Vegans kill more animals than do their neighbors who chow down on burgers and ribs every night. This assertion is made in Michael Pollan’s engaging, literate new book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.” This, and many other assertions in the book, are disputed by Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer and his co-author, Jim Davis, in their exhaustively-researched new book, “The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter.”

This trio of authors are joined by an all-star line-up of food writers, ethicists, activists, and food industry professionals — including a representative from McDonald’s — at a free public conference, Food, Ethics, and the Environment, at Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium, on the afternoon of Thursday, November 16, and all day Friday, November 17. (Full details and a registration form are available at www.princeton.edu/~eating/program.)

Cathy Hackett of the Princeton Environmental Institute, a part of the Woodrow Wilson School, is helping Singer, the conference’s organizer, to put together the program. “There are so many issues,” says Hackett. “We started by saying that food has universal appeal. There are an abundance of articles everywhere you turn. Interest has just exploded since we started in the spring.”

A catalyst for the conference, which is being funded by an alumnus, is the nearly simultaneous publication of the Singer book and of “What to Eat,” a 600-page, “aisle-by-aisle guide to savvy food choices and good eating,” by Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, and an entertaining, prolific, and influential food writer, who was thrilled to have a cameo performance in Morgan Spurlock’s film, “Supersize Me.” In addition, Pollan, who agrees with Singer on a lot of issues, but takes a sharply different stand on others, had just published his own book, and, says Hackett, “had reached out to Peter Singer.”

The conference began to take shape around this trio, and grew to include many more high-profile people with strong opinions on the American diet, the origin of its components, and how they are obtained. Among the speakers are Gary Nabhan, author of “Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods,” Paul Shapiro of the Factory Farming Campaign, Rebecca Goldberg of Environmental Defense, and Stu Orefice, director of dining services at the university.

A recent addition to the conference’s roster of speakers, and, says Hackett, “the icing on the cake,” is Eric Schlosser, author of the best seller, “Fast Food Nation,” and more recently, of “Chew on This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know about Fast Food,” a book for teenagers. In what Hackett calls an incredible stroke of serendipity, Schlosser’s film, based on “Fast Food Nation,” is to open in New York City on the Friday of the conference. Schlosser will speak on Thursday at 4:30 p.m., sign his books early on Friday afternoon, and then head into Manhattan for the premier of his movie. There will be a pre-release screening of the film, for students only, on the Wednesday preceding the release.

Hackett says that ethical and environmental issues surrounding the universal, at least three-times-a-day activity of eating are “very complex, not straightforward.” What an understatement! And she didn’t even mention the social, political, geopolitical, and health issues.

The confluence of all of these factors is the source of the title of Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” He writes about the way that our earliest ancestors had to scrutinize every potential edible in their environment, testing carefully for the sweet flavor that would indicate that it might be safe to eat, or for the bitter flavor that was a tip off to the possibility that it was lethal. Eating was a life and death adventure for omnivores then, and, with the virtual disappearance of locally grown and produced food, it is once again.

American consumers have no idea of where their food comes from, what it contains, how it is produced — and whether it will kill them right away, perhaps via E. coli, or more slowly, through the ingestion of vast amounts of processed corn, including high fructose corn syrup, a substance that no human had ever even tasted much before 1980, and which is now used so liberally in everything from condiments and cupcakes to a whole range of “health foods,” that Pollan says we are all just “corn walking.”

Some of the big issues that the authors at the conference address, the ones that contribute the most to our disconnect from our food, include whether it is better to buy locally or internationally, the rise of huge organic food conglomerates, and the realities of factory farming.

#h#Factory Farming#/h#

This is the subject that makes so many good people turn away, but it is also the one on which every conference speaker — even the McDonald’s representative, to at least a small extent — can agree. It is horrific for the animals, which lead short, wretched lives that do not allow them any space in which to act the way a chicken or pig or cow is genetically designed to act. It has turned formerly middle-class meat processing towns into what Schlosser calls “rural ghettos,” places where slaughterhouse workers, most of them dirt poor and illiterate in any language, crowd together, are preyed upon by gangs and drug dealers, and labor under conditions so dangerous that they have to wear chain mail to work, and yet still have the highest rate of work-related deaths and serious injuries in the country.

This is the ghastly end product of factory farming, a practice that began, Pollan writes, early in the 20th century with the invention of synthetic nitrogen. Applied liberally to corn fields, it has vastly increased corn yields. Before the advent of this petroleum-based substance, corn could only be planted once every few years, as it depleted the nitrogen in the soil, an essential element in its make-up. Farmers traditionally grew a number of crops, and often raised animals too. But synthetic fertilizer allowed them to harvest vast quantities of corn with much less labor. A 365-day-a-year job was reduced to 50 days of labor for the typical corn farmer. Oversupply, along with a concomitant drop in prices, however, became a problem. But this was soon overcome by a liberal program of federal subsidies.

Under Earl Butz, secretary of agriculture under President Nixon in the early 1970s, farmers were paid subsidies for every bushel of corn they sold. The money made up the difference between what the market would pay and a fixed number set by the government. Farmers were encouraged to plant from “fencerow to fencerow” and to “get big or get out.” Many farmers were forced into bankruptcy, and those that remained were left little choice but to buy up as much land as they could and raise more and more corn.

A traditional farm, where animals grazed on grass, chickens pecked around in the yard, and a variety of vegetables were grown, was out of the question. As George Naylor, a corn farmer with whom Pollan spent a great deal of time, told him, “The elevator is the only buyer in town, and the elevator is only paying me for corn and soybeans.”

This corn is not eaten on the cob at family picnics, but rather is shipped to fetid feedlots, where it is fed to animals, including cattle. Pollan writes at great length about why this is such a serious problem. Cows, he explains, are ruminants, designed to eat grass and turn it into protein. They are grazers, and taking them off the pasture has serious implications for animal — and human — health. The cows are fed enormous quantities of corn, a food that sickens them, and so they have to be fed antibiotics right along with it, mixed into their feed. They need to be fattened up quickly because there is no way that they can live out a normal life on this diet. A feedlot cow is not a healthy cow.

Healthy, no, but plentiful, yes. This is so, Schlosser writes in “Fast Food Nation,” because the first fast food entrepreneurs, back in the 1950s, in California, hit upon the perfect food for suburban families on the go in their new cars. The hamburger, a food that could be held in one hand, and easily chewed by children, quickly became a staple of the American diet as McDonald’s and its imitators planted outlets on every street corner. All of those cows, being fed all of that corn, had found an enormous market. Raised on a factory farm, they could easily be handed out of a drive-in window.

#h#Industrial Organic#/h#

An awareness of factory farming practices as applied to animals is just dawning, but for the better part of three decades a solid segment of the population, frightened by the use of pesticides on fruit and vegetables, has turned to organic produce, and to a lesser degree, to organic eggs, milk, and meat.

Until the last decade or so, “organic” conjured up a picture of a couple in flannel shirts growing a variety of crops out behind their farmhouse and gathering eggs from an adjoining hen house. It was certainly a concept that caught on.

“The word organic has proved to be one of the most powerful words in the supermarket,” writes Pollan. “Without any help from government, farmers and consumers working together in this way have built an $11 billion industry that is now the fastest growing sector of the food economy.”

Pollan is in favor of organic, but doesn’t like the development of industrial organic one bit. His book is arranged around a number of meals, including a McDonald’s burger eaten in his car, a feast centering on a pig he hunted and killed himself, a dinner prepared from ingredients bought at a Whole Foods supermarket, and a meal whose centerpiece chicken came from Polyface Farm in Virginia.

Pollan spent a week at Polyface, an old-fashioned farm — only better. He reveled in the adventure in truly sustainable agriculture, where crops and animals are rotated for their health and that of the soil, and even took part in slaughtering some of the farm’s chickens. Joel Salatin, the farm’s owner, could not be more respectful of his farm’s environment, or of its animals, but his products do not carry a “certified organic” label. An icon of the eco-agriculture movement, Salatin is not willing to go along with all of the USDA’s requirements. He posts an article “Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal” on his website (www.polyfacefarms.com).

Many of Whole Foods’ products do sport “certified organic” designations, but Pollan says that the supermarket’s labels, often containing poetic paeans to farm life, are little more than “Supermarket Pastoral.”

The story Whole Foods tells through its signage, ambiance, and labels, he says, “is a pastoral narrative in which farm animals live much as they did in the books we read as children, and our fruits and vegetables were grown in well-composed soils on small farms much like Joel Salatin’s.” He then asks, “just how well does Supermarket Pastoral hold up under close reading and journalistic scrutiny? About as well as you would expect anything genuinely pastoral to hold up in the belly of an $11 billion industry, which is to say not very well.”

Controlled by the same handful of conglomerates that put conventional foods on the shelves of Shop Rites and Acmes around the country, the organic movement has been co-opted by agribusiness, which ships its centrally produced products thousands of miles from their origin. “Organic farming has increasingly come to resemble the industrial system it originally set out to replace,” writes Pollan.

In visiting certified organic farms, Pollan found that its cropland had the same black tint as the petroleum soaked fields where non-organic corn is grown. Weeds on large-scale organic farms have to be controlled somehow, and he found migrant laborers doing so with blow torches. On organic poultry farms, which, according to federal regulations, have to provide access to the outdoors, he discovered that chicks are kept inside, packed tightly together, for the first five weeks of their lives. When they are finally allowed out, they are too terrified to take the chance. They are killed at seven weeks of age. Observes Pollan: “Free range turns out to be not so much a lifestyle for these chickens as a two-week vacation option.”

Singer also visits an organic chicken farm, Pete and Gerry’s in New Hampshire. He certainly sees problems with the overcrowding in organic hen houses. But he sees these organic operations as more of a step in the right direction than does Pollan. “Our first view of the shed was a shock,” he writes. “The shed was about 60 feet wide and 400 feet long. Covering the floor, stretching away into the distance, was a sea of brown hens.” He was told that the hens had, on average, 173 inches of space. (Conventional producers allow much less. McDonald’s has rejected suggestions from its own consultant to allow 100 inches per hen, and is encouraging its vendors to up each bird’s space from 50 inches to 73 inches.)

Even the organic hens’ 173 inches, generous by industry standards, appeared to be very little space at first glance, but as Singer began to walk around, he saw that the birds, unlike their conventionally-raised counterparts, who live out their lives in cages stacked one upon another, did exhibit some bird-like behaviors.

“These hens were active, lively, and showed no fear of us,” Singer writes. “They started pecking at our boots and grabbing the shoelaces with their beaks.”

In speaking to the farm’s owner he learned that organic production had saved the family farm. Jesse Laflamme, the third generation owner, recounted how his grandfather had been able to make a living by raising 5,000 hens. Nowadays, he told Singer, “a million hens is a small farm.” Laflamme raises 100,000 hens in six sheds, is one of the larger organic egg farmers, and is able to make a go of it.

Singer is not as hard on organic chicken farmers as Pollan is, and he is markedly more supportive of the Whole Foods supermarket chain. He met the chain’s founder, John Mackey, who started out by selling natural foods in Austin, Texas, and likes him. Mackey became a vegetarian because he thought that was a good way to attract women, and went on to become a vegan after being attacked at a shareholders’ meeting over the way the ducks his chain bought were being raised.

Mackey initially bridled over the attack, telling animal activists that his duck vendor, Grimaud Farm in California, had a reputation for producing high-quality ducks, fed on a diet free of animal by-products, antibiotics, and hormones. But the activists eventually wore him down to the point that he set out to read all he could find on the treatment of animals bred for food, including Singer’s “Animal Liberation.”

His research convinced him of the horrors of farm animal abuse. He looked into conditions at Grimaud Farm, and discovered that its ducks were being reared in filthy, crowded sheds, the tips of their bills were being cut off, and they were being denied access to water in which to immerse themselves, which ducks need to stay healthy.

Whole Foods is not a vegan chain, Mackey told Singer, because the market couldn’t support one. But, starting with ducks, he is raising the bar on how animals raised for his store are treated. He has posted new standards for ducks, cattle, pigs, and sheep on the store’s website, and plans to certify suppliers with an “Animal Compassion” label by 2008.

#h#Local vs. Imported#/h#

Marion Nestle talks about “food miles” in her new book, “What to Eat.” She marvels that the Marks & Spencer food court near a London hotel where she was staying had bananas from Ecuador, grapes from Chile, string beans from Zimbabwe, and, of all things, onions from New Zealand. At the same time, the store carried nothing from Ireland but berries. In Ithaca, New York, she visited a Wegman’s supermarket that was carrying berries from California for $6.67 a pound, while a nearby farm market was selling berries that were “so ripe and so abundant,” for $2.70 a pound.

Nestle, the professor of nutrition at NYU, whose name rhymes with “wrestle,” has no connection with Nestle, the giant food company based in Switzerland. She concedes that it’s nice to have a full selection of produce year round, but she offers a reminder of the cost — which goes beyond what’s printed on the label. “The more time it takes to move a food from where it is grown to where you can buy it, the more the meaning of ‘fresh’ gets stretched,” she writes. Furthermore, “Food ecologists, who look closely at the social and environmental costs of commercial food production — in pollution of farmland or water supplies, in health care for farm workers, or in depletion of world supplies of fuel oil, for example — refer to such distances as food miles.”

Well-traveled food tends to look like locally-grown produce, but rarely comes even close to its taste. Nestle opts for local whenever possible, even though such produce, not engineered for longevity, may not last as long in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, Pollan’s adventure in food has made him passionate about the ecological and social costs of importing food. After his week on Polyface farm, seeing how woodland is being preserved, and how a large customer base gladly goes out of its way to pay more for local food, Pollan yearns for the return of the family farm.

Like Nestle, he also decries the amount of petroleum used in moving food long distances. “As in so many other realms,” he writes, “nature’s logic has proven no match for the logic of capitalism, one in which cheap energy has always been a given. And so, today, the organic food industry finds itself in a most unexpected, uncomfortable, and, yes, unsustainable position: floating on a sinking sea of petroleum.”

Singer, an environmentalist who travels around Princeton on foot or on his 10-year-old red Trek bicycle (purchased locally at Jay’s Cycles on Nassau Street), on the other hand, encourages food importation, at least in some circumstances. He roundly condemns the morality of making it a priority to keep American dollars circulating within the community, pointing out that the poorest American farmer has a vastly better life than does the farmer in a Third World country.

“More than a billion people are currently living on less than what $1 per day buys in America,” he writes. “So, at current exchange rates, they might be living on what 30 cents would buy if that sum were taken to an impoverished country and then converted to the local currency. That’s a level of poverty that, for those of us living in the world’s wealthy nations, is barely imaginable.” It means, he continues, that people are barely able to feed themselves, cannot afford medical care, cannot send their children to school, and in many impoverished countries, have a life expectancy that is 30 years less than that of people living in the United States.

Farmers in the United States have safety nets, he adds, but there is no equivalent to food stamps, public schools, or Medicaid in most developing countries. He acknowledges that the Third World farmer may see only a tiny fraction of the amount his produce brings, but says that, for the poorest people, a few pennies can make an enormous difference.

“This leads to a conclusion that may seem surprising,” Singer writes. “If you have a dollar to spend on beans and you can choose between buying locally grown beans at a farmers’ market or beans grown by a poor farmer in Kenya — even if the farmer would get only two cents from your dollar — you will do more to relieve poverty by buying the Kenyan beans.”

As far as the ecological cost of transporting those beans thousands of miles, Singer says that it can actually be less than buying from the local farm stand. This is so because some forms of shipping, notably by sea, use little oil per pound of produce, and because a trip to the farm stand, after all, generally requires lots of gasoline. Pollan tells us, for example, that some customers of Polyface Farm in Virginia traveled an hour each way to buy locally-grown meat and produce.

#h#Are Vegans Always Kinder to Animals?#/h#

Nearly all vegetarians avoid eating meat out of compassion for animals. But Pollan, who does eat meat, but is repulsed by factory farming and horrified by the joy a hunter takes in the kill, asserts that vegetarians harm millions of animals — more, in fact, than meat-eaters harm.

In his book he writes that Singer’s statement that “‘in normal life there is no serious clash of interests between human and nonhuman animals’ is a decidedly citified version of normal life, certainly one no farmer — indeed, no gardener — would recognize.”

Pollan points out that the grain a vegan eats is harvested with a combine that shreds field mice and that a farmer’s tractor crushes woodchucks in their burrows, while his pesticides “drop songbirds from the sky.” Killing animals is “probably unavoidable no matter what we eat,” writes Pollan. “If America were suddenly to adopt a strictly vegetarian diet, it isn’t at all clear that the total number of animals killed each year would necessarily decline, since to feed everyone animal pasture and rangeland would have to give way to more intensively cultivated row crops. If our goal is to eat as few animals as possible people should probably try to eat the largest animal that can live on the least cultivated land: grass-finished steaks for everyone.”

Notice that Pollan writes “grass-finished steaks.” He and Singer disagree on many issues, but both are repulsed by factory farming. Both men are convinced that if Americans would only allow themselves to look at how the vast majority of the animals we eat are raised and killed, the system could not stand.

Eating ethically is all about good choices, as the title of Singer’s new book states, but it is impossible to make those choices with blinders on. Open your eyes, urge Nestle, Schlosser, Pollan, and Singer. Take a look at where your food comes from.

“No other human activity has a greater impact on our planet as agriculture,” writes Singer. “Americans spend more than a trillion dollars on food every year. That’s more than double what we spend on motor vehicles, and also more than double what the government spends on defense. In addition to its impact on over 6 billion humans, the food industry also directly affects more than 50 billion nonhuman land animals a year.” The food industry, he writes, puts chemicals and hormones into rivers and seas, and spreads diseases such as avian influenza.

“All of this happens because of our choices about what we eat,” Singer says. “We can make better choices.”

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