with the Omnivore
The Satya Interview with Michael
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
To learn more see www.michaelpollan.com.
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