Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Pollan-Singer Travesty

If you keep up with food and agricultural news (and gossip) you will likely agree that Michael Pollan is everywhere. From The Omnivore's Dilemma to Food, Inc. he is providing fodder for debates about how food is produced. Some worship him as the prophet who discovered a capitalistic conspiracy, and some consider him an enemy to truth. Like him or not, we all know him, and his books and movies are talked about by large numbers of people.

As an economist I am not a Pollan fan because he exploits the natural tendencies of some people to oppose capitalism for false reasons. Although the U.S. provides people with the potential to have the most healthy, inexpensive, and delicious diet of any human society, some people choose to neglect the healthy part. A business can only produce what the consumer wants, so businesses provide unhealthy food for people who want unhealthy food. Pollan then blames our health problems on the companies, not the consumer. I have tried to read Pollan's books but find the narratives either illogical or sensationalized. Because I feel one can only become less informed by reading Pollan, I have not finished any of his books and do not allow my students to read his books for Honors credit.

The book that I love is one no one is talking about: The Way We Eat by Peter Singer. Animal welfare is undoubtedly the most important issue in agriculture. In The Way We Eat, Singer provides an accurate, logical, and thorough depiction of how animals are raised for food. He dwells on the bad parts, failing to mention the many ways in which animals like cattle are raised humanely, but that is not his job. His job is to bring attention to problems in livestock agriculture, and he does it without logical fallacies, sensationalizing, or by misleading the reader. As someone who has worked on farms and studied the issue, I can say that his book is factual enough to be the centerpiece of a debate.

(Note: I'm not saying I agree completely with Singer on everything or that I support any particular animal rights or animal welfare agenda...I'm merely saying that Singer's book is logical and researched enough to serve as a narrative to debate around, and that the implications of farm animal welfare are important enough that the topic deserves much attention)

If animal welfarists and animal rightists are correct, we are imposing incredibly cruelty upon farm animals daily. Are they correct? That is what we should be debating--not whether corporate agriculture is making us sick. So why does Pollan get all the attention while Singer is relegated to the small minority of animal rightists readers?

The reason is simple: people care largely about themselves (e.g. obesity) and they like blaming other people for their troubles, and Pollan delivers this need. Singer wants us to consider the suffering of other sentient beings and to take responsibility for our role in whatever suffering exists. If our society desires to become a more compassionate and ethical people the first step is to cast aside all works by Michael Pollan and begin studying and reading The Way We Eat. That, at least, is my plea to every American who cares about ethics and who cares about food. Farm animal welfare is the most pressing agriculture issue, and we have only begun to have a real dialogue. Put down Pollan, pick up Singer, and join the Ham and Eggonomics discussion on the state of farm animal welfare!