Archive for The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Julie Guthman on cheap food and the economy

Julie Guthman explains a key difference between her position and Michael Pollan’s:

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan argues that those crop surpluses end up in our bodies; subsidized crops like corn and soy are most likely to go into the processed foods that have become a mainstay of American diets. In turn, these processed foods may contribute to fatness (although not necessarily in the ways he discusses). But he pretty much leaves it there. My argument is much more expansive. I argue that a much broader set of food and agricultural policies are implicated in fatness–but also thinness, and a host of other health conditions that may not manifest in either direction. The food economy, that is, mirrors the larger economy: it is full of contradictions, some of which are literally embodied. But I take it even a step further, to consider policies not even directly related to food and agriculture, such as taxation, financial regulation, and economic development policies that have created huge disparities between rich and poor. To the extent that socioeconomic status and body size are associated, these policies must somehow be implicated in fatness and thinness. Part of this inverse association between size and class status appears to rest on cheap food and the need that neoliberal policy has created for it. (173)

Whereas Pollan is troubled by our dietary habits and argues that we should eat differently, Guthman believes that the problem lies with the structure of our economy:

The decline in family wages…has pushed many women into the workforce, and many household providers hold multiple jobs to make ends meet. Having to work several jobs has surely increased the need for fast and convenient food and contributed to the decline of the much-lauded (and perhaps overly romanticized) family meal. Snack foods, heat ‘n serve meals, supermarket takeout, and eating on the run are not just “lifestyle choices” or, for that matter, signs of the failure of women to fulfill their familial duty. For many, managing jobs, children, and elderly parents and taking time for the most minimal self-care are real challenges that no amount of cajoling about how we should cook our own meals is likely to solve.

The point, though, is not only to defend those who cannot follow the food gurus. It is to note that these ways of eating are central to the current economy. If anything, fast and convenient food has been a triply good fix for American capitalism. It entails the super-exploitation of the labor force in its production, it provides cheap food to support the low wages of the food and other industries by feeding their low-wage workers, and it absorbs the surpluses of the agricultural economy, soaking up, as it were, the excesses of overproduction to keep the farm sector marginally viable. (174)


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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.)

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How Michael Pollan misrepresents science

A couple of months ago, I was invited to write a piece on Michael Pollan’s treatment of science for the blog of The Berkeley Science Review,  a UC Berkeley graduate student publication dedicated to writing about science for scientists and non-scientists alike. As it happened, it took me a while to find the time to write anything, but my piece addressing both The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food just been published.

The first half, addressing The Omnivore’s Dilemma, won’t be anything new for readers who are familiar with my post on Pollan’s reading of Sir Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament. Parts of the new post are borrowed directly from that post’s argument that Pollan misrepresents Howard’s work and misunderstands what science is.

The second half of the piece addresses In Defense of Food, and is brand new.  The focus, naturally, is on Pollan’s treatment of nutritionism. Here’s an excerpt:

Pollan quotes a 2001 critical review stating that “the low-fat campaign has been based on little scientific evidence.” Without bothering to explain how nutritionism might be discredited by the failure of a public health campaign that wasn’t supported by science, Pollan presents an alternative theory and its implications for the low-fat advice:

The theory is that refined carbohydrates interfere with insulin metabolism in ways that increase hunger and promote overeating and fat storage in the body…If this is true, then there is no escaping the conclusion that the dietary advice enshrined not only in the McGovern “Goals” but also in the National Academy of Sciences report, the dietary guidelines of the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society and the U.S. food pyramid bears direct responsibility for creating the public health crisis that now confronts us.

This passage implies that the various dietary guidelines that supported the low-fat movement encouraged Americans to compensate for the reduction in calories from fat by eating more white flour and high-fructose corn syrup. However, McGovern’s Goals called for a substantial reduction in sugar consumption and an increase in consumption of carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, and grains. Americans increased their sugar consumption and disregarded a recommended decrease in daily energy intake. Incredibly, on the basis of their having followed the recommendation to decrease the percentage of calories consumed in the form of fat, Pollan has declared the Goals not merely unhelpful but directly responsible for the current public health crisis. (This is, to say the least, a surprising departure from Pollan’s explanation of the same crisis in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: “When food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat.”)

(This quote has been updated to reflect a correction.)

I’ll admit that the first time I read In Defense of Food, I mostly enjoyed it, but the second time through, I attempted a closer read and found myself thoroughly disappointed. In the Berkeley Science Review piece, I really only scratched the surface of what’s wrong with its treatment of science. While I’ve come to believe that the work needs a more thorough critique like the one I gave to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’ll have to weigh it against various other time-consuming projects (including a number of other writing projects).

If Pollan’s science writings are highly regarded, I can only think that this situation speaks to a need for people with strong scientific backgrounds to communicate effectively with the broader public about science. In that respect, The Berkeley Science Review is a great publication. I encourage you to take a look around their site and subscribe to their RSS feed. Most of their posts are a lot more fun than mine, I promise.

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Michael Pollan, B.R. Myers, and pleasure

Last week, The Globe and Mail published an interview in which Michael Pollan responded to a number of different criticisms of the food movement. The interviewer, Ian Brown, was quite obviously friendly to Pollan, prefacing the piece by labeling Pollan the “god of the food movement.” Brown asked Pollan in particular about a piece in the current issue of The Atlantic:

What do you make of the complaints of B.R. Myers, who has aesthetic and moral objections to foodies in the latest Atlantic Monthly?

The piece in question is “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies,” in which Myers tears into food writers ranging from Pollan to Anthony Bourdain. Myers uses the word “foodie” interchangeably with the word “gourmet”; his piece only relates to the food reform movement insofar as it classifies some prominent food reformers like Pollan and Alice Waters as gourmets. Many of Myers’ harshest words are reserved for writers like Bourdain or Jeffrey Steingarten, who are not exactly household names in the food reform movement.

Myers, it should probably be noted, is something of a career controversialist. I’ve previously mentioned his blistering review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Before that, he wrote a book titled A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose, and more recently he authored a review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom which The Huffington Post named one of the five meanest reviews ever.

Having read a few pieces of Myers’ work in The Atlantic, I have to think that he writes not to convince his readers but to get attention. If that’s the case, he seems to know what he’s doing. His review of Freedom drew many responses (including a lengthy one from somebody who hadn’t read the book), and Michael Pollan found the need to tweet two responses to his recent piece about foodies.

With that said, here’s how Pollan answered:

His aesthetic problem is an ethical problem, and that’s that he’s a vegan. And if you look at the way he writes about these issues…everything he dismisses as gluttony always involves eating an animal. So there’s a few agendas mixed up in that, and he’s not completely open about what they are.

With respect to the first sentence there, Pollan insinuates that the fact of Myers being vegan means that all of his criticisms are simply a knee-jerk objection to people eating meat. It would seem that in Pollan’s view, vegetarian advocates can’t have opinions worth listening to (which might explain why he didn’t see the need to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals before reviewing it). To be sure, Myers clearly has some opinions that are not expressly stated in his piece, but can’t we evaluate his criticisms on their own terms? (And if somebody’s opinion must be discounted, why is it not the meat farmers like Nicolette Hahn Niman and Joel Salatin, who have a financial interest in selling a particular product?)

As for the point that “everything [Myers] dismisses as gluttony always involves eating an animal,” this might that have more to do with food writers’ bias towards meat than Myers’ bias against it. Myers is clearly disgusted with Bourdain’s tale of eating endangered songbirds. Maybe Myers chose this example because he is vegan, but perhaps he chose it because he couldn’t find any food writing about eating endangered plants. Moreover, I’ve previously commented that Pollan writes surprisingly little about the plant-based foods he eats, so it’s hard to see Pollan’s point having much validity applied to his own work.

Finally, I don’t know what to make of the accusation that Myers isn’t “open” about his agendas. Myers writes of “the caloric wastefulness and environmental damage that result from meat farming,” he slams Bourdain for his indignation towards vegetarians, and he suggests that “delicious food that is produced in a way that is sustainable, that doesn’t exploit workers and is eaten slowly and with reverence” means eating a vegetarian diet. He certainly doesn’t make any effort to hide his vegetarian inclinations. The specific criticism from Pollan here, I suppose, is that Myers raises the objections that he does just because he doesn’t want anybody to eat meat. Even if this is true, it’s not clear how it should invalidate, for example, the argument that “the foodie respects only those customs, traditions, beliefs, cultures…that call on him to eat more, not less.”

Pollan goes on to discuss the role of pleasure in the food movement:

What’s very striking about the current interest in food is that it’s not purely aesthetic. It is not purely about pleasure–people are very interested in the system that they’re eating from…People are mixing up aesthetics and ethics in a very new way, that some people are uncomfortable with, frankly. The idea that you could take any pleasure from politics, that you could mix those two terms, is a very un-American idea. We see it as you’re either indulging yourself, or you’re doing the world good. The fact is, slow food and other elements of the food movement are proposing that the best choice, the most beautiful choice, is often the most sustainable choice.

I don’t buy this idea that the mixing of pleasure and politics is unique to the food movement. After all, we’ve had a sexual revolution, and movements for drug legalization have gained support in recent years.

Furthermore, I’m skeptical of the idea that pleasure will lead us to the most sustainable choice. Pollan, after all, recalls in The Omnivore’s Dilemma having served his friend Liz (whom he says is “such a good cook”) a Polyface steak, which he’d have us believe is “an awful lot like the proverbially unattainable free lunch,” only to have her wrinkle her nose and push it away. And it wasn’t too long ago that Alice Waters said that she’d have shark fin soup as her last meal, only to swear off the delicacy after learning it was cruel and unsustainable.

In another direction, I think it’s important to point out that most people find pleasure in the food they’re already eating. It’s a little surprising to have to make this point, as nobody has described more eloquently than Pollan the various ways in which food companies have learned to satisfy our innate cravings with fatty burgers and sugary soft drinks. Last summer, Pollan cheered on a column in which Joel Salatin wrote, “Don’t complain about being unable to afford high-quality local food when your grocery cart is full of beer, cigarettes, and People magazine,” but I wonder how many people were actually complaining. As James McWilliams writes, “Most omnivores don’t have a dilemma. Most eaters just want a decent lunch.”

It is probably unfair for Myers to say that members of a group including both Pollan and Bourdain are “as similar to each other as they are different from everyone else.” While Pollan seems sincere in his desire for a food system that is gentler on the planet, I have trouble believing the same of somebody chowing down on endangered birds.

Perhaps where Myers’ piece is most valuable is as a warning of what might happen if food reform leaders place pleasure at the front of their movement. For all the ways in which Pollan and Waters differ from the likes of Bourdain, there are some similarities. If they make a few more missteps in the vein of Waters’ comments on shark fin soup, give us too many twisted rationalizations, or insist too stubbornly that we should be eating rack and loin of veal, they’ll seem less like earnest reformers and more like out-of-touch and disingenuous gourmets in the model of Bourdain.

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Making sense of the Polyface calorie numbers

Last summer, I published a post attempting a crude analysis of the inputs and outputs at Polyface Farm. My rough calculations led me to speculate that Polyface Farm may require more calories in grain and soy than it produces in meat, and Joel Salatin seems to have confirmed this when I asked him last month. This analysis has received a bit of attention in various corners of the internet, so I think it’s worth talking about what these numbers might tell us (or not tell us).

On the one hand, I can’t quite endorse the conclusions of Ginny Messina, who wrote in her review of Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth that the numbers “suggest that there is no such thing as truly sustainable meat production.”

To say that something is sustainable means that it can be continued indefinitely.  Comparing the caloric inputs and outputs of a farm doesn’t really tell us anything about whether that is the case. Moreover, it’s important to recognize that production of plant-based crops requires fossil fuels and fertilizers that are in limited supply, so we don’t have “truly sustainable” vegetable production either.

That’s not to say that the numbers don’t have any relevance to The Vegetarian Myth. Indeed, Lierre Keith cites The Omnivore’s Dilemma extensively, and offers a great example of how one might be misled by Pollan’s work. Keith writes extensively about the environmental damage done by grain agriculture. In her conclusion, she asks,

So here are the questions you should ask, a new form of grace to say over your food. Does this food build or destroy topsoil? Does it use only ambient sun and rainfall, or does it require fossil soil, fossil fuel, fossil water, and drained wetlands, damaged rivers? Could you walk to where it grows, or does it come to you on a path slick with petroleum?

Everything falls into place with those three questions. Those annual monocrops lose on all three counts, unless you live in Nebraska, where it “only” fails the first two.

The reader is to contrast a grain-based diet with one based on pastured animals. Keith writes, “Cattle on pasture in my [New England] climate can easily be sustainable. Joel Salatin is certainly proving that.” We’re to believe that Salatin’s meat passes Keith’s three-question test.

Based on Pollan’s numbers in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Keith calculates that ten acres of pasture farmed Polyface style can produce enough calories to feed nine people. That might sound impressive at first, but it’s decidedly less so when you consider that this would require grain that could feed even more people. Bringing that feed grain to Polyface Farm depletes more topsoil and requires more fossil fuels than growing and harvesting grain (in smaller amounts) to feed directly to people. More generally, any bad things one might say about grain production will apply even more strongly to the Polyface meal than to a meal of grains with comparable caloric content, and thus support a conclusion opposite the one that Lierre Keith reaches.

However, it oversimplifies things to simply compare calorie content. A meal of corn, soy, and oats would not be nutritionally equivalent to a Polyface meal of similar caloric content. The former meal would, for example, be higher in carbohydrates, lower in protein, and entirely void of vitamin B12. Thus, one might conceivably be able to argue that Polyface-style farming is our best option for producing protein or vitamin B12. (I have no reason to believe that either of these is actually true, and I would be surprised if either were.)

Of course, it makes little sense to consider nutrients individually. A much more meaningful comparison would look at the environmental impact of two nutritionally adequate meals. (There are those who will argue that a meal containing grains can never be nutritionally acceptable, but that is a strictly nutritional question, to be distinguished from the environmental considerations at hand.)

In spite of these limitations, I would emphasize that I don’t think these numbers are entirely worthless. For one, they suggest that a more careful analysis is necessary before Polyface Farm can reasonably be used to support arguments for meat production on environmental grounds. On a broader level, the numbers should be a warning against false solutions. We should be alarmed to see Polyface compared to “the proverbially unattainable free lunch” (as it is in The Omnivore’s Dilemma), and we should ask questions when we see it presented as an alternative to monocultures (as it is in the movie Fresh and Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth).

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The grain inputs on Polyface Farm: Joel Salatin’s take

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion at UC Berkeley titled “Is Sustainable Agriculture the Future?”, in which Joel Salatin was a participant. For a while, I wasn’t even planning on going. For all my interest in asking Salatin what he thought of my calculations that suggested that his farm was less efficient than feeding grains to people, I didn’t expect a substantive reply.

At the last minute, however, a friend talked me into going, and I was able to ask Salatin a question. I have reason to believe that a video of the event exists, but I have not yet found this video, and as far as I know, it has not been made available. Thus, I’ll summarize the relevant parts of the exchange here, but I’ll update this post with video if it should become available.

The event consisted of a speech by Salatin, followed by some discussion based on a few prompts, followed by audience questions. Salatin’s answer to the first question in this last segment reminded me exactly why I hadn’t planned on going in the first place.

The questioner referred to something from Salatin’s speech, and then asked, “Don’t we need to eat less meat?” Salatin then asked her, “Are you a vegetarian?” as though her dietary choices had some relevance to the question. “Vegan,” she answered. Salatin proceeded to construct a straw man about all life being the same, before assuring the audience that he didn’t mean to be disrespectful and suggesting that the questioner lie down in her garden naked and see what gets eaten. He then went on to argue that animals have important ecological roles on farms, and that meat production can have important benefits like sequestering carbon and building up the soil.

I didn’t find this argument very compelling, particularly as a response to the question that was asked, but it allowed for a convenient segue into my question, which went something like this:

You talked earlier about the role of animals in sequestering carbon and building soil. There’s something else that’s important there, and that is the grain that is fed to the animals. Your farm wouldn’t work without that grain, and it’s not an insignificant amount. Do you get more out of the farm than you put into it? Is Polyface really sustainable agriculture, or is it just outsourcing the environmental degradation to the grain farm?

It certainly wasn’t the best question that one might have asked. In particular, it didn’t clearly articulate the point that much of the carbon and nutrients that farms like Salatin’s added to the soil was brought in through that grain.

Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised by the honesty with which Salatin responded. He said that it was a great question, and that I was exactly right. He explained that other people say his farm is sustainable, but he doesn’t advertise it as such. He said that consumer demand for chicken is such that he needs to use a lot of grain right now but added that there is a farmer in Australia (apparently Colin Seis, who has developed a technique called pasture cropping) whose farm does not require the grain input but can only produce poultry once every five years.

It strikes me as not entirely fair to attribute the amount of grain required by Polyface Farm to consumer demand for poultry. That grain isn’t merely poultry feed; it’s also fertilizer for the pasture. When Salatin talks about building up soil, most of the added nutrients are coming from the grain he feeds to his chickens. Seis’s pasture cropping may have the potential to reduce or eliminate that dependence on grain, but I haven’t been able to find much information on the inputs and outputs of that system.

I’ll conclude by cautioning readers not to make too much of Salatin’s acknowledgment that Polyface isn’t sustainable. In the literal sense, the word “sustainable” describes something that can continue indefinitely. I don’t know of any agricultural system (with or without animals) that is sustainable in that sense, though some are obviously a lot worse than others.

Next week, I plan to have another post up focusing on what we can and cannot conclude from my analysis of Polyface. I’ll look at statements made by Michael Pollan as well as discourse that has arisen from The Omnivore’s Dilemma, including comments from pastured meat advocates and vegan advocates.

Correction (2/15): The original version of this post referred to some discussion of nitrogen, rather than nutrients more broadly. On further consideration, I have realized that I misremembered that, and so I have corrected the post accordingly. I believe that the essential point of the post stands in spite of this correction.

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My second letter

In response to Michael Pollan’s assistant’s email reply to my letter, here’s what I wrote:

Dear Malia,

Thank you for reply.

I have already read his answer in the August 19 issue of The New York Review of Books, and I wrote about it on my blog on Wednesday. While I appreciate his acknowledgment that he may have been unfair in his treatment of Eating Animals, his comments on that book did not address the specific objection that I raised in the letter. In particular, Michael Pollan claimed that Foer picked a fight with sustainable meat producers. As I explained at length in my earlier letter, that is not a reasonable interpretation of the book.

I do appreciate that Michael Pollan professes to have “the utmost respect” for vegetarians. However, I find it difficult to be convinced of this when his review of Eating Animals was so misleading.

Moreover, in response to his more recent comment that “Ellen Finkelpearl mistakes my (very limited) defense of meat eating in The Omnivore’s Dilemma for a disdain for vegetarians,” I believe that when Ellen Finkelpearl wrote that “Pollan dismisses vegetarians as naive and out of touch with reality” she referred not to Michael Pollan’s “(very limited) defense of meat-eating” but to such passages as this one: “I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater. Yet part of me pities him, too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris.” (361)

If there’s one concise message that I hope Michael Pollan will take away from this exchange, it is as follows: Many vegetarians are not looking for you to unconditionally condemn meat-eating; we’re simply asking you to listen to us once in a while and to represent our views and our diet accurately.

I don’t think this is an unreasonable request. In fact, I would argue that it is necessarily a part of showing respect.

Adam Merberg

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