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Why animal lovers should eat meat May 2, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Greetings from Turkey, where I am currently on holiday. Plenty of free range chickens are running around my pension (and pretty much everywhere else in town) in Cirali.

In my absence, I invite you to take a look at the article I wrote for Simple, Good, and Tasty last week on why animal lovers should (or at least can, with a clear conscience) eat meat. Enjoy!

Meat: the new diapers March 19, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
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I’m sure you recently-minted parents out there know about the diaper controversy. Disposable diapers create mountains (literally) of waste. So, maybe twenty years ago, environmentalists started to attack them as yet another example of Americans’ willingness to trade sustainability for convenience. In response, some well-meaning parents decided to go back to smelly, messy cloth diapers. But then people realized that the environmental impact of washing all those cloth diapers was no joke, either. It turned out the story wasn’t as simple as it first seemed, and it wasn’t obvious what a sustainability-minded parent should do.

The current outcry about the unsustainability of meat-eating looks headed toward a similarly unsatisfying end. Proselytizing vegetarians (among them Paul McCartney, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Peter Singer) are pushing a very simple story: if you want to stop global warming, you should stop eating meat. Credible support for this argument comes from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) 2006 report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which claims that meat consumption is a bigger contributor to global warming than transportation. Since that report was published, the meat-bashing momentum has snowballed, culminating in one subsequently discredited study claiming that meat consumption was responsible for 51% of all global warming emissions!

If only it were that straightforward. The first problem with the blanket directive to eschew meat is that it characterizes all meat as climate-unfriendly. In fact, the global warming impact of different sources of meat (and dairy) varies widely. According to research published in Scientific American, beef cattle are thirteen times worse for the climate than chickens. And on a calorie-for-calorie basis, chicken meat is responsible for fewer greenhouses gases than plant-based foods like apples, bananas, spinach, and rice.* That means that eating low-impact meats like chicken can actually be better for the climate than eating high-impact plant-based foods. Once you start to compare low-impact meats to highly-processed vegetarian alternatives like tofu, a vegetarian diet can start to look downright irresponsible.

Not only does the meat-bashing movement disregard key distinctions between types of meat, it ignores the effects of producing meat in different ways. Nicolette Hahn-Niman elegantly defends the climate credentials of grass-fed beef in an October 2009 piece for the New York Times, and while I don’t agree with every claim she makes, her main point is valid. When cattle are raised on natural prairies – meaning that no rainforest is cleared to graze them and no grain is grown to feed them, but they simply eat naturally-occurring grasses – they have a relatively small climate footprint. That is, relative to conventionally-raised feedlot cattle. The fact that pasturing beef improves its climate “hoofprint” doesn’t, of course, prove that a diet which includes grass-fed beef is as benign as a vegetarian one (and that’s where I think Niman’s claims are overblown), but it does mean that even beef-eating doesn’t have to be quite the villain it was made out to be.

Finally, focusing on meat-eating as the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions ignores other food-based sources of emissions that might actually be bigger, but are less-easily quantified. I haven’t been able to track down hard numbers on this, but commentators like James McWilliams in his book Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly have identified the energy used in food preparation as one of the main contributors to global warming. That means that a burger cooked in a few minutes on the stove might be a more climate-friendly dinner than a (vegan!) pot of rice and beans that requires an hour of simmering. 

So a better slogan than “Stop Eating Meat to Stop Global Warming” might be “Stop Eating Conventionally-Produced Meat from Ruminants, Highly-Processed Foods, Foods Grown on Clearcut Forest and Foods Requiring Substantial Cooking to Stop Global Warming.” Think it’ll catch on?

*Calculated using greenhouse gas emissions per kg food produced for consumption in the UK (http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/how_low_can_we_go.pdf) and calories per 100g food eaten (http://www.keepandshare.com/doc/13243/calories)

Organic milk actually becomes organic March 12, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Check out my article on some *good* news from the USDA: http://simplegoodandtasty.com/2010/03/05/organic-milk-actually-becomes-organic

Book review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle February 18, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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Barbara Kingsolver has created a paean to fresh, local food with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. I harbor some serious misgivings about the locavore movement (see February 5’s post) but Kingsolver’s loving descriptions of the vegetables and birds she and her family coax through life and death inspired a yearning for fresh, homegrown food in even this grouchy urbanite. If food delights you – not just in the eating, but in the seeing and smelling and preparing – you will revel in this book, not for its arguments in favor of locavorism, but for its mouthwatering portrayal of what a year of local, seasonal food in southern Appalachia is like.

That’s really what the bulk of AVM is devoted to, in all its fascinating detail: untangling the mysteries of turkey hatching, celebrating the first vegetable of spring (the reedy asparagus), struggling to prevent boisterous zucchini from overtaking your summer kitchen. It’s lovely, all of it. And if Kingsolver stopped at the pure celebration of all this wonderful food, I would have no bone to pick with her book. Unfortunately, she doesn’t. She insists that we should all participate in the creation of what we eat as she does: by growing it (or at least purchasing it from local growers) and by making it from scratch in the kitchen. Although she doesn’t identify what type of imperative this is, whether moral, spiritual, or cultural, it’s clear that she thinks that a life spent in intimate communion with food is, in some deep sense, superior to one that’s not.

Kingsolver isn’t the first or the only food writer to make this point; Michael Pollan enjoins us to tend gardens and Mark Bittman wants us to spend more time in the kitchen. But this review is about Kingsolver’s book, so I’ll pick on her. The injunction that we should all devote more time to communing with food seems to have something to do with how central it is to our survival, but no one suggests that we all need to be experts on construction because shelter is central to our survival. It’s ridiculous to think that we would somehow be better people if we all took part in building our own homes, so why do we become better people if we all take part in building our own meals? Why not leave it to the experts, if we don’t happen to enjoy it?

That’s another thing: Kingsolver seems to be incredulous that someone could garden or cook and actually discover that they don’t like it. She agrees that women’s liberation means that “…we’ve earned the right to forget about stupefying household busywork. But kitchens where food was cooked and eaten, these were really a good idea. We threw that baby out with the bathwater.” I have to say that for yours truly, no chore, not even dusting, is more stupefying than chopping veggies. Does that make me hopelessly out of touch with the meaning of life?

Not only is it possible to dislike preparing food, it’s also possible to be bad at it. That otherwise unassailable people can turn to be bad cooks or bad gardeners brings up a third failing of Kingsolver and her peers: in their haste to erect a democracy of food preparation, they don’t give themselves enough credit for having something not everyone has: talent. There is such a thing as a green thumb, and why must you force yourself on unsuspecting lettuces if you don’t have it?

There are some other inconsistencies in AVM which are common to the local/seasonal food movement. Kingsolver attacks us for our lack of restraint in eating foods regardless of seasonality; we tell our teens, she says, to wait before having sex, but these are “…words issuing from a mouth that can’t even wait for the right time to eat tomatoes, but instead consumes tasteless ones all winter to satisfy a craving for everything now.” Yet her own approach to winter is to can 60-plus jars of tomato sauce so that her family can, well, enjoy tomatoes out of season. She touts the idea of a native food culture, yet offers recipes from cuisines that originated in places as diverse as Asia, South America, and Europe. She champions using local ingredients, and this is probably the ideal she most consistently upholds. But if her reason for doing so is to save on all the energy used in transport, which she alludes to a couple of times, she must respond to the critique of the locavore movement that points out that transport is one of the food chain’s smallest gas guzzlers. The energy used for fertilizers and for kitchen food preparation each dwarf it. Kingsolver devotes exactly one paragraph of this 350-page book to acknowledge these issues, and in it chooses to pooh-pooh them rather than discuss them.

Read AVM to relish the miracles that daily spring out of the ground to feed us. Just don’t be lulled into believing that you’ve found more than that.

The elegant economics of comparative advantage, and its messy consequences February 5, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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The notion that local communities should be self-sufficient has always fallen foul of my economics-trained, productivity-loving mind. To the argument that buying local keeps dollars in the local community, I have two responses: first, if everyone thought that way, communities would have nowhere to export products, thereby losing lucrative export markets just as they gained local markets. At the end of the day, that tradeoff would leave the average local community no richer than it was before. Second, why should we care so much about enriching our local communities anyway? Does a worker in Mankato deserve my dollar more than a worker in Bangalore just because he happened to be born in a place that’s driving distance from the place I happened to be born?

But even someone who agrees with me on the above two points could conclude that the choice between self-sufficiency and trade is a wash. The Econ 101 case for trade and against local self-sufficiency is stronger. It rests on the principle of comparative advantage. If different communities specialize in what they do best – meaning, not necessarily what they excel at, but what they are “good enough” at to satisfy demand at the lowest cost compared to what everyone else can do – the overall cost of production falls. When we buy a new computer, the physical box will likely have been made in China, the software installed on it designed in the US, and the call centers servicing it run in India. We may not like hearing Indian accents when we call with questions, but we sure do love buying $399 computers. And although we chide ourselves for our insistence on cheap stuff, it’s what allows us to have money left over to spend on a night at the movies, or our kids’ piano lessons, or a new coat of paint on the front door.

When evaluated in terms of providing the best product for the lowest possible cost, the system of specialization and trade entailed by comparative advantage works great. But it only works if all the players – the ones in China, India, and the US – are doing their jobs properly. That seems an obvious point, and true whether you’re a champion of comparative advantage or local self-sufficiency. Even if you’re on the local self-sufficiency bandwagon, all the local players need to do their jobs right to make the system work. But there is one hulking difference between the two systems, and that’s the scale of the damage if something goes wrong. When there’s a glitch in the local system, one community gets screwed. But the rest of the world goes on as before, and if it’s doing just fine, can even lend a helping hand to that unfortunate spot. On the other hand, the wider net cast by the comparative advantage system means that the impact of minor glitches can be magnified by thousands or millions. The sheer scale of the damage also undercuts our ability to recover.  

The scale of recent ground beef recalls due to E. coli contamination offers a prime example. Let’s say we were on the local system, and the beef for each community was provided by local herds slaughtered and processed in neighborhood facilities. If contamination were discovered in the meat from one herd of say, 200 cattle, we’d have about 15,000 pounds of risky ground beef that we’d have to recall. That’s a big deal, but manageable. After all, at one pound of ground beef per household, we’re only talking about a medium-sized suburb’s worth of people who would be affected.

In fact, the most recent ground beef recall, from Huntington Meat Packing in California, was for 390 tons of ground beef. That’s 780,000 pounds, which at one pound of ground beef per household is enough to feed the state of Arkansas. The recall also spanned beef sold over nearly a two-year period. Cargill’s big 2007 recall of ground beef came to over a million pounds, 3000 grocers and 41 states. Why are these recalls so huge? Because one massive packing plant, specializing what it does best, sells beef to that many communities, which as a result have the luxury of not having to invest in individual packing plants of their own. A second problem: in neither of these recalls could the packing plant identify the herd, or even the slaughterhouse, that was the source of the E. coli contamination. Why? The animals come from everywhere from Brazil to Nebraska, and even the slaughterhouses are spread far and wide across the US. In either of these recalls, the problem could have come from just a couple of animals, but they are mixed in with so many others in the global production line that contamination is impossible to trace.

The elegant economics of comparative advantage leaves the world’s production systems teetering on the knife edge of efficiency. As long as no one messes up, we get lots of stuff on the cheap. But if something goes wrong, we all fall down. Is it worth it?

Industry: 1. Back-to-nature: 1. And we’re even January 22, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
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[Hypothetical debate between technophiliac conventional industrial dairy farmer (Mack) and back-to-nature ex-hippie independent dairy farmer (Meadow) on the most climate-friendly way to raise dairy cattle.]

Meadow: the fact is, cows that eat grass burp and fart less than cows that are forced to eat grain, like your feedlot cattle. So, they release less climate-destroying methane into the air. We need to go back to feeding cows what they were designed to eat: grass.

Mack: Maybe if you hadn’t smoked so much of your cherished grass in the 60s you’d still be able to do math. Your dainty little cows might emit less methane per cow than mine; but when you take into account how little milk each of them produces, it’s not such a bargain. My cows produce so much more milk than yours that it more than outweighs the extra gas they pass. The fact is, my modern dairy machine emits less methane per gallon of milk produced than your old-school farm.

Meadow: What you people never take into account when you trot out this tired line are the greenhouse gas emissions associated with making the grain that your cows eat to become so super-productive. What about the emissions associated with all the fertilizing, tilling, processing and transporting of the grain to your “modern dairy machine?”

Mack: Yeah yeah yeah, everyone knows that those emissions are peanuts compared to the actual animals’ emissions. Are you going to deny that concentrated feed, in the form of enriched grain, increases milk yield and decreases greenhouse gas emissions per gallon?

Meadow: Again, oversimplifying. OK, it is general knowledge that concentrated feed increases yield and reduces emissions (again, not including the emissions from manufacturing and transporting the concentrate). But that’s not the only thing you’re doing over there in your little shop of horrors. You’re also breeding cows for yield and nothing else, and that’s increasing emissions, even on a per-gallon of milk basis.

Mack: Bull. Breeding for higher yield means we can produce all the milk we need with fewer cows, which means a smaller herd and lower emissions, overall and per gallon of milk. Case closed.

Meadow. If only. The problem is, as you well know, that cows bred for high yield are less fertile and less healthy overall. That means you have to engineer a bigger herd because you know that a large proportion of it will be infertile (and therefore won’t produce milk) and will die young due to poor health. My naturally-raised beauties, however, are all happy and healthy down by our little red barn.

Mack: Well, we are always doing more research to maximize the combination of high yield and high fertility. Granted, we’re not there yet, but where are your numbers to show that reduced health and fertility is such a big problem that it outweighs our gargantuan milk yields?

[Cut. Where, indeed, are the numbers? Many quantitative studies of livestock’s greenhouse gas emissions, misleadingly cited by one side or the other in this debate, analyze only one gas (e.g., only methane, only nitrous oxide) or only one source (e.g., only farting, only manure). Many also discuss emissions per animal, but not per unit of output, or do not include the off-farm emissions associated with inputs like fertilizer or cattle feed. One excellent 2006 study,* however, quantifies all these factors for pastured dairy cattle, and concludes that we can minimize GHG emissions by feeding generous amounts of concentrate (grain) to cattle that are bred for medium- (not high-) yield. While this study only analyzes pastured dairy cattle, these strategies also apply to feedlot dairy cattle in the US. What does it mean? From a climate perspective, the conventional dairy industry gets kudos for feeding cows grain instead of just grass, but the back-to-nature folks are right that conventional breeding for high yields is bad news. Looks like each side has something to learn from the other.]

*Lovett et al, “A Systems Approach to Quantify Greenhouse Gas Fluxes from Pastoral Dairy Production as Affected by Management Regime,” Agricultural Systems 88 (2006): 156-179.

Grass-fed: something to chew on January 15, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare, Global warming.
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My article for Simple, Good, and Tasty says grass-fed beef may not be all it’s cracked up to be. The best solution, as always, is to know your rancher.

Proud enough to hide January 8, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Pride gets a lot of play in the conventional meat industry. Safe Food Inc., a meat industry alliance formed to combat the ugly picture of meat production presented in the movie Food, Inc., says “We are proud of the way we care for our animals, our employees and the environment. We are also proud of the nutrition, safety and good taste that our products offer.” According to pork.org, the voice of the National Pork Board, “America’s pork producers are proud to be part of the ‘green generation’ as they incorporate responsible, sustainable, agricultural practices on their farms.” KFC, that venerable purveyor of bucketed poultry, notes that it is “…proud of our responsible, industry-leading animal welfare guidelines.”

What do people who are proud of themselves do? They show off (or, if they’re Minnesotan, they wait patiently for someone else to mention their achievement and then grin sheepishly). Think of the dad whose pictures of his kids are just waiting to fall out of his wallet. Or the guy who finally gets that promotion and slips it seamlessly into happy-hour conversation. Or the kid who wins her first trophy at State.

So you might think that with all that pride floating around, meat producers would be throwing open their doors to the public, saying in effect “look at me!” Plus, the fact that the image consumers have of them hardly matches the one they take such pride in gives them yet more incentive to show off. Forrest Roberts, CEO of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, acknowledged in a recent address to the Kansas Livestock Convention that animal welfare is a key battleground for livestock producers, and that the cattle industry needs to capture the “hearts and minds” of the consumer. Dr. Dan Thomson, of the Kansas State Beef Cattle Institute, agreed and noted that the disturbing pictures and videos of animal abuses disseminated by the likes of PETA and the Humane Society of the US were footage of just that – abuses – not, as those organizations would have us believe, “…an everyday occurrence in our industry.” Well, if so, and if the everyday is something to be proud of, then isn’t the obvious answer to show off the everyday to the consumer?*

Unfortunately this logic seems to have escaped the meat industry. While some pro-industry blogs and Facebook sites showcase humane treatment of animals, the industry must recognize that the consumer has no reason to believe that these handpicked examples are any more representative of everyday operations than the examples offered by PETA and its peers. The solution is to submit all animal operations to the public’s gaze, perhaps through webcams whose footage could be posted online. Or at the very least, the industry could welcome unannounced random visits from third parties as a way to spot-check their activities. But if anything, meat producers are trying their damnedest to make it harder for outsiders to get any visibility into what they’re doing. Per coverage of the Kansas Livestock Convention, Dr. Thomson warned that “…employers need to do more background checks and be careful whom they hire. Public places like sale barns and truck stops are the other risk areas he cited. These are places where the general public has regular contact with the livestock industry.” This push to close ranks calls to mind the United Egg Producers’ (UEP) strategy to increase public confidence in conventional egg production: “Since the entire poultry industry is under the risk of intrusion and media attack using agents posing as employees to gain access to facilities, there is an obvious need to enhance security. The UEP has made recommendations to screen job applicants and verify previous employment in an effort to detect and reject these ‘plants.’”** The industry’s real response to criticism about its treatment of animals is not to open up; it’s to hide and rely on the PR guys to paint a pretty picture that’s completely removed from reality.

Maybe humility is suddenly making a comeback.

*Quotes from the Kansas Livestock Convention are from the High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal

** From WATT AgNet article

Book review: Just Food December 10, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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James McWilliams styles Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly as a heroic underdog’s battle against the popular but shallow and misguided eat-local movement. He would love to drink the Kool-Aid and spend his afternoons lolling about the farmers market, he tells us, but his gosh-darned integrity just won’t allow him to sink mindlessly into the morass of locavorism.

Unfortunately his laziness won’t allow him to sustain a compelling argument for an alternative either. He briefly discusses the intriguing alternative of life-cycle assessments, according to which all the energy costs, not just the ones involved in transporting food over long distances, are calculated to determine how environmentally friendly a food is. McWilliams is of course right that it is better to look at all energy costs than only the portion that locavores are concerned with. But without a life-cycle grade on every piece of food we buy (which the government of Sweden is implementing, but is not available elsewhere in the world), how is the consumer supposed to rank the different contributions to energy use that go into food production? Should I buy a fish caught by an ocean trawler – a huge energy sink – if I can save household energy by searing it for only a couple of minutes on the stove, or should I buy dried pinto beans whose production is relatively green, but which require simmering for two and a half hours? McWilliams isn’t offering us any help here; discussing the energy-intensive components of food production, McWilliams says “these findings leave one wondering how much energy could be saved if we threw out less food, cooked smaller amounts, ate less in general, used energy-efficient ovens and refrigerators, composted all organic matter not eaten, and developed more energy-efficient menus…” Yes, they leave one wondering because McWilliams hasn’t bothered to do the calculation for us, or even helped us rank these sometimes competing priorities.

The annoying habit of substituting rhetorical questions for tough analysis pops up at other intervals in JF. When discussing – and dismissing – the possibility of scaling up local food production, McWilliams asks “…how could any storage and distribution service stay in business if it depended on seasonal produce from small growers spread over a vast region?” Well, I don’t know McWilliams, how about interviewing regional grocery chains like Lunds that are incorporating local food into their assortment to find out how their distribution chains handle it? Again, when he reviews sustainable, free-range methods of pig farming, he wonders whether all pig farming could be this way, saying that to answer that question, “One could begin by asking if the resources, labor, expert knowledge, patience, and land exist for the world to convert to such forms of pork production while maintaining the same rates of meat consumption. We don’t have the answer to this hypothetical question…” Well, we could at least begin to answer it by multiplying annual pig consumption by the average number of acres required to raise free-range pigs in places that are already doing so. And we could interview free-range pig farmers to find out how much labor they use to manage their pigs. We could, but McWilliams chooses not to.

McWilliams’ analysis is lazy in other ways, too. He cites secondary sources of important research rather than going straight to the original studies, for example when he discusses Charles Benbrooke’s work on GM soybean yields. I’ll admit that this is a pet peeve of mine, but it’s a non-trivial concern. Had McWilliams read Benbrooke’s actual report, published five years before his own book, he would have seen that Benbrooke found that herbicide application rates on GM soybeans actually went up after the initial few years of adoption, and not down, as McWilliams states.

Perhaps I’m too harsh of a critic here; McWilliams does have some interesting things to say about aquaculture, for example, and the promise of aquaponics to sustainably provide protein for a ballooning world population. The section on subsidies and how their structure should be changed to level the playing field between environmentally costly and environmentally friendly foods makes a lot of sense, although McWilliams fails to own up to the fact that in this case, leveling the playing field means increasing the prices consumers will pay for currently cheap food. Since its expense is one of the most common challenges thrown to advocates of sustainable eating, it’s a big one to ignore.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to cut McWilliams a break, especially when he has so little faith in his readers. At the end of the first chapter, when he discusses initiatives to reduce the cost of food transport like using bigger trucks, he says to us “And you’re thinking to yourself, Yawn.” If he doesn’t credit his readers with the attention span or interest level to delve deeply into these issues, then why write this book for them?

Book review: In Defense Of Food November 12, 2009

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I’m cheating a bit by posting a review of Michael Pollan’s latest book, In Defense of Food, on this blog. The book doesn’t focus on food ethics, but is mostly a commentary on food history and culture, so its topic is tangential to mine. But it’s Michael Pollan, so I can’t resist at least giving it a mention (insert sheepish shrug).

Pollan kicks off IDOF with an attack on nutritionism, the notion that we can explain everything important about food in terms of its component nutrients. The arrogant assumption accompanying nutritionism is that scientists can create a comprehensive list of everything human health requires and then engineer foods – or processed food-like substances – that deliver them to us, thereby making and keeping us healthy. Pollan lays bare the sad history of scientists’ attempts to do so, culminating in the advice to avoid fat and cholesterol that has so influenced the American diet over the past 30 years and is in the process of being debunked. He follows that up with a discussion of the current western diet and its links to the western diseases: heart disease, diabetes, even cancer. And finally, he gives some advice for how we should eat instead.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma Pollan proves himself a lyrical writer capable of evoking the misery of the feedlot or the electricity of the hunt, but in IDOF he is best when he sticks to pure journalism, as when he reveals the absurdity of the scientific community’s reliance on a couple of obviously flawed studies to shape Americans’ eating habits for generations. He anticipates and convincingly deflects challenges, like the oft-heard proposal that we are only seeing more cases of heart disease and cancer because health care advances cause people to live longer, and older. (As Pollan points out, life expectancy has mostly increased because infant and childhood death rates have dropped, not because people who would have died at 50 are now living to 70 and getting cancer in their old age.) He takes the care to document evidence that lazier writers merely gesture at – for example, the studies that show that conventional produce is becoming less nutritious over time.

One does get the feeling that his huge success has taken a small toll on the quality of his writing. Pollan has a few shrill or self-indulgent moments, which I haven’t noticed in his previous work. (Do we really need to be prodded along with “Say what?” (p. 43) and “Do I need to go on?” (p. 189) to appreciate Pollan’s points?) Also, his closing advice on how to eat needs more thought. He wants us to embrace a traditional food culture, but also to eat healthily, and is thrown off by cases in which those two ideals conflict, as they may in his own traditional Eastern European Jewish diet. Still, if you’re interested in the topic, he is the one to read.

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