Pollan: Eating Is a Political Act
Eisen, The Progressive. Posted November 8, 2008.Michael Pollan discusses
food production, consumer choices, the future of organics and climate
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.
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.
taken Wendell Berry's memorable phrase "eating is an agricultural
act" one step further. "It's a political act as well,"
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.
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
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
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.
You argue that consumer ignorance is essential for maintaining the industrial
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
wish those farmers were there.
ME: You seemed
to struggle with the concept of vegetarianism and arguments against meat
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
stories tagged with: health, food, food politics, michael pollan
writes about food, political, and business topics from Madison, Wisconsin.