An Interview with Michael Pollan

Problematic ways of looking at food:
As fuel
As a cure-all
As a good bargain
As a raw material

An Interview with Michael Pollan

Problematic ways of looking at food:
As fuel
As a cure-all
As a good bargain
As a raw material

An Interview with Michael Pollan

Benjamin R. Cohen
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Michael Pollan is a nature writer of sorts. Throughout his career, his subjects have been places where people live and work, where humans take part in nature instead of just watching passively. This stands in distinction to a strain of nature writing that concentrates on wilderness. To put the contrast in simple terms: while someone like Bill McKibben camps, Pollan gardens.

Before joining the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, as the Knight Professor of Journalism a few years ago, Pollan was an editor at Harper’s magazine for about a decade. At Berkeley, he organizes the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism, where the likes of Eric Schlosser, Wendell Berry, and Raymond Kurzweil come to discuss the science-environmental nexus, and where such topics as President Bush’s science policy, the future of food, human biotechnology, alternative agriculture, and nanotechnology have recently been the focus of intense panel discussions. Perhaps more to the point, Pollan is most notably the author of four books—the first three of which are The Botany of Desire, Second Nature, and A Place of My Own—and currently serves as a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

A lot of people seem to have personal experience with food, so when you write a book about it, a lot of those people want to ask you things. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan’s fourth book, is about four different ways to make a meal—through the industrial food chain, the organic food chain (think Whole Foods), local farms (not always the same as organic), and by hand (hunting, gathering, that kind of stuff). We spoke about the book and his broader journalistic ambitions via telephone, on several occasions, even when in the background his son needed help with a Huckleberry Finn reading assignment, and even when he was fielding calls about E. coli outbreaks near and far. We talked about ecological thinking, farm policy, and why people don’t think agriculture means food. We were unable, though, to avoid surmising that any such conversation is ultimately about culture, politics, and economy.

—Benjamin R. Cohen



THE BELIEVER: You really made the rounds with The Omnivore’s Dilemma last year. I even saw you on The Colbert Report. How’d that go?

MICHAEL POLLAN: It was an interesting experience. Being interviewed by comedians is uniquely challenging. They can say anything they want, while you still, as a journalist, have to stick to the truth, or what you perceive the truth to be, which sometimes isn’t as funny or entertaining as they might want. I also did an interview with Bill Maher, who’s a challenge because he has his own well-developed left-wing theories of the food system. He believes that the pharmaceutical industry is in cahoots with Big Food, such that Big Food gets us sick so that Big Pharma can make money curing us.

BLVR: That’s pretty elaborate.

MP: It is. It might make a kind of intuitive sense, and they do sort of wash each other’s hands, but whether they sit down and talk about their common interests I find hard to believe. But he does believe it. And if you don’t go along with it, you feel like a wet blanket in the interview.

BLVR: That seems to me like a causal issue, about food and pharma in it together, that there is a simple, direct relationship. Everyone always wants to have the easy cause-and-effect explanation, no?

MP: That’s absolutely true. And also, in American journalism and political thinking, unless there is the smoking gun, the actual proof of intent—I mean, the fact that there might be systematic reasons for these various interests to not criticize one another or get along, well, that’s not good enough, it doesn’t count—you always need the smoking gun. And the bar’s been set there in American journalism and politics—which is very clever on the part of, well, whoever sets the bar… [laughing]

BLVR: In the book you write about a super-secure, Cheney-like room in the basement of some cereal headquarters where all the big cereal decisions are made in lockdown. That’s probably where they set the bar.

MP: Right, the Institute for Cereal Technology at General Mills. The cereal situation room.

BLVR: Food and money and power. There’s a lot of that going on. Maybe Maher is on to something. You do have a kind of implicit capitalist critique throughout the book.

MP: I do; I explicitly point at various moments to the fact that the logic of capitalism and the logic of nature, or ecology, come into conflict. It’s definitely one of the motifs of the book, to show how that happens. If you write about ecology and try to think ecologically you keep running into that issue, that there are modes of thought and ways of doing things in capitalism that mesh poorly with what we know about how nature works. Now, it doesn’t have to be that way, and one of the interesting things to me is, you can change some of the modes of capitalism to make it fit better with nature.

BLVR: And you have several examples of that.

MP: So as one example, there is a classic link people draw between industrial capitalism and monoculture. Monoculture is sort of in the DNA of modern capitalism, in that if you get big then you have to have big machines and bring lots of capital to bear on your farm. It’s planted by one machine, harvested by another, and the machine dictates that it all be one plant ripening at one moment and of a certain height and that it all be identical to make a machine’s life easier. And within that logic it all kind of makes sense, but you can also imagine that our machines have gotten a lot more sophisticated. They’re good enough to robotically build cars nowadays. Which is a lot more complicated than combining a field of corn.

BLVR: True, it’s the logic of industrial efficiency. But the argument only makes sense, as you say, if you’re inside that logic.

MP: Yes, and so why couldn’t you devise machines that could pick, say, the three sisters—corn, beans, and squash—a complex polyculture, robotically? And it seems to me, maybe you could. So although this kind of lockstep link between high-capital agriculture and monoculture seems unbreakable, maybe it isn’t. And wouldn’t that be wonderful?

BLVR: Like ecological technologies. It reminds me of what seems to be the centerpiece of the book, the local food chain you discuss with Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms in Virginia. This guy Salatin, a self-described “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer,” is running an organic farm for distribution to people only within the immediate region, at most a half a day’s drive, you note. This polyculture farming, it’s the kind he does, right? Maybe not with ecological machines, but at least with more ecologically minded practices.

MP: In part, I think that’s right.

BLVR: And plus, it can’t be just a “capitalism or not” matter. I mean, you listen to the Joel Salatin story, he’s buying and trading and selling things too, he’s a kind of capitalist, just of a different sort. It isn’t either-or here…

MP: Well, that’s exactly right, and so through the difference between commodity markets and some other kind, for lack of a better word I call it artisanal markets, there seems to be a key distinction. Once you’re in a commodity marketplace there are certain tendencies. And the way you make money in the commodity market is to be able to price your product a little more cheaply then anybody else and to make more of it, and that drives you pretty quickly toward high capital (lots of machines), high-volume (lots of product). If you can stay out of that high-volume market in agriculture, you can do a lot better. Initially that’s what the organic people did, they got out of that market. They said, we’re going to go for quality instead of quantity; there’s a whole economy around this, these days. And that’s capitalist, too.



BLVR: Your writing has been set in different venues— the garden, the backyard, the farmer’s market—but it’s always about the ways people live in nature. Is food now your nature case study? As opposed to earlier work on gardening, or sugar, or trees?

MP: Right now, yes. It is. And the larger story is about the relationship of humans in nature. It seems to me that, if you want to make people realize they have a stake in the natural world, food is a really good way to do that.

BLVR: It’s a great example of humans living as part of their surroundings and interacting with them.

MP: Yes, though I also found that talking about and writing about agriculture was difficult. A lot of people, especially editors who live in New York City, don’t really see agriculture as having anything to do with their lives. But by making a very simple switch in language, and talking about food instead, which of course is the same thing, it became much easier to make that connection with both editors and readers. I rarely use the word agriculture in my work.

BLVR: That sounds like a commentary in itself, about the very fact of disconnection.

MP: It is. The fact is that there are no ag reporters at most major newspapers. They have business reporters, sure. I mean, here’s agriculture, I don’t know where it stands among the largest industries in this country, but it’s up there. And really important. The Chicago Tribune has an ag reporter as a legacy of its big commodity market. The Des Moines Register does, too, of course. But you go to the big cities, and they have food reporters, health reporters, and they’ve got people covering the internet, and steel, aviation, a million businesses, but not agriculture.

BLVR: Farming is not about food to them.

MP: There is this real failure to understand that anyone in Manhattan has a stake in agriculture, and that disconnect has enormous political repercussions. What flows directly from that is that the congressmen from New York don’t even pay attention to the farm bill as it sails through Congress. They’re trading their vote with some farm-state senator—yeah yeah yeah, we’ll support those subsidies as long as you support some, I don’t know, homeland defense. That’s why we need to call it a food bill, not a farm bill, so people in the cities understand they have a dog in that fight.The decisions made in the farm bill, which essentially organizes our entire food system, are directly connected to the cheapness of fast food and the fact that healthy foods are expensive.

BLVR: This is about nature writing, but of a different sort, then. So what can you do as a nature writer?

MP: Well, tell stories, stories that work ecologically.

BLVR: With food, then, an example of an ecological story in the book is when you describe Polyface Farms, Joel Salatin’s farm, and its ecological relationship, right? There, you offer a pretty clear view of the farm as more than just the field under plow.

MP: That’s right. At first the forest around his fields was totally invisible to me, but it was part of the system, and Joel explained I was wrong to call it a hundred-acre farm—the surrounding forest influences the wind pattern, determining how well the grass grows, the water retention of the soil, the ground temperature, and provides shelter and food for animals that would otherwise attack his chickens, etc., etc. So you have to count the forest as part of the farm, which is why, ecologically speaking, it’s a five-hundred-acre farm, not one hundred.

BLVR: That came across as a really vivid example.

MP: Ecology proposes a different way of thinking, and one of my goals in the book was to try to think that way as a writer. I wanted to apply to my narrative the lessons I was learning from the farmers. We still think very mechanistically. But what would it mean to think and write ecologically? Order your thoughts and your narrative that way? You know, for me there was another great moment, when Joel said to me, 14 percent of grass’s energy goes into standing upright. If you could reduce the wind effect, you would get more grass. You don’t think of the air around an object as important. But it’s part of the same ecological system that produces the food. The air is what links the forest to the field, since the forest reduces the movement of the air. And it’s invisible to us. So making it visible, that sparked some exciting insights for me.



BLVR: The organic food movement seems not so much nontechnological as just less mechanized. What do we do about it?

MP: Really, the whole mechanization of agriculture is an interesting phenomenon, because it’s driven by the same logic of capitalism we’ve discussed. But it’s also driven by a desire on the part of a lot of powerful interests in this country to have fewer farmers. And shrinking the population of the farming community is an interesting history that I kept bumping into. It’s certainly been going on since the post-war period, the ’50s and ’60s. Those in power say we don’t need so many farmers, we can move to a technological farming, we can bring the principles of industrial capitalism to agriculture.

BLVR: Nice point. It gets at those systemic reasons underlying these developments that Maher’s cause-and-effect conspiracy theory could oversimplify.

MP: Sure. And it wasn’t just a by-product, if you read some of this history. You look, for example, at the CED—the Committee on Economic Development— which was kind of a Conference Board–type organization, representing all the big eastern bankers and manufacturers. In the early ’60s, they asked, how can we help American business progress? They would say, for starters, we don’t need to have six million farmers, or whatever the number was, and then they ask, how much better would it be if we didn’t? And in one of their reports they mention in passing that one of the downsides of having so many farmers in America is their politics, that farmers have been very populist. The moment of a populist uprising at the turn of the last century, where farmers made common cause with labor, put the fear of God in a lot of American capitalists. So getting rid of farmers—because farmers have historically been one of the more independent and active political constituencies in the country—served a lot of interests, and served the government’s interests, too. They were a pain in the ass. And they really did raise hell!

BLVR: But the politics of farmers has changed too, right?

MP: It’s very interesting that farmers’ politics have changed as their numbers have shrunken. For instance, the Farm Bureau, whom the New York Times believes speaks for farmers, in fact is little more than a front for the agro-business companies who fund it. And the Farm Bureau reflects agribusiness politics more faithfully than the interests of American farmers. Somewhere along the line, farmers were convinced that if you can increase production and drive down prices you’ll have a huge export market, that that’s how you’ll get rich. Farmers were kind of sold a bill of goods. So their numbers shrunk and their politics changed and now they’re no longer a real threat to anybody.

BLVR: There are so many different ways to approach this. It becomes a cultural issue just as much, then.

MP: It does, it all comes together, I mean, I think that’s the point. A lot of this comes down to the question of what drives the industrialization of the food chain, and there were many factors pushing the system in this direction. Now one of them, and a really important one, is this commodity thing, because as you drive down the price of the raw materials of food the only way to make money is by processing more, adding value to it, and by this logic, this kind of capitalist logic, food has to get increasingly more processed. The overcomplication of food is really a result of the raw materials—corn, soy, etc.—being so cheap that the only way to make money is tricking it up.

BLVR: Well, and all of that begins with the perception that these are all raw materials, serving instrumental ends.

MP: Yeah, it’s the factory model. That you put in this and you get out that.

BLVR: Isn’t that what’s so great about soup-in-a-cup, the in-car eating phenomenon? Because here you have the perfect metaphor playing out, of the person fueling herself in the car, just sucking it down, just as the car itself is fueled with gas and sucks it down. And you probably bought that soup-in-a-cup to fit your car’s cup holder at the gas station!

MP: That kind of food-as-fuel metaphor, removing food from its cultural and spiritual context, is a big part of the problem. It astounds me, the extent to which we have been convinced that quantity matters more than quality in food. You know, as Joel said, people who complain about the price of food are people who in any other area of life are happy to pay when they perceive quality, so they wear fancy clothes and drive expensive cars. But they resent when eggs cost four dollars a dozen instead of eighty-nine cents. That’s a bit of a mystery to me, why we should be so understanding of the relationship between quality and price in everything except food.



BLVR: I saw a New Yorker cartoon, and it has these two cavemen sitting around their cave fire, talking, and the caption says, “Something’s just not right. Our air is clean, our water is good, we get plenty of exercise and—

MP:“—we all die at thirty!”

BLVR: Yeah! Nobody lives past thirty. It’s like the line in Sleeper, when Woody Allen wakes up, whenever, a hundred years later, and he says, “But where are all my friends, where has everyone gone?” And they say something like, “Well, they’re all dead, of course.” And he’s so astonished: “But they all ate organic rice!”

MP: Right, right. People died, you know, before the advent of industrial food. It’s not the only cause of death.

BLVR: But at least with industrial food chains we don’t have to worry about having enough food anymore. Whereas, on the other hand, if we all went local, then we might get new, different problems, if we all went back to the land. Then we might have to deal with a whole bunch of new problems that we thought we’d overcome: historically, the problems the cartoon cavemen had.

MP: You mean drought and pestilence and all that, destroying crops… I guess in some sense you can say we have some more insurance with a big national food system, but you’re also posing it as an either-or, that we reject this whole industrial system and go back to local or not. I think the all-or-nothing approach is a real mistake, and an example of the exact kind of monoculture thinking that gets us in trouble. In my utopian future there are many kinds of food chains. Local is one of them. I don’t expect the other ones to go away. I expect them to get smaller, and for us to be less dependent on them. There’s a lot of risk in depending on that food system, too, and we see it all around us, epidemics of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and food poisoning. I mean, our food system is not doing what a food system at bottom needs to do, which is not just to keep a population fed but to keep it healthy.

BLVR: Not to mention bagged-spinach E. coli outbreaks, too!

MP: It’s the same phenomenon. We’ve paved the way for that to happen. When you centralize food to this extent, and you get the inevitable contaminant, you’re going to spread it to a great many places.

BLVR: Plus, the ease with which all manner of public health can now spread, mad cow or avian flu or what have you, can just fly through the system.

MP: The problem is the concentration. There is something fundamentally precarious about a highly concentrated food system, which we’re seeing with outbreaks of food-borne illness. One contaminated hamburger plant, whether naturally or by a terrorist, could affect literally hundreds of thousands of people all across the country. That’s the model of food-borne disease now, whereas it used to be Aunt Mildred’s potato salad would sicken people at a church social, a dozen, two dozen people.

And in fact the government understands this perfectly well. The GAO [Government Accountability Office] did a study, post-9/11, about the vulnerability of the food system. And they concluded that a highly centralized food system such as ours, where four large companies process 80 percent of the beef, is highly vulnerable. And, in fact, Tommy Thompson, when he left Health and Human Services, was asked what surprised him most. This was at his farewell news conference, and he said, “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.” So food security in that sense is a real issue. And the solution is as plain as the nose on anyone’s face, which is to decentralize the food system. That will make it safer.

BLVR: How come Tommy Thompson didn’t get grief for giving aid and comfort to the enemy?

MP: Yeah, Stephen Colbert would have something to say about that. But nobody’s talking about decentralizing the food system in the government, and that’s in part because there is a powerful food industry lobby, which exerts an enormous influence on those policies.



BLVR: If the problem is consumption, a consumer-based philosophy, then it seems like in the newer organic model, like in Joel Salatin’s case, on one read it’s not really solving the problem. His solution is just to have a better consumer and not to work on the problem of consumption itself. So if over-consumption is either caused by or is part of the same process as overproduction—like the high-yield mentality—then just making a different consumer isn’t getting at that.

MP: I don’t know how far you can go in solving problems by changing patterns of consumer behavior, though I think you can go pretty far. But I do think it requires us to reconsider what it means to be a consumer. We’re getting our ideas about what that means from marketing and advertising, that being a good consumer is getting a “good deal” on price and having your desires satisfied as quickly as possible, but there are other ways to conceive of your role as a consumer. You can conceive of your consumer decisions as incredibly creative. Or as incredibly political. So that the typical definition of the consumer, that character, is not necessarily the only one that there might be. We tend to look down on this character, even though it’s most of us, and we accept the critique of who this consumer is, and how limited his viewpoint is.

But just as we talked about reinventing high-capital technology, can you imagine reinventing what a consumer could be? Could it be someone who brought his political values to the buying decisions as well as his basic desires for sweetness or intoxication or whatever, and who understood that buying a food that was cheap but irresponsibly priced was a short-term thing to do, and probably not wise in the long term? And, he realized when he was buying food he was making decisions about the local landscape and people in his community and his long-term health? Imagine consumers making decisions informed by all these other considerations, not just the information on desire coming from an advertiser.

BLVR: That’s a lot to ask. It requires us to know a lot of different stuff than we do.

MP: Well, yeah, it’s a lot to ask, but…

BLVR: I mean, who would do that?

MP: Well, increasing numbers of people think that way. You know, when I buy a dozen eggs for six dollars at the farmer’s market, there are a lot of those cultural decisions folded into that food-buying decision. Why not do that as a form of environmental support—instead of buying two-dollar eggs and sending a thirty-dollar check to the Nature Conservancy? If you combine those two activities—buying food and supporting the environment—we might be better off.

BLVR: A values discussion, social, moral, community, right? Which makes it different than a strict economic value discussion.

MP: Yeah, because if we limit it to economics, there’s a whole set of assumptions there strictly driven by the most simple economic calculus. Where does that come from?

BLVR: I have to figure this out?

MP: I mean, there’s a lot of history there. Think about other areas of life, though. When you’re not in a supermarket you don’t let economic considerations alone drive the way you treat your children, or your parents, or your community. There are a lot of areas where you don’t let that simple, coarse set of values drive everything. So why should your eating decisions then be limited to that system? They don’t need to be. You can look at the purchasing decision of food as something more like dealing with family, or the cultural realm, or political realm. There may be realms that are driven purely by economics, but what I’m suggesting is that maybe food is too important to be one of them.

BLVR: But with Joel Salatin’s example, I mean, do we all have to live and believe like him?

MP:Well,I don’t hold him up as an ideal for everyone and everywhere…. There are a lot of problems with taking Joel’s ideas and rolling them out nationally. But simply by showing that something is possible, that’s very powerful. He shows that there is a way to get what we want from nature without diminishing nature.In fact,that we can get from nature what we want or need in a way that enhances nature at the same time is an extremely powerful and hopeful idea.He is a refutation of the zero-sum idea of the human relationship to the natural world, such that either we win or nature wins.And the fact that such a refutation exists in that one case, and there are more cases out there, then, sure, it’s another whole step to say that everyone can do it this way. But it shows it is possible.



BLVR: These cultural issues we hit on earlier, about food and lifestyle, this is pretty difficult to work on. How do you deal with the elitist character of the local and organic movement?

MP: There are a couple different ways to look at this. The fact is, it is true that to eat well, from a nutritional, ethical, or aesthetic point of view, it costs more than to eat badly. There are a lot of reasons for that. And the movement for reforming the food system will have to deal with this. One argument is that many social movements start as elite movements. So we shouldn’t condemn a movement simply for that fact. Abolition, women’s suffrage, environmentalism, all of them were tagged with the same charge, and all succeeded in bringing substantial positive change. So that, on its face, just because you look at the people involved in the movement and say they’re all affluent, that might be a shortsighted way to look at it.The fact is that sometimes elites have more time and resources to put into politics and activism and social change.

BLVR: So you mean, although those with the means are representing those without in this movement, by doing what they can to promote local and organic food choices, the goal down the line is, they wouldn’t have to stand in anymore?

MP: That’s one way to look at it. As this movement gets stronger and bigger, we’ll see the prices of organic food come down. Organic has been sold at a very high premium over conventional food, for many, many reasons. Some are built in and won’t change—you know, it’s harder to grow it, it takes more labor and more care than growing industrial food. But some of it is simply because the volume hasn’t been there yet. It’s been a niche market. As organic becomes a commodity—which, for better or worse, it’s becoming—the prices will come down. Wal-Mart recently said it would sell organic, and they’re going to sell it for only 10 percent more than their already dirt-cheap conventional food. So suddenly organic will be a much more populist phenomenon. Wal-Mart is at the bottom of the food chain, so there is a democratization going on of organic food.

BLVR: What would the next move be for availability and having access to farmer’s markets in places where they aren’t now, like the inner city?

MP: I think that’s key, and that’s what we have to work toward. We have huge problems in the inner city with access to fresh food. There’s plenty of access to fast food, but there are no supermarkets and usually no farmer’s markets. But, I mean, there are programs that could work on this, there are programs that could give something like food stamps to people, both elderly and poor, redeemable only in farmer’s markets. If you give out enough of those you’re going to have more farmer’s markets in the inner city. But even this, too, comes from a certain policy legacy, where the Small Business Administration, the SBA, when they were looking to give loans to inner-city people to start their own businesses, money for fast-food franchises was a really easy way to do this. The supermarkets don’t like to come into these areas, but the fast food companies do. Access definitely is an issue.

BLVR: Does Whole Foods have a policy of buying local? Wasn’t that their founding premise?

MP: They’re doing it a lot more now, but no, their founding premise I think was a lot closer to organic than local. Even so, I don’t think, though, that driving down the price of organic or local is necessarily a good thing—I mean, it’s got to come down somewhat—but if it gets as cheap as industrial food, this will be evidence it’s not much more sustainable. And that brings us to this other way to look at the elitism issue. The problem isn’t that healthy, organic food is expensive, it’s that industrial food is artificially cheap! Cheap food is in fact very expensive. You just don’t see all the costs reflected in the price. To make the food that cheap, you basically are charging the real cost to the environment in the form of pesticides, pollution, water pollution, to the public purse in the form of subsidies, and to the public health, because you have so many health costs attached to eating this way.

BLVR: And the energy issue, like the calorie of energy it costs to produce and ship a calorie of food…

MP: Oh yeah, and I didn’t even mention energy! One calorie of washed, organic lettuce from the Salinas Valley delivered cross-country to New York, or Virginia, where you are, takes fifty-six calories of fossil-fuel energy. So these are real costs that are not reflected in the price of cheap food. The ninety-nine-cent hamburger, cheap as it looks, is actually incredibly expensive to society, to nature, and to public health. It seems to me we have to move toward a place where we’re paying the real cost of our food, and when we do we can begin to make better decisions as a society.

BLVR: It’d be healthier, too.

MP: It would. You know, compared to the early 1960s, the percentage of our income that goes to food has fallen from 18 percent to less than 10 percent today. We’re paying less for food than anyone on Earth, anyone in the history of our planet, in fact. But in that same period, the percentage of our national income that goes to health care has risen from 5 percent to 16 percent today. Some of that increase, not all of it, is the result of eating terrible, cheap food. If we spent a few more percentage points of income on food, we could surely spend a few percentage points less on health care. What I’m suggesting is that spending more on food, as a society, will not end up costing us more overall.

BLVR: How about that! We got all the way back to Bill Maher’s Big Food–Big Pharma connection. But with some more depth to it, I hope.

MP: I hope so.

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