We are what we eat

"The Omnivore's Dilemma" author Michael Pollan on how Wall Street has driven America's obesity epidemic, the misleading labels in Whole Foods, and why we should spend more money on food.

Topics: Author Interviews, Obesity, Books,

We are what we eat

On the long trip from the soil to our mouths, a trip of 1,500 miles on average, the food we eat often passes through places most of us will never see. Michael Pollan has spent much of the last five years visiting these places on our behalf. “Industrial food,” as Pollan defines it, “is food for which you need an investigative journalist to tell you where it came from.” We have been eating such food for so long that most of us have no memory of the much shorter and less complicated food chains that once tied people to the land. We need someone, in other words, to tell us where food of any kind comes from. A longtime writer on food for the New York Times Magazine and author of the bestseller “The Botany of Desire,” Pollan is a good man for the job.

In his new book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals,” Pollan traces meals across four different food chains, or, if you prefer, markets, arranged in order of popularity: a McDonald’s drive-through meal, a Whole Foods dinner, a meal raised on a “beyond organic” pasture farm in Virginia, and what Pollan labels the “Perfect Meal,” one whose ingredients he hunts and forages for himself. In the course of his investigations, Pollan comes across an unlikely collection of people — from Iowa corn farmers, Kansas feedlot managers and food processing scientists, to rebel farmers, San Francisco Bay area gourmands and fanatic mushroom foragers — yet manages to approach all of them with a common sympathy. As he sees it, the corn farmer dumping nitrogen on his fields, the veterinarian loading corn-fed cattle with medication, and the hog farmer snipping pigs’ tails to prevent stress-induced chewing in close quarters are all driven by the same pressures. He lays the blame for our destructive and precarious system, if at all, on those in Washington and on Wall Street — at the USDA and Archer Daniels Midland — who set the rules of the game. But then they too, he knows, are responding to a set of pressures that come from all of us and our appetites.

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is equal parts exposi and invitation — a rolling together of “Fast Food Nation” and “The Moosewood Cookbook” to make the case for saner, more pleasurable eating habits. “Our ingenuity in feeding ourselves is prodigious,” Pollan writes, “but at various points our technologies come into conflict with nature’s way of doing things, as when we seek to maximize efficiency by planting crops or raising animals in vast monocultures. This is something nature never does, always and for good reason practicing diversity instead.”

Pollan caught up with Salon recently at Le Pain Quotidien in Manhattan to discuss the hard plight of American farmers, the trouble with labels at Whole Foods, and the lure of the Big Mac.

In your book’s introduction you write that “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” probably isn’t for people who are perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain. What do you mean by that?

Well, there are a lot of people who are happy to eat at McDonald’s a couple times a day. They don’t see it as a problem, and I’m not expecting to turn everybody around. Those of us who are concerned about food issues often make the mistake of preaching too much. But when it comes to food, doing the right thing is often the more pleasurable thing. That’s why I like the Slow Food approach. When McDonald’s came to Rome, they didn’t drive a tractor through the plate glass the way José Bové did in France. They set up a table outside and had Italian grandmothers cook their favorite traditional dishes as a way of saying, “Isn’t this better? Isn’t there more pleasure at this table than at that one?” It’s a better strategy to invite someone to a better table than to turn over the table they are at.

Was access much of problem in writing this?

Yes, it’s amazing that it should have become so hard. I wasn’t able to get into the factories where corn is turned into high-fructose corn syrup, which you wouldn’t think would be so controversial, and I wasn’t able to get onto the kill floor of a large meat plant. They allowed me to see everything but the knocker who actually administers the fatal blow. It’s become more difficult since Sept. 11. The food industry has a new argument, which is partly sincere. They’ve recognized that with such a centralized food supply, somebody dropping a vial of bacterium into a vat of hamburger could reach tens of thousands of people. But it has also become an excuse to keep the prying eyes of journalists away from how our food is made, which is unfortunate because we would be better off if we had more transparency in our food system. If there was a right of access to meat slaughterhouses, they wouldn’t be slaughtering 400 beefs an hour, allowing manure to be smeared on carcasses, and going so fast that live animals get cut open. The best we could do for the safety of our food supply, for the beauty of our landscape and for the quality of our water would be to decentralize meat and agriculture.

So why don’t we see more pressure to change the regulations?

The food industry takes advantage of the fact that we’re really out of touch. I mean, some people would be shocked to learn that you can’t get a steak without killing a cow. And for some reason food policy is treated as a parochial issue in this country. It’s a debate between the senator from Nebraska and the senator from Iowa. The senators from New York and California don’t think they have a dog in that fight, which is an enormous error, because these are the rules of the game in which we all play as eaters. And we’re giving the right to set these rules to a very small number of interested parties. Maybe we need to start calling it a food bill instead of an agriculture bill. Maybe then people in New York and California would pay more attention. I know as a writer I’ve learned that you can’t pitch a story on agriculture to an editor in New York, but if you call it a story about food, suddenly people are interested. And the same goes for the politics of it. I mean, why are we essentially subsidizing high-fructose corn syrup when we have an epidemic of obesity? These connections don’t get made. But I’m hoping that in this next farm bill, since the obesity crisis has come to the public’s attention recently, that we’ll figure out a way to make public health a consideration.

How would you do that?

I’m not exactly sure, but we need to create a set of rules so that the produce aisle would be competitive with the junk food aisle. That’s the beginning of the solution. People living on junk food aren’t stupid. If you go into the supermarket with little money, you’re going to buy the most calories you can get for a dollar. And a dollar will buy you a couple thousands calories’ worth of potato chips, but only a few calories worth of carrots. So the decision to eat badly is rational in that those are the calories we subsidize. Our food policy is geared toward the overproduction of corn and soybeans in order to keep raw materials cheap for the likes of ADM, Cargill, Coca-Cola and General Mills, who happen to exert an enormous control over the farm bill.

So the obesity epidemic, or at least the fact that the average American’s daily caloric intake has jumped 10 percent since 1977, is not exactly an accident.

Well, the logic of the food business and the logic of human biology and ecology are fundamentally in conflict. I don’t think we can get around that. The American population is growing at about 1 percent per year, and we can only eat about 1,500 pounds of food per year. So if you’re in the business of selling food, your natural growth rate would be about 1 percent a year. But Wall Street will not tolerate a company that grows that slowly. They want 5 to 10 percent growth as a minimum. So how do you get those kinds of margins? One way is to get people to pay more for the same 1,500 pounds of chow, and the other is to get them to eat more. And the food corporations pursue both strategies. Coca-Cola is the perfect example. It’s a penny or two in raw ingredients, mostly high-fructose corn syrup and some water. And people will pay you pretty well for that. It’s very hard, on the other hand, to make money selling whole foods, the supermarket chain of that name notwithstanding.

If cheap corn is at the root of the problem, why not just get rid of the $19 billion a year in subsidies?

People tend to assume that if you removed the subsidy the price would go up, but from everything I’ve been able to learn, that may not be the case. The subsidies we have are a response to the price collapse of the Depression. We started a system in which the government would lend farmers the value of their crop so that they wouldn’t have to dump it on a weak market. They would hold it until the market got stronger, sell it and then pay back the government. It was a pretty good system. But beginning with the Nixon administration, there was a switch from loans to direct payments. For the farmer it seems like the same thing, but it makes an enormous difference to the system. Say there’s a target price of $2 for a bushel of corn but the price at market falls to $1.50, you can lend the farmer $2 until he sells it at a better price or you just cut him a check for 50 cents. But if you’re cutting the check, he’s free to sell into that bad market and crash it even further. You’re not shrinking the supply.

So if they made you secretary of agriculture tomorrow would you go back to a reserve system?

[Laughs] I don’t have to worry about that. But the problem with that system would be making it work in an era of global trade. If you’re artificially holding up prices in this country, then you also need a system of tariffs so other countries don’t dump on our markets. The trouble is that Cargill doesn’t care where they buy their corn from. They will go anywhere in the world. And even if we don’t allow corn in, they’ll just manufacture high-fructose corn syrup overseas. So then what? Do you keep that out?

Why shouldn’t we be happy for a system that keeps food cheap?

To think that this food is cheap is a failure to see all the costs involved. The real price is not reflected at the cash register, but in your healthcare bill, in your tax bills, or in your bills for bottled waters after the water supply has been contaminated by industrial chemicals. There’s an argument often made that buying the right food is elitist, because it is more expensive. And I’m not going to defend the prices at Whole Foods, because there’s certainly profiteering going on in the organic food industry, but, in general you’re paying closer to the real costs when you buy organic or local. Organic food is not subsidized in any way. And organic food does not put as much burden onto the public health system.

But, from the perspective of a consumer, buying organic isn’t going to reduce your tax bill, it just costs more.

Yes, but I think most people could afford to spend more money on food in this country. There is a segment of the population, probably less than 10 percent, that can’t spend more than they’re spending now. And we need to help those people by designing food aid that points them to the produce aisle and away from the snack food aisle. But say we already help that 10 percent to feed themselves in healthier ways, the other 90 percent are spending less on food, as a percentage of income, than any people in the history of mankind. We spend 9 percent of our income on food, which is less than we spent 10 years ago or 20 years ago. If we could get that up a few percentage points, we could build a much more sustainable food system. So I think people just have to dig down in their pockets and spend more for food. We seem to be able to afford spending $50 to $100 a month on television and cellphones. I’m not saying people shouldn’t have cellphones or pay television, but that it’s finally a decision about what you value. And the elitism charge is often used simply to defend bad practices. I’m dubious about any situation where McDonald’s can occupy the moral high ground.

But it’s more than an issue of money, isn’t it? I know plenty of people who would love to buy and prepare fresh, local food more often but don’t feel that they have the leisure time.

It’s true. That is an issue. It does take more time to eat well. People have to spend more time choosing what they buy and they have to reacquaint themselves with the kitchen. It’s odd, to judge by the Food Network and the fame of chefs and the popularity of Viking stoves, we’re obsessed with cooking in this society, yet we don’t really cook anymore. Cooking has become more of a ritual than a habit — a high ritual that happens once a month. But it’s true that to get off of processed food, you might have to join a CSA [community-supported agriculture program], where you get a box of produce every week and you have to figure out what to do with all that chard or butternut squash. And a lot of people don’t feel they have time for that, partly because of the $50 to $100 they’re paying for cable television and the Internet. Again, it’s a matter of priorities. The good news is that there’s a great deal of interest in eating whole foods. Farmers markets are appearing and thriving all over the country. And there’s a movement taking shape to source school food and other institutional food locally, which could make a huge difference given that we eat half of our meals away from home. The one upside to having a monopolized food system is that a single company can make a dramatic difference. When McDonald’s got out of selling genetically modified French fries, that product disappeared in a year. I was once told — though I couldn’t confirm this — that if McDonald’s gets just 25 unorganized calls or letters on a particular customer concern, the matter will get on the agenda at a board meeting. And I think that that’s exactly what happened with genetically modified potatoes.

We may have that leverage, but McDonald’s still has that unmistakable taste, which you aptly describe as “a fragrance and flavor only nominally connected to hamburgers or French fries.” It’s a flavor that, once tried, you tend to crave. I expect a part of me, anyway, will always be attached to the flavor of a McDonald’s cheeseburger.

Yeah, you probably grew up on it — that salty, meaty, hard-to-describe taste that is not really the product of any cow or chicken but of food science. It’s a part of our culture now and it’s not going to go away. But, I wonder whether or not you can turn that craving back with good food. I’ve seen many children who lost their taste for fast food after being exposed to really good food. A grass-fed hamburger, for instance, takes some getting used to but it’s such a wonderful taste. I know I’m ruined for a fast food hamburger now. But that’s partly because I know too much. Food is not simply a matter of taste bud to brain. There are memories involved and they can play both ways. You may have the memory of your childhood Big Mac, but I have the memory of a slaughterhouse. Junk food does have the advantage of being designed to push our buttons. We’re hard-wired to take in as much sweet and fat as we can get when it’s available because, for most of human history, we never knew if it would be around tomorrow. But now it will be around tomorrow. So there’s a disconnect between our genetic inheritance and our food environment. And fast food companies are good at manipulating that, at designing flavors that will seduce us. But nature’s been designing flavors to seduce us for 10,000 years or more, so I still think they’re a pretty good match.

But this line between “artificial” and “natural” has become increasingly difficult to locate, as evidenced by the rise of what you call “big organic” or “industrial organic.” What do those terms mean?

I use them as a way to describe how the scaling up of organic agriculture has led to a diminishment of the core principles of the movement. Now you have 5,000 cow organic dairies that are organic only in the narrow sense that the cows are eating organic grain. It’s probably less important to a cow that its feed be organic than that its food be what it was evolved to eat, which is grass. There’s a perversion in taking an animal off the food that it’s evolved to eat and feeding it organic grain just because some consumer thinks pesticide is the worst thing in the world. And as organic farms get bigger, there’s a push toward monoculture because large buyers would rather get all their corn from one farm. If you’re making organic corn chips, you don’t want to be writing 50 contracts with 50 small farms, you want one honking big organic corn farm. You see it with Whole Foods. Farmers used to be able to go to the back door of Whole Foods in California after they were done at the farmers market and sell whatever was left over. But as Whole Foods grew, it went to this regional distribution system and now most of their produce comes from two companies. Still, the fact is that even that big organic corn farm is better for the environment and better for the eater than a conventional one. The idea is not to condemn Whole Foods or the organic movement but to hold them to a higher bar.

Which leads us to the genre you call “supermarket pastoral.” What is it exactly?

Walking through Whole Foods, I joke in the book, is a literary experience. You need to be a pretty good literary critic, in other words, to figure out what’s really being said on these labels. They’re written in what I call supermarket pastoral, which is a very persuasive form. I read a lot of labels and I’m still a sucker for it. Free-range chicken, for instance, can mean nothing more than a 20,000-bird shed with a tiny little lawn and a little door that’s opened two weeks before the hens are slaughtered. These little yards are purely symbolic. Chickens don’t use them because they’re too careful. They’ve never been outside before; there’s not enough room for all of them and they’re a flock animal. So it’s a conceit to appeal to the consumer. When you see “free-range,” it’s not happening, but if you see “pastured” chicken, which you sometimes will at a farmers market, that’s real. And pastured eggs, by the way, are a superior product in every way. I know a farmer in California who grows them. They’re $6 a dozen and I consider them worth it.

So is pastured the new organic?

It’s certainly an important thing to look for as a consumer. But again, when you see “range-fed” beef that also doesn’t mean anything, because all beef is range fed until the animal is 6 months to a year old. You can’t put them on the feedlot right after they’re born because the corn will kill them. So you shouldn’t be fooled. What you’re really looking for is grass-finished, which can still be hard to find, but is becoming much more common. For my money, grass is nature’s great free lunch. When you eat animals at the end of a grass-based food chain, you’re eating food that comes from the sun and not from fossil fuel.

But are any of these alternative food chains up to the task of feeding large cities?

Well, I think it’s a challenge. People in cities are probably always going to have to access larger markets. The definition of their food shed is going to be larger, but cities offer advantages as well. The farmers markets in our big cities are more vital than those in our small towns because there’s so much buying power. Agriculture around the San Francisco Bay area is thriving precisely because you have a large and discerning population not too far from farms so farmers can get a really high premium on their food. In a way, the solution to the Iowa problem is to have a bigger city in the middle of Iowa. But it’s really important and increasingly difficult to protect the greenbelts around cities. The best way is to patronize those farms, but no matter how much local food you buy, the temptation for farmers to sell their land is often tremendous. Farmers are going out of business not because they can’t survive on their sales, but because their land is so valuable they decide to sell it and retire on the income. I read one projection that by the end of this century, there won’t be any farms left in California’s Central Valley. I don’t feel so good about that. However you feel about free trade with regard to your computer or your car, my guess is that, if you thought about it, you’d feel differently about your food. A situation where America no longer produces its own food is not only disturbing at a visceral level, but a national security crisis waiting to happen.

Ira Boudway is a freelance writer in Brooklyn and frequent contributor to Salon.

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