Posts Tagged Polyface Farm

Making sense of the Polyface calorie numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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 free lunch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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The not-quite-artisanal chicken

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan summarizes a column by Allan Nation in Stockman Grass Farmer on the subject of “artisanal economics” and discusses its relevance to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm.  Pollan writes,

“The biggest problem with alternative agriculture today,” Nation writes, “is that it seeks to incorporate bits and pieces of the industrial model and bits and pieces of the artisanal model. This will not work….In the middle of the road, you get the worst of both worlds.”

Nation’s column had helped Joel understand why his broiler business was more profitable than his beef or pork business. Since he could process the chickens himself, the product was artisanal from start to finish; his beef and pork, on the other hand, had to pass through an industrial processing plant, adding to his costs and shrinking his margins. (250)

A reader might be inclined to contrast Salatin’s entirely artisanal product with the chicken that Pollan bought at Whole Foods Market. Not only was that bird industrially raised and slaughtered, but the bird was a product of industrial breeding:

Rosie the organic chicken’s life is little different from that of her kosher and Asian cousins, all of whom are conventional Cornish Cross broilers processed according to state-of-the-art industrial practice….The Cornish Cross represents the pinnacle of industrial chicken breeding. It is the most efficient converter of corn into breast meat ever designed, though this efficiency comes at a high physiological price: The birds grow so rapidly (reaching oven-roaster proportions in seven weeks) that their poor legs cannot keep pace, and frequently fail. (171)

There’s at least one thing wrong with drawing this contrast, though. As Salatin writes on page 34 of his book, Pastured Poultry Profit$, Polyface Farm’s broilers are the same Cornish Cross chickens which, in the context of Petaluma Poultry, were “the pinnacle of industrial chicken breeding.” Salatin may be correct that the processing regulations cut into his beef and pork profit margins, but the idea that Salatin’s chickens are a purely artisanal product is nontheless something of a fantasy.

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