November 8, 2008 - Michael Pollan has got people talking. His recent books, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, have captured the public imagination, setting off countless coffee shop discussions, dinnertime arguments, and oh-so-many blog posts.
Even more impressively, his exploration of modern-day agriculture and the dysfunctional American diet has prompted his readers to look at their own eating habits with a new sense of understanding and often a desire for change.
Pollan has taken Wendell Berry's memorable phrase "eating is an agricultural act" one step further. "It's a political act as well," Pollan advises.
A lot of people agree. The alternative food movement -- organic farming, local food systems, sustainable agriculture, and more -- is burgeoning today because, one family at a time, consumers are backing away from the global food network. Instead, they patronize farmers' markets, buy food shares from CSA (community-supported agriculture) farms, and favor grocers who sell local meat and produce.
Pollan's books are essential reading in this movement. He details the importance of grazing to a sustainable farm's operation and the problems of corn as the cornerstone of U.S. agribusiness. But most of all he gracefully chronicles his own journey of discovery in a food world where, amidst $32 billion in advertising, baleful health consequences are carefully obscured.
Pollan's topics include a thorough demolition of "nutritionism," the reigning health ideology that offers dizzying and ever-changing advice on polyunsaturated this and low-fat that, often in the cause of selling highly processed food products.
A good diet is really pretty simple, Pollan declares: Avoid "edible foodlike substances." Instead, eat real food. "Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy."
I caught up with Pollan two days after he returned from a book tour in New Zealand and Australia. At fifty-three, he looked fit but tired from the travel. He lives on a leafy avenue in Berkeley with his wife, painter Judith Belzer, and their fifteen-year-old son. He teaches journalism at the University of California-Berkeley, after a ten-year stint as an editor at Harper's Magazine. We talked over cups of Darjeeling tea in his kitchen. Here is the edited and condensed interview.
Mark Eisen: You argue that consumer ignorance is essential for maintaining the industrial agriculture system.
Michael Pollan: If people could see how their food is produced, they would change how they eat. My interest in the topic traces to two moments, in 2000, when I learned how our food is produced.
One was driving down Route 5 in California and passing the Harris ranch, which is a huge feedlot right on the highway. It's a stunning landscape. I had never seen anything quite like that.
Miles of manure-encrusted land teeming with thousands of animals and a giant mountain of corn and a giant mountain of manure. And a stench you can smell two miles before you get there.
Most feedlots are hidden away on the High Plains. This one happens to be very accessible. Then I visited an industrialized potato farm in Idaho and saw how freely pesticides were used. The farmers had little patches of potatoes by their houses that were organic. They couldn't eat their field potatoes out of the ground because they had so many systemic pesticides. They had to be stored for six months to off-gas the toxins.
These two things changed the way I ate. I don't buy industrial potatoes, and I don't eat feedlot meat.
It's only our ignorance of how our food is grown that permits this to go on. Most people, if they went to the feedlot or to the slaughterhouse and saw how the animals are raised and killed, would lose their appetite for that food.
The industry knows this. It works so hard not to label where the food comes from, how it's made, and whether or not there are GMOs [genetically modified organisms] in it, because they know very well from their own research that people don't want food grown that way.
ME: The national organic rules, which took effect in 2002, are credited with creating the boom in organic food sales. Yet you seem skeptical.
MP: Something was gained and something was lost when the federal government defined what "organic" meant. The rules were drawn in a way to make organic friendly to large corporations looking to do organic as cheaply as possible and on as large a scale as possible.
For example, the fight over whether you should really require pasturing for dairy so the cows can eat grass: They drew those rules so broadly that companies like Aurora and Horizon could slip through with very large industrial feedlots.
An "organic feedlot" should be a contradiction in terms, but it's not under the rules. They really wanted to make it possible to have a mirrored food supply. So you could take everything in the supermarket and make its organic doppelganger. Is that a bad thing or a good thing? It's a mixed thing.
The Chinese organic is a real question. First, how organic is it? You hear stories that make you wonder. The other issue is what you can do within the organic rules and still be sending contaminated product. Because the soil is so badly contaminated in China, even if they don't put chemicals on their fields for three years [as U.S. organic rules require for certification], the heavy metals are still there.
So what the consumer thinks they're buying -- organic food -- may not be what they're really getting from China.
ME: The case is made that Wal-Mart's entry into organic sales won't hurt organic farmers, but will help the movement by creating more customers for co-ops and natural food stores.
MP: I hope that's true. But Wal-Mart is one of the reasons we grow beef the way we do in this country, which is to say with brutal efficiency and lots of pharmaceuticals. Wal-Mart's focus on low price tended to mean squeezing their suppliers very, very hard.
Wal-Mart isn't doing that yet with organic. But long term, that's what I would worry about: that they would force organic prices down not by being more efficient in distribution but through pressuring suppliers.
ME: The organic folks I talk with say that Wal-Mart sells only the most popular organic items and doesn't offer the wide selection that serious organic shoppers want.
MP: Wal-Mart feeds the bottom third of the population. So they're not competing with Whole Foods or the corner co-op. It is bringing more people into organic.
The other virtue of Wal-Mart getting into organic is the education factor. There are lots of people in this country who don't know what organic is, and they will learn about it from Wal-Mart.
When I first started talking about the industrialization of organics, there really was a sense that "big organic" would crush "little organic." But I don't think that's what is happening.
They are very separate worlds. There is overlap, but "little organic" is like these smart independent bookstores. They figured out a way to be in a different business. They do events and hand-sell books and have a whole conversation about books that Barnes & Noble and Amazon can't do.
In the same way, you see the really entrepreneurial farmers figuring out they don't have to compete with Whole Foods and certainly not Wal-Mart. They can offer a higher level of quality and more personal attention through the whole CSA relationship and by selling at farmers' markets now.
ME: Newsweek ran a story arguing that the organic market was leveling off because it's just too expensive in an era of higher food prices. Do you agree?
MP: No, I think it's still growing quickly. The demand is still there.
What's slowing the growth is that there is less incentive for farmers to convert to organic because conventional prices are so high. If you're a wheat or corn grower you're getting a real good price. Why would you endure the economic hardship of converting to organic farming?
It takes three years. You have to follow organic practices without getting the benefit of the organic label for your effort. It's a big investment to make the switch.
That's what's slowing down organic growth.
ME: In The Omnivore's Dilemma, you detail the rise of U.S. corn production and the use of high fructose corn syrup as the ubiquitous sweetener in so much processed food. But your discussion of cheap corn gave no sense that corn prices would soon go through the roof.
MP: As a journalist, I was describing what was. I don't think I made any predictions. But the story has changed a lot. How it's going to play out is very hard to predict.
A good deal of The Omnivore's Dilemma dealt with how we took making food out of the solar basis and put it on a fossil-fuel basis. This is what the industrialization of food is essentially. It's introducing cheap fossil fuel in what had been a strictly solar process of using photosynthesis to grow food.
When you do that, suddenly your food economy is dependent on your energy. And that's why prices have gone up. When oil went up, that was the shock. That, and using corn to produce ethanol.
At this very moment, there are executives sitting around the table at Coca-Cola, saying the price of high fructose corn syrup is spiking and will probably stay there for a while. "Do we shrink the portion size, or do we raise the price? Do we to go back to the days before supersizing and sell eight-ounce Coca-Colas instead of twenty-ounce Coca-Colas?"
I hope they shrink the portion size. That would be good for public health.
ME: Does the world have a food shortage now, or is it more a problem of distribution and changing diets?
MP: The spot shortages around the world are really not so much about supply as the price. There are really high prices, and that's driven by ethanol, high oil prices, and the growing demand for grain in Asia.
The whole free trade regime around grains is trembling right now. Countries are recognizing that you don't want to lose control of your ability to feed your population. You don't want the price of food in your country to be dependent on decisions made in Wall Street or the White House.
Trade globalization has forced cheap American and Brazilian grains into all of these countries. As a consequence, they've lost the ability to grow their own grain.
Now they wish those farmers were there.
ME: You seemed to struggle with the concept of vegetarianism and arguments against meat eating.
MP: I'm a pretty harsh critic of 99 percent of America's meat system, but there is that 1 percent I think is important to defend, because first there are good environmental reasons to eat meat in a limited way.
If you believe strongly in building up local food economies, there are places where meat is the best way to get protein off of the land. It's too hilly, too dry. Having animals is very important for sustainable agriculture. If you're going to have animals on the farm, they're going to die eventually, and you're going to eat them.
But I have enormous respect for vegetarians. They're further ahead than most of us. They've gone through the thought process in making their eating choices. They've just come out in a different place than I have.
I think we're going to focus on meat-eaters the way we have on SUV drivers. There will be a lot of pressure and education to show that a heavy meat diet is a big contributor to climate change, and that there are many good reasons to eat less meat.
ME: How is meat consumption tied to climate change?
MP: In several ways. First, it's fossil-fuel intensive. If you are feeding animals grain on feedlots you are growing that grain with fossil-fuel fertilizers and pesticides. You are moving that grain around the country to feedlots. You're moving the meat around the country.
It's a very inefficient way to feed ourselves. It takes ten pounds of grain to get one pound of beef, seven pounds of grain to get one pound of pork, and two pounds of grain to get one pound of chicken.
There is an equity issue, too. If we really have a limited amount of grain to feed the world, and we're feeding 60 percent of it to animals, and another 10 percent to our cars, that's going to be hard to defend in the future.
ME: To a striking degree, you argue that individuals in their daily lives can make a difference.
MP: I really have a lot of faith -- and I know that it's considered naive by some people on the left -- that consumers can change things. I have seen too many cases of what happens when consumers decide to inflect their buying decisions with their moral and political values. It brings about change.
The food industry is remarkably skittish. They're terrified of food scares and food fads, both of which can cost them billions overnight. So they're actually more responsive than you would think.
It's just a matter of consumers voting with their forks for things like grass-fed meat and producers hearing that market signal. But I don't think you can completely reform the food system by just voting with your fork.
There are policy issues, too. The Farm Bill matters greatly. So I'm not naive in thinking all of our answers lie in changes in personal behavior. The same is true of global warming. Individuals have a lot to do, but we also need public solutions. You can't have one without the other.
ME: How is climate change a crisis of lifestyle and character?
MP: Look, 70 percent of economic activity in this country is consumer -- it's our purchasing decisions. That is the economy. We are implicated in these problems, and we have to recognize that. It's our lifestyles; it's how we've organized our cities and the countryside. It's the size of our houses and how we heat our houses. It's all these things. This is global warming.
We can look at supranational institutions to create a new set of rules for this economy. But I don't think that will happen in the absence of people discovering that they can change their lives.
I really believe in what Wendell Berry said in the '70s -- that the environmental crisis is a crisis of character. It's really about how we live.
ME: Are people getting it?
MP: On food I have a lot of optimism. I see evidence that people are changing the way they consume. I don't foresee the industrial food system going away. I see it shrinking.
One of the powerful things about the food issue is that people feel empowered by it. There are so many areas of our life where we feel powerless to change things, but your eating issues are really primal. You decide every day what you're going to put in your body -- and what you refuse to put in your body. That's politics at its most basic.
Mark Eisen writes about food, political, and business topics from Madison, Wisconsin.