Ask Michael Pollan

To go with this week’s Food and Drink Issue, the New York Times Magazine is running an “Ask Michael Pollan” feature. I’d explain more, but it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Here’s the question I submitted:

In “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” you marvel at the brilliance of Joel Salatin’s animal polyculture farm, which seems to neatly solve so many of the problems of industrial agriculture. For example, you write, “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.” This obscures a very important point: chickens don’t fix nitrogen. The nitrogen in the chicken manure is imported in the form of corn, soy, and oats fed to the chickens; Polyface Farm isn’t self-sufficient in nitrogen at all. Earlier this year, Joel Salatin even told an audience at UC Berkeley that he doesn’t describe his farm as sustainable precisely because of the chicken feed. Is it fair to ask how much of today’s alternative food, particularly meat, can reasonably be called “sustainable”? Should the food movement be doing less to glorify meat from small farms and more to help people find satisfying plant-based meals?

Bizarrely, the last few words of the question were edited to read “a satisfying Plan B?” My guess is that a spellchecker was involved. I submitted a similar question with a note of explanation, so I’m hoping this will be fixed.

If you want Pollan to answer my question, you can vote for it by following the link and clicking on the upward-pointing thumb next to my question (login required). Unfortunately, I can’t link directly to the question, so use Control+F (Command+F on a Mac) to find it within the page.

(Updated 10/2/2011 at 9:33PM to clarify the last paragraph, as per Joseph Dowd’s suggestion in the comments.)



  1. You might want to clarify that clicking the thumb casts a *vote* in favor of Pollan answering your question. Not seeing the explanation at the top of the “Ask Michael Pollan” page, I initially clicked on the thumb thinking it would take me to Pollan’s answer. (I guess the “like” count next to the thumb should have been a giveaway, though…)

    • Adam Merberg said

      Fair enough. (And I’m still planning on replying to your other comment, but that will take some time.)

  2. beforewisdom said


  3. It seems voting must be over, because I can’t click any buttons on the page.

    Sorry I was late!

    • Adam Merberg said

      Hmm. I think that it might also require you to be logged in to vote, even if I haven’t seen it stated explicitly anywhere. In any case, my enthusiasm for the question has been somewhat lessened by the moderators’ changes. Thanks for trying, though.

      (I’m a fan of your blog, by the way.)

  4. I’m not registered at NYT, so that could be the case.

    Thanks for the compliment. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog as well. We seem to have at least somewhat similar opinions of Pollan. I like that he’s popularized a lot of food ethics issues, but he does seem to play fast and loose with facts sometimes. I also think that there is a yawning chasm between his recommendation to “eat food, mostly plants” and the fact that he seems to spend very little time promoting plant-based diets or even meals. I’m not faulting him for not being a vegan crusader, but a little mention of vegan food here and there would be nice given his “mostly plants” recommendation.

    And I completely agree that changing “plant-based diet” to “Plan B” totally weakens the question. But the question about nitrogen self-sufficiency is still intact and it is important. But apparently NYT readers aren’t all that interested in the actual ability of small farms to provide food for them.

    • Adam Merberg said

      I absolutely agree with not faulting Pollan for not being a vegan crusader. I find it obnoxious when vegans do that. That said, I did take the time to go into some of his philosophical discussions with Singer because I found them problematic even though I don’t particularly agree with Singer. If domesticated animal species take an interest in their members being eaten by humans (as Pollan suggests), that’s a problem for arguments for veganism as supererogatory as well as obligatory.

  5. I’m sorry, but I don’t know what your last sentence means. When you say “take an interest” do you mean to say that Pollan argues that domesticated animals WANT us to eat them? I’m confused.

    • Adam Merberg said

      He argues that meat-eating serves the interest of domesticated animal species (not to be confused with the individual animals). That is to say, if nobody ate meat, chickens, pigs, and cows would all go extinct. That would be bad for these species, he argues.

      My point is that this argument (if valid) is at least somewhat problematic for almost any argument for veganism. If going vegan means being negligent of our obligations to these domesticated species, being vegan isn’t merely not obligatory, it’s not even supererogatory either. (Personally, I’m not quite sure where I’d put veganism on the obligatory-supererogatory spectrum, but that strays from the point somewhat.)

      This kind of issue is why I bothered to dig into Pollan’s “debate” with Singer, even though I find Singer’s arguments to be overly simplistic.

  6. Okay, that’s what I thought you meant. I just wanted to make sure.

    I don’t find the argument very compelling. First off, it imputes to cows, chickens etc. a type of cognition that I don’t think they have. I don’t think they have the ability to think of themselves as a species and to have opinions about how keeping their own species alive long-term is important, and that they would go extinct if humans didn’t eat them. Secondly, even if it is true that cows have some sort of self-serving reason to want to be bred to be milked and eaten, we could never know this for sure. It’s just conjecture. Third, it’s really all a pie-in-the-sky scenario anyway. Who seriously thinks that the world will ever become totally vegan? I certainly don’t and neither does Pollan,so he’s just using a hypothetical that will never happen to try to justify why raising animals just to kill them is actually to their benefit (which has the added benefit of making veg*ans look like the ones that don’t care about animals). All in all, I just don’t find it compelling in any way.

    As for the obligatory/supererogatory thing goes, it’s a vexing question, isn’t it? For a long time I just really wanted it to be obligatory, and then I decided it wasn’t, but I still wanted a way to make a really forceful argument for why people should be vegan even though it’s only supererogatory. If you have any insights at any point, please share.

  7. Gary said

    If cows had an interest in their species as a whole (doubtful), I’m sure they would have an even stronger interest in nonviolent means of population management. But as speciesistvegan ponted out, this is a hypothetical distraction from urgent, widespread, real-world ethical transgressions.

    Furthermore, cattle, pigs, and other “food” animals won’t go extinct if we stop eating them. For instance, there will stil be chickens in the jungles of Southeast Asia – their native habitat – and they won’t be bred to grossly overproduce flesh or eggs.

    In addition – and getting back to reality – as we decrease our consumption of animals, it is likely that some habitatat currently used for ranching and feed crops will be restored or used in a less destructive manner, which should preserve species. If Pollan is sincerely interested in species preservation, he should rigorously advocate a plant-based diet.

    It seems to me that, his meritorious qualities notwithstanding, Pollan is relying on increasingly implausible and desperate arguments to avoid a legitimate solution (e.g., eating a plant-based diet) to hs self-perpetuated “dilemma.”

    • Eric B. said

      > In addition – and getting back to reality – as we decrease our consumption of animals, it is likely that some habitatat currently used for ranching and feed crops will be restored or used in a less destructive manner, which should preserve species.

      Realistically, the trade-off between traditional agriculture and a more vegan-tending agriculture will surely mean an agriculture that is defined more and more by large scale monocropping, which is the most destructive (in the non-sustainable sense) aspect of modern agriculture. Relying more on the most industrialized part of the food chain (combine harvested crops fertilized with non-renewable fertilizers and managed with chemical pesticides) will surely lead to imbalance, not to “preserv[ing] species]” and “less destruct[ion].” If we really want a less destructive agriculture, species preservation, etc., we will have to de-industrialize the way we eat. We’ll have to accept more labor-intensive (instead of chemical-intensive) ways of doing things, we’ll have to live close enough to the land to return our wastes and manures to the land for a complete nutrient cycle, we’ll have to reduce our dependence on diesel-powered agriculture and transportation, etc. And if we do these things, we will surely find the arguments for including animals in our agriculture that much more compelling.

      • Eric B. said

        I want to add that I think supply-side arguments for conservation are always going to be short-sighted at best. For instance, finding more efficient ways to produce energy will, over the long term, just mean that we use more energy, not that we live more peacefully on the earth within our means. Similarly, if we really want a less destructive agriculture we need to think in terms of healthy holistic balance, not trying to push the limits of productive capacity even further by converting grasslands to conventional cropland.

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