Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food
I just finished Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) and In Defense of Food (2008). "Rebbe Pollan" "gets his fair share of love" on The Jew & The Carrot, and because of that blog and other recommendations, I should've read these two books a long time ago.
For the most part, Pollan's in-depth accounts of agriculture, food science, and eating habits offer helpful information and spot-on advice. I learned a lot about some important topics, including organic and "beyond organic" farming, the prevalence of corn and soy in American diets, farm subsidies, monocultures, processed foods, and nutritionism. This new knowledge has already helped spur some changes in my own eating habits; I've been on this path for a while now, but the extra boost was quite welcome. I recommend both books to vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. And meat-eaters not familiar with factory-farming and the fallacies of labels like "free-range" will surely think twice about their support for animal agriculture.
I disagreed with The Omnivore's Dilemma on three key points. I must point out that Pollan presents his arguments in a thoughtful, respectful manner, and I was much more sympathetic to what he had to say than I would've expected. Although Pollan admittedly dismisses vegetarianism and various pro-animal arguments in an effort to "come up with reasons for whatever he wants to do," he does read books by Peter Singer and other noted philosophers, present their arguments, and temporarily adopt a vegetarian diet.
Pollan promotes meat from commercial farms that treat animals humanely, but he does not offer a convincing argument that truly humane commercial farms exist.
Pollan uses Polyface Farm as an example of "the 'good farm'—one where animals got to live according to their natures and to all appearances do not suffer." As has been noted elsewhere, Polyface Farm is not all it's cracked up to be. Even the account in The Omnivore's Dilemma isn't all that compelling. Pollan spends time on the farm and slaughters "a dozen or so" chickens there, but he notes that the manner in which the chickens are grabbed for slaughter seems "unduly rough." He doesn't know "if there is a more humane way to catch three hundred chickens" (animal slaughter expert Temple Grandin, cited elsewhere in The Omnivore's Dilemma, promotes at least one superior method). Surely the animals could be treated more humanely if several hundred weren't slaughtered in one "as fast and as surely as possible" session ("Scale makes all the difference," notes Polyface Farm's Joel Salatin), but of course, slaughtering birds on a significantly smaller scale—and treating animals as individuals—isn't a viable option for a commercial farm. (I'm considering the argument behind humane slaughter here, but Charles Patterson's view also deserves consideration: "[Killing operations are] not really interested in being 'humane.' If they were, they wouldn't be killing in the first place.")
I take issue with Pollan's glorification of hunting.
Pollan discusses the wide range of emotions he feels about hunting, but he says that he feels "absolutely terrific—unambiguously happy" right after taking the life of a pig. One of the biggest problems with hunting is that killing is indiscriminate. When animals are killed, families and packs are torn apart, often leaving helpless orphaned animals to starve to death. Many animals suffer in agony for quite a while after being shot or trapped before they finally die. As PETA notes in a must-read factsheet, hunting often "disrupts migration and hibernation patterns," and "[t]he stress that hunted animals suffer—caused by fear and the inescapable loud noises and other commotion that hunters create—also severely compromises their normal eating habits, making it hard for them to store the fat and energy that they need in order to survive the winter." Pollan's account of the ethics of hunting animals would've been more complete if all this information had been mentioned.
It is realistic and easy to be vegetarian.
Pollan says that part of him "pities" vegetarians, and he suggests that being vegetarian is "a denial of reality" before going on to quote philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (who was elsewhere quoted as saying that "the greatest and most moral homage we can pay to certain animals on certain occasions is to kill them"). First, it's hard to trust Pollan's account of what's realistic in this context; this comment is included in his discussion leading up to a hunted, gathered, and homegrown meal that he later describes as follows: "[L]ittle if anything about this meal was what anyone would call 'realistic.'" Second, I don't accept Ortega's position or the view that hunting is an undeniable fact of life, per my previous paragraph. Third, Pollan's claims related to vegans' supposed "'serious clash of interests' with other animals" assume an unlikely large-scale switch from current agricultural practices to practices that would support a societywide switch to vegetarianism; his argument does not take away from the ethical considerations of how an individual can stop supporting unnecessary animal suffering by going vegetarian. (I have my doubts about the claims in this section, but I'm not prepared to discuss them in depth or try to disprove what Pollan says here.) Last but not least, it's easy to be vegetarian, particularly once you keep up with it for a while and it becomes routine. Restaurants and dining halls serve an increasing number of vegetarian options, and there are now myriad processed vegetarian foods available that fall far short of Pollan's ideals for whole foods but can simplify the transition to vegetarianism for anyone who is struggling. People willing to undertake a revolution in their diet by following In Defense of Food's Twelve Commandments (with the exception of #9) will likely find that being vegetarian is no more difficult or less realistic than adhering to many of Pollan's commandments.