Michael Pollan Admits He Was Wrong


Michael Pollan gets intense talking at Pop!Tech 09 via Flickr

Almost every time we post something on the meat debate we get a slew of emotional comments from readers that sit on either side. The vegan side was backed up by sustainable food icon Michael Pollan who, at Pop!Tech 09, memorably quipped, "A vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a beef eater in a Prius."

Not to toot my own horn, but when I first heard this, my gut told me that Pollan was a bit off. And, thanks to science, my gut has been proven right. Way back in 2005, Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin from the Department of the Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago published a paper that compared the carbon footprint of both a meat-based and a plant-based diet. As Reuters reported:

They found that the difference between an heavy meat-eating diet and a vegan diet was about 2 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per person per year. The difference between a Prius and an SUV (they used a Suburban, which gets about the same mileage as a Hummer) was 4.76 tons per year.

Although Eshel clearly respects Pollan, he couldn't let the inaccuracy in the Hummer driving vegan sound-bite stand uncontested.

Pollan's claim, said Eshel, "is emphatically wrong. If you're looking at the mean American driving habits and eating habits, it's not even close."

"In my heart I'm flatly on the Pollan side, but I'm a scientist and I don't like to play fast and loose with numbers," he added. "It's like death panels in the healthcare debate. We don't want to get into hyperbolic statements that are numerically unsound."

To Pollan's credit, when he heard about Eshel's concerns he retracted his statement.

"After digging in to it further, and consulting Gidon Eschel, I don't feel comfortable defending it," he wrote to Reuters in an email. "It's much more important to keep the focus on the central thrust of the environmental case against eating industrial meat, which is not in dispute and certainly does not stand or fall on the case of the vegan Hummer driver."

"Thanks for your doggedness on this matter, which we can hope will stop this meme before it hurts somebody," he added.

(Supposedly Pollan asked the Pop!Tech folks to remove reference to the quote, which they haven't.)

While the vegan vs. omnivore debate can get emotional - often pitting animal loving zealots against freedom loving zealots - we at TreeHugger are very happy to have some hard science to fall back on to help frame the debate. Here's a bit more from Eschel, summing up his thoughts on the issue.

To be clear: you cannot be an environmentalist, you can't even remotely claim to be anything but a selfish lunatic, if you drive a Hummer. This is true for numerous important reasons, and it really makes no difference whatsoever if it is running on hydrogen, like Arnie's (how in God's name do we get that compressed H2? and if it's using PV panels - do manufacturing those come free of C charge?!)

On the other hand, much as I favor plant based diets, you CAN be a meat eating environmentalist. You will have to work extra hard in other fronts, but it's not impossible.

So, for all you responsible meat eaters out there, this one's for you. Don't say we never do anything for you. If you, like me, plan to continue eating meat, get informed, make responsible choices, and maybe forgo any gas powered vehicle to keep that footprint low.

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Tags: Beef | Carbon Footprint | Diet | Michael Pollan | Vegan