The HSUS Undercover Investigation: Wyoming Premium Farms Exposed

HSUS has been on a roll lately. Yesterday it busted Wyoming Premium Farms for animal abuse, leading Tyson’s to suspend pork purchases from this loathsome conglomerate.

As always when it comes to undercover exposes and subsequent welfare “victories,” my feelings are mixed. It goes without saying that I’m perfectly thrilled that industry will now be under even more pressure to address welfare concerns.  Considerable evidence is already showing this to be the case. (Thanks to Jim Ferguson for this tip). I’m also thrilled that, to whatever extent, some pigs will have more room to move around on some industrial farms–however nominal the added space. Paul Shapiro, at HSUS, told me that in just two days the terrifying clip above has received over 160,000 views. That’s good news, as I’ve no idea how anybody could watch it and continue to eat pork.

Thinking about matters from the consumers’ perspective, though, I just don’t know what kind of impact these investigations will have in the long run. Inevitably, many consumers of animal products will watch this video, become disgusted, and vow to purchase their animal products from more humane sources. But this will accomplish very little–if anything– in terms of reducing the horrors of factory farming. As I’ve argued before, as long as eating animals is considered culturally and morally acceptable, basic economics dictates that factory farms will dominate the production of meat, eggs, and cheese. There is simply no possible way, at least as long as we have a capitalistic economy, that a substantial portion of consumers will choose welfare over cost. And as sure as gravity, factory farms–due to economies of scale–effectively reduce costs.  Eating animals itself must be deemed–and culturally understood–as wrong.  To eat animals is, ipso facto, to support industrial agriculture.

In all fairness to HSUS, to my knowledge it has never claimed to be in the business of eliminating animal agriculture. They just want to improve it. Abolitionists dismiss this goal as accommodating the enemy–and I can see their point. At the same time, though, I’m well aware that–if HSUS would only do more to promote veganism as a response to the horrors it so bravely exposes–the kind of video shown above could have an entirely different impact. Namely, it would move consumers in the direction of eating plants rather than trying to salve their conscience by paying more to eat animals who, while given more freedoms when alive, were still killed in the prime of their lives (or even before) in order to become an entree on a menu at some impossibly virtuous restaurant filled with people who somehow think it’s humane to kill an animal for food we don’t need.

Am I hoping for too much from HSUS? And I hoping too much from omnivores? Am I hoping too much?

Temple Grandin’s Reason for Eating Animals?: “I get lightheaded . . . if I go on a vegan diet.”

Temple Grandin is widely considered to be a leading authority on animal welfare. She’s routinely cited by organizations such as The Humane Society of the United States and Whole Foods as an expert on the humane treatment of animals. Grandin, of course, designs slaughterhouses, but I guess the term “welfare” is pretty plastic. Not unlike “humane.”

I’ve read Grandin’s books. While I find her affection for animals to be genuine, and her insight into their perspectives nuanced, her work strikes me as remarkably unthoughtful about the human-animal relationship. Her books plod, important contexts dissolve, her thinking feels mechanistic. I’m well aware that Grandin is autistic, and I admire her accomplishments in light of such adversity. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that her analysis of animal welfare can be cold, shallow, and unpleasant. Kind of like an ice bath.

Grandin wrote an essay for the Times now famous/infamous/notorious “Justify Eating Meat” contest. It wasn’t chosen as a finalist–and I think you’ll see why. Her essay is worth reading, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves how troublesome the idea of “welfare” can be. Interestingly, when Grandin found out her essay was not chosen, she published it in a beef industry trade magazine. She obviously knows who her friends are.

Temple Grandin’s essay:

Eating Meat is Ethical

Humans and animals evolved together. Our brains are tuned into animals. Research with epilepsy patients who had monitors implanted in their brains, showed that the amygdala responds more to animal pictures, compared to pictures of landmarks or people. The amygdala is an important emotion center in the brain. Pictures of both cute and aversive animals got a big response. Recordings from the hippocampus, which is involved with memory, had no differences.

Human beings have an intrinsic bond with animals, but our treatment of animals has ranged from respectful to horrendous. Scientific research indicates that animals have emotions and they feel pain and fear. It is our duty to provide the animals that we raise for food with a decent life. I often get asked, “How can you care about animals and be involved in designing systems in slaughter houses that are used to kill them?” I answered this question in 1990, after I had just completed installation of a new piece of equipment I had designed for handling cattle at slaughter plants. I was standing on a catwalk, as hundreds of cattle passed below to enter my system. In a moment of insight, I thought, none of the cattle going into my system would have existed unless people had bred and raised them.

Our relationship with the cattle should be symbiotic. Symbiosis is a biological concept of a mutually beneficial relationship between two different species. There are many examples of symbiosis or mutualism in nature. One example is ants tending aphids to obtain their sugary secretion and in return, they are protected from predators. Unfortunately the relationship is not always symbiotic and in some cases, the ants exploit the aphids. There are similar problems in poorly managed, large intensive agriculture systems. There are some production practices that must be changed. In the cattle industry, I know many people who are true stewards of both their animals and their land. Their relationship with both the animals and the land is truly symbiotic. It is mutually beneficial to both the animals and the environment. Killing animals for food is ethnical if the animals have what the Farm Animal Welfare Council in England calls a life worth living.

I have been attended grazing conferences and I have learned that when grazing is done right it can improve the rangeland and sequester carbon. Ruminant animals that eat grass are not the environmental wreckers that some people say they are. Rotational grazing can stimulate more plant growth and growing plants help remove carbon from the atmosphere.  Ruminant animals, such as cattle, bison, goats, and sheep, are the only way to grow food on rangelands that are not suitable for crops.  Ronald C. Follett with the USDA-ARS-NPA in Fort Collins, Colorado, states that grazing lands have the potential to sequester carbon.  According to researchers at National University in Panama, converting South American pastureland to soybean production will reduce carbon storage. Organic agriculture would be impossible and extremely difficult without animal manure for fertilizer.  Another issue that must be looked at in perspective is methane emissions.  It is likely that 80% of all total methane emissions come from coal burning power plants, rice paddies, and landfills.

I have a final reason why I think eating meat is ethnical.  My metabolism requires animal protein, and I get lightheaded and unable to concentrate if I go on a vegan diet.  There may be metabolic differences in the need for animal protein.  There are practices that must be changed to be true stewards of both the animals and the environment.

What’s Your Beef?: Grass Fed Cattle in Texas


This piece ran in the May issue of  The Texas Observer. Regular readers will see some familiar information, but there’s some new material in here as well.  –jm

Times are tough these days for Texas producers of grass-fed beef. Grass grows poorly, if at all, during the worst drought in recorded history. Costs skyrocket as forage suppliers—upon whom grass-feeding producers have to rely when grass won’t grow—raise rates as high as the invisible hand will allow. As the land hardens, cattle are corralled into barns, watered and fed bales of expensive hay and alfalfa, which alter the sublime taste that a select group of consumers fetishize as a carnivore’s ambrosia. Lord only knows how these changes influence those magic omega-3/6 acid ratios that grass-fed devotees treat as the fountain of youth.

I take zero pleasure in the economic demise of anyone who plays by the rules. That said, the grass-fed game has enjoyed such a long run of popularity—based largely on overhyped assumptions—that the industry was due for at least a distilled dose of truth in advertising. The current situation provides an opportunity for a critical assessment of the pervasive (and sometimes dangerous) mythology of grass-fed beef.

We’re told that grass-fed beef is safer to eat than grain-fed beef. Specifically, we’re told that there’s no E. coli in grass-fed beef because it’s natural for cows to eat grass (forgetting, of course, that corn is a grass). In 2006 Nina Planck wrote the following about E. coli O157 in The New York Times: “It’s not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay, and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new—that is, recent in the history of animal diets—biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms.”

In an age of horrific food scares (pink slime!), this assessment was eagerly accepted as gospel. But it’s wrong. As I reported in a 2010 Slate article, “scientists [between 2000-2006] showed in a half-dozen studies that grass-fed cows do become colonized with E. coli O157:H7 at rates nearly the same as grain-fed cattle. An Australian study actually found a higher prevalence of O157:H7 in the feces of grass-fed rather than grain-fed cows.”

While it’s true that overall rates of E. coli are much higher in grain-fed cattle, E. coli O157:H7—known for being able to kill us—congregates just as effectively in grass-fed as grain-fed cows.

We’re also told that grass-fed systems are more ecologically sound than Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, where cows are herded into giant feedlots. This claim is true in some respects, certainly when it comes to manure run-off from CAFO poop lagoons. Considerable evidence, however, questions the overall comparative environmental benefit of grass-fed cattle. In 2008, a study conducted by scientists at Canada’s Dalhousie University found that, pound for pound, grass-fed cattle emit 50 percent more greenhouse gasses than their grain-fed counterparts. The reason is threefold: grass-fed cows produce significantly more methane than grain-fed cows (through burps), they take longer to reach slaughter weight, and, as demand grows, producers are growing grass with synthetic fertilizers to minimize ranging stress. These hidden pitfalls of grass-fed production are routinely overlooked by a foodie media eager to offer a guiltless alternative to industrial beef.

Then there’s the matter of land. It takes anywhere from two to 20 acres to raise a single cow exclusively on grass. This land requirement has already resulted in a region the size of France being carved out of the Brazilian rainforest to accommodate grass-fed cattle. Figures released by Greenpeace in February 2009 confirm that beef continues to be the largest driver of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Such biodiversity loss is immeasurable. Nicolette Hahn Niman, the noted vegetarian advocate for grass-fed beef in California, has said that what’s happening in the rainforest has nothing to do with her cows in California. Fine. But let’s say all the confined cows in the United States—98 million—were raised on grass (on, say, 10 acres per cow). The result would make Hahn’s California cows matter: They would occupy half the land in the United States.

Finally, there’s the matter of human health. I’ll concede that the magical omega-3/6 ratio—which is critical for the proper balance of fatty acids—in grass-fed cattle is much healthier than in grain-fed cattle. But so what. You can find similarly impressive fatty acid profiles in flaxseed. Flaxseed, moreover, was not found to dramatically reduce one’s lifespan. Beef was. As The Daily Beast reported on a seminal Harvard University study, “The survey of 110,000 adults over 20 years found that adding just one three-ounce serving of unprocessed red meat to their daily diet increased participants’ risk of dying during the study by 13 percent.”

The case I make here is ultimately superseded by the fact that cows are sentient beings with rich emotional lives that deserve moral consideration. We should not be raising, killing and commodifying them at all. The reality, though, is that we’re in the midst of a food movement that speaks eloquently of community, localism, fairness and justice, but won’t touch the issue of animal ethics with a locally sourced 10-foot pole. So it seems necessary to reconsider our relationship with grass-fed beef on the grounds of ecological responsibility and human health. Maybe one day we will worry more about the integrity of our diet than that of the cows we eat.

“Be Good to Ira Glass”: And Other Thoughts Regarding Friday’s Times Op-Ed

Many readers forget this point, but the purpose of an op-ed is not to hand down The Truth from on-high, it’s to provoke.  What else can one do in a thousand words on a topic requiring volumes to fully explicate?  An op-ed that does not provoke is an op-ed that’s failed. By this standard, I’m pleased with the dialogue sparked by my New York Times piece, published last Friday

This one says I simplify, to which I say, of course I do (it’s 1000 words!): 

I almost choked on my tabouli when I read that Grist’s Tom Laskaway sort of agreed with me:

This one from predicts that Joel Salatin’s going to freak:

And Joel Salatin freaks:

Oh, but whenever I’m feeling beaten down there will always be this clip of Ira Glass on Letterman to cheer me up, sent by a reader of the blog: WATCH UNTIL THE END. The punch line will blow you away.

Be good to Ira Glass (and Karen Davis).

Food Movements and Food Courts: A Thought from Sioux Falls

The Food Movement wants to reform our broken food system. This is an admirable goal that I fully support. Where I differ from the Food Movement is that I want it to engage an essential question: how do we ethically justify commodifying, exploiting, and killing sentient animals for food we don’t need?

This is a discussion that’s long overdue. It’s happening–but only among philosophers, some theologians and legal scholars, and animal rights advocates. The leaders of the Food Movement won’t go near it. And the longer the movement avoids the issue the more its chances of achieving meaningful  change diminish. I’m inspired and in full agreement with the movement when its leaders call for food justice, fair access, living wages, improved welfare, and the end of corporate abuse and unfair subsidies.  But . . .

What confuses me is why, in light of these concerns, the movement fails to justify its implicit promotion of unneeded suffering. Raising an animal to kill and eat, or raising an animal to purloin is milk and eggs, causes suffering. We don’t need meat, dairy, and eggs–in fact, most humans would be much healthier without these products. So, I genuinely wonder: why is it okay to produce these goods?  To say we’ve always done it, or that these products taste good, or that its “natural,” or that the animals were raised with respect, or that I killed the animal myself–these aren’t legitimate answers. They’re evasions.  They beg the question.

I just walked through a Food Court at a mall in Sioux Falls, SD (the town where I’m giving a talk this evening). My experience reminded me that not only am I glad I’m not a teenager, but that Americans are killing themselves with junk food that’s overwhelmingly based on processed animal products. My mind wanders in these settings. I think to myself: will currently unthinking consumers ever be willing to radically reduce the amount of animals they eat? I’m deeply skeptical that that will ever happen.

Then I wonder something else:  how many of these consumers gorging on animal products live with a companion animal for whom they deeply care?  And I wonder how many of them would think differently of eating animals if they knew that the animals they were eating shared so many qualities with the animals waiting for them to come home. And I wonder if, based on this connection, they could break the speciesist barrier and stop eating animals. And, for a moment, however naively, I feel a spark of hope.

Op-Ed Responses: “The Myth of Sustainable Meat”


Several people who have commented on my article have made the point that smaller scaled systems would lead to more expensive meat and, in turn, reduced consumption.  I appreciate the time these people took to comment, and I’d like to briefly address this claim. (These comments, by the way, can be found in the “about” section of the blog–which–lo– got about ten times as many hits as it normally gets.)

The premise that higher priced meat would lead to reduced consumption is, as far as it goes, accurate. In fact, that’s the only way we’re going to achieve sustained reduced consumption–make animal products radically more expensive. The problem, however, is that no matter how many boutique operations emerge, we’re never going to see the price of animal products collectively rise to the point that it mitigates consumption.

The reason is skyrocketing global demand. Normally, increased demand would lead to increased price–and that may happen, but nowhere near to the extent that it would reduce consumption. Here’s why: this demand virtually dictates that no matter how many expensive options arise, industrial operations, by virtue of their efficiency, will always dominate as the leading form of production–a form of production geared to lower the price of animal products. For the vast majority of consumers, a pork chop is a pork chop is a pork chop. They want it, and the cheaper, the better. Even many privileged consumers who choose expensive alternatives rarely stick with the more expensive option, no matter how righteous it might be.

Americans might be eating nominally fewer animals than we did a decade ago, but global rates of consumption are exploding. Between 1980 and 2010 the consumption of eggs, dairy, and meat has risen by a factor of 3 to 5 in developing countries. This spiking demand virtually guarantees the proliferation of new factory farms that capitalize on consolidation to meet that demand. Over 80 percent of the aforementioned rise in demand has been met by newly built factory farms in China and India–factory farms with minimal regulations.  None of these figures factor in the impending 2 billion people about to be added to the face of the earth.

The fact that wealthy, educated, and health-conscious consumers in the United States are increasingly choosing to pay a lot more for meat, eggs, and dairy in no way reflects the reality of global consumer behavior (or national consumer behavior, for that matter). Nothing, in fact, could stand in sharper contrast. Thus, to think that humans will collectively decide to wise up and eat less meat while producers, in turn, will scale down to meet that decreased demand through more eco-correct and expensive offerings, distorts not only economic reality, but human nature.

I’ll concede that to argue that small scale animal farming would “work” if we all just ate less meat makes sense in theory. But the reality–the entrenched nature and growing demand for affordable animal products globally–suggests that we’d be better off fighting to end the production of animals altogether.

And this is all irrespective of that other thing we never want to talk about, but need to be: the ethics of eating animals.


The New York Times: Page A31

McWilliams on Pollan: Ho-Hum.

I’m posting this review, which I wrote several years ago, because many vegans I know are constantly confronting reform-minded consumers who adhere to Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food as if it were gospel. I’m sure most readers of this blog have already formed some strong opinions about Pollan’s work (one way or the other), but I thought I’d just add my two cents.  A version of this piece originally ran in the Texas Observer, in 2008, I think. -jm

Big claims. Not too much support. Mostly unconvincing. That’s my nutshell response toMichael Pollan’s most recent answer to “the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.”

Tough assessment, I know. Pollan is wildly popular. For millions of acolytes, he’s the Dr. Phil of food, counseling the foodie elite on such matters as the virtues of grass-fed beef and local produce. Pollan mesmerized his audience with first-rate nature writing in The Botany of Desire and proceeded to take the world by storm with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a smart book that’s become a Bible for environmentally conscious eaters. Through it all, he continues to publish lively, get-a-load-of-this-I’m-chasing-a-boar-through-the-woods! pieces for the New York Times Magazine, while maintaining a respectable foothold in academia as the Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley. All in all, a nice run.

This time, Pollan has stumbled. It’s not that he’s written a bad book. That’s probably not possible. Instead, the problem with In Defense of Food begins with the fact that Pollan’s central claim reveals little that his well-informed audience doesn’t already know. Indeed, take away the book’s handsome packaging and Pollan’s popcorn prose, and what’s left is hardly a news flash: Processed food is less healthy than whole food. Not much to build a book on, much less a manifesto. Pollan no longer has a genuine dilemma to solve, but a burden to overcome. He has to overwhelm us with an inherently underwhelming argument: You’d be better off eating more fresh, leafy vegetables, less meat, and less processed food overall. Somehow, he must make this ordinary observation seem extraordinary.

Two sleights of hand aid him in his attempt. Unfortunately, they seriously compromise the book’s integrity. First, Pollan grossly overstates his case. Extrapolating from the axiom that whole food is healthier than “fake” food, he reduces the developed world’s most common health problems to the singular cause of an industrialized diet. Rather than exploring the multifaceted relationship between contemporary food production and public health, or placing the issue in historical perspective, Pollan blames diabetes, heart disease, obesity, chronic hypertension, and cancer exclusively on the fact that Westerners gorge on factory-produced nutrients rather than real food. Pollan is right to highlight a surely important connection between industrialized food and disturbing health trends, but his unrestrained exaggeration serves only to compensate for the otherwise tired premise of his project.

Pollan, it should be said, seems to be aware of his skewed emphasis. At one point, he scolds medical researchers for practicing “parking-lot science,” which is the idea that when one loses his keys in a dark parking lot, he automatically searches under the nearest streetlight. The reference, however, fails to prevent Pollan from allowing processed food to become his own streetlight. Ignoring altogether the roles that exercise, heredity, race, social class, occupation, access to health care, and geography play in mediating the myriad connections between diet and health, Pollan limits his search to the well-lighted space under industrial food’s streetlight, where he finds-no surprise-the lost keys to “a maximally healthy diet.”

Pollan’s second sleight of hand has a conspiratorial twist. Without caveat or qualification, he boldly asserts that doctors, nutritionists, government officials, schools of public health, corporate America, factory farmers, and medical journalists have all contrived to kill us through bogus health claims about processed food. Once again, the problem is not that Pollan posits a connection where none exists, but rather that he overstates the matter to such an extreme that he undermines an otherwise valid point. I’m as appropriately paranoid as the next guy, but am I really supposed to believe that my doctor, not to mention the many nutritionists I know, are out to murder me in the spirit of corporate greed? Pollan’s trumped-up premise that entire cohorts of professionals are causing “a global pandemic in the making” while we foolishly trust their advice is more red herring than legitimate claim.

This second move does allow Pollan to transform a well-known health assessment into an apparent expose. Suddenly, a work confirming a no-brainer (fruit and veggies are really good for you) becomes a muckraking alarm (the “nutritionist-industrial complex” is out to fatten your ass and clog your arteries). No longer is it mom yelling at us to eat our broccoli, but a best-selling journalist insisting that the culinary apocalypse-symbolized by such insidious enemies as refined flour and processed sugar-is well nigh upon us.

I’ll not dwell on the fact that this “manifesto” is, essentially, a theory of everything laid out in the form of a long magazine piece. Nor will I dwell on the fact that a book routinely making sweeping claims such as this one-”the National Academy of Sciences, the dietary guidelines of the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society and the U.S. food pyramid bear direct responsibility for creating the public health crisis that now confronts us”-lacks those pesky little bits of tracking data called footnotes. I’ll leave these matters for readers to ponder.

Instead, my aim, after summarizing the book’s modest accomplishment, is to show how Pollan’s overblown claims require him to construct a defense that falters on a series of logical contradictions. In short, I hope to show that while this is a passionate book with a lot of potential, an altogether different kind of defense–one of a more thoughtful and ethically-grounded nature– is needed to help us think more clearly and realistically about contemporary food, personal health, and environmental sustainability.

The most unfortunate aspect of Pollan’s overstatement is that it obscures his more sober observations about diet, health, and nature. While I am not at all convinced that processed food is (in and of itself) the plague Pollan portrays it to be, I did appreciate being reminded that our bodies respond poorly to fat and sugar manufactured by modern agribusiness. Similarly, while I’m not buying the grand conspiracy that Pollan concocts, I think he’s right to doubt the objectivity of “experts” and, even more so, government officials. Pollan, moreover, can be a masterful stylist when it comes to teasing out nature’s more subtle interrelations. His all too infrequent meditations on the symbiotic relationships between humans and the soil that sustains us evoke the best that Wendell Berry or E.O. Wilson ever wrote. I wanted more of it. Finally, who knew that purslane was so good for you? For that matter, who knew what purslane was? (It’s a salad green in much of the world, but widely considered a weed in the U.S.)

These strengths remain unsustained because Pollan, having made a series of hyperbolic assertions, must spend the bulk of his book building necessarily contorted defenses. As is often the case, the quality of the argumentation reflects the quality of the argument. Most notably (so notable that he admits his contradiction toward the end of the book), Pollan excoriates nutritionists for “thinking about food strictly in terms of its chemical constituents” (rather than thinking about food as real food), and then, in a classic do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do move, proceeds to write about food in terms of its chemical constituents. Such lack of consistency is chronic and drags down much of the book.

Consider omega-3s, the nutritionally significant fatty acids found in many fruits and nuts. When he’s taking nutritionists to the woodshed, Pollan explains that nutritionism-the “ideology” that distills food to its essential nutrients-relies on false dualisms whereby one nutrient is lambasted and another glorified. He writes, “At the moment trans fats are performing admirably in the former role, omega-3 fatty acids in the latter.” He then condemns this dualism in the following terms: “It goes without saying that such a Manichaean view of nutrition is bound to promote food fads and phobias.”

Point taken. But when it comes time for Pollan to tell us what to eat, he changes his tune. Drawing on the literature of clinical nutrition, he argues that we should eat more leaves and fewer seeds because “[t]here are the antioxidants and phyto-chemicals; there is the fiber; and then there are the essential omega-3 fatty acids found in leaves; which some researchers [um, nutritionists?] believe will turn out to be the most crucial missing nutrient of all.” In essence, Pollan argues, nutritionism is bunk … until it’s not.

Every book is allowed an inconsistency or two. But In Defense of Food contains so many logical contradictions that it eventually leaves the impression of having been cobbled together in a mad rush to meet a publication deadline. Pollan laments on page 9 that “we are becoming a nation of orthorexics: people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.” But by page 186, as if lacking a culinary care in the world, “we” are consuming calories “found in convenience food-snacks, microwavable entrees, soft drinks, and packaged food of all kinds-which happens to be the source of most of the 300 or so calories Americans have added to their daily diet since 1980.” Suddenly, and without explanation, a nation of obsessive nutrient-counting orthorexics has become a nation of careless, Twinkie-gorging anti-orthorexics.

If this flip-flip doesn’t sufficiently confuse, there’s Pollan’s dance around the issue of food anxiety. On page 53, Pollan, who is still in “kill your nutritionist” mode, notes that “nutritionism tends to foster a great deal of anxiety around the experience of shopping for food and eating it.” We should revel in the sensuality of food, not stress out over it, he insists. But by the end, when Pollan is dishing out his own dietary advice, he tells us to eat less food, spend more money on it, eat it at a table (“No, a desk is not a table”), plant a garden, eat wild foods, avoid the grocery store, buy a deep freeze to store cow carcasses (!), and, if possible, assume the identity of a native French, Italian, or Greek person. OK, I exaggerate the last point (barely), but you get the gist. Talk about anxiety! The only consolation in this stressful fumarole of dietary guidance is that it’s still permissible to drink a decent amount of red wine every day. Plus, what about a bowl of bean, rice, and kale?

Other contradictions: On page 147 we’re told that “ordinary food is what we should eat,” but 13 pages later Pollan urges us to buddy up with our local farmer because he “can impress on eaters the distinctions between ordinary and exceptional food, and the many reasons why exceptional food is worth what it costs.” On page 56, Pollan, to show how neurotic Americans have always been about food, mocks 19th-century dieters for chewing their food excessively, but then, on page 194, he tells us to “EAT SLOWLY.” Pollan condemns an FDA report as “pseudo-scientific” and then, eight pages later, declares, somewhat less than scientifically, “don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Pollan tells us “it’s a good idea to try to add some new species, and not just new foods, to your diet,” and then, seven pages down the road, equivocates: “Innovation is interesting, but when it comes to something like food, it pays to approach novelties with caution.” And so on.

I dwell on these contradictions because they collectively support my argument that Pollan, with his overblown claims, has finally bitten off more than he can chew. Food, contrary to Pollan’s belief, is complex. Endlessly so. It is therefore misguided at best to think that a single person, no matter how smart, could distill the infinitely varied matter of eating well into an inherently consistent manifesto applicable to all Western eaters-which is exactly what Pollan’s poorly framed argument forces him to do.

In making this point, however, I’m struck by an alternative proposition. In the face of food’s complexity, and recognizing the agricultural systems that nurture that complexity, might it be that those who choose to write about their personal experiences interacting with the world of food and farming will make a more lasting mark on our newfound cultural awareness of food than Pollan, whose universally encompassing attempt has more in common with all-you-can eat buffets?

In other words, like Thoreau and his woods, Melville and his whales, Burroughs and his drugs, or Kerouac and his road trips, In Defense of Food could have given us what surely would have been a fascinating record of Michael Pollan’s personal relationship to food, leaving socially concerned eaters to listen to our own bodies, inform our own minds, construct our own defenses, and-should we be so bold-arrive at our own more thoughtful manifestos.

The Chilling Reality of Cheese: Adirondack Farms


Advocates for ethical veganism are routinely asked about dairy products. “I could easily give up meat,” people will say. That’d be easy.” But “cheese,” they exclaim. “I just can’t part with cheese.” This reaction reflects not only genuine affection for a familiar and comforting taste and texture. It also reflects the implicit idea that an animal didn’t have to be directly killed to make it. This comment is the cue, of course, to note–loosely paraphrasing Gary Francione–that this opinion is dead wrong, and that there’s more suffering in a pound of cheese than a pound of beef.  I have the speech down pat.

But it’s always sad to deliver. It’s amazing how few of even the most highly educated consumers simply don’t know (or don’t want to know?) the details–a true testament to the power of producers to keep their work out of sight. After all, here is what the world’s cheesemongers–”artisan” or otherwise–don’t what consumers to have on their minds:  female cows are repeatedly sent to the “rape rack” to be artificially inseminated, all calves are immediately torn away from their mothers, male calves are summarily killed or crated to become veal, and mothers are milked by machines, re-impregnated, and exploited with ruthless efficiency until their productivity wanes. When that happens, they are shipped to the slaughterhouse.  This scenario plays out on small organic dairy farms as surely as it does on large factory farms. No society should tolerate it.

On factory farms these disturbing practices are enjoined by a host of additional horrors. Sick animals go untreated, diseases are rampant, calves’ horn buds are burned off without anesthesia, and disgruntled workers jab, mutilate, and burn cows for kicks (or out of psychological despair). According to PETA’s recent  expose of Adirondack Farms (where I actually once visited), “workers routinely jabbed and struck cows with a pole and cane, on the face, udder, and hindquarters when leading them into a room to be milked.” Another cow was repeatedly shoved in the ribs with a screwdriver and referred to as “a dumb bitch.”

These details only scratch the surface of what we’re not supposed to see. After a while, one hopes, they start to make that slice of cheese seem a bit less appealing.

Worldwatch Waffling: The Cowardly Promotion of “Sustainable” Animal Agriculture

Here’s this from today’s Worldwatch Institute’s press release:

“The demand for meat, eggs, and dairy products in developing countries has increased at a staggering rate in recent decades,” says report co-author Danielle Nierenberg, director of Worldwatch’s Nourishing the Planet project. “While industrialized countries still consume the most animal products, urbanization and rising incomes in developing countries are spurring shifts to more meat-heavy diets.”

“Farm-animal production provides a safety net for millions of the world’s most vulnerable people,” says Nierenberg. “But given the industry’s rapid and often poorly regulated growth, the biggest challenge in the coming decades will be to produce meat and other animal products in environmentally and socially sustainable ways.”

While I applaud Worldwatch for drawing attention to the impending crisis of global urbanization and the spiking demand for animal products, I condemn its recommendation as craven. The Worldwatch is aggressively indifferent to veganism.  Despite an abundance of evidence demonstrating that veganism is the most effective response to the environmental degradation caused by global food production, it has stubbornly refused not only to endorse it, but to even mention it as a viable ecological (much less ethical) choice.  I suspect that it fears alienating fundraisers–an assessment that applies to virtually all environmental organizations.

Let’s be clear about the track record of the solution that Worldwatch promotes to meet demand for animal products in developing countries: there is no such thing as environmentally and socially sustainable  production of animal products. Even if there was such a thing, it could never compete against the industrial behemoths that dominate meat production today.  For proof, consider that over the last 25 years—a time when efforts to promote small-scale “sustainable”  systems have been going full throttle—milk consumption in developing countries came close to doubling, meat consumption tripled, and the consumption of eggs grew fivefold. Eighty percent of this demand was met by factory farmed meat. Doesn’t seem as if the alternatives have had much success.

In light of these figures, to fail to promote veganic agriculture as a viable alternative to industrial dominance strikes me as cowardly at best.


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