We spoke recently by telephone with the Berkeley-based author of the lauded The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin, $26.95). Michael Pollan shared his thoughts on vegans, organic farmers, and the movement that's taking us beyond organic. Here's the gist of that conversation‹stripped of fat, corn-based additives, and chemicals, of course.
Seattle Weekly: So, what did you eat last night?
Michael Pollan: I went to a sushi restaurant.
What does it mean when, at Elliott Bay last month, 350 people showed up for your SRO reading?
The event had the feeling of a political rally. I feel there is enormous political energy around this issue [of what to eat]. People are very motivated to participate in this movement, and it is a movement. They have a strong sense there's something wrong with the industrial food system. Our culture is ready to have a serious conversation on these issues.
Now that the production of organic food has reached industrial scale, you predict the next big push will be locally produced food, right?
The local-food movement is radical because it embraces so many more issues than just, "Are there chemicals in our food?" It's a reaction against the Wal-Mart effect; it's about protecting communities, biodiversity, and local landscapes and stopping sprawl.
Your book's examination of agribusiness, particularly the rampant industrial production of one type of corn, is pretty frightening.
Domestication is a fascinating project. Corn is really working on us. Co-evolution is one of the most interesting phenomena in nature.
You've reported that the number of farmers markets has doubled in the last 10 years, along with a growth in the number of consumers ordering Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes direct from local farms.
Getting a CSA box is one of the very simple, positive things people can do. It gives a farm a predictable source of income. The box sits there and demands that you cook with it. It encourages you to be creative in the kitchen. Certainly, I have rutabagas to deal with.
Is America any closer to rejecting fad diets and unhealthy eating? Will we ever have a more balanced and sustainable food culture?
There are signs we are slowly building one. The slow-food movement is an important part of this. Also, chefs are reconnecting with nature more and reviving ancient techniques. We are fighting against 36 billion food-marketing dollars, though.
What about vegans?
Vegans are very vocal. I have to take my hat off to them‹they're conscious eaters, making their own decisions. They are not being swayed by food-marketing money. I applaud that. Eating in ignorance is the problem. To the extent that we can all eat with full knowledge, there will be less toll on the natural world.
Do you think we should follow your example of only eating grass-fed cattle?
Just think about [eating choices], that's all that I ask. If you can buy local, great. You can also pay attention to how far the food travels, and eat in season. I hate to tell people what to eat. Just be conscious about what you're eating. Once you've taken a good, hard look, then you can just sit back and enjoy.
But don't these thoughtful choices mean spending more at the cash register?
We understand quality in every other area‹cars, clothing, speakers, appliances, and so many of the things we buy every day. You get what you pay for. Compare the nutritional value of an egg that costs 50 cents to one that costs 10 cents‹the more expensive one will offer much better nutrition. We should think more in terms of quality and less about quantity. In America, we seem to want the lowest price for maximum amount of stuff‹we're making distinctions based on price versus quality. Whatever you think about Whole Foods, at least it is proving that people are willing to spend more for something different.
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