I read Michael Pollan’s book excerpt “The Anxiety of Eating” [May 2006] with a mixture of admiration and embarrassment: admiration that he could largely succeed in explaining biology to the average Joe and Jane; embarrassment that he fell into the trap of dumbing down the theory of evolution.
In the first paragraph Pollan states that “our stomachs produce an enzyme specifically designed to break down elastin, a type of protein found in meat and nowhere else.” Now, I get his point: that we are omnivores who evolved to eat meat, and that this enzyme is evidence. But the enzyme was not “designed.” It was probably a byproduct of some other biochemical process and just happened to help digestion.
In the third paragraph Pollan talks about big brains and big guts as two “strategies” for dealing with food selection. These are not “strategies.” Animals did not sit down in a war room and discuss how to evolve.
Later Pollan talks about plants and animals not wanting to be eaten and so evolving “defenses to keep themselves whole.” Evolution doesn’t happen for a purpose. There is only mutation and a result, either beneficial or not.
I know Pollan understands how evolution really works. My gripe is that he thinks he has to anthropomorphize plants and animals and enzymes and DNA so the layperson won’t feel daunted. He does science a great disservice by dumbing it down this way. Rational thinkers have a hard enough time fighting superstition without giving ammunition to the science-is-bad crowd.
Contrary to what Michael Pollan says in his book excerpt and in the interview by Arnie Cooper [“Lost in the Supermarket,” May 2006], humans can obtain full nutrition without eating animal products. This fact reduces the omnivore’s dilemma by half and challenges Pollan’s easy — in my opinion, too easy — justification of flesh as food.
We can digest meat today because doing so once provided our species with a survival benefit. But in our postindustrial age, an individual can give up flesh food with no nutritive loss. Meat consumption is now a choice rather than a mandate.
The unease vegetarianism generates among the meat-eating majority has fueled many “scientific” attempts to prove that a vegetarian diet lacks protein, fails to offer a full range of vitamins, and creates dramatic problems in the human body. Were any of these assertions true, the millions of souls who have forsworn meat during the past centuries would have fallen ill with some sort of “vegetarian syndrome.” That this has never happened reassures me of the diet’s safety.
Likewise, I find no meat-eating mandate in our human engineering. Our teeth can grind flesh, but unlike those of true carnivores, they are no longer pointed and sharp. Our stomachs generate the correct enzyme to digest meat, but that ability atrophies when it’s not used, and our colons (which Pollan never mentions) are poorly constructed for meat digestion. While a carnivore’s colon is short, straight, and internally smooth, ours is lengthy, curvy, and filled with nubbles and crevices where flesh food can snag, acidify, flood the bloodstream with cholesterol, and create diverticulitis.
Meat consumption is a choice that should be made according to each individual’s philosophical and moral beliefs. Pollan wraps the flesh-food option in select scientific data and presents it as a biological imperative.
I agree with Michael Pollan that it would be beneficial if we knew where the meat we eat came from, but most of us don’t have the wherewithal, time, or courage to hunt and kill our own meat, as he did. We prefer to let others do our dirty work. We certainly don’t take schoolchildren on field trips to slaughterhouses, which don’t allow visitors anyway. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”
Interviewed at his comfortable home in sunny California, Michael Pollan suggests that, to lessen the evils of big agriculture, those of us who live in New England should give up our salads during the winter months and eat only what we can grow locally. Root vegetables should suffice, he tells us. If that’s his solution to industrial farming, then I say, “Thank God for global warming.” If the world heats up a bit, maybe New England will have a longer growing season, and then we can all have lettuce in the winter.
Michael Pollan sounds like a USDA representative when he says we are “designed” to eat meat. When was the last time he tried to take a bite out of the hindquarter of a steer? His teeth and jaws wouldn’t even get through the hide. There is no other animal in nature that requires the external help humanity does to eat meat. We need to skin the animal, slice and dice or grind it, cook it, and perhaps tenderize it with chemicals, all before we eat it. Cats and coyotes are designed to eat meat, not man.
I applaud Michael Pollan’s insights into how the U.S. food industry has distorted traditional wisdom around eating, but I take strong exception to his use of foie gras as an example of a rich and fattening food that can still have its place in our diet if we follow the French model of moderation. While that may or may not be true nutritionally, foie gras has no place in anyone’s diet from an ethical standpoint, as it is arguably the cruelest food anyone can consume. To produce it, farmers force-feed geese about four pounds of grain per day through metal pipes. The birds are kept in confinement and suffer from extreme stress and ripped esophagi; many are unable to stand. Their livers will swell to ten times the normal size to produce this so-called delicacy. Pollan likes to get personally involved with his food; I doubt he would consume foie gras if he had to participate in its production.
Deirdre Peterson’s essay on the inhumanity of animal production [“Seventy-two Labors,” May 2006] cries out for a differing viewpoint. Peterson may have forced herself to watch videos of heinous crimes against animals, but I suspect she’s had no firsthand experience of actual animal-farming practices in a rural area such as mine. Animal-rights groups ferret out the worst possible examples and present them as the norm. She claims that “all products that contain ingredients from animals — chicken-noodle soup, ice cream, yogurt, waffles — have one source: the factory farms of agribusiness.” This simply isn’t true.
As a livestock veterinarian for nearly twenty years, I work daily with producers of milk and meat in New England. The vast majority of my clients keep their animals in clean, comfortable conditions, and at the very least realize that there is no economic incentive for beating or otherwise mistreating an animal. We should address the violence in those videos as violence, and not attack animal farming across the board. I occasionally have to recommend humane euthanasia for an animal, and although I have never had a client refuse my recommendation, I have had more than one shed a tear.
Deirdre Peterson should be aware that wool clothing is renewable, and harvesting it does not harm sheep. In fact, it even helps the animal maintain its body temperature during the warm summer months.
Deirdre Peterson responds:
To Name Withheld: I’m glad you are able to work with producers who don’t mistreat their animals. I wish that were the norm. You don’t indicate the size of the farms with which you are involved, but if the farm owners are shedding a tear over one of their animals, these facilities are not CAFOs (“concentrated animal-feeding operations” — the industry term for factory farms), where the vast majority of farm animals are confined. CAFOs treat animals like commodities in order to maximize corporate profit; they also exploit workers and squander and pollute our natural resources.
To Dave Zimmerman: Sheep today need to be sheared because they have been bred by humans for commercial purposes; early sheep shed their fleece naturally and had no need of shearing. In theory, shearing doesn’t have to be a problem, but in practice it is a brutal process in which animal injuries are common because the goal is speed and profits. Beyond shearing, there are other cruel practices intrinsic to today’s large sheep-farming operations. In Australia, for example, animal-rights activists have been struggling to bring humane standards to an industry that has fought them every step of the way. To understand the seventy-two labors that go into a wool sweater, readers might visit the websites of animal-rights organizations in Australia or go to www.peta.org.
Both of my parents were teachers and voracious readers. My mother read to me every night before I went to bed, and our shelves were always crammed with books. In college, I majored in English and spent many an evening curled up in a chair, reading for the next day’s classes. I enjoyed reading, but I didn’t get the thrill out of it that I thought I was supposed to. I would have picked a nice, long nap over a book any day. Then in 1997 The Sun came along and redefined reading for me.
I would rather tighten up on my food budget than not be able to pay for my Sun subscription. The magazine makes me feel connected to other human beings on an intimate level. When it arrives, I can’t possibly go to bed until I have savored every last word of each delicious entry in Readers Write.