Archive for Misrepresentation of sources

Diet, Nutrition, Cancer, and Sloppy Journalism

Michael Pollan argues in In Defense of Food that the Dietary Goals for the United States, compiled by Senator George McGovern’s Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, ushered in an era in which dietary guidelines focused on nutrients to the exclusion of whole foods. He explains that McGovern’s committee initially recommended a reduction in red meat and dairy consumption before the interested lobbies complained. The result was a compromise, urging Americans to “choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.”

Pollan explains the significance of the change,

First, notice that the stark message to “eat less” of a particular food–in this case meat–had been deep-sixed; don’t look for it ever again in any official U.S. government dietary pronouncement. (24)

As evidence of this last point, Pollan trots out the National Academy of Sciences’ 1982 report Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer. He tells us,

The lesson of the McGovern fiasco was quickly absorbed by all who would pronounce on the American diet. When a few years later the National Academy of Sciences looked into the question of diet and cancer, it was careful to frame its recommendations nutrient by nutrient rather than food by food, to avoid offending any powerful interests. (25)

He further notes, “With each of its chapters focused on a single nutrient, the final draft of the National Academy of Sciences report, Diet, Nutrition and Cancer framed its recommendations in terms of saturated fats and antioxidants rather than beef and broccoli” (26).

After a few minutes of skimming the report, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Pollan and I had looked at the same document. He is correct to point out that the recommendations referenced fat, rather than meat. He’s not quite correct to say that each chapter focuses on a single nutrient. Some of the chapters discuss multiple nutrients (for instance, Chapter 10, titled “Minerals,” discusses selenium, zinc, iron, copper, iodine, molybdenum, cadmium, arsenic and lead), but on that point he’s close enough for me.

Where Pollan misses the mark badly is in failing to note that the report’s recommendations weren’t found in these nutrient-focused chapters. These chapters summarized the existing science on the various nutrients, without saying what we should do about it. The report did include a section called “Interim Dietary Guidelines,” but this was found in the report’s Executive Summary. Summarized, the guidelines were as follows:

  1. “The Committee recommends that the consumption of both saturated and unsaturated fats be reduced in the average U.S. diet.”
  2. “The committee emphasizes the importance of including fruits, vegetables, and whole grain cereal products in the daily diet…Results of laboratory experiments have supported these findings in tests of individual nutritive and nonnutritive constituents of fruits (especially citrus fruits) and vegetables (especially carotene-rich and cruciferous vegetables).”
  3. “[T]he committee recommends that the consumption of food preserved by salt-curing (including salt-pickling) or smoking be minimized.”
  4. “The committee recommends that efforts continue to be made to minimize contamination of foods with carcinogens from any source. Where such contaminants are unavoidable, permissible levels should continue to be established and food supply monitored to assure that such levels are not exceeded. Furthermore, intentional additives (direct and indirect) should continue to be evaluated for carcinogenic activity before they are approved for use in the food supply.”
  5. “The committee suggests that further efforts be made to identify mutagens in food and to expedite testing for their carcinogenicity. Where feasible and prudent, mutagens should be removed or their concentration minimized when this can be accomplished without jeopardizing the nutritive value of foods or introducing other potentially hazardous substances into the diet.”
  6. “[T]he committee recommends that if alcoholic beverages are consumed, it be done in moderation.”

Thus, of the six interim guidelines, only one was expressed in terms of nutrients, two phrased their recommendations in terms of foods (one of those even recommended eating less of something!), two were seemingly commonsense encouragements to keep dangerous substances out of the food supply, and one was a reminder not to drink too much.

Although the recommendation pertaining to vegetables did briefly mention carotenes, the committee included a clarification between the second and third guidelines:

These recommendations apply only to foods as sources of nutrients–not to dietary supplements of individual nutrients. The vast literature examined in this report focuses on the relationship between the consumption of foods and the incidence of cancer in human populations. In contrast there, is very little information on the effects of various levels of individual nutrients on the risk of cancer in humans. Therefore, the committee is unable to predict the health effects of high and potentially toxic doses of isolated nutrients consumed in the form of supplements.

They were serious about this point, too. In his critique of reductionism (which Pollan quotes), T. Colin Campbell (a co-author of the report) wrote that the Federal Trade Commission sued General Nutrition Centers for using the report’s guidelines to advertise supplements.

Although Pollan has argued that nutrition science “knows much less than it cares to admit” (14), the report shows that the science admits its limits more than Pollan cares to admit. The lack of recommendations on so many of the nutrients considered is an implicit acknowledgment of the lack of evidence. Reading the chapters focusing on the various nutrients, one sees the point made more explicitly. For instance, the researchers wrote in the conclusion of their section on selenium, “firm conclusions cannot be drawn on the basis of the present limited evidence.”

As for those chapters on nutrients, one finds plenty of references to whole foods there, too. For instance, though Pollan writes, “The language of the final report highlighted the benefits of the antioxidants in vegetables rather than the vegetables themselves” (26), the report’s summary of the epidemiological evidence on vitamin A reads,

A growing accumulation of epidemiological evidence indicates that there is an inverse relationship between the risk of cancer and consumption of foods containing vitamin A (e.g., liver) or its precursors (e.g., some carotenoids in dark green and deep yellow vegetables). Most of the data, however, do not show whether the effects are due to carotenoids, to vitamin A itself, or to some other constituents of these foods.

Of course, none of this is directly relevant to the question of how much we can learn about human nutrition by studying nutrients (instead of foods), and it’s on that question that Pollan seems to make his main argument. However, what we can observe here is a pattern of misrepresenting the claims that science has made. This, of course, is helpful to somebody trying to discredit a scientific discipline. But it should be much less helpful if Pollan wants to convince the reader that he is a careful researcher and a credible source of information.

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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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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 pigs of Santa Cruz Island

Attempting to paint the animal rights view as out of touch with commmon-sense environmentalism, Michael Pollan shares the ongoing story of an ecosystem restoration project that requires the killing of feral pigs, formerly domesticated animals that have made themselves at home in the wild.

Pollan explains,

As I write, a team of sharpshooters in the employ of the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy is at work killing thousands of feral pigs on Santa Cruz Island, eighteen miles off the coast of Southern California. The slaughter is part of an ambitious plan to restore the island’s habitat and save the island fox, an endangered species found on a handful of Southern California islands and nowhere else. To save the fox the Park Service and Nature Conservancy must first undo a complicated chain of ecological changes wrought by humans beginning more than a century ago. (324)

The pigs, he tells us, have attracted golden eagles to the island, and these eagles also prey on the island fox. The only problem with the plan is opposition from animal welfare and rights groups. Pollan tells us,

A spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States claimed in an op-ed article that “wounded pigs and orphaned piglets will be chased with dogs and finished off with knives and bludgeons.” Note the rhetorical shift in focus from the [species] Pig, which is how the Park Service ecologists would have us see the matter, to images of individual pigs, wounded and orphaned, being hunted down by dogs and men wielding bludgeons. (325)

If you actually take the trouble to read the op-ed in question, you might find a more complicated story. Pollan doesn’t tell us, for example, that the piece gives us reason to doubt the motives of the project:

But the park’s former superintendent, Tim Setnicka, who once advocated for the pig eradication program, now says it’s based on propaganda and junk science. Setnicka wrote:

“To help sell the fox restoration program, for which we had no money, we came up with the media spin that one of the main reasons golden eagles reside on park islands was because of pigs. This would help vilify the pigs and help support the pig removal project. We didn’t really remind folks that by 1991, we had shot all the pigs on Santa Rosa Island, so there were no pigs for eagles to eat. Of course, the golden eagles eat pigs, but they eat many more foxes, which are easier for them to catch.”

Nor does Pollan mention that the Humane Society proposed an alternative to the project. The op-ed explains,

Even if we accept the premise that the Santa Cruz Island pig population really does need to be controlled or reduced, there are more humane and less draconian approaches. The Humane Society of the United States offered to help with a contraception program for pigs, using a vaccine developed by the Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center and approved for experimental use by the Food and Drug Administration. But the Park Service and the Nature Conservancy simply said no.

While it’s true that the bit that Pollan quotes focuses on the individual pigs, Pollan would like us to believe that the individual pigs are the sole concern of the Humane Society, but that seems doubtful if the Humane Society offered to help with a contraception plan. If the animal protectionists were concerned with the individual suffering, perhaps it was because they believed that the project’s ecological goals could be accomplished with less suffering.

Now, it should also be pointed out that proponents of the pig hunt argued that the pig contraception program would not have worked. I can’t claim to know either way. Nor, for that matter, was I able to verify the claim that Tim Setnicka said the project was based on “junk science.” Nonetheless, it’s striking that Pollan chooses to ignore these questions rather than address them, taking a few words out of context to support the point he wants to make.

By basing his argument on the words of an advocacy organization, Pollan also shifts the debate from the intellectual works of the animal rights philosophers to a more politicized setting, where both sides are trying to spin the issue to win over a less informed populace. To use this political debate as an argument against the liberal individualist view is akin to trying to discredit conservative political philosophy by quoting Glenn Beck.

Instead of focusing on advocacy organizations, Pollan might have addressed the arguments in a fascinating piece by Jo-Ann Shelton, a professor in the Environmental Studies program at University of California, Santa Barbara. Shelton argues, based on the earlier eradication of feral sheep on Santa Cruz Island, that “proponents of the eradication of feral species continue to adhere to an age-old paradigm that assigns value to animals in accordance with human interests.”

Shelton questions whether an ecosystem can be effectively restored and provides evidence that the project is motivated not by ecological considerations but by human interests:

To save the few remaining foxes, bald eagles are being brought in to drive out the golden eagles (Polakovic 1999; Todd 2004). These experiments in restoration reveal the problems inherent in suddenly removing elements from a biotic community on a species by species basis. They should instruct us of the complex interactions of the various elements of the present day Island ecology and the need to take into account the contributions of the introduced animals. They should certainly lead us to question whether restoration, as distinct from conservation, is a feasible goal, and, if not, why animals are being shot in pursuit of it.

Like the Nature Conservancy, the National Park Service wishes to recreate a pre-Columbian scene. However its mandate, as stated in the General Management Plan, is not simply to restore wilderness, but to open it for the pleasure of human visitors (National Park Service 1985, pp. 81 and 82). This mandate is flawed by an internal contradiction, because humans of European descent are, of course, as much an anachronism as sheep and pigs in a pre-Columbian landscape. Nonetheless, the Park Service, in accordance with its charge, has constructed camp grounds and hiking trails and encourages people to enjoy the experience of placing themselves in a scene which approximates the pristine wilderness of an earlier period. Ironically it has also left standing structures built by the ranchers, in order to retain the “historic scene” of the ranching era, but without the ranch animals (National Park Service 1985, pp. 36, 37, 41, 44 and 45). The projected increase in annual human visitors to the Island will contribute to the degradation of the land and adjacent ocean water. The Park Service has no tolerance, however, for other non-native species, and had planned to shoot the feral sheep, pigs and horses once it took possession of the east end.

This kind of discussion of the motives and efficacy of the proposed pig eradication plan is entirely absent from Pollan’s exposition in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Nor does Pollan address criticisms of the logic underlying ecosystem restoration plans. Shelton writes,

Species introductions and environmental change take place without anthropogenic influences. Had Santa Cruz Island remained until this day entirely free of any European human invasion, it would still not be the same as it was in 1400 AD. And even if we were able now to restore its 1400 AD scene, its proximity to the mainland will produce repeated introductions of “exotic” plants and animals through the actions of winds, currents, and human visitors. Therefore restoration will be an on-going process, managed by humans, and requiring constant intervention. The result — the conservation of native species — is arguably desirable, but the process of achieving and maintaining a pre-European scene will be only as “natural” an activity as is landscape architecture.

Shelton also raises a point that seems particularly relevant to the killing of the feral pigs. Referring to the removal of feral sheep from the island in the 1980s, she writes,

Another unanticipated result of the shooting of the sheep has been an increase in the population of feral pigs, which has grown from several hundred to several thousand (Pearl, Patton and Lohr 1994). In addition, golden eagles that have been attracted to the Island by the abundant supply of piglets are hunting to extinction the indigenous Santa Cruz Island fox (Van De Kamp 2000; Davison 2003; Schoch 2003).

In other words, the island fox’s woes trace back to the earlier effort to eradicate the island’s sheep population. One can only wonder what kind of unintended consequences the killing of the pigs might cause.

As Pollan tells it, the killing of the feral pigs was an ecological necessity, and the animal protectionists show themselves to be at odds with nature, focusing exclusively on the individuals and neglecting the species in their opposition. A closer look would have told a different story, one in which the “animal people” were less single-minded and the ecological science was clouded by political calculation and human interest. Only by giving us a very superficial look at the story is Pollan able to use it to support his point.

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The predation debate

(Updated 10/24/10 to correct a typographical error and 11/21/10 to fix another.)

After arguing that meat-eating serves the interest of domesticated species, Michael Pollan moves on to consider hunting in the wild. He writes,

The very existence of predation in nature, of animals eating animals, is the cause of much anguished hand-wringing in the animal rights literature. “It must be admitted,” Peter Singer writes, “that the existence of carnivorous animals does pose one problem for the ethics of Animal Liberation, and that is whether we should do anything about it.” (321)

Pollan doesn’t bother to tell us what Singer’s answer to this problem is, and that’s probably because it wouldn’t have suited his argument. Instead, he moves on to another writer who better allows him to make his point:

Matthew Scully, in Dominion, a Christian-conservative treatment of animal rights, calls predation “the intrinsic evil in nature’s design. . . among the hardest of all things to fathom.” Really? Elsewhere, acknowledging the gratuitous suffering inflicted by certain predators (like cats), Scully condemns “the level of moral degradation of which [animals] are capable.” Moral degradation? (321)

As a conservative Christian, Scully is hardly representative of the animal rightists. (How many animal rightists can you think of who write speeches for a candidate who supports shooting wolves from helicopters?) This doesn’t stop Pollan from stuffing Scully’s words into the mouths of other animal philosophers. He writes,

A deep current of Puritanism runs through the writings of the animal philosophers, an abiding discomfort not just with our animality, but with the animals’ animality, too. They would like nothing better than to airlift us out from nature’s “intrinsic evil”—and then take the animals with us. (321)

To Pollan, it apparently isn’t important that Singer doesn’t call predation nature’s “intrinsic evil,” and that he doesn’t say that we should “airlift” the animals from it. Reading Singer’s rejection of the idea that we should eliminate carnivores, I can’t help but think that Pollan misrepresents the philosophical discourse. Singer’s treatment of this question is not “anguished hand-wringing” but a matter of philosophical rigor. Rather than arguing that we should end predation, Singer is addressing what Charles K. Fink explains is sometimes called the “predation reductio”:

The predation reductio is an argument which attempts to refute ethical vegetarianism by deducing from it an absurd consequence involving the abolition of natural predation.  “Among the most disturbing implications drawn from conventional indiscriminate animal liberation/rights theory,” writes J. Baird Callicott, “is that, were it possible for us to do so, we ought to protect innocent vegetarian animals from their carnivourous predators” (258).  This charge, in one form or another, is often leveled against ethical vegetarianism.

If Singer had to answer the predation question in the affirmative, that would be a serious problem for his ethical theory. The question has to be asked precisely for this reason; Singer must be able to justify a negative answer for the ethical system to seem reasonable. Pollan seems to miss this entirely, instead mocking Singer for raising the issue: “(Talk about the need for peacekeeping forces!)” (321).

Pollan goes on to tell us why predation is a good thing. He explains,

But however it may appear to those of us living at such a remove from the natural world, predation is not a matter of morality or of politics; it, too, is a matter of symbiosis. Brutal as the wolf may be to the individual deer, the herd depends on him for its well-being. Without predators to cull the herd deer overrun their habitat and starve — all suffer, and not only the deer but the plants they browse and every other species that depends on those plants. (322)

Pollan would have us believe that the animal rightists’ focus on individuals would lead wild animal species to extinction. But the value of predation might also be explained from a more individualistic point of view. Indeed, the fact that the wolves allow for the continued existence of the herd of deer necessarily means that some individual deer benefit from predation.

When Pollan says that the wolf is “brutal” to the individual deer, he’s only telling us half the story. Certainly, when a wolf eats a deer, the deer that is eaten experiences brutality. That benefits not only the herd but the deer that remain alive. The deer that aren’t eaten face reduced competition for food, and this decreases the chance that they’ll starve to death.

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The life of freedom

After tackling the question of animal cruelty, Michael Pollan gives us a discussion of animal happiness, drawing on his experience at Polyface Farm. To Pollan, this is where the animal rightists’ argument falls apart. He explains,

To say of one of Joel Salatin’s caged broilers that “the life of freedom is to be preferred” betrays an ignorance about chicken preferences that, around his place at least, revolve around not getting one’s head bitten off by a weasel. (320)

The quote about “the life of freedom” is one that Singer has previously attributed to Peter Singer, and it’s worth looking at the context of Singer’s remark. Singer writes (in Animal Liberation),

Now it is difficult to compare two sets of conditions as diverse as those of wild animals and those on a factory farm (or those of free Africans and slaves on a plantation); but if the comparison has to be made surely the life of freedom is to be preferred. (227)

Singer makes it exceedingly clear that he isn’t talking about Joel Salatin’s broilers when he says “the life of freedom is to be preferred,” but Pollan presents the quote in a modified context to make it appear to betray “an ignorance about chicken preferences.”

Pollan makes the point that most domesticated animals wouldn’t exist in the wild, so we’re to believe that a farm like Polyface actually increases animal happiness. Whether that would make it worth having farms like Polyface is a philosophical question that I’m not going to address right now — in recent editions of Animal Liberation, Singer acknowledges some uncertainty on the underlying moral question. Instead, I’ll raise questions about whether such a farm actually does increase animal happiness.

While Pollan is right to point out that there would be no chickens or cows if people didn’t raise them, that doesn’t mean there would be far fewer happy animals without farms like Polyface. Since raising animals for food requires more land than raising plants for food, plant-based diets leave more land for wild animals, and thus supports more of them. As Pollan has pointed out previously, though, intensively farmed land may support more animals than wilderness.

However, we might also attempt to compare the happiness of wild animals to those of Salatin’s domesticated animals. This is where the fact of domestic animals being unable to live in the comes to work against Pollan’s argument. Owing to natural selection, the behaviors that improve an animal’s chance of surviving and reproducing should tend to also bring enjoyment.

When we domesticate animals, artificial selection replaces natural selection, and the animals that pass on their genes are not the ones that can fend for themselves but the ones that can feed people more efficiently. Thus, even on a farm like Salatin’s we end up with Cornish cross hens which (unlike their red junglefowl ancestors) cannot fly (and which Pollan has told us “grow so rapidly…that their poor legs cannot keep pace” (171)) and broadbreasted white turkeys which have trouble reproducing sexually without human assistance. So it seems very likely to me that an animal that cannot survive in the wild has a greatly diminished capacity for enjoyment.

The way food animals are raised tends to exacerbate this effect. Notably, breeding is carefully managed by humans. As Pollan has pointed out, male food animals are castrated. Thus, even those animals whose breeding does not prevent them from having sex are prevented from having a normal sex life.

What this suggests is that when considering Singer’s point that “the life of freedom is to be preferred”, the relevant comparison is not be between a Cornish cross hen in Joel Salatin’s cage and another one left out in the pasture to be eaten by a weasel. Rather, we should compare Salatin’s hen to another animal that can survive in the wild — unless we see an obligation to preserve the domesticated species, as Pollan apparently does. I’ll address that argument in the near future.

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A bad start to the debate

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan attempts to summarize the argument of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, but he quickly begins to oversimplify Singer’s position. Pollan writes,

Equal consideration of interests is not the same as equal treatment, [Singer] points out; children have an interest in being educated, pigs in rooting around in the dirt. But where their interests are the same, the principle of equality demands they receive the same consideration. And the one all-important interest humans share with pigs, as with all sentient creatures, is an interest in avoiding pain. (308)

Singer’s point is both stronger and more complex. Singer writes,

The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in a meaningful way. (2001 edition, page 7)

In his summary, Pollan has not only replaced suffering with the narrower concept of pain, but he’s also omitted enjoyment. Furthermore, Pollan suggests that avoiding pain is merely “the one all-important interest humans share with pigs,” whereas Singer goes further. Singer believes that the capacities for suffering and enjoyment are necessary for us to define the notion of interest, so that he isn’t arbitrarily excluding any interests by focusing on these. It is because animals share these capacities with us, he argues, that we should consider their interests.

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