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The Proposition 37 campaign’s collateral damage

Is the food movement for real? In his contribution to The New York Times Magazine‘s latest food issue, Michael Pollan contends that we’ll find out on November 6. That’s when Californians will vote on Proposition 37, a ballot initiative which would require many foods to carry label language disclosing that they may contain genetically engineered ingredients. Pollan argues that this initiative is the food movement’s chance to prove itself. People have already begun to “vote with their forks” by opting for local, organic, and humanely-produced foods, he explains, but Proposition 37 will represent food activists’ first real chance to bring about political change. If the initiative passes, then “a new political dynamic will be set in motion.”

My view of Proposition 37 is less optimistic. Believe it or not, for much of this blog’s existence, I’ve identified with the food movement. The existence of this blog is a testament to the fact that I have felt that the movement’s leadership has not always been as thoughtful or informed as I would like, but I generally believed the movement’s basic contention that we should be eating organic food produced locally and on a small scale. In fact, I’m currently serving my third year as an unpaid director of a non-profit which operates a local and organic grocery store on co-operative principles (though I don’t speak for the organization). But over the last several months, as I’ve made an effort to learn more about genetic engineering and Proposition 37, I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with the broader food movement.

This post is not about the science related to the genetic engineering debate. I trust the scientific consensus that these foods are safe to eat, and I don’t know of any reason to believe that the process of genetic engineering is inherently environmentally destructive. My intention with this post is to explore the political implications of Proposition 37. That is, what are the ideologies behind the proposition? What will it change? How will it make that change happen?

Proposition 37 won’t give Californians a “right to know”

Echoing the rhetoric of one of the main organizations backing Proposition 37, Pollan tells us that the initiative is about “the consumer’s right to know.” Chris MacDonald has argued that consumers don’t have a moral right to an arbitrary piece of information about their food, and I agree. However, I want to point out that even if we believe that consumers have such a right, Proposition 37 won’t give it to them.

Why? For all the talk about a right to know, the initiative won’t really make much more information available to consumers. The initiative doesn’t require labels to state outright that a product contains genetically engineered ingredients. Instead, it offers a sort of middle ground, allowing for a label to say that a product “May be partially produced with genetic engineering.” This is, of course, exactly what you can conclude today when you see a processed food product with no labeling statement concerning genetic engineering. If companies just add that one sentence to their labels, you’ll know exactly the same things about their foods as you do now. For fresh produce and commodities, you’ll need to learn the short list of crops which exist in genetically engineered  forms, but you can still figure it out.

That means that if you have a bit of information, the main thing that Proposition 37 will change is not the information that is available to you but the process by which you deduce that information. Currently, you should assume that a processed food contains genetically modified (GM) ingredients unless you see an explicit indicator to the contrary. For unprocessed foods, you can watch for a short list of crops (corn, soy, canola, beet sugar, papaya, zucchini and yellow summer squash) that are available in genetically engineered form.  If Proposition 37 becomes law, you’ll be able to assume that a food is free from GM ingredients unless its label indicates otherwise. It’s the same information, but the process by which you infer it will be different.

That said, less-informed consumers will gain more information. If you did not know that there was no law requiring genetically engineered foods to be labelled, then obviously you would gain information from Proposition 37’s labels. Thus, the people who will gain information from the initiative’s passage are relatively disengaged and not informed about the issue of genetic engineering.

Why more information isn’t always better

Providing information to less-informed consumers can be a very a good thing, but information without adequate context is rarely useful and can even be misleading. For instance, a consumer who is concerned about the practice of giving synthetic hormones to farm animals might seek out meat labelled “no hormones added.” However, because federal regulations explicitly forbid administering hormones to pigs, it would be misleading to have this language on the label of a pork product. A consumer might be led to believe that this makes one package of pork “better” than the others, when, in reality, it is true of all of the pork in the store.  For this reason, USDA regulations prohibit the labeling of pork with claims like “no hormones added” except when accompanied by a clarification about these regulations.

The potential for confusion is particularly pronounced when the public is poorly informed about an issue, and research indicates that this is the case with genetic engineering: in a recent NSF survey, only 47% of Americans correctly identified as false the statement, “Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do.” If people don’t know that all plants contain genes, they probably also do not know, for instance, that genetic engineering is less risky than some traditional plant breeding techniques which do not require labels. Will telling them that their food has been genetically engineered really help them make informed decisions?

To make matters worse, Proposition 37 exempts several types of food products from labeling, including alcohol, restaurant meals, and foods derived from animals raised on genetically engineered feed. The last of these is particularly unfortunate. Suppose that Proposition 37 passes, and a consumer is concerned about the proliferation of herbicide-resistant weeds (a problem which is explicitly mentioned in the text of the proposition as a justification for labeling) and therefore wants to avoid purchasing genetically engineered foods. If that consumer is deciding whether to purchase, say, beef patties or Morningstar Farms veggie burgers, the veggie burgers will have a label indicating that they contain genetically engineered ingredients, but the beef patties will not. Of course, a typical beef patty requires more grain (in the form of cattle feed) than a soy burger, so the consumer would be incorrect to conclude that the beef patties will contribute less to the problem of herbicide-resistant weeds. By exempting from labeling the products of the livestock that eat the majority of the genetically engineered grain in our food system, Proposition 37 could conceivably increase the cultivation of GM crops.

Of course, a consumer who understood the nuances of Proposition 37 would be able to make a better-informed decision. However, a consumer today who understands the lack of existing labeling laws can also make that decision. Moreover, because the current policy is consistent and straightforward, there are fewer situations in which labels are deceptive to those who are less informed.

Should consumers be required to know?

Obvious though it may be, it’s worth pointing out that a right is not the same thing as a requirement. The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution gives people the right to bear arms, but nobody would accuse me of violating this by not owning a gun. People can choose to waive rights that they don’t care about.

If you want to avoid genetically modified foods, you already have the option of doing so. You can just buy foods marketed as organic or non-GM. Consumers who don’t care whether their food has been genetically engineered are free to waive this right by purchasing foods that have no such language. Proposition 37, rather than giving consumers a “right to know” would make it harder for consumers to waive that right. It would move us closer to creating a requirement to know that certain foods may have been genetically modified. Of course, nobody can make anyone read the label, but many consumers have other reasons to look at labels, and they are bound to find the genetic engineering language. In this way, Proposition 37 attempts to shift participation in the conversation about genetic engineering from an opt-in basis to an opt-out basis.

I think most people would agree that there are certain pieces of information that consumers don’t need to know when they’re deciding what to eat. Would anybody insist that before you eat a tomato, you need to know whether the farmworker who picked it was left-handed or right-handed? Even if some people wanted this information, it would be a big hassle to keep the tomatoes picked by left-handed workers separate from the tomatoes picked by right-handed workers. Instead of requiring this segregation all along the supply chain, we’d simply leave the people who wanted the information to buy from producers who were willing to provide it.

Of course, many pieces of information are not so frivolous. But the point is this: Encoded in a policy of mandatory labeling is the idea that a piece of information should be important to you or perhaps somebody else. The tomato example shows that we don’t just require labels for arbitrary characteristics in the interest of “transparency.” With that in mind, we need to ask why the information needs to be on everybody’s food labels, regardless of whether they want it.

Some supporters insist that labeling is needed because we don’t know whether genetically engineered foods are safe. For instance, the pro-labeling campaign has recently attempted to bolster its case by citing a French study which claimed to provide evidence that Monsanto’s GM corn causes cancer in rats. (The study has received criticism for everything from serious methodological flaws to a refusal to release data.)

While I trust the scientific consensus that genetically engineered foods are safe, the question I want to ask is this: If genetically engineered foods are unsafe, is mandatory labeling a good way to deal with that problem? Mandatory labeling would leave the consumers to educate themselves about the issue and to pay more for safer food choices. That means that it would make safe food a privilege for people with more time and money on their hands. Personally, I think a better approach would be to ban unsafe foods.

A concern for which mandatory labeling makes a lot more sense is food allergens. We wouldn’t ban the sale of peanuts just because a small segment of the population has an adverse reaction to them. But for those people who are allergic to peanuts, avoiding the consumption of peanuts can be a matter of life or death. Mandatory allergen labeling reflects a judgment that the needs of people with allergies are important enough to justify any additional costs in food production and any confusion on the part of consumers who don’t need the information. (Existing genetically engineered crops are not known to have any allergens not present in the non-GM varieties and new genetically engineered crops are tested for allergens.)

Is genetic engineering really the problem?

To Pollan, however, Proposition 37 isn’t primarily about food safety. He explains,

The fight is about the power of Big Food. Monsanto has become the symbol of everything people dislike about industrial agriculture: corporate control of the regulatory process; lack of transparency (for consumers) and lack of choice (for farmers); an intensifying rain of pesticides on ever-expanding monocultures; and the monopolization of seeds, which is to say, of the genetic resources on which all of humanity depends.

There’s a lot in that sentence, some of it related to real problems with modern agriculture. Yet if we’re going to try to address these problems using labels, it’s not at all clear that GM ingredients are the right thing to label.

If Monsanto is “the symbol of everything people dislike about industrial agriculture,” maybe the foods that should be labelled are the ones derived from Monsanto seeds. Alternatively, a more even-handed approach might require food labels to specify the companies that controlled the seeds from which the ingredients were derived. This would be better for a couple of reasons.  For one thing, not all Monsanto seeds are produced with genetic engineering. As the organic farmer Raoul W. Adamchak notes in the book Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, Monsanto controls many hybrid vegetable varieties popular among organic farmers. In addition, not all genetically engineered crops are controlled by large companies like Monsanto. For instance, the rainbow papaya, genetically engineered for disease resistance, was developed by publicly funded scientists, and seeds were distributed to farmers for free. How Monsanto’s misdeeds constitute an argument for special labeling of the rainbow papaya is entirely unclear.

We could further improve on this “Monsanto label” by requiring some additional information. Since “pesticides on ever-expanding monocultures” are of concern, why not also require food labels to disclose the amounts of different pesticides used in their production and indicate which ingredients were derived from crops grown in monocultures? Neither pesticides nor monocultures are exclusive to GM crops. Moreover, not all GM crops increase pesticide use. Indeed a recent study — heralded by organic advocates — offered evidence that crops genetically engineered for insect resistance have actually decreased insecticide use in recent years. If we’re also concerned about the monopolization of seeds, let’s add another requirement for labeling of ingredients produced from patented seeds.

Here it is worth revisiting the earlier point that providing information with insufficient context can be misleading. When somebody of Pollan’s stature asserts that Proposition 37 is a way to bring about change on all these issues, it would be easy to conclude that a genetically engineered papaya is a Monsanto papaya or that tortillas made from genetically engineered Bt corn are grown with the most intense “rain of pesticides.” Both of these conclusions would be incorrect.

Politics by transparency

Of course, there are reasons why we might not want to include all of those pieces of information on food labels. It would take up a lot of space on the label, for one thing. It would also require a lot of information to be transmitted along the supply chain, which might increase the cost of food significantly. So  one might argue that even if genetic engineering isn’t really the root of the problem, it’s a pretty good proxy for a bunch of problems, so labeling GM foods is a decent compromise. It’s not perfect, but perhaps the Hawaiian papaya industry is acceptable collateral damage in the struggle against Monsanto.

However, in discussing the merits of labeling as a means of addressing these systematic problems, it’s also important to consider how effective labeling will be as an approach to the issues. How will a label on genetically engineered foods lead to solutions to, say, the problem of monocultures in agriculture?

According to the food movement, the answer is something like this. First, consumers will learn (perhaps by reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma) that monocultures in agriculture are bad and that many monocultures are genetically engineered. Next, they will decide to pay more for non-GM foods to avoid supporting monocultures. Finally, producers will respond to the change in demand by diversifying crops.

Even ignoring that avoiding GM foods doesn’t guarantee that you’ll avoid monocultures, this pathway to change seems less than plausible. Not everybody wants to take the time to learn about agriculture before deciding what to eat for dinner. And some people are unable or unwilling to spend more money on food. To count on informed consumers making “better” buying choices to solve systemic problems is absurd. These are problems that will only be solved by changing policies. If pesticides are the problem, let’s improve our regulations on the use of pesticides. If Monsanto is the problem, we should revisit our laws governing corporations. (Indeed, for all the progressive interest groups that have rallied behind it, Proposition 37 essentially takes a right-wing approach to dealing with social problems, leaving the market to sort things out.)

Yet, as Julie Guthman has noted, the idea of informed consumerism as a path to change is a cornerstone of the food movement’s philosophy. One sees it, for instance, in encouragements to “know your farmer” or in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, when Pollan writes, “Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do.” The contention is that if people only knew what was going on with our food supply, they would choose to eat something “better,” and the problem would be solved. Strikingly, the food movement is so wedded to this model of social change that when they finally are asking people to vote at the polls, it’s for a measure designed to facilitate conscientious consumerism.

Pollan writes in the introduction to The Omnivore’s Dilemma that the pleasures of eating are “only deepened by knowing.” For those who agree with Pollan on this point, it might be hard to understand why anybody wouldn’t want to know more about their food. However, it’s a fact that many people don’t choose to spend time learning about food production, and in a society that has embraced division of labor, we should expect this. The existence of people who would make such a choice runs contrary to the food movement’s ideology. Accordingly, we are told that the absence of certain information on food labels is due to “the power of Big Food.” In this view, people who haven’t engaged in the conversation about food production are unknowing victims, and Proposition 37 is here to empower them to stop Monsanto.

The anti-genetic engineering misinformation machine

If you look at the Yes on 37 campaign’s list of endorsers, you’ll a number of organizations which seem determined to drive the GMO debate into the gutter. Among these is the “natural health” website, which regularly publishes thoroughly crackpottish conspiracy theories about genetic engineering and other topics. Take, for instance, an article titled “Bill Gates, Monsanto, and eugenics: How one of the world’s wealthiest men is actively promoting a corporate takeover of global agriculture.” If you read the article, you’ll see that the supposed connection to eugenics arises from Bill Gates’ father’s ties to Planned Parenthood, which is identified as a eugenics group.

To be clear, this article was published by, not the Yes on 37 campaign. Nor do I have reason to believe that the campaign agrees with the point of view of this particular article. Yet the campaign has not taken an explicit stand against these extreme viewpoints, even as it touts the endorsement of on its website and links to other articles on Twitter. Evidently, the campaign has no qualms with encouraging people to get their news from NaturalNews.

Over the summer, when the Right to Know campaign sought my organization’s endorsement, I told my fellow board members that while I personally planned to vote against the initiative, I was open to encouraging our membership to support it if the general sentiment were that it reflected our organization’s values. But I also expressed my belief that as an organization that aimed to educate people about food-related issues, it would not behoove us to give our support to a campaign that was, in turn, lending its credibility to purveyors of the sort of vile, bottom-of-the-barrel dreck that is all too common at NaturalNews. If we wanted to support the labeling initiative, I suggested that we do it in a way that stood for a higher level of discourse. (In the end, we voted to post balanced information about the initiative in our store, without taking a position.)

I have been disappointed to see that the labeling movement seems less interested in thoughtful discussion than in doing anything and everything to stop genetic engineering. While food movement leaders like Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan deserve credit for expressing skepticism about the aforementioned French study claiming a link between GM corn and cancer, they have been regrettably silent on the broader misinformation campaign from the Yes on 37 campaign and its allies like and author Jeffrey Smith, whose anti-biotech literature has been thoroughly debunked.


The fact that some proponents of Proposition 37 engage in what Dan Kahan calls “pollution of the science communication environment” in advancing their cause is not, in itself, a reason to oppose Proposition 37. Yet it should nonetheless raise some concerns about what might happen if Proposition 37 should pass.

As I have explained, the main immediate effect of Proposition 37 will be to make previously disengaged consumers begin to think about genetic engineering. The trouble is that because these consumers have already demonstrated a lack of interest in learning about the issue, they are liable to be swayed by the loudest, scariest, and most persistent voices, rather than the best-informed or most even-handed ones.

Perhaps that means that the shrill anti-genetic engineering advocates like Jeffrey Smith and NaturalNews will be the thought leaders of tomorrow. However, as we have seen, the biotech and food industries have plenty of money, and they have, regrettably, spread some misinformation of their own. The industry will certainly fight back, perhaps with an information campaign or a sustained effort to tie the anti-genetic engineering movement to its more extreme elements. If they are successful, things could go very differently.

Ultimately, what this suggests to me is that Proposition 37 is bad politics. Dragging ill-informed and uninterested consumers into a dirty political fight and expecting them to make “conscientious” consumer decisions is not the way to spur social progress. And spreading misinformation isn’t going to help that. If Proposition 37 is how the food movement will prove itself, count me out.

Recommended Resources

Updated 10/16/2012 to change the spelling of “labeling” throughout. Apparently my spell-checker is British.

Correction 10/26/2012: This post has been corrected to state that an NSF survey found that 47% of Americans correctly identified the statement “Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do” as false. An earlier version of the post stated that 47% of Americans incorrectly believed that the statement was true.

Correction 2/21/2013: Earlier versions of this post claimed that livestock eat “the vast majority of our genetically engineered grain.” Thanks to commenter Eric B. for pointing out that this is no longer true due to ethanol production.


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Should communication between pea plants raise tough issues for vegetarians?

I was just about ready to get back into my review of In Defense of Food this week. That is, until yesterday morning, when Michael Pollan tweeted,

Cool piece on how pea plants communicate with one another, possibly raising some tough issues for vegetarians.

The basic science in the blog post, I have to say, is genuinely interesting. The idea is this:

[A] team of scientists from the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University in Israel published the results of its peer-reviewed research, revealing that a pea plant subjected to drought conditions communicated its stress to other such plants, with which it shared its soil. In other words, through the roots, it relayed to its neighbors the biochemical message about the onset of drought, prompting them to react as though they, too, were in a similar predicament.

Curiously, having received the signal, plants not directly affected by this particular environmental stress factor were better able to withstand adverse conditions when they actually occurred. This means that the recipients of biochemical communication could draw on their “memories” — information stored at the cellular level — to activate appropriate defenses and adaptive responses when the need arose.

Stuff like this is fascinating to me, and I’d love to know more about it. However, I probably won’t look to the New York Times to further enrich myself because the Times seems to have a rule that requires all discussions of plant responses to external stimuli to include a discussion of the ethics of eating plants and its implications for vegetarians (see also this article from December 2009 and this one from March 2011).

I often hear vegetarians dismiss this argument as a disingenuous display of concern for plants, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that, at least when the argument is made well. Some animal rightists argue that killing animals is incompatible with generally accepted ethical principles. The “right” way to make the “plants like to live” argument is to argue that the very same line of reasoning amounts to an argument against eating plants. If the argument could be made soundly, it would present a problem for the argument against eating animals–unless the person making it were also willing to give up eating plants. The point is that an argument based on a need to be logically consistent doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously if it isn’t itself logically consistent. This an instance of the reductio ad absurdum, which I’ve written about in another context. Such an argument, it should be noted, has nothing to do with whether the person making the argument cares about plants or animals, and everything to do with proving that an argument fails to meet its own standards of consistency.

That said, I believe there are good reasons to give a pig more consideration than a pea plant. More than anything, I see this as an argument that arises from imprecision.

The New York Times piece asks,

Is it morally permissible to submit to total instrumentalization living beings that, though they do not have a central nervous system, are capable of basic learning and communication? Should their swift response to stress leave us coldly indifferent, while animal suffering provokes intense feelings of pity and compassion?

I find myself unmoved by this argument because my “intense feelings of pity and compassion” for animals do not arise from the simple fact of the animals’ capacity for “basic learning and communication” nor from their “swift response to stress.” Such an argument would be even more foolish than the New York Times‘s Michael Marder implies. Indeed one could easily envision computers or robots that had similar traits, but most people’s reasons for not eating these entities are entirely selfish. They probably don’t taste very good, they contain toxic substances, they’re hard to chew, they’re likely to scratch our throats and mouths, and they tend to be a lot more expensive than most foods. I doubt any vegetarian would argue that a computer deserves better than to be eaten.

More broadly, I would reject the idea that the existence of plant survival mechanisms is evidence that plants take an interest in living. Indeed, if one considers the process of natural selection, it shouldn’t be surprising that an organism that’s alive today has mechanisms that have increased its chance of survival. According to the theory of natural selection, those organisms with survival mechanisms should be more likely to have survived. That’s exactly how natural selection works.

The question, then, is what makes animals different? I would argue that the difference lies in the fact that animals tend to respond to stimuli in ways that we can relate to. When we watch a video of a pig writhing at slaughter, it’s easy to believe that we’d react similarly if we were exposed to similar stimuli. Because we associate both the stimulus and the reaction with pain, it’s not unreasonable to guess that the pig is experiencing something similar to what what we know as pain. But that’s not quite enough to draw that conclusion; one could envision a robot programmed to react similarly. The most important piece of information is that science tells us that the pig–unlike a robot–has the capacity to experience pain and suffering similarly to humans. The pig’s suffering is similar in all of those ways to an experience that we want to avoid, but it’s much harder to relate to the pea plant in dry soil. In that respect, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to give the pig more consideration than the pea.

I want to emphasize here that I’m not arguing that an organism should be considered based simply on its overall similarity to humans. Instead, I argue for consideration based on sentience and the interests that arise from it but that sentience can only be meaningfully understood by comparing certain traits (for example, nervous systems and responses to stimuli) to their human counterparts. This means that some traits (e.g. intelligence) are not directly relevant. (If anybody wants to propose an alternative, I’m interested to hear about it in the comments.)

Might this line of reasoning lead to a stronger argument for sparing a pig than, say, a chicken? Perhaps, but the issue is complicated by the fact that it takes many chickens to provide the same amount of meat as a single pig. In any case, I think there’s a good case for giving either more consideration than a pea plant. I’d feel less comfortable saying the same of an ant or an oyster, and that doesn’t particularly bother me.

Inevitably, some will say that this line of reasoning is anthropocentric. Perhaps so, but I don’t see that as much of a criticism at all. Specifically, insofar as it gives precedence to sensations similar to those that we know as humans, I don’t think it’s any more anthropocentric than making decisions based on what we know (and can know) as people. And I much prefer that to the alternative.

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Do Twinkies make the world a better place?

Last week, after news of the Hostess bankruptcy broke, The Onion published a set of satirical reactions to the story in its “American Voices” feature. One of The Onion‘s fake real Americans responded with, “Are you happy now, Michael Pollan? Oh, that’s right, it’s corn you’re pissed off about.”

As it happens, Steve Ettlinger, author of the book Twinkie, Deconstructed, has talked to Michael Pollan about Twinkies, and it turns out that Pollan sees a bigger role for the pastry than I would have guessed. Ettlinger has a piece at The Daily Beast addressing the question, “Should Twinkies disappear?” As it happens, Hostess has assured customers that the Twinkie won’t be disappearing, and that’s just fine by Michael Pollan. “A world without Twinkies would be a lesser place—we need them, if only to calibrate our scale of badness in food,” he told Ettlinger.

Before I give my thoughts on this, I want to make one thing clear. I’m not writing to take a position on whether Twinkies are good or bad. As it happens, I’ve never eaten a Twinkie, and I hope to keep it that way. I’m not above admitting that they might taste good, but they’re loaded with things I’d rather not eat, like white flour, sugar, and beef tallow. On the other hand, I think that some of the criticisms that Pollan would probably raise against the Twinkie are silly. For instance, I think it’s silly to avoid foods based on the number of ingredients; I’m more interested in thinking about what the ingredients are. Moreover, I don’t have a problem with every ingredient with a chemical-sounding name. In the past I’ve pointed out that some of those are more familiar than one might think. But none of this is relevant to my main purpose in writing. The point of this post is to analyze the internal logic of Pollan’s statement. That is, assuming that Twinkies are very bad, does it make sense to keep them around to “calibrate our scale of badness”? Or, more precisely, what does it say about Michael Pollan’s food politics that he believes that it does?

Pollan’s position on Twinkies exemplifies a characteristic of Pollan’s work that was previously explained by commenter CAW:

There are two conversations that he is always having: (1) what is our relationship with food; and (2) what are the best food policies that we should adopt. Depending on how you conceptualize one or the other, they will at times clash. I think we should, of course, try to create a conception of both that are consistent and mutually reinforcing. But it seems to me that Pollan first asks what food is and then lets everything flow from that first question.

The idea that we should keep something around in order to “calibrate our scale of badness” seems to make sense only if we focus on our relationship with our food. As far as I understand it, Pollan’s point is that keeping some bad food around helps us to better appreciate the good stuff. From a strictly aesthetic (i.e. taste-centric) point of view, that seems plausible. But if our interest is in food politics, I think it ceases to make sense. If we’re concerned about, say, the environmental degradation that results from producing high-fructose corn syrup for Twinkies, the unhappy lives of the cows from which the Twinkies’ beef tallow was made, or the public health implications of Twinkie consumption, why is it better for Twinkies to exist? What’s the worst that would come from ceasing to produce Twinkies? We’d forget how bad they were and start making them again?

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Science Friday’s Carl Flatow: Is Michael Pollan Anti-Science?

Over at The Science Friday Blog, Carl Flatow writes,

Readers of this blog know that I have been inspired by Michael Pollan’s work. I have read all of his books, learned a lot of useful information and cheered him on as he directed the national conversation in a more healthful direction.

About two years ago while listening to Michael speaking on a local radio talk show I cringed as he declared that scientists were to blame our problems. I quickly emailed Michael to protest that the problem wasn’t the scientists. In his brief reply he agreed that I was right.

Last night on national TV, about halfway through his conversation with Stephen Colbert, he did it again. As he began to frame the problem he said, “…we’ve been listening to scientists for too long and they really have misled us….” I beg to differ!

It is unlikely to surprise readers of this blog that I often find Pollan’s treatment of science to be problematic. Indeed, when I watched the Colbert Report interview last week, I initially decided that the line Flatow quotes was far more innocent than the bits of Pollan’s work that I quoted in my Berkeley Science Review piece in September. Until I found Flatow’s piece I wasn’t planning to blog the Colbert Report interview.

Flatow’s title asks, “Is Michael Pollan Anti-Science?” I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Pollan seems perfectly happy to use science, so long as it supports the general thrust of his work. In both The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, Pollan cites a number of scientific studies, conceding in the latter work that science is “the sharpest experimental and explanatory tool we have.” Scientific studies have been known to appear on Pollan’s Twitter feed, too. But sometimes he’ll use dubious science to make his case; other times he’ll argue against science. It all makes for an argument that is a bit confused, to say the least.

Flatow goes on to explain the work of scientists, whom he contrasts with marketers:

People who are trying to sell us something, on the other hand, often mislead us. In that case (their mission is not to find conclusions on which we can reasonably agree) their mission is to take as much from us as they can before we realize we’ve been cheated.

Michael, PLEASE stop confusing scientists with marketers, you’re stepping on your own great message.

I’m not holding my breath on that one. Moreover, I disagree that Pollan is “stepping on” his message. The vilification of science is a part of Pollan’s message. That’s not to say that a food reform message needs to blame science, but that Pollan does it enough that I have to believe that he very much means it as a part of his message.

Flatow’s point about “people who are trying to sell us something” is an important one, perhaps more so than he intended. Michael Pollan didn’t appear on The Colbert Report just because he couldn’t think of anything else to do that night. He went on the show because he was trying to sell copies of the new edition of Food Rules. The message that science-based dietary advice is responsible for our public health crisis is part of the appeal of Pollan’s books; people like being told that they don’t have to listen to experts.

I can only hope that Flatow’s piece will mark a turning point, and that science-minded people in positions of influence will start pushing back against the anti-science message and scientific misinformation that is all too common in Pollan’s work.

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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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Michael Pollan on Oprah

This afternoon, I found myself having a bit of spare time, and knowing that Michael Pollan would be a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s program about her One-Week Vegan Challenge, I tracked down a television to watch the show. Where I have been able to find video or transcripts, I’ll use direct quotes and provide links, but otherwise I’m going to have to rely on my notes and use paraphrases.

Pollan started off well enough, praising the idea of Oprah’s vegan challenge for raising awareness about our dietary choices. He also said he didn’t think people should eat meat if they’re not willing to look at the way it’s produced. He went on to give vegans credit for animal welfare reforms and praised Meatless Mondays for introducing people to the idea of eating meals without meat.

Alas, it wasn’t long before he gave me something worth writing about. Of his own deliberations on the ethics of eating meat, he said,

I came out thinking I could eat meat in this very limited way, from farmers who I could  feel good about the way the animals lived, and luckily we have a great many farmers like that now, we have a renaissance of small-scale animal farming, and that we’re not feeding them grain and taking that away from people who need that food.

I was almost inclined to let this slide because Pollan is talking mostly about his own personal feelings on the issue. Even though I don’t feel good about the way the animals on small farms are treated, I could agree to disagree with Pollan on that.

However, I do have to wonder if Pollan overstates the number of farmers that produce meat without feeding animals grain. Ruminants like cows and sheep can be fed exclusively grass, but production of pork and poultry tends to include some grain feed, even on small farms. Indeed, my calculations have led me to believe that Polyface Farm (presented in The Omnivore’s Dilemma as a model for good agriculture) is less efficient than simply feeding grain to people. (I’ll have an update related to that calculation in the near future, by the way.)

Pollan went on to explain two of his reasons for not endorsing a vegan diet. His first: “There are great farmers in this country who are doing really good work, and they need to be supported.” By this reasoning, it is irresponsible to advocate against meat consumption because it deprives these farmers of needed income.

I can’t say I find this a compelling reason to eat meat. It rests on an implicit assumption that meat production is something that should happen. Even if we accept the claim that there are meat farmers doing great work, it should be noted that there are also small farms growing plant-based foods, including calorie-dense foods like beans. Shouldn’t these farmers also be supported? Given that most of us have limited appetites and financial resources, we can only support so many farmers. Eating only plant-based foods certainly narrows one’s choice of farmers, but it doesn’t preclude supporting smaller farmers.

Pollan’s second concern regarding vegan diets was about overconsumption of processed foods, though he did acknowledge that one could be vegan without eating processed foods. I think it needs to be pointed out that food processing is a very general term. As Carlos Monteiro wrote (in a column that earned Pollan’s approval),

Much writing that criticises food processing makes little sense. Practically all food and drink is processed in some sense. Various forms of processing are neutral or benign in their effects. Many foodstuffs as found in nature are unpalatable or inedible, and some are toxic, unless prepared or cooked. Further, all perishable foods, unless consumed promptly, need to be preserved in some way.

The issue is not food processing in general. It is the nature, extent, and purpose, of processing. More generally, the issue is the proportion of meals, dishes, foods, drinks, and snacks within food systems, in supermarkets, and therefore in diets, that are ‘ultra-processed’. These characteristically are ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat ‘fast’ or ‘convenience’ products, most notably in the form of fatty or sugary or salty snacks and sugared drinks. These are best all seen as the same sort of  ‘edible food-like substance’ or, as I call them, ‘ultra-processed products’ (UPPs).

“Processing” includes not just hydrogenation of soybean oil and the manufacture of high-fructose corn syrup but also more benign processes, like chopping vegetables (and other things you might do with a device called a “food processor”) and baking a dough to make bread. I suspect that Pollan would agree with me that there’s nothing wrong with chopping a few carrots but that you’d be better off keeping trans fats off of your plate. Most vegan substitutes (like mock meats and vegan cheeses) probably fall somewhere in between these extremes. Though I personally eat these products only very rarely, I have seen no reason to believe that they are particularly unhealthy, and some of them are not even very heavily processed. (I might also add that there’s a certain irony to arguing against vegan diets based on a blanket rejection of “processed” foods when the meat industry’s preferred euphemism for slaughter is “processing.”)

For me, the most noteworthy part of the show came near the end. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any video or transcript from that section, so I have to work entirely from memory. Various Oprah staffers were talking about some of the health benefits they had experienced in their week on a vegan diet. Pollan interrupted, saying that he didn’t want to rain on their parade but that there isn’t anything evil about meat and eating it once in a while is fine. It seemed like sort of an awkward place for such a comment, given that the subject of conversation had been health, rather than ethical considerations.

The conversation shifted to animal concerns, and Kathy Freston explained that she is vegan because she can’t look an animal in the eye and say that it should suffer to satisfy her appetite. Pollan claimed that animals on certain farms live happy lives but have just one bad day (I’m not convinced). He then went on to argue that our system of meat production is brutal but added, “It’s really important to reform that system, not just turn our backs on it.”

Like his earlier argument for supporting small farmers, this is an argument that seems to rest on an unexplained assumption that we need to have some meat production. In the past, Pollan has made environmental arguments for certain kinds of meat farming, but he didn’t do that here.

Anyway, I’d be interested to hear readers’ reactions to the show. Also, I hope you’ll let me know if you think I’ve misremembered something.

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A note about elitism

When I started this blog back in May, I was very deliberate in my choice of names for the blog. I chose to call it, “Say what, Michael Pollan?”, rather than “Eat what, Michael Pollan?” because I intended to write about Pollan’s words, rather than his choice of meals. Truth be told, I don’t care what he eats.

However, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between what one eats and what one writes about eating. If I were to walk past North Gate Hall, home of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, and see Michael Pollan with a bag from McDonald’s, I wouldn’t write about it. On the other hand, if I learned that Pollan actually ate a diet of “mostly plants”, outside of the meals he writes about, I’d continue to stand behind the criticism in my last post, that he “writes surprisingly little about the plant-based foods that he consumes.”

For better or for worse, Michael Pollan has established himself as a prominent advocate for better food in the United States.  His effectiveness as an advocate will be determined not just by the things he says as an advocate but also by the implicit messages in anything else he might write. When a prominent advocate for eating “mostly plants” describes his weekend of meat-based meals in detail, tweets a link to videos of butchering techniques, and never says much about the plant-based meals he eats, one gets the sense that he doesn’t think that plant-based food can be worth writing about. That kind of attitude can only be a barrier to general acceptance of a diet of mostly plants, which is why I offered to introduce Pollan to some plant-based food when I wrote to him over the summer.

When you combine an apparent lack of interest in plant-based food with Pollan’s acknowledgment (in the CBC interview quoted in my last post) that responsible meat-eating will be less democratic, it begins to feel like Pollan’s recommendation to eat mostly plants is a case of a rich guy telling the common people what to do.

Of course, this is hardly the only way in which perceptions of insensitivity to issues of social class might arise in the context of Pollan’s work. Indeed, TreeHugger writer Lloyd Alter wrote of The 36-Hour Dinner Party” that “in an issue [of The New York Times Magazine]…that talks about the importance of making real food accessible to all, it just doesn’t fit.” Last month, University of Washington epidemiologist Adam Drewnowski said to Newsweek of that piece, “Pollan is drawing a picture of class privilege that is as acute as anything written by Edith Wharton or Henry James.”

Now, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with Pollan eating like somebody who has a lot of money. What gets to be a bit bothersome is when he chooses to publish an account of his meals in a publication like The New York Times Magazine. Such a decision rests on an assumption that people are interested in reading about a bunch of wealthy people spending the better part of weekend preparing and eating expensive food. Moreover, when such a piece comes from a leading advocate for eating better, I worry that it distracts from the fact that food that is healthy and environmentally-sound is not the same as expensive gourmet food.

Of course, discussions of the class issues faced by the movement for better food tend to focus specifically on the fact that eating better tends to cost more. Social class, however, is about more than just money. It’s also about how people interact with each other. Thus, it is particularly ironic for Pollan to respond to concerns about the cost of good food by arguing that people waste money in other parts of their lives. That kind of judgment of the spending habits of those who are less affluent than he is precisely the sort of thing that will tend to foster perceptions that the food movement is elitist (as Jason Sheehan demonstrates).

Whether or not such statements are rooted in elitist attitudes could probably be the subject of a lengthy debate. However, I don’t consider that debate to be worth having. I have avoided taking a position on whether Pollan is elitist because I don’t think it matters. What I think is much less debatable is that insensitivity to the less wealthy can do the food movement no good. Indeed, it is doubtful that, in evaluating Michael Pollan’s message, most people will engage in a lengthy discussion of whether it is elitist. However, it strikes me as probable that some people are less likely to listen to somebody who judges their spending as wasteful while flaunting his own privilege in the pages of The New York Times Magazine. It is for this reason that I have taken the trouble to comment on questions of elitism. My intention has never been to simply argue that he is elitist or hypocritical, as such an argument would serve no purpose.

I would stop short of arguing that Pollan has an obligation to choose his words to maximize the effectiveness of his message. However, he has taken the trouble to advocate publicly for better food, presumably because he cares about the harm that our current food system does to public health, the environment, and animals. If he cares enough to speak out, it seems reasonable that he should want to do so as effectively as possible. That would entail acting on an understanding that good advocacy requires more than just describing a problem and telling people what to do about it. I can think of no better way for him to accomplish that than by talking about some inexpensive meals that are compatible with his dietary advice.

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