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September 2006
A Vegan’s Dilemma
Book Review by Sangamithra Iyer


The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan (New York: Penguin Press, 2006). $26.95 hardcover. 450 pages.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan writes about his experience reading Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation while dining at a steakhouse. Though he agreed with many of Singer’s assertions, he found himself frantically scribbling in the margins where he disagreed.

I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma over vegan eats and had an eerily similar experience to Pollan’s Singer steakhouse struggle. My vegan dilemma was in part trying to make sense of Pollan’s omnivorous one. As someone concerned about the social and environmental consequences of the industrialization and globalization of our food supply, I found Pollan’s writing informative and lucid, exposing many hidden aspects of today’s modern meals. He eloquently reduces industrial agriculture to cruelty, corn and oil. And as someone increasingly weary of the corporate takeover of organic foods, I appreciated Pollan’s journey to the source of his Whole Foods meal, debunking the storybook ideals of “natural,” “organic” and “free-range.” Pollan concludes that often the label is more fiction than fact, where “free-range turns out to be not so much a lifestyle for these chickens as a two-week vacation option.”

Grass-fed and Glass Walls
One challenging part for this vegan to read was about Pollan’s time with an artisan grass farmer who raises animals for meat. Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm is almost the exact opposite of what he calls “industrial fecal factory concentration camp farms.” It is not fueled by corn and oil, but rather grass and sunlight. Salatin plays a bit of a balancing act, rotating his animals, enriching the soil and turning waste into nutrients. He lacks the fertility and pollution problems industrial animal agriculture is notorious for. Pollan claims the animals are “happy,” at least considerably more than at industrial feedlots or the large-scale organic “free-range” operations supplying Whole Foods. As Salatin’s PR manager says, “This is food for folks whose faces itch when the wool’s being pulled over their eyes.”

Ultimately, however, the animals are still commodities and machines as Salatin’s stated objective is still “profit$.” “This is the sort of farm machinery I like: never needs its oil changed, appreciates over time, and when you’re done with it you eat it,” says Salatin, referring to his 10,000 broilers, 800 stewing hens, 50 beeves, 250 hogs, 1,000 turkeys, 500 rabbits, and the numerous layers producing 30,000 dozens of eggs. Salatin feels comfortable killing them because “people have a soul, animals don’t. It’s a bedrock belief of mine. Animals are not created in God’s image, so when they die, they just die.”

Pollan participates in the slaughter of chickens in Salatin’s open-air abattoir realizing “the most morally troubling thing about killing chickens is that after a while, it is no longer morally troubling.” He goes on to look at the reasons why consumers and local restaurant chefs buy Salatin’s animal products. The answers usually aren’t environmental or animal welfare focused, though that is a beneficial quality. The main reason is that grass-fed animals and their byproducts taste better.

Pig Hunt
In the final episodes of the book, Pollan decides as a meat-eater, he should pay the “karmic price” of a meal and shoot an animal at least once in his life. My gut reaction was ‘great, how many animals are going to be harmed in the making of this book?’ and if he really wanted to pay a karmic price, why not rescue an animal instead of kill one? Pollan acknowledges what he calls “hunter porn,” writings of “macho conceit” about killings that “we are given to believe constitute a gesture of respect.” He dismisses such literature, and while openly conflicted about his hunting experience, his own writing falls victim to the same criticisms—a bunch of men in the forest with guns glorified by statements like, “In this, I decided, was one of the signal virtues of hunting: it puts large questions about who we and the animals are, and the nature of our respective deaths, squarely before the hunter.”

Pollan finds justification in shooting pigs in that they are feral and considered a pest—“So there was a story I could tell myself about the environmental rationale for hunting wild pig in California.” Riding around the forest in an ATV with guns in hands, Pollan later alludes, was not about saving the environment. He notes, “When I asked Angelo why he hunted wild pig he didn’t hesitate (or utter a word about the environment): rather he just kissed the tips of his fingers and said, ‘Because it is the most delicious meat. And there is nothing that tastes so good as boar prosciutto. You’ll see. You shoot a big one and we’ll make some.’”

And What About Trying Veg?
Pollan writes passionately about the abuses of factory farms: “The industrial animal factory offers a nightmarish glimpse of what capitalism is capable of in the absence of any moral or regulatory constraint whatsoever.” Further noting, “Vegetarianism doesn’t seem an unreasonable response to the existence of such an evil.”

It is, however, an unreasonable response for him. This section of the book is perhaps the most disappointing. It is pretty much extracted from his 2002 New York Times article “An Animal’s Place” with not much further development. Pollan becomes a vegetarian temporarily, but most of the discussion is a mental debate with Peter Singer. Compared to other chapters of in-depth investigative research and practical experience, this journey to vegetarianism is mostly academic, and poorly so. While Pollan found Joel Salatin and Angelo Garro to be his guides to grass farming and hunting, he had no such vegan guru to show him the ropes of plant-based eating.

Pollan scrambles to find justification for eating meat, writing off animal rights ideology as urban, parochial and, in some cases, puritanical. He asserts with no further backing, “To think of domestication as a form of slavery or even exploitation is to misconstrue that whole relationship—to project a human idea of power onto what is in fact a symbiosis between the species.” This statement, to me, highlights other flaws in the book, in that there are very few female voices, with interviews being almost entirely men. Also, the dairy and egg industries are not fully explored. Given that women are responsible for 70 percent of world food production, and that female layer hens and dairy cows endure the most suffering, had Pollan incorporated more women’s voices and explored the lives of the female animals, perhaps he would have construed a different view of domestication and symbiosis.

Pollan explains when people “dare to look” at the wrongs of industrial animal agriculture, they are often left with two choices: ignore it, or become vegetarian. Neither of which was acceptable for him. He leaves looking for a new descriptive, an omnivore that still eats meat but from animals less egregiously raised. In the letter response to his original article, one reader coined an appropriate term—“Excusavor.”

Pollan subtly dismisses vegetarianism: “I have to say there is 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.” Had he spent time really experiencing vegetarianism, he might realize that it’s not about moral purity, but trying to make the best decisions with the least amount of harm—the vegan’s dilemma. Searching for a kinder, gentler meat is perhaps where the real denial of reality sets in.

So What’s the Big Dilemma Anyway?
When I finished the book, my partner asked, “So what’s his big dilemma anyway?” I laughed, took a deep breath and explained Pollan’s investigation of industrial agriculture, big and small organic farms, and the hunter-gatherer, and how he prepared meals derived from these different food systems. The next logical question was, “How could he see and do all that, and still continue to eat it?” That, I thought, perhaps was indeed Pollan’s dilemma:

Standing there in the pen alongside my steer, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to eat the flesh of one of these protein machines. Hungry was the last thing I felt. Yet, I’m sure that after enough time goes by, and the stink of this place is gone from my nostrils, I will eat feedlot beef again.

Was I going to be able to enjoy eating chicken so soon after my stint in the processing shed and gut-composting pile?

Just then I could have made myself vomit simply by picturing myself putting a fork to a bite of this pig. How was I ever going to get past this?

In searching for justification for meat-eating Pollan asserts that it is not just a gustatory preference but something very deep in our human nature. Yet he also realizes how natural our revulsion is to animal flesh.

While veganism might seem rare within our human culture, ethical taboos on animal products aren’t, and Pollan recognizes that “cultures have more rules and taboos governing the eating of meat than of any other food.” Our dilemma as Pollan concludes is finding food that’s “good to eat and good to think.” Perhaps now more than ever should be the time for more ethical taboos rather than excuses for eating animals.

While Pollan and I come out at a different place when it comes to consuming animals, I appreciated The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as he did Animal Liberation, as one of those books that “demands you either defend the way you live or change it.”

Pollan’s investigation of “big organic” companies like Earthbound Farms was particularly eye-opening for this vegan, shedding light on the laborers forced to hand weed in the absence of pesticides. For their anticipated cuts and wounds, the workers are given bright blue band-aids with metallic filaments, which can later be easily sifted out from the lettuce with metal detectors and visual screenings. The reliance on petroleum in this industry is equally shocking. It challenges even “blameless tofu eaters” to recognize their complicity in the harms within the vegan food chain. I also appreciated Pollan’s analyses of how the small organic movement’s values were co-opted by the interests of big business. I took this as a cautionary tale for this emerging movement toward small, “humane” meat and animal products.

Choosing what we eat can be the single most important political act we can make, so knowing as much about where our food comes from is vital in our decision-making. This is also where Joel Salatin and I agree—“We don’t need a law against McDonald’s or a law against slaughterhouse abuse—we ask for too much salvation by legislation. All we need to do is empower individuals with the right philosophy and the right information to opt out en masse.”

While we don’t always see eye to eye, there is much common ground, and more room for discussion. I hope Pollan’s work will inspire readers to equip themselves with the right information to opt out en masse.


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