The August 19th issue of The New York Review of Books includes three letters on Michael Pollan’s piece, “The Food Movement, Rising” as well as a response from Michael Pollan. All three letters are interesting, and I recommend reading them all (as well as Michael Pollan’s complete response), but I’ll focus on Ellen Finkelpearl of Scripps College, who writes,
I’m sure we all owe Michael Pollan a great debt of gratitude for the way he has brought the evils of corporate agribusiness into the public eye, but why does he insist on alienating the vegetarians who could be his greatest allies? Jonathan Safran Foer’s book is anything but a “vegetarian polemic,” composed, as it is, out of a multitude of voices, including those of cattle ranchers. As a vegetarian of over forty years, I closed the book convinced that eating some meat under the right circumstances would be fine.
Foer manages two things that Pollan keeps away from: he asks us simply to face the question of whether it is moral to take the lives of animals in a society where it is not necessary for our livelihood—simply to face it head on. In the process, he also brings to light much more vividly than Pollan the environmental crisis created by the meat industry—dangerous overuse of antibiotics in animal feed and the uncontrolled disposal of animal waste that seeps into our water supply. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan dismisses vegetarians as naive and out of touch with reality, but in his focus on grass-fed beef he underplays the damage done by the corporate meat industry that Foer vividly depicts. Food movement omnivores need to stop feeling guilty in the presence of vegetarians and form the kind of alliance that Pollan claims to advocate.
I think it’s a great letter, but I wish it had raised an objection to Pollan’s accusation that Foer picks a fight with sustainable meat farmers. I agree that characterizing Foer’s book as a “vegetarian polemic” is unfair, but I think it’s less problematic because labeling something a “polemic” involves some value judgment.
Ellen Finkelpearl mistakes my (very limited) defense of meat eating in The Omnivore’s Dilemma for a disdain for vegetarians. In fact, I have the utmost respect for vegetarians and vegans, who are light years ahead of most eaters insofar as they have seriously considered the moral, ethical, and environmental implications of their food choices. They are conscious eaters, which is what we all need to become. It was perhaps unfairly dismissive of me to label Foer’s book a “vegetarian polemic,” because it is more than that—it is a serious effort to make its readers more conscious of what is at stake on their plates, and there’s much in it with which I agree.
It happens that when I thought through the ethical and environmental implications of meat eating, I came to a different conclusion: I argued that under certain circumstances and from certain kinds of farms, eating meat is defensible, and in fact that there are situations in which meat-eating is environmentally sustainable. In making my case, I struggled mightily with the powerful arguments of philosophers such as Peter Singer, who was entirely correct when he wryly congratulated me on successfully defending one percent of the American meat industry—the one percent in which animals are not treated cruelly. The struggle now is to expand that percentage, a struggle in which vegetarians and carnivores need to link arms.
It’s hard to reconcile Pollan’s claim that he has “the utmost respect for vegetarians and vegans” with his acknowledgment two sentences later of having been “unfairly dismissive.” And I’d venture to guess that when Ellen Finkelpearl writes that “Pollan dismisses vegetarians as naive and out of touch with reality” she refers not to Pollan’s “(very limited) defense of meat-eating” but to such passages as this one:
I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater. Yet part of me pities him, too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris. (361)
I think it would be hard to argue that he’s not dismissing vegetarians as “naive and out of touch with reality.”
Although Pollan claims to agree with much of Foer’s book, I still don’t see much evidence that he has given it more than a quick skim. My offer to lend him my copy still stands, as does my suggestion that we discuss this and other issues over dinner.