Michael Pollan is an authority on food politics. He's published five books and eleven essays on the subject. And, as a Professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkley, he knows the importance of getting his facts straight. So it's not surprising that, moments after he stated that "A vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a beef-eater in a Prius" at the Pop-Tech conference last Saturday, people (including myself) believed it. And why wouldn't we? It was a straightforward analogy that seemed to put the massive carbon footprint of the meat industry in perspective. Moments after saying it, the blogosphere and Tweetoverse lit up, broadcasting his claim throughout the world. The statement was so simple, so perfect -- something vegan teens could wave in the doubtful faces of their omnivorous parents. The only problem is, the statement isn't true.
According to an article by Dan Mitchell in The Daily Bread, Adam Pasick, a blogger for Reuters, took it upon himself to fact check Pollan's unfortunate claim. Here's a piece from Mitchell's article revealing what Pasick found:
Reuters blogger Adam Pasick cited a 2005 paper by Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin, then of the University of Chicago, published in the journal Earth Interactions. The scientists examined the relative carbon footprints of plant-based and red-meat diets and concluded that a heavy meat-eater diet creates about two tons more carbon dioxide per year than does a vegan diet. They also compared the carbon footprints of the Toyota Prius and the Chevy Suburban (which is comprable, mileage-wise, to a Hummer). The difference is about 4.67 tons per year, they concluded.
Eshel told Pasick that Pollan's statement was "emphatically wrong" and "not even close." He wasn't happy about having to say so, since he's as concerned as Pollan is about meat-eating's harmful environmental effects.
After being confronted with Pasick's findings Pollan asked PopTech to pull the statement. He then contacted Pasick, writing: "I don't feel comfortable defending it" because it is "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."
Of course nobody, even the most prolific of journalists, is perfect. Right now author and nonfiction-writing powerhouse Susan Orlean wrote an article about donkeys for Smithsonian magazine, a publication notorious for its severity in the fact checking process, that is being chastised in the comments section by Muslim readers for factual inaccuracy. In July this year a story about journalist Walter Cronkite containing seven factual errors ran in the New York Times despite being read over by five editors prior to publication. So does this mean our authorities on information can't be trusted?
Of course that's what Pollan's critics will say. They will use this instance to attack his credibility and his journalistic integrity. And rightfully so in this case. It's unfortunate that he made such a grossly unfounded statement. But one misguided statement doesn't change everything he's done for the environmental movement. What's important now is what Pollan and his supporters do next.
I have noticed that a lot of news organizations, particularly those like Wend (with a decidedly enviro slant), have avoided writing about this issue. This is a mistake. We need to publicly recognize when our leaders drop the ball and we need to hold them accountable. Instead of pretending that it didn't happen, enviro news organizations should recognize Pollan's mistaken statement in print, otherwise risk losing credibility ourselves.
It's safe to say that Mr. Pollan does not want any more publicity about his slip up, particularly from the enviro news organizations that speak to his audience and who, in a sense, sleep in the same bed as he does. We're all fighting for the same thing here, right? But by turning the other cheek and dismissing his statement altogether the environmental community is taking part in a mini news whitewashing that resonates of FOX News.
Addressing Pollan's mistaken statement head-on should be seen as an opportunity for environmental news organizations to create dialogue about what he meant to say. The importance of Pollan's statement, though factually inaccurate, still resonates. The global meat industry is responsible for an inordinate amount of man-made climate change. There is a great bru-ha-ha going down in the comments sections right here at the Huffington Post in response to articles about Jonathan Safran Foehr's new authoritative book on the subject, Eating Animals. Other news organizations would be wise to drum up that kind of debate on their own sites.
As environmental news organizations it's our responsibility to recognize and dispute any factually inaccurate statement about the environment -- even if it comes from one of our own.