyface’s animal product output might compare to using those grains to feed people. Because of the quality of the data, this calculation will unfortunately be only back-of-the-envelope quality, but I hope that it will still have some value.

I’ll first look at the grain used to feed Salatin’s broilers. The most recent printing of The Omnivore’s Dilemma states (page 222) that Salatin raises 12,000 broilers each year. (The productivity numbers in earlier printings were different. In fact, my copy even has different numbers in two different places.) According to Salatin’s Pastured Poultry Profit$, the broilers have a carcass weight of 4 pounds, and the chickens require 3 pounds of feed for each pound of carcass weight (page 185). That comes out to 144,000 pounds of feed each year. Salatin writes that he uses a feed consisting of 52% corn, 29% roasted soybeans, 11% crimped oats, and the rest consisting of fish meal, kelp and nutritional supplements. Since I’d like my estimate of the energy content of the feed to be conservative, I’ll ignore the calorie content of everything but the grains. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find good data for calorie content of feed grains, so I’ll be using data for food-grade grains. Using USDA data for corn, soy, and oats, one finds that a mixture of 0.52 pounds of corn, 0.29 pounds of soybeans, and 0.11 pounds of oats contains a little over 1700 calories. That comes out to 244,800,000 calories in the feed grain.

Now what about the productivity of Salatin’s farm? Here things get pretty tricky. There are several different kinds of animals, and each has several different kinds of meat with different calorie densities. For rabbits, I wasn’t able to find any useful data on carcass weights. Regardless, here is the calculation in tabular form. (References are at the end of the post. Where no reference is given, the source is the version of The Omnivore’s Dilemma available on Google Books.)

Food Quantity Energy density Total Energy (Cal)
Beef 25,000 lb 1163 Cal/lb 1 29,075,000
Pork 50,000 lb 1062 Cal/lb 1 53,100,100
Broiler hens 48,000 lb 2 615 Cal/lb 1 29,540,136
Stewing hens 2,400 lb 3 615 Cal/lb 4 1,476,000
Turkeys 12,000 lb5 541 Cal/lb 1 6,492,000
Rabbits 5,000 lb 6 617 Cal/lb 7 3,085,000
Eggs 360,000 eggs 135 Cal/egg 8 48,600,000
Total 171,368,236

With these very rough estimates, it appears that Polyface actually requires more calories in feed than it produces in food. As I’ve said, these estimates could be off, but I’ve tried to choose them to be favorable to Polyface. For the output, I’ve used energy data from David and Marcia H. Pimentel, which seems to be higher than USDA data for lean meats. (Pastured meat advocates like to say that grass-fed meat is lower in fat than grain-fed meat.) Also, I haven’t even attempted to consider grains fed to the turkeys, the pigs, or the layer hens, but this is likely substantial as well.

If it were the case that there were more energy in the feed grain than in the farm’s output, that would considerably weaken the environmental case for eating meat from a place like Polyface. While I’m still inclined to believe that Polyface meat is far better than factory-farmed meat, Pollan would have us believe that it’s environmentally better to eat Polyface meat than to eat grains because Polyface’s pastures capture solar energy that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to use. That would not make so much sense, though, if Polyface didn’t actually decrease the amount of grain we needed to grow.

One might argue that because Salatin’s cattle don’t eat grain, Polyface grass-fed beef is still relatively low input. But Pollan has made it very clear that each animal has important roles on the farm. The chickens, in particular, are responsible for fertilizing the pasture. Without the chickens and their feed, some other form of fertility would need to be imported from off the farm.

Because I’ve only done a rough calculation, I’m willing to believe that a more careful calculation might show that Polyface actually does produce more calories in food than it requires in grain feed. I welcome any efforts to tear this analysis apart or explain why it is irrelevant. Nonetheless, I think this rough calculation suggests, at least, that the Polyface meal is further from the “proverbially unattainable free lunch” than Pollan has told us. The question remaining is whether it is further from the free lunch than a plant-based meal.


1 David Pimentel and Marcia H. Pimentel. Food, Energy, and Society, Third Edition. Page 70, Table 8.3.
2 Based on 12,000 broilers (as stated in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) with carcass weight of 4 pounds (as stated in Pastured Poultry Profit$).
3 Based on 800 stewing hens (as stated in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) with carcass weight of 3 pounds (as stated in Pastured Poultry Profit$).
4 Unfortunately, I was not able to find a figure for the energy density of stewing hen meat, so I have assumed that it is the same as broiler hen meat.
5 Based on 800 turkeys (as stated in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) with carcass weight of 15 pounds (as stated in Pastured Poultry Profit$).
6 Here, I’ve had significant difficulty finding data. Pollan tells us that Polyface raises 500 rabbits. I’ve assumed a live weight at slaughter of 20 pounds because that seems very large. I’ve also taken into account that dressed weight is typically about 50% of live weight.
7 Based on USDA data for a composite of cuts.
8 This is another somewhat arbitrary number. I’ve chosen this number to be 150% of the USDA figure for a jumbo egg since Polyface eggs are supposedly richer than most.

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Another critique by Julie Guthman

(Updated 7/20/2010 to fix a typo and 9/15 to fix another typo.)

Now that I’ve finished with my detailed reading of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’m working on writing a review of the book. Whereas my posts so far have been more detail-oriented, my aim is for the review to be relatively concise and include links to existing posts that go into more detail. That post should go up this week, perhaps as soon as tomorrow.

In the mean time, I want to write about a piece by Julie Guthman in the journal Agriculture and Human Values titled “Commentary on teaching food: Why I am fed up with Michael Pollan et al.” You might remember Guthman as the author of the article about Pollan’s treatment of obesity that I blogged last month. She also wrote Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California, a work included in Pollan’s list of resources for Chapter 9. Compared to the obesity piece, the Agriculture and Human Values piece takes a broader look at The Omnivore’s Dilemma and (to a lesser extent) works of a few other authors. Having appeared in a scholarly journal, it isn’t available without an institutional subscription, but if you have access, I’d recommend taking a look.

I’ll summarize what I think are the main points here, but I have to offer a reminder that it’s a scholarly work on a subject on which I’m not particularly informed. I’ll try to let Guthman’s words stand for themselves as much as possible, but it may well be that my choice of quotations betrays my own ignorance.

Guthman writes,

Pollan displays a marked weakness at acknowledging intellectual debts…Pollan borrows liberally from data, arguments, and occasionally even phrases I used in Agrarian Dreams (2004). He has very similar things to say about organics: its movement origins, its tendencies toward input substitution, the entry of the big guns into the sector to name a few. Unless a reader was already familiar with my work, this close connection between the two works would not be remotely apparent…I then begin to wonder how many ideas less familiar to me are employed in the book with similar treatment. So, while Pollan must be commended for bringing arguments from agrarian theory to a wider audience, he does so at the expense of codes of scholarly conduct that sets a poor example to our students.

Undoubtedly Pollan’s sins of omission will be defended as reflections of different standards for journalistic versus scholarly writing…Nevertheless, considering how knowledge is a central theme of the book, this oversight is not insubstantial. The entire premise of the book is that if one traces a meal from its biological origins to its ingestion, one will make better decisions as to how to eat….

While I cede the problem of dense scholarly writing in reaching a popular audience, there is a politics of citations of which we all should be mindful. Failure to acknowledge the origins of important ideas reflects disregard for collective efforts in producing them; perhaps it also suggests a disregard for collective action writ large.

I think that Guthman’s point about “disregard for collective efforts in producing [ideas]” is an important one, and I would add that citations (when present) do more than just give credit where it is due. Citations also give readers a place to look if they want to check facts or learn more about a subject. As Guthman points out, the book traces meals back to their “biological origins,” but Pollan makes it very difficult to trace ideas back to their intellectual origins. Even as a layperson, I’ve found numerous factual errors and misrepresentations of sources, and I have to wonder what somebody who was more knowledgeable on the subject matter might find.

Guthman also takes issue with the substance of Pollan’s argument:

I, in large part, agree with Pollan’s critiques of the food system and the places we must get to. I even share Pollan’s foodie predilections: eating at Chez Panisse, buying almost all of my produce at the farmers market, and steering clear of industrially-produced animal products. I recognize that my food tastes derive from disgust at many contemporary food production practices but also a particular sensibility born of privilege and cultural milieu. Thus while I grant that I take my personal eating choices seriously, I see them more as ways to opt out, than a road to change. In other words, I don’t harbor the fantasy that individual, yuppified, organic, slow food consumption choices are the vehicles to move toward a more just and ecological way of producing and consuming food. To the contrary, I think that structures of inequality must necessarily be addressed so that others may eat well.

She further explains that “Pollan’s overall point…is to bring together two current day justifications for localism.” These two justifications are the failure of regulation and the idea that “we are naturally predisposed to unite [the producer and consumer] sides of ourselves, as reflected in our omnivorous digestive systems and teeth.” Guthman opines,

That Pollan merges a naturalistic argument (nature as a model) with a political one (failure of regulation) so seamlessly is the most troubling aspect of the book. Just as “community” obtains pre-political status (Rose, 1999; Joseph, 2002), the local does so doubly, a a place of both biological and social organicism. Pollan’s critique of corn subsidies drops out soon enough in the text, and the book never again considers policy…Pollan seems to accept the idea that the food system can be changed one meal at a time.

In her conclusion, she writes,

What is so painfully evident here…is how food politics has become a progenitor of a neoliberal anti-politics that devolves regulatory responsibility to consumers’ via their dietary choices…I am fed up with the apolitical conclusions, self-satisfied biographies of food choices, and general disregard for the more complex arguments that scholars of food bring to these topics. In fact, I wonder why our voices — those of us who are deeply engaged in scholarship of food and agriculture — are so absent from these treatises.

Regarding the “apolitical conclusions,” I don’t know to what extent I’d fault Pollan for this. Much as I agree with her assessment that policy has to be part of the solution, people are always going to want to know what to eat. I’m not sure it’s fair to criticize an author for writing a book that aims to help them navigate the choices that exist in today’s policies. Of course, there should be no pretense that this kind of individual action is going to solve the problem. It should be made clear to readers that the best they can do on an individual level is to “opt out” of the broken system. I don’t think Pollan does terribly here; he quotes Joel Salatin using precisely those words: “Me and the folks who buy my food are like the Indians — we just want to opt out” (132).

However, he also seems to agree with Salatin’s opposition to animal slaughter regulations. Moreover, he tells us that “the decision to eat locally is an act of conservation, too, one that is probably more effective (and sustainable) than writing checks to environmental organizations” (258). Such a statement might lead a reader to believe that eating local is an effective conservation mechanism, when the more realistic assessment is that individual actions are, in general, not very effective. Perhaps where he goes wrong, then, is in not making this point more explicitly.

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Eating the pig

It’s not until he takes the first bite of his pig that Michael Pollan fully comes to terms with his having killed it. He writes,

I suddenly felt perfectly okay about my pig — indeed, about the whole transaction between me and this animal that I’d killed two weeks earlier. Eating the pig, I understood, was the necessary closing act of that drama, and went some distance toward redeeming the whole play. (401)

It is perhaps easier to feel “perfectly okay” with killing if one thinks of it as a theatrical engagement. I’d venture to guess that things haven’t suddenly become “perfectly okay” to the pig, which has seen its “closing act” two weeks earlier and does not, indeed cannot, find anything redeeming in its being eaten. Pollan continues,

Now it was all a matter of doing well by the animal, which meant making the best use of its meat by preparing it thoughtfully and feeding it to people who would appreciate it. (401)

Without further explanation, one might guess this means he’ll serve the pig to people who otherwise would go to sleep hungry. Of course, we know that he is preparing a multi-course meal for “a particularly discriminating group of eaters, several of them actual chefs” (402). The notion that using the pig’s flesh to satisfy a discerning palate constitutes “doing well by the animal” is a bizarre one (perhaps sharing its intellectual foundations with suicide food, the depiction of animals that want to be eaten). It’s an idea that he further develops a bit later:

Another thing cooking is, or can be, is a way to honor the things we’re eating, the animals and plants and fungi that have been sacrificed to gratify our needs and desires… (404)

Even if he genuinely wants to honor the pig, honor is a rather limited concept in that it is defined largely by intentions. Many vegetarians, for example, have stories of their friends or families honoring them with a meat-based meal. In most of these cases, the intentions are good, but the execution — in particular, serving meat — reflects a misunderstanding of the honoree’s interests. In Pollan’s case, though, any arguments about good intentions ring hollow in light of the obvious fact that the pig’s interests were extinguished two weeks ago.

Pollan later writes,

But cooking doesn’t only distance us from our destructiveness, turning the pile of blood and guts into a savory salami, it also symbolically redeems it, making good our karmic debts: Look what good, what beauty, can come of this! (405)

Should distancing ourselves from our destructiveness really be a goal? Might we instead strive to be less destructive? Setting aside the question of whether making a delicious salami for one’s own consumption is really a virtuous thing to do, the point about karmic debt is one that might have dangerous implications. It could, for example, offer “symbolic redemption” to an arsonist who returns to the site of the crime to plant flowers.

As comforting as it might be to talk about “honoring” and “doing well by” the pig, everything Pollan does to those ends is not really about the pig but himself and the other people who will eat it. Of course, that is necessarily the case. The pig is dead, and no amount of cooking (or philosophizing) is going to improve its condition.

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Minutiae, pages 320-411

I’ve now completed my reading of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In the next few days, I’ll be concluding my series of posts on the book. Meanwhile, here’s a list of the little things from the last two weeks:

  • Pollan writes, “On their appointed rounds the pigs can cover forty square miles in a day” (336). I think he means to specify a unit of distance, rather than area.
  • Pollan says of mushrooms, “It’s difficult to reconcile the extraordinary energies of these organisms with the fact that they contain relatively little of the kind of energy that scientists usually measure: calories” (377). Calories aren’t a “kind of energy.” They are a unit in which energy is measured. Calling calories a kind of energy is like saying that miles are a kind of distance. There is something of a subtlety here, though. It’s a bit misleading to say that foods “contain” energy. When we talk about foods having a certain number of calories, we’re referring to the amount of energy that becomes available to us when we eat them. If the foods were to undergo a different sequence of reactions than the ones that take place in our bodies, different amounts of energy would be released. Accordingly, Pollan’s remarks might begin to make sense if we replace “calories” by “physiologically available energy,” as the USDA calls it.
  • Pollan writes, “The fava, which is the only bean native to the Old World, is a broad, flat, bright green shelling bean that if picked young and quickly blanched has a starchy sweet taste that to me is as evocative of springtime as fresh peas or asparagus” (396). I don’t think the fava is the only bean native to the Old World. The adzuki bean seems to also have its origins in the Old World.
  • Pollan explains, “The reason I didn’t open a can of stock was because stock doesn’t come from a can; it comes from the bones of animals” (410). Of course, stock could also be made from vegetables.

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