3/17/10

Synthesized Food

My family has grown tired of me.  At the dinner table last night they wouldn't even weigh in on the question Dom raised yesterday--
Imagine that to avoid animal suffering required a wholly artificial diet - perhaps one synthesised in a replicator like the ones in Star Trek. Let us stipulate that the amount of pleasure experienced in the eating of such food is exactly akin to that currently involved in eating good quality vegan cooking. In that case the answer to 'is it necessary' might be yes, or might be no - depending on what you mean by necessity.  But would we be ethically required to adopt this diet?
Dom says "Absolutely!" The residents of my house said "pass the salt!"

Well.  I will just say--there are two questions here.  Pollan is worried about two links being broken:  (1) The link between food and nutrition.  He says "no" to vitamins, supplements, fortified foods, etc.  Food should be nourishing.  That's a problem for a vegan diet that has to be supplemented with lab-created B12.  (2) The link between food and the natural world--you know, sun, soil, grass, crops and such.

Here's how it's all supposed to work, according to Pollan:  the earth yields food in a natural way and then food nourishes us.  If you let all that happen in the old-fashioned way, the whole thing isn't pain-free (field mice are killed by combines, chickens are killed, etc) but there isn't the perversity and misery of a factory farm or modern slaughter house.

In Dom's thought experiment, one of these links is broken--link #2.  Food doesn't come from the natural world in the normal way.  Yet nutrition does come from food.   So, the replicator is bad (in one respect) from Pollan's point of view, good from the point of view of reducing suffering.

I do argue in both of my books that pain and pleasure are not all that matters.  But they do matter a lot. So it's not an easy thing to argue that Pollan's scenario is preferable. (In short, I'm thinkin' on it, as we say in Texas.)

19 comments:

Wayne said...

Well, assuming that the replicators don't somehow impact the environment negatively (carbon emissions etc), then it seems like the replicator doesn't actually destroy the environmental links.... I'm not sure if there is anything to say against it. We get our steaks and our happy cows.

Dominic said...

Thanks Jean, as you point out, Pollan's argument might be

1. 'Real' food is better than artificial food (or replicated food) because it is more likely to be healthy for us.

2. Real food is better than replicated food because it is natural.

The idea of the thought experiment is exactly to focus on 2, since I stipulated away taste differences (and might also have stipulated away health differences).
The problem with 2 - unless it is linked with something else is that it is very vulnerable to being dismissed on the basis of the naturalistic fallacy ie just because something is natural, doesn't mean that it is good.

I think it is also worth putting a little pressure on 1. There is this argument lurking below the surface that a natural diet is healthier - perhaps because we have evolved to eat it, because it contains nutrients that are present in nature. But for most of us, most of the time, our diet is massively different from the diet that our ancestors evolved to eat. (Not only that, it is manifestly UNnatural in all sorts of ways). There is no good reason for thinking that our diet is particularly healthy, in fact there are plenty of reasons to think that it isn't. So the idea that a vegan diet plus artificial B12 is somehow going to be more unhealthy because it is unnatural just doesn't wash.

As an interesting aside, there are plenty of anecdotes about B12 not being a problem in a 'natural' vegan diet. So, one story is of a vegan community who strangely were found not be B12 deficient - on investigation it was found that they were getting tiny amounts of B12 from weevils in the wheat silo. I have read in other places suggestions that less washed and processed vegetables might have trace amounts of B12 from contamination with animal faeces (now that is a pleasant thought). So, if such stories are true (I suspect they may be, at least partially), eating meat may not be 'necessary' after all on Pollan's account...

Jean Kazez said...

Of course, food has to come from somewhere. The inputs to the replicator are--who knows? But there's no planting, growing, tilling, harvesting--all that good stuff. So the earth is no longer yielding food in the normal way.

Jean Kazez said...

Dom--I think the idea is that "whole food" is the way to go, because we simply don't have an analysis of what's nutritious about it. We should look at healthy populations and eat the whole foods they eat--that's the basic idea. Trying to isolate the nutrients and eat them instead is risky business. It seems to me that makes pretty good sense, scientifically speaking.

Then there's the value issue. Is it "better" if food comes form the earth in the usual way? Better in what sense? Pollan is a complex, interesting writer, not given to simple pronouncements like "natural, therefore good". Maybe there's an element of that, but many other things too. He thinks we are losing our bearings, heading for environmental disaster. Industrialized food (whether for profit or for ethics) is leading us to be out of synch with the natural world in a way that will lead to our ruin. There's an "existential" element too. Eating "from the earth" puts us in our proper place...etc. etc. All sort of fluffy, but it "speaks" to a lot of people (including me).

Re: washing vegetables. Agh. First principle of parenting: don't feed the kids feces. I'd give the kids a supplement before I'd go that route! Then again, I'd also give them a glass of milk instead of a supplement.

FYI--I'm really just thinking aloud. I don't want to sign on for everything Michael Pollan thinks just yet.

Taylor said...

Hi. I agree that it's good for us to have a sense of connection with the land, weather, etc., including having a visceral appreciation for how our food arrives on our plates. But (again) I think you're making an artificial distinction between "natural" and "artificial". Planting, tilling, harvesting: what on (or in) earth is natural about that? Well, it is and it isn't natural: it's our "metabolism with nature", as Marx called it.

And it's not pills OR "real food". If you take a B12 supplement or a vitamin D supplement (as doctors are now recommending for most of us, especially in winter months), that's just a very tiny ADDITION to all the enjoyable "real food" you eat. How many meat-eaters say, "Wow, I love the natural taste of the B12 in this beef!" -- the beef which, even if "grass fed", is the end result of a hugely artificial genetic and production process? Either way, B12 comes from bacteria; it's just a matter of which artificial route it takes to get to us.

Wayne said...

Dom- Good point about a natural diet not necessarily being a healthy one. Especially with people becoming localvores, it may not be very nutritious at all to eat only the things that have been grown locally.

"Don't feed the kids feces" I think I might make that a T-shirt. But in all seriousness, dirt and bacteria are encourage the development of healthy immune systems. Allergies might be the result of an under-exposure to dirt and allergens in the environment (since infants stay in doors a lot now). And of course you have my other favorite fecally related quote, "There's poo everywhere" from the mythbusters. You really can't escape it.

Jean Kazez said...

Taylor, I really don't think Pollan's reasoning is as simple as "natural, therefore good." The goodness of planting-tilling-harvesting is not simply a matter of that being "natural" compared to replicating food in a lab. It's a lot of things--see 11:49 am (and Pollan's books--have you read them?).

As to consuming vitamins and supplements. Personally, I don't. I simply can't believe that food is inadequate to fill my needs. I also distrust the companies that sell us this stuff. Half of Americans take multiple vitamins and studies show they make no difference whatever. Also, there are issues about whether nutrients are delivered as well in pill form, and whether they are bundled in food with micro-nutrients we don't know about.

To my mind there is real value in eating food (not pills), and eating food that comes about in the usual ways (not in a lab). The serious question for me is whether all that value is sufficient to outweigh imposing suffering on animals. The value is real, it's the weight that's open to the question.

Taylor said...

For the sake of argument, let's suppose you can get all the B12 you need from a pill (or fortified yeast or whatever). After working all day in your organic vegetable garden, revelling in the feel of sun and soil, or after hiking for hours through the woods (no, you were not lost and did not have to kill any passing rabbits), and just before you are about to dig into a wonderful five-course meal in the company of good friends, you pop a B12 pill into your mouth. What real value have you lost, and what moral weight does it have? Not much, I would say. I don't see a dilemma.

Jean Kazez said...

I think it depends if part of your experience is enjoying the way the gardening is health-giving. If you like the total package (work, sun, soil, friends, health) then it's not quite as good if it's not actually a complete package. If the truth is that you have bottles of pills in the cupboard, things aren't what they seem. You aren't really drawing sustenance from the earth (add poetry to taste), but from the earth plus a pharmaceutical company. Imagine it's 10 pills not 1. Then the problem probably starts to seem more evident.

Plus, there are more straightforward health concerns. Naturally occurring vitamins come along with other micronutrients and seem to be better absorbed. Maybe there's something that naturally co-occurs with B12 that the pharmaceutical company doesn't know about.

So--I see negatives where B12 is concerned. There are also positives. I'm not trying to resolve the issue, just characterize what's at stake.

Dominic said...

Good, so there are uncertainties involved in any change to our diet. We don't know whether a partly artificial diet might have some detrimental health consequences.
Three points to make:
Firstly, there is quite a lot known about B12 and its effects on health. There has been a fair amount of study of the effects of B12 deficiency and supplementation in humans and animals. There is no evidence at all of harms from B12 supplementation, so the risk of major problems from a vegan B12 supplemented diet would have to be very small. Any problems would be far more likely to be relatively minor.
Secondly, lets not forget that there are risks and uncertainties about the no-added B12 omnivore or lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. The status quo bias makes us think that the risks of B12 supplementation and a vegan diet must be much greater, but actually we have not much more data on these default diets and their health consequences.

Third, let's say that there *is* some relatively minor or relatively rare health consequence of B12 supplementation and a vegan diet. To make it realistic, lets talk about a real problem.
If you lack B12 your red blood cells don't develop properly and you become anaemic. This is normally preventable by B12 supplementation. But lets say, for the sake of this that a proportion of vegans (especially young women who are menstruating) will become anaemic despite supplementation. Those affected will become tired and lack energy. They may need extra treatment for their anaemia. Very rarely someone might get seriously ill from adopting a vegan diet.

Lets say, to put numbers on it, that 5% of vegans were to develop symptomatic anaemia from a vegan, B12 supplementated diet, and 1 in a 10000 were to become seriously unwell.

I have made up these numbers, and imagined these consequences. But if they were real - would it change anything about the ethical argument? How does this small risk weigh against the animal suffering involved in meat/egg/dairy production?
If they were real - would that mean that we should give up on becoming vegan, or perhaps instead would it mean that we should devote our time to looking at ways to mitigate the health consequences of a no-added-suffering diet?

Wayne said...

Dom- I'm not sure it would mean that we would have to give up being vegans. I think instead it would mean that we would simply need to supplement....

Let me take a stab in the dark here, and tell me if I'm way off base, Jean. I think that the tension that you're (Jean) is trying to pull out here, isn't quite an ethical tension.... Maybe its an aesthetic one. Jean wants the natural picture of food production. I think its pretty darn appealing too. But moral things may not be appealing at all... I find a wallet full of money.... should I return it? The ethical choice isn't terribly appealing.

We're attracted to nature and the natural, and I think we should think of that attraction as an aesthetic sensibility that may have to be put on hold because no matter how cute the diorama of a bunch of kittens dressed up for a tea party is, the ethical dimension holds more important value.

Jean Kazez said...

Aesthetic, hmmm...yeah, probably that's part of it. Plus, I like the whole attitude of "respect for nature." Every species has its species-specific diet. It may not be pretty, but lions eat zebras, cows eat grass, etc. Humans are omnivores, so they have lots of choices (thus, the title of Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma"). But some diets are off limits. We can't eat a grass diet, like those wonderful hermits of the 4th century, the "grazers". If somebody tells me I have to eat a grass diet and "supplement," I am entitled to laugh about that. Even if I reduced total suffering in the world by eating grass plus supplements, I don't have to do that. Yes, I ought to let preventing cruelty enter into my thinking (veal and foie gras?--no way), but I don't need to go as far as choosing a diet that is simply not within the set of possibilities intrinsic to my species.

Now I know I sound like a Catholic natural law thinker here, or even worse, like that guy Wesley J Smith whom I bashed so mercilessly last week, but I can't help but find this reasoning rather compelling. How can I be morally required to give up something as basic as a human diet? That's the intuition, for what it's worth. (I know, I know...nobody seem to think it's worth much.)

rtk said...

For ages and ages people everywhere have developed their tastes according to what was available and what was enjoyed and was needed for survival. So often, the foods needed to be eaten together for greatest benefit. Now we toss out the centuries of wisdom and trade it for advice from the profitable businesses, such as Monsanto and all the pharmaceutical companies. The amount of vitamin C, for example. in one orange requires a huge amount of chemicals to replicate. We have no idea what else is in that orange that works so efficiently in combination. We only recently learned about the good results of rice with beans, against the advice of diet advisors who objected to the double starch. Blame nature; the system is cruel to animals and fish, but I'd be more than wary to leave those evils for the fad diets prevalent today. I agree with Pollan. If it's a pill, its potential for harming is scary. I don't like any restrictions. My quite unspoiled appetite seems safest to me.

Jean Kazez said...

If the only issue were health, I don't think I'd put my faith in nutritionists and pharmaceutical companies. I'd look at healthy people and do whatever they do. Hopefully that would be the Italians or Greeks or some such so I could eat food (FOOD--as Pollan says) that I like.

David said...

Interesting discussion, but that is marred, I think, by the purely verbal distinctions of food vs. pills and nature vs. lab.

Vitamin B12 is never produced by chemical synthesis. The "lab-produced" "pills" are actually extracts from controlled bacteria cultures.

The cultures are done in the "lab". What exactly defines a "lab"? I have visited a "traditional", "organic" brewery. Beer is considered "natural"; it's called "food", not "pills". A brewery looks like a chemical plant, and that is what it is; except that the biological reactors are called "vats" or "kettles" and that they and the pipes are made of copper rather than of stainless steel. The end-product is called "beer", rather than "water and ethyl alcohol mix". It's sold unpurified.

If we found some traditional-sounding name for vitamin B12, produced it in a less-than-pure form and called it "food" instead of "supplement", in a company labled as a food company rather than a pharmaceutical one, with blue coats instead of white coats on the workers and copper vats instead of stainless steel ones, would that end the vegans-need-supplements talk?

Conversely, seeing how dependent the meat industry is on nitrogen fertilizers produced by chemical factories, meat can be seen as a kind of blown-up pharmaceutical pill. Not to mention the synthetic methionine in the chickens...

As things already are today, you don't have to take vitamin B12 pills. My wife and I buy vitamin B12 in a liquid form, and add one drop every now and then to the food during cooking. Then we eat the food. It's no worse than adding sodium chloride - aka table salt - during cooking. And by the way, what's "natural", "un-pillish", about table salt? Does knowing you have a sodium chloride supplement in your larder spoil the completeness of your "natural" meal?

David

Jean Kazez said...

The beer point is interesting, but how's this for an analogy? You can feed babies breast milk or formula. Some people think formula can mimic everything that's good in breast milk, but it's not unreasonable to be suspicious of that. After all, we don't know what all makes breast milk nourishing. It's not unreasonable to think "mother nature" gets things right in a way that a lab can't duplicate. It's not that breast is best simply because it's "natural." Rather, the naturalness is an indicator of other possible advantages.

Likewise, feeding older kids (and adults) their B12 from animal sources may have nutritional advantages over feeding them B12 made in a lab (even if made in the beer-like fashion). The B12 in animal sources may be part of a package of goodies we don't know about, or may be more digestible or whatever.

Of course, this isn't inevitable or anything, but I think a mother who chooses breastmilk over formula, and then feeds her child some animal products instead of lab-generated B12, is making reasonable guesses about what is nutritionally best. The rationale behind the two judgments is similar.

David said...

Breast milk is a very complex combination of nutrients packaged in a very particular way to serve as the sole foodstuff for a very dependent and fragile consumer. The issue of mimicking breast milk, not to mention mass-producing it, is vastly more involved than that of producing vitamin B12.

Of course, we might get something wrong in producing vitamin B12. But we can get things very wrong too in relying on "mother nature", who has repeatedly brought upon sentient beings countless disasters. Not to speak of the suffering and loss of life entailed by following "nature's ways" when it comes to predation - i.e. eating meat - and so on.

David

rtk said...

Yes, David, knowing my food is messed up with sodium chloride ruins the meal. On the rare occasions I care for more salt than is naturally present, I go to sea salt. Of course. The idea of squirting vitamin whatever on my dinner is an abomination.

David said...

Well, rtk, I hope you live by the sea, and use sea water, rather than sea salt - which is artificially produced by evaporating the water!

I hope you don't eat cheese, the product of artificial fermentation, nor tofu, curdled with "nigari" (= calcium sulfate or something like that), or wine, or meat, of course, unless you hunt it yourself...

David