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September 2006
Engaging with the Omnivore

The Satya Interview with Michael Pollan


Michael Pollan. Courtesy of

Over the past several years, journalist Michael Pollan has been assessing what he calls “our national eating disorder.” Subsidies on corn fuel this epidemic as they cheaply allow factory farm feedlots to flourish. Pollan documented the life of one steer in particular, showing this cheap food comes with a high cost. In addition to exploring industrial agriculture, Pollan has looked at big and small organic farms, as well as the modern day hunter-gatherer. His findings are compiled in his recent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin, 2006). His commentary on industrial organic and Whole Foods Market has engaged Whole Foods CEO John Mackey in a growing public dialogue.

Pollan is also the author of The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001), a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley.

Sangamithra Iyer recently engaged omnivore Michael Pollan in a dialogue about conscious eating.

Just this year alone there have been so many books, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma, about how we eat, the way we eat, what to eat, etc. Why do you think that is?

Generally there is a lot of anxiety and confusion about food choices right now. What’s the right thing to eat for your health? Is it ethical? I think the glimpse people have had into the brutality of animal agriculture, just in the series of articles and occasional TV news items, has shocked people. The controversy around mad cow disease has also been a real window into animal agriculture. People learned for the first time that we feed cows to cows, chicken manure to cows and put downer cows into the food supply. It’s been enough to scare the hell out of people and they are hungry for alternatives.

You’ve been engaging in an interesting public correspondence with John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods. What do you make of his second rebuttal to you?
Well, you know, it was a rebuttal in part, but there were some very significant proposals in there indicating he is prepared to change the way they do business. Now, I don’t want to take credit for that. I think they have other reasons to do it—they have to deal with new competition from Wal-Mart. But the proposals were much more than PR—$10 million in loans to help finance small agriculture and the determination to do more local sourcing is actually happening. Since that letter was written, farmers, ranchers and meat packers have told me they can feel the change down at the grassroots level. So we’ll see what happens. We’ll see if they stick with it. But I’m very encouraged. I think it’s been a very productive exchange.

There is a growing movement for omnivores like yourself, who are interested in grass-fed animals raised in “humane” conditions. As the demand for this grows, what are your thoughts and concerns?
I think we are moving in a direction where there will soon be a separate meat food chain from farms that are certified as being humane. There [will be] a Whole Foods program to certify their suppliers as being [animal compassionate]. We need the organic standards to raise the bar on animal welfare because they are completely inadequate when it comes to animal welfare.

There is a recognition by the food industry that there are a significant number of consumers [willing to] pay more for the peace of mind in knowing their animals were humanely treated and killed. There is also a good business reason—when animals are [treated better] their meat is of better quality.

There is something to be said about the issue of scale. A message that gets lost in all of this, and one thing I think we agree on, is a reduction in meat consumption.
There is no question. Eating meat consumes far too many resources. [So much] fossil fuel goes to support both milk and meat consumption. That said, grass-fed meat does not consume a lot of fossil fuels. If we were to put all our cattle out on grass, we would probably be eating a lot less meat, because it would be more expensive and there would be less of it. I think that’s good.

I am a carnivore, but am so picky about where I’m willing to eat meat from. It’s only when I find grass-fed meat that I’ll eat beef. The net result is very limited carnivory.

Where I have the utmost respect for vegans and vegetarians is, unlike most of us, they give a lot of thought to the implications of their eating decisions. That’s the big step, to pay attention and play out the ramifications of what happens when you eat this and not that. If you come out at a slightly different place—willing to eat a certain kind of meat under certain circumstances, or no meat or no animal products at all—that matters less to me than the fact you’ve undergone that exercise. If more people were conscious about their eating decisions, many problems would end. I feel a lot of solidarity with vegetarians because they’ve taken the biggest step, which is to start thinking.

I definitely have appreciated your thinking and investigative research about animal agriculture. However, I found your discussion of animal rights and dismissal of vegetarianism very limited, almost just a mental debate with Peter Singer. You’ve obviously gained a lot from your experiences and your time with small farmer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, and perhaps a similar experience spending time with veganic farmers, animal rescuers and farm sanctuary folks would have also had…
A big influence? Yes. That is a fair criticism. What happens is that when you are dramatizing an argument you choose who you are arguing with. I know there are many strains in animal rights and technically Peter Singer isn’t an animal rightist, but Singer was kind of a worthy opponent. I thought his [arguments] were the hardest to refute, although I know there are others out there. I have had an engagement with Farm Sanctuary and PETA for a long time, and every time I say something stupid in an interview, I hear from [PETA’s] Bruce Friedrich the next day.

So he corrected you on the vegetarian utopia?
That, and I was dismissive of the [Chicago] foie gras ban, and Bruce made sure I saw some footage about that pretty quickly. I’ve found that all very useful. This is how you learn. I’m not an expert.

An in-depth look at eggs and dairy was notably absent from the book. Layer hens and dairy cows have it the worst, and their products are in the refrigerators of most omnivores.
Yes. There is no question. Dairy is a whole other concern I haven’t really written about yet, but hope to learn more. I think it is really important and people just have no idea. This pastoral image attached to dairy is just so vivid to people.

With this growing interest in “humane” animal products by both consumers and industry, an ongoing debate in the animal movement concerns welfare vs. abolition strategies. Many people agree that any reduction in suffering is good, but some question whether this will ultimately lead to more animals being killed. Also, is it more about PR for the meat industry or grocery chains?
One of the things you learn about the food industry, the more you write about it, is that it’s a sensitive industry. PETA has learned this too. Pressure applied in the right places can bring large changes very quickly. Given the political environment we are in, where it is very hard to get anything done, I think it is very encouraging that you could get movement in this particular industry. I think that is a key question. Do you engage with this industry or do you simply boycott it? There are a lot of people too who want to boycott Whole Foods, don’t want to engage and think I’m wasting my time. You always have to engage. This is how politics works, you move the mainstream a few degrees, and you do not ever get total victory. That is my realism. I think it’s been a very encouraging thing for the animal rights movement that they have been engaging. They are going to have a lot to show for it. I could be wrong. And maybe we are just being greenwashed.

That is a concern. And maybe we need another strategy. You talk about corn subsidies and how so much wrong results from this giant mound of corn, which affects almost everything that ends up on the supermarket shelves. Maybe we need to be tackling that mound of corn?
Yes. You are not going to end animal factories until the price of corn goes up. When corn is so cheap and heavily subsidized, it’s better economics for the animals to all end up on factory farms rather than stay on small farms where they would have better lives. The farmers can’t compete. They cannot feed their animals as cheaply as the feedlots can. So there is no question that there is a very important part for policy in that. There is only so much consumers can do to change this, but I think in general, if we were to move to a more “humane” animal agriculture, it would, by necessity, be a much smaller animal agriculture. Widespread abuse of animals and widespread meat-eating go together because we practice it on the scale we do.

There is no question the radical solution is to change the economics. I think it would be great if the animal movement actually paid attention to the Farm Bill. You need to push on many fronts. One of the things that has happened to PETA is they managed to appear moderate to the McDonald’s of the world because there are people further to the left practicing direct action. Even a divided movement can move the center.

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