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Michael Pollan Comes to Dinner

True or false: One out of every four items for sale in the average American supermarket contains corn? (Think, think, think...) Believe it or not, it's true.

If this unsettles you—or just plain doesn't make sense—read on. The Omnivore's Dilemma will change the way you think about nutrition and health.

Michael Pollan In his follow-up to The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan starts by identifying the three principal food chains that sustain contemporary Americans. Two of them, the organic and the hunter-gatherer, have been around for a long, long time. In the last century, however, a third, the industrial food chain, has come to account for the bulk of our diet.

Start with the revolutionary options that technology has provided, on the farm and in laboratories, throw in the pressure our economy exerts on food production channels, add the influence of a government with priorities all its own, and what reaches the table (when we bother to serve at a table) amounts to a novel assortment of "food products" and modified ingredients bearing little relation to the ones found in nature.

One thing The Omnivore's Dilemma makes clear: if we are what we eat, it's getting so we hardly know ourselves at all.

Dave: Alice Waters comes up several times in The Omnivore's Dilemma, which inspired me to revisit her books. I'd forgotten that she uses a Wendell Berry quote as the epigraph of Fruit:

Eating with the fullest pleasure—pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance—is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.

Michael Pollan: That is a big part of it: Is knowledge about our food a burden or a pleasure? A lot of people don't want to know where their 99-cent hamburger comes from, in the same way that people don't want to know how their sausage is made. There are people happy to eat in ignorance. Ignorance is bliss, but it's a very fleeting bliss, an empty pleasure, I think, compared to eating in full knowledge of what is involved.

I find that knowledge enhances my pleasure. There are things it makes very unappetizing, too. There are many things I no longer eat. My diet has changed quite a bit. Not that you have to know everything all the time—it would be a burden to have complete knowledge constantly, but more knowledge than we have, surely there is room enough and time.

So much of the industrial food chain depends on building walls between what you see on your plate or in a package and how that food comes about. It's built into the world trade system: a food is a food, tuna is tuna. You can't tell a story that this one is dolphin-safe. They don't want that. They don't want stories attached to food—or, they only want the story they're prepared to tell. How it was actually produced is a taboo subject.

That's why organics were so important. For the first time, a story about how the food was produced was allowed to travel up the food chain to the eater. What a powerful idea that turned out to be.

Dave: You weren't allowed inside the slaughterhouse to witness a kill, and you weren't allowed to see how high fructose corn syrup is made. You noted that there isn't much cause for Cargill to engage with the public because they don't sell directly to consumers, so I was surprised last weekend when I saw a TV commercial for Cargill.

Pollan: But were they selling a product?

Dave: No, nothing.

Pollan: They were selling their idea. Exactly.

Dave: Happy, healthy people equals Cargill.

Pollan: Right. They also support public radio and public television. They do advertise, but it's to create an image of themselves as being sustainable, helping solve our energy problem, all the wonderful things they're doing.

In general, they don't like journalists because they've had trouble with the law. Archer Daniels Midland paid something like $500 million to settle various price-fixing charges over the last several years, and several members of the family that controls the company have spent a good part of the last decade in jail. So they don't like journalists. And, you know, at this point I have a reputation for writing critical things about industrial food.

Some companies want to engage you, which seems to me a very healthy thing. They say, "Okay, you're a critic. If we can persuade you, we've done something." If they have a good story to tell, they will sometimes try. Other companies figure if they say no, you won't write about it. But that isn't true. I still did write about ADM and Cargill, even though I couldn't get in.

Dave: I wondered why you started the book by writing about the industrial food chain. Specifically, the feedlots and slaughterhouses. Those are some tough sections to get through. Was that a concern?

Pollan: I started there because I wanted to reach as many people as possible where they eat. The fact is, most of us are eating most of the time from the industrial food chain.

All these other alternatives, as wonderful as they are, are fleas on the behemoth. Organic is two percent of the market. It's up from one percent, but it's still just two percent. If you want to write about food, you have to look at the elephant, and that's the elephant, this corn-based industrial food system. To overlook that, to de-emphasize it in favor of organic or local, would create a false impression of the food landscape.

It was the hardest part of the book to write. It's the most abstract. It's where the food chain becomes most opaque. So the challenge for me was, How do I create stories out of that? That's why I bought a steer and followed that steer, and why I focused on the bushel of corn. Finding narratives was very hard, much harder than those other sections, but that's the challenge of being a writer and wanting to reach people: you take the hardest part, the darkest part of the woods, and you figure out a path through it that people will follow. It was harder to do, but more gratifying for that reason.

Dave: You mentioned that your eating habits have changed. How so?

Pollan: In several ways. One is that I don't eat industrial meat. Anybody who has looked over the walls of industrial meat agriculture would change the way they eat. It's not very appetizing. And after I saw how feedlot beef is created, I didn't want to eat it anymore. I mean, if a guest serves me something... There are other values; social values are important too. But in general I only eat grass-fed meat, and I eat less meat than I used to.

One of the nice things now is that changing the way you eat isn't such a huge sacrifice, at least if you have money to afford it. There are really good alternatives out there.

To the extent that I can, I try to get out of the supermarket and shop at the farmers' market. Moving from the conventional supermarket to the organic supermarket only takes you a small part of the way. The real change happens when you leave the supermarket altogether.

One of the things I learned was how implicated we are in this situation. Our expectations: at the end of the industrial food chain is an industrial eater who wants strawberries, tomatoes, and asparagus twelve months a year, who wants their food convenient, sliced and cleaned and bagged, everything but chewed and swallowed for them.

Things change when you leave the supermarket. Suddenly you're eating in season. Suddenly you're cooking, because you're not going to find any processed food at the farmers' market. And then if you go the next step and join a CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, which I've done since writing the book—you basically subscribe to a farm and get the weekly box—there, you're even letting the farmer set the menu. You become a partner in what's going on at the farm. If they have a lot of kohlrabi, you're going to be eating a lot of kohlrabi that week. You're going to have to read your cookbooks again, and you're going to eat differently. That's radically non-industrial eating. That's been a big change.

I try to avoid food products. When people ask me, "What should I eat?" I say, "A real simple rule of thumb: If your great-great-grandmother wouldn't have recognized it as food, stay away from it. It probably isn't."

Those are some of the ways.

Dave: Ethanol "promises to diminish air quality in California," you say in the book, which surprised me. It's promoted as good for the environment.

Pollan: It's promoted as something to help with global warming, and if it didn't take so much oil to produce, it would. The carbon you release when you burn it was taken out of the atmosphere over the course of the growing season (when you grew the corn last year), so it's basically a wash; compare that to the burning of fossil fuel, where that carbon hasn't been in the atmosphere for a couple million years. But in terms of particulate matter and other measures of air pollution, it is apparently worse than gasoline; at least in California, where the refineries are held to very high standards of clean air, it represents a diminishment. But there are a lot of problems with ethanol. That's the least of them.

The biggest problem with ethanol from corn is that it takes nearly as much oil to make a gallon of ethanol as it saves you. The idea that you're saving vast quantities of fossil fuel by switching over is simply not true and overlooks the fact that you can't grow the corn without huge amounts of fossil fuel.

There was a piece in the Wall Street Journal by John Deutsch, former head of the CIA and a biochemist, who said that it will cost taxpayers $120 for every gallon of fuel that ethanol will save us because of the subsidies to create the ethanol. That's very expensive savings.

Dave: The headline of today's Oregonian announced that two new ethanol plants are going to be built here in-state.

Pollan: It's going to be a huge business because, like most huge businesses in this country, this is one that the government has decided to back.

Dave: In Brazil, they make ethanol from sugar cane, which turns out to be a much more productive, efficient source than corn.

Pollan: That's exactly right. I don't know that much about sugar cane production, but as I understand it, it's perennial, so you're not plowing every year; you're just cutting. It's a grass. Corn is a grass, too, but it's an annual, so you're using a lot more energy to grow the feedstock. It still takes energy to ferment and distill with sugar cane, but much less.

There are better things to make ethanol from than corn. We make it from corn because we've got too much, and ADM has been driving this whole ethanol bus by giving money to Congress and lobbying for it. They control thirty percent of the market. We're worried about the big oil companies and their market dominance, but the big oil companies only have about fifteen percent of the market. We're about to create this huge monopoly in ADM, a company with a proven track record for skirting the law, or worse. It seems to me a huge mistake.

Dave: Another very large agribusiness company, Monsanto, spent $1.5 million to defeat a ballot measure here in Oregon a couple years ago that would have mandated labeling all genetically modified food. The initiative wound up getting trounced.

Pollan: What was their argument?

Dave: They had two. One was that Oregon wouldn't be competitive because no one would want to buy our food.

Pollan: That's a terrible argument.

Dave: But it resonated, apparently. Opponents also argued that the bill was unnecessary. Basically, we're not at risk, so why spend money and resources?

In The Botany of Desire, you wrote at length about the New Leaf Potato and the regulatory loopholes that Monsanto used to bring it to market. Potatoes are safe, the argument went, and so is the pesticide coded into New Leafs. Therefore, the New Leafs must be perfectly safe. Monsanto consequently eluded any oversight, whatsoever.

Pollan: It slipped between the regulatory cracks, yes. And that lack of accountability has been key to the success, so-called, of this industry.

There are two reasons why the industry wouldn't want labeling. We shouldn't impute motives, but let's analyze what the possibilities are. One is that if people knew what they were eating, they would not want to eat it. That may well be true. These products offer consumers nothing. They're designed to offer certain dubious agrinomic benefits to farmers—the crops might need a little less pesticide, or the farmers can spray herbicide with abandon—but since New Leafs offer nothing to consumers, why should we take even a tiny risk for no gain?

The other reason that I've heard, which I think is more devastating, is the fact that if there is any problem with this food, if there is a GMO that turns out to have an allergen in it and sickens a lot of people, it will be impossible to prove where it came from. The correlation can't be proven, the epidemiology cannot be done. If you haven't labeled the food, you can't prove that Hey, look, all these people were eating the GMO cereal. They don't want anyone to track that path because they're liable.

One of the key decisions in the history of this industry was not to seek a limitation on liability from the government, as for example the nuclear industry did. The nuclear industry said, "We have a risky technology here. We want the government to protect us before we invest a lot of money." And the government did. Nuclear plants have very low liability, given the kind of destruction they can cause. With GMOs, they apparently reached that fork in the road and decided, If we seek this limitation on liability, we're going to call a lot of attention to ourselves. Maybe we just won't do it. It's an Achilles heel of the industry, and not labeling is a way to protect themselves.

Dave: McDonald's bowed to public pressure and stopped using GMOs.

Pollan: The New Leafs, yes. And the product is gone from the marketplace.

Dave: That's what I was going to ask. What is the state of that product?

Pollan: It's very interesting. That product is gone. There are no genetically modified potatoes being planted anywhere in the world right now, and the reason is that McDonald's bailed. They represent a significant portion of the potato crop; they buy enough that farmers would have had to separate their potatoes, which isn't efficient. You don't want to give up on someone who is buying a big portion of your crop, so they stopped planting it.

It happened quietly. McDonald's didn't make a big deal of it. What's interesting is that on the basis of a few dozen complaints they bailed on this product. In a way, that's very encouraging. It suggests that one of the upsides of having a huge, monoculture food system is that a little bit of leverage applied in exactly the right place can have a tremendous effect.

McDonald's, the good side of their power, is that they can revolutionize something very quickly. That's happened with standards for animal care, it's happened with GMO potatoes... I don't mean to celebrate McDonald's, but sometimes if you leverage that power in the right direction, a lot can happen very quickly.

Dave: I want to ask about The Botany of Desire. John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) showed some impressive business acumen, planting orchards on the frontier years before the land had been settled. How did he know so far in advance exactly where communities would form?

Pollan: I'll tell you why: He was a man of the rivers and he was a man of the soil. If you're a real estate developer of that era, trying to figure out where people are going, you know they're going to need river transportation because there are no roads, and you know they're going to settle where the soil is best. He was a planter. He was growing things. He knew good soil. And you knew generally that people were moving west—any of us could have figured that part out.

He was rowing around in his funky canoe and he was planting; he understood where things grew well and where they grew badly. My guess is that's how he knew. He may have called a few of them bad, but basically everyone on the frontier was looking for good land that had some kind of access to the civilized world.

Dave: In that book, you describe starting a garden as a child:

I approached the garden as a form of alchemy, a quasi-mystical system for transforming seeds and soil and water and sunlight into things of value, and as long as you couldn't grow toys or LPs, that more or less meant groceries.

If you could have grown toys or LPs, what would you have planted?

Pollan: Oh, good question. It depends what age. I would have grown some Beatles LPs, no doubt. Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, the usual suspects. Toys? I don't remember what toys I was into. Legos? But food was pretty good too.

Alchemy is a key term for me. That word keeps showing up in my writing. When I'm on Joel Salatin's farm and I see him turn cow shit into this incredible source of fertility, and how his chickens basically pick through cow patties to find grubs, larvae, and turn them into delicious eggs...

This is one of the most exciting things about gardening and farming, how you see death turned back into life and waste turned into value. You see it over and over again. That, as a trope, is one that always blows my mind. I find myself writing about it a lot.

Dave: You explain in Omnivore's Dilemma that Joel's system isn't going to work for a massive industrial complex, but is there any educational program in place where a farmer can access his ideas and methods? It's such a powerful model.

Pollan: It really is. I think we'll see a lot more of that kind of grass farming. This is a very good region for it, right here, because you have great grass for a long time of the year and there is already a lot of interesting pastured food production going on here.

It is one of the most sustainable food systems, as long as we're eating meat —and it's a good argument for eating meat because it's more sustainable than row crops. What's the potential for growth? It's hard to say.

It's hard to scale up because you have to scale everything up together. As I say in the chapter, Joel is getting a signal from the market: Give me more chicken. But he can't provide more chicken without more cattle to produce the manure and the larvae that makes the chicken so good. It doesn't work. That's just another example where the logic of industry and the logic of biology clash.

There are other problems too. One is that he's just much smarter than your average farmer. He's a really creative, ingenious guy. Of course other people could imitate what he's doing now that he's created the system, but even then, consider the amount of information in his head. How long do you keep the chickens in one paddock before there's too much nitrogen? How much nitrogen can the field absorb in June (because it's different than October)? You have to be watching the grass. What's happening with the grass? What do the animals need? You have to be such a good student of these six species—and that's another thing: most farmers, if they're expert with one species, they're doing fine. You have to be good at six.

Also, as Joel puts it at one point, there are a lot of D students left on the farms. The A students were sent to the city, sent away to college. We've had a brain drain in rural America, and that makes it harder to go back to a sophisticated system of agriculture. It also makes farmers more vulnerable to technological solutions. All of those solutions are labor- and thought-saving devices: pesticides, machines... We've moved the knowledge from the farmer's head to the bottle or the machine—Wendell Berry writes about this very beautifully—and that makes it hard to go back.

Now you have another generation of college-educated, really intelligent people wanting to do artisanal farming or organic farming, but it's an enormous challenge because they have to buy or lease land. Most farmers inherit their land. Also, they didn't come from farming, so their learning curve is very steep. That's why these internship programs such as Joel has—and a lot of farms I know in Northern California have interns—seem to be a way to build the culture of farming again.

The best agriculture, people say, takes a lot of eyes per acre. You need more people on the land to do it well, so we have to make farming a more glamorous profession. That's one of the great things Alice Waters has done. She's taken that light of glamour and shown it on farmers by highlighting their menus and putting the ingredients in the forefront of her presentation.

Culture has devalued farming for a hundred years. Go back to Jefferson and nothing was more glamorous—not that glamour was the kind of word he would have used, but glamour is very important in a culture. To the extent that we value farming, more people will want to do it and we'll begin to repopulate the countryside. That will be a very positive step.

Dave: The other thing Alice Waters is doing, which fascinates me, is her Edible Schoolyard project. I grew up in a decent public school system, but no one ever taught me how to plant anything.

Pollan: So much of our disconnect from food starts in childhood. I ask my son in the book, "How is the newly formulated chicken nugget? Does it taste more like chicken?" And he's like, "What are you talking about? It's a nugget. It doesn't taste anything like chicken." It's a different food. He was eleven and he didn't really understand that chicken nuggets come from chickens, that there should be some kind of connection.

I've been to the Edible Schoolyard. It's an incredible project. People think Berkeley is very affluent, they think this is an elitist project. It's not at all. Berkeley schools are very mixed. There are kids from all walks of life, and they really connect around growing and cooking food—the cooking classes tied to the program are excellent. You see these teenagers, who sullenly walk the halls. They come to this space with a beautifully appointed kitchen, and they just light up.

When I was a kid, we had Home-Ec, but no self-respecting boy would ever take it. You took Shop. It was heavily gendered. Feminism helped kill off Home-Ec for that reason, and rightfully so. But you can bring it back now. In a way, what Alice Waters is doing is rehabilitating Home-Ec for another generation. And the cool thing now is that boys think cooking is terrific and they don't think of it as a girlish thing to do. They've seen their fathers cook. They don't have a memory of this Shop versus Home-Ec divide. My son has a cooking class in his school. It's his favorite class.

Dave: Half the celebrity chefs are men.

Pollan: There's glamour again.

Dave: Iron Chef. Kitchen Stadium.

Pollan: Exactly. Sports—that's a good way to get the guys in. And in fact they do an Iron Chef at the Edible Schoolyard. For the final project, they bring a load of produce in and two teams have a battle to see who can make the best food. They bring in judges like me and Eric Schlosser. I haven't done it yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

I think she's had a very important insight: it has to begin in schools, with our children. Our food culture has eroded to nothing, and to rebuild it you have to start with kids and make them understand that growing, preparing, and serving food is not a burden or an inconvenience. It's an enormous pleasure. We've been brainwashed into thinking that we're too busy or it's too hard or it's not fun. That's how you sell convenience food, by convincing people of that. But it's false. It's completely false.

These kids are bringing home knowledge. They're actually teaching their parents, which is amazing because food culture is usually passed down from parents to kids. The next generation, we may have to pass from kids to parents.

Dave: Your first book, Second Nature, was about gardening. I was amazed to discover that Frederick Law Olmsted was the father of the American suburban lawn. He shows up everywhere.

Pollan: I know. He's a key figure. But that idea... He was basically trying to democratize the English landscape garden with its rolling lawns and a couple trees here and there. His idea was, instead of having one rich guy own all of it, we'll divide it up and we'll call it a suburb—but everybody's going to have to participate because if you have any fences or hedge it doesn't work anymore.

It was a reaction against the British landscape style, which was a moat around your house, basically. It's a very noble, democratic idea, but it's one of those democratic ideas that in reality becomes kind of stupid and wasteful. What are lawns but conspicuous display? Here is this valuable land that you do nothing with but show off your house. And it consumes a great deal of fossil fuel to keep it cut and water to keep it growing.

Dave: And a huge amount of pesticides.

Pollan: Americans and their lawns. But I think the grip of this idea is weakening. Maybe it's because I live on the west coast now, but I do find more people willing to strike out on their own and put a garden in a space they can actually use instead of huddling in the back yard and giving away the whole front.

Since I wrote that book, in 1991, there has been an incredible increase in serious gardening. I'm sure you see this in your book sales. And if you get serious about gardening, sooner or later you're going to look at that lawn and say, "There's something I could do here that's a lot more interesting." I think we're retreating from the lawn, which is a good thing.

Dave: When you were building the hut that you describe in A Place of My Own, did you find similarities between that kind of hands-on construction and writing?

Pollan: Building that thing was very satisfying. I like to be involved in the stories. I like to find a place to stand where I'm an actor and not just an observer. It's much more fun to write that way. You've got a story to tell. You have a yarn, a narrative. Also, since you're doing something that you're ill equipped to do, it ends up being kind of funny. You make mistakes. The building isn't quite square. And having humor is for me the most important thing in my writing.

That book actually started as the story of a house renovation. I was going to write about the whole process. That's what inspired it, but my role in the renovation was writing checks and making decisions. It was boring. I realized that I had to be swinging a hammer to make it really work. I ended up doing that. But originally the story of that building was just going to be a coda on a book about the real house.

There are a lot of common threads through my books. In retrospect, they're all about nature. They're all about our relationship to the natural world, but I look to nature closer to home. I look to nature in places like architecture, gardening, plants, and food.

As I told somebody at a talk recently, I'm a nature writer who doesn't like to go camping. But I like finding nature where we don't usually look for it. We usually look for it in the wilderness and the woods, but of course it's all around us. I find that's the unplowed ground in American writing about nature, the places where nature and culture cannot help but engage and change one another.

That's so much more interesting to me than the wilderness, which has really been chewed over in this country. There's very little of it. It's great to take care of the wilderness and we have to preserve it, but there's another 92% of this country that we have to figure out how to live with, and we're not very good at that. That's where I like to focus.

Michael Pollan visited on May 11, 2006. In retrospect, we can't believe we didn't include him in our inaugural set of author trading cards. What were we thinking? Sorry about that, Mr. Pollan. We'll make up for it when Omnivore's Dilemma comes out in paperback.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
    Used Hardcover $7.95
  2. A Place of My Own: The Education of...
    Used Trade Paper $11.50
  3. Second Nature: A Gardener's Education
    Sale Trade Paper $7.98
  4. The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye...
    Sale Trade Paper $7.98
  5. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural...
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  6. The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye...
    Sale Trade Paper $7.98
  7. Chez Panisse Fruit Used Hardcover $22.00
  8. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural...
    Used Hardcover $10.50

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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