Michael Pollan: Bad food is costing America its economic health

"The Omnivore's Dilemma" author on diabetes' strain on Obamacare, and why our eating habits are worse than ever

Published December 8, 2013 7:00PM (EST)

Michael Pollan    (AP/Virginia Mayo)
Michael Pollan (AP/Virginia Mayo)

Michael Pollan’s garden lives up to expectations. There is, naturally, a vegetable patch. He’s got a couple of well-loved stalks of lacinato kale, a few unruly tomato plants piled above a clump of basil. The borders are eco-stylish for the microclimate of Berkeley, California: a mix of native grasses and drought-tolerant succulents, blue on purple. One corner is dedicated to cooking equipment – there’s a gas grill and a wood smoker, too. The yard resembles Pollan’s own prose. It says a lot in a small amount of space.

Our interview took place in early autumn. The wisteria vine climbing the front of the house had gone to seed, and every once in a while the long, brown pods snapped open with a crack. “They don’t just fall, they explode,” Pollan warned, joking, “they could hurt somebody.” A small, black, feral cat nosed about the BBQ gear. Pollan said he had tried to domesticate it, but that it has resisted his advances.

The feral cat seemed, in classic Pollan form, a tidy, little symbol for something bigger – in this case a symbol for the predictably strange relationship between humans and the natural world, which has been an enduring theme of Pollan’s 25-year career. Pollan is best known as a food journalist. But his primary interest is something deeper: the question of how to balance our civilization’s drive for control with nature’s insistence on wildness. Pollan’s first book, the precocious Second Nature, was a profound meditation on humans’ place in the world, disguised as a book about rose care and lawn maintenance. He followed that with the often-hilarious The Botany of Desire and the blockbuster The Omnivore’s Dilemma. This consistently provocative and entertaining body of work has earned Pollan huge praise, including a place on Time’s list of the most influential people on the planet.

Having established himself as an authority on food and agriculture, Pollan now has to navigate the challenges of being both a journalist and an advocate. He’s managed to do this, he says, through a commitment to always being fair, especially to those with whom he disagrees. “To sympathize – that’s part of the job of the journalist,” he says.

It’s a value, come to think of it, that one often learns in the garden.

— Jason Mark

In your new book, Cooked, you explore the art of cooking through the elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. I’m sure you love all your children equally, but of those four, which taught you the most?

Fermentation – without a doubt. I began this education about microbiology. I’ve always been interested in nature and other species, and this symbiotic relationship we have with them, and I have mostly paid attention to it in the plant world. I just had no idea of how rich our engagement with microbes was, and how invisible it is to us. I began it when I was doing the Air section and learning about sourdough cultures. But then I got into that last chapter and started learning about fermentation: how much of our food is fermented, the fact that you could cook without the use of any heat, and the fact that we are dependent on these microbes. They’re using us; we’re using them. For me that was most fascinating.

You point out that our feelings about microbes are an expression of our attitude toward the natural world.

Yeah, and our drive for control, at all costs. Microbes are frightening for a couple reasons. One is, they’re invisible. They’re an unseen enemy. And they are pathogens, I mean some of them. You know, conquering infectious disease was a tremendous achievement for our civilization. But as so often happens, we cast things in black and white. So microbes are all bad because some microbes cause disease, and we fail to realize how dependent we are on them for our health. I think we’re going to get to a point where we will discover the unit in evolution and natural selection is not the species as an individual, but what is called the “holobiont,” the group of species that travel together. And that’s what selection is acting on very often, is the super-organism of humans or cats or plants.

Plants, you know, they, too, have their own microbiome; I didn’t talk about this in the piece, but their microbiome is outside their bodies. It surrounds their roots. It’s in what’s called the rhizosphere. There’s a little ecosystem around the root of every plant, and I think we’re going to come to learn that it’s as important to plant health as our flora is to us. I think we’re going to start looking at all species as collectivities, and microbes will be the part of that. And that changes a lot. It changes how you approach agriculture. It certainly changes how you approach health. So I think we’re really on the verge of a paradigm shift around that.

But it makes some people nervous, what you call “the unknowable wildness.” It goes against our cultural ideas about controlling nature. As you put it in your chapter on bread-baking, “you can nudge, but not control.”

Right, exactly. That’s an ethos I learned as a gardener – because you can’t control everything in your garden, either. Or managing soil fertility. We manage soil fertility without understanding it. And that’s not the Western way. The Western way is you break it down into parts, and then you know everything, and you know how to control it. But soil fertility is still a tremendous mystery. We know kind of pragmatically what works and doesn’t work. We know too much salt or acid kills it off, too many fertilizers kill it off, and organic matter tends to support it. But how you move in an environment that you don’t entirely understand is a huge challenge for us, because it so goes against how we approach things.

This has been the through-line of your career, from Second Nature until Cooked – the idea that the domestic arts, whether it’s gardening or cooking, are one way for us to have an intimate relationship with nature. In Second Nature you write that it’s harder to have a direct relationship with nature than just admire it from a distance. Do you still think that’s true?

I think that as soon as you get into a situation with nature where you need to alter it to survive, you’re suddenly left without the easy compass of wilderness, which is: “Leave it alone. Nature knows best. It’ll do what it’s gonna do.” Sometimes you do have to garden, or manage. And when you do, what are your standards? We have a standard for wilderness, which is non-interference. And it’s great, and it achieved amazing things: the creation of the wilderness parks, and the setting aside of about 8 percent of the landmass in this country. But it’s silent on the 92 percent, and that’s what Second Nature is about. So my premise there – which, yeah, has continued to be the premise of all my work – is: How do you think through this relationship in the messy places where nature and culture have to engage with one other? That’s true in the garden, it’s true in the farm, and that’s true in our bodies even. So there is a wilderness there. Or, it’s not a wilderness, because it’s been shaped by culture, but there’s a wildness there. And we need to draw that distinction between wilderness and wildness, because even when wilderness is gone, there’s still this property of wildness and that needs to be nurtured and dealt with in a very careful way. Whereas our tendency has always been to give up once something has lost that pristine, wild identity.

Going back to the microbiome stuff, it’s really interesting how the scientists I was dealing with would not offer any advice on how to manage your microbiome, because they hadn’t figured out the drugs and the therapies, and they hadn’t figured out a way to rationalize it and make it a part of Western medicine. So until they did, they were like, “Ummm, we can’t make any advice at all.” I was very eager to get that information from them, so I started asking them, “What have you done in your own life?” And then this torrent came out: “Well, I eat a lot of fermented foods. I loosened up on the sanitary regime in the house with my kids, and I let them play in the dirt.” So there are unprofessional, non-technocratic ways to deal with things like the ecosystem in your gut. And that’s been another theme in my work, which is that culture often gives us good advice before science has figured out a lot.

Ancient wisdom.

Ancient wisdom, yeah basically. I hate the term “ancient wisdom” because it’s always made to sound so loopy and New Age. But, yeah, that’s what we’re talking about – ancient wisdom. And not-so-ancient wisdom. There’s a lot of wisdom about diet that has emerged in the last hundred years, when people were transitioning to an industrial diet and understood what was going wrong – the kind of things I talk about in Food Rules.

Without getting into the loopiness of ancient wisdom, our habits of solitary eating and multitasking while eating are, in fact, a break from how we cooked and ate for millennia. Why is that a problem?

Well, eating is a social act. It’s been a social act at least since we’ve been cooking. We eat socially; most other species don’t. And it’s been very important to us. Civilization formed around the fire. It’s where we learned how to share and take turns and restrain our worst impulses. You need to govern instinct as soon as you have people around the fire, or the biggest, strongest, most impatient animal is going to get all the food. So rules begin as soon as you start grilling a big piece of meat, because you have to share it, you have to wait. So to give that up and go back to that hunter-gatherer mode of eating alone on the go is – I think you lose that beautiful social dimension of eating.

And there are some practical things that happen. When people eat alone, they tend to binge more. There’s a social check on gluttony; it’s one of the seven deadly sins. When we’re with other people, there’s kind of a check on eating too much and, you know, pigging out. We all know this from our own experience. If you’re eating in front of the TV and you’re alone, how thoughtlessly you’ll just keep moving food into your mouth without really considering whether you’re hungry, until the bag is empty.

So I think that’s part of ancient wisdom, too. People ate as part of this institution called the meal. The meal is a really important human institution, and we’re in the process of undermining it, because of our food marketing and because of our lifestyles. And a lot is lost. I say in the book – and it sounds like hyperbole – but the family meal is the nursery of democracy. I really do think we literally civilize our children at the table. That’s where they learn to take turns and to share and to argue; all these kind of proto-democratic, small d democratic skills, or small r republican skills, are acquired at the table. And to give that up is to coarsen our politics, I believe. And it’s happening.

Well, then, how do you reverse it? I think there’s a shift in the zeitgeist happening – people growing their backyard tomatoes and making Bolognese from scratch. But it’s still sort of rare, like monks illuminating a manuscript or something.

Well, that remains to be seen. It may turn out to be that you will have a saving remnant of people who still practice this ancient art of eating together at tables. Or you could look at it another way, which is that we’ve been engaged in a social and biological experiment for only a couple decades, and now we’re starting to recognize the costs of it. As often happens – well not often, but it occasionally happens – we turn away from that way of doing things.

I’m always recalled to the example of infant formula. As a baby I had infant formula. My mother was very progressive and that was the progressive thing to do, and that was the future. Corporations could make this stuff much better than mothers could – I don’t know where that idea came from. It was more sanitary, more convenient. And as a culture – not entirely, but as a culture – we turned away from that. That was a modernism that we rejected. We’re now seeing that with industrial agriculture, to some extent. What an amazing idea that people would turn away from this incredibly efficient, chemically intensive regime of food.

We’ll see to what extent that happens, but every now and then we make a turn. We discover a mistake and realize we’re going down a bad path, and we either change or go back and start again. So that could happen with food. As we reckon with the cost of obesity and diabetes, and the sadness of this kind of eating, one hopes that there will be a revival of another way of eating. These are cultural norms, which are always changing and are subject to change.

I didn’t mean to be flippant about it. I guess I was wondering what you make of this arts and crafts revival. You have a great line in the book when you question whether authenticity can still be authentic if it’s self-aware – which has got to make a million hipster hearts in Brooklyn and Oakland shiver in fear.

[Laughs] Right, is this the real thing?

Yeah. So what do you think about these enclaves where it’s cooler-than-cool to pickle?

I think remains to be seen whether we’re talking about a fad or a social trend of some enduring value. I hate to say it: only time will tell. We don’t know. I think even if something is a postmodern version of what it is, that’s OK. It still can catch on. You know, people sometimes do the right thing in the spirit of irony, but they’re still doing the right thing, and so it’s not to be discounted. It doesn’t mean it’s not real – there can be a protective irony.

But it’s hard to say. You know, there was a funny moment in 2008 when the economy crashed, five years ago this fall. I was leaving my building at Northgate Hall at the university with one of my colleagues, who is this kind of hard-bitten, investigative journalist, the kind who snarls when he talks. Lehman [Brothers] has just fallen, the economy looks like it’s in the toilet, and he says, “Well, that’s it for your food crap.” [Laughs] And I thought to myself, “Yeah it might be. Who’s going to buy organic food or local food when money is so tight?” We’ll look back and say this whole alternative food economy was this froth on the surface of a very rich society. Well, it turned out not to be true.

2009 saw the highest seed sales for backyard gardeners in years.

Exactly. There were two things going on: There was the economy and there was Michelle Obama. And, in fact, the market for organic continued even though it’s more expensive. It slowed – it wasn’t 20 percent growth, it was like 10 percent growth – but it was more than any other segment of the food economy. Farmers’ markets are still ballooning. So that was a test, I think, of this alternative food economy, that it could survive that downturn. But you can’t predict these things, you really can’t. You just have to observe them and do what you can to encourage these developments.

There’s a whole discourse that this is elitist, that this is only for the rich. That’s part of the counterattack of the food industry, to claim the populist high ground. That organic is just a lifestyle choice – that’s another line that’s being successfully propagated. I don’t think that’s true. There’s a lot of interest in the alternative food economy among the poor – that’s where you see those home gardening networks.

You said, “You do what you can to encourage it.” You’re first and foremost a writer. But you’re also an advocate and, on some days, maybe even an activist. How has that transition been for you?

It’s awkward, as a journalist. Because if you write on a subject long enough and you develop strong views, to disguise those views would be really disingenuous. And coy, to pretend you hadn’t come to conclusions when you had. A lot of journalists do that all the time, and they’re forced to by whatever outlet they’re writing for. I’ve been fortunate in that I haven’t been forced to, for some peculiar reason. I write a lot for The New York Times, and they’ve never given me a hard time about the fact that I’m writing in the news pages, not the op-ed pages, and I do come to conclusions. That has to do with the looseness of magazine journalism. But it also has to do with the fact that editors in New York didn’t quite recognize there were two sides to this issue [laughter]. So I got a kind of free ride, and the industry took years to start fighting back.

Now they are fighting back, and the Times is full of other points of view on this issue. They didn’t used to be. I mean my perspective or Mark Bittman’s perspective was the only perspective in the paper for a long time, and now you get lots of defenses for GM agriculture, a tax on local food, and organic food. And that’s because the industry has decided they need to fight, and engage in debate, which is fine.

But I’m convinced I can still do journalism on the subject, and that journalism is a function not of being objective, but of being fair. As long as you represent both sides fairly, you can come to a conclusion, and then I can write in their pages about whatever I want. And I’m always very careful, even when I’m writing about the brutality of the meat industry, to talk about the economic logic that makes it imperative that ranchers put hormone implants in their cow, because the economics dictate it. To sympathize – that’s part of the job of the journalist, to be able to put yourself in the shoes of even people you disagree with or disapprove of their behavior.

So to move the prescriptive: If you could make one reform of the food system, could tweak one policy lever, what would it be?

Well, I have two.

OK, two.

And they get at the same thing, essentially. One is: You need to align your agricultural policies with your health and environmental policies, and you can’t have them at cross-purposes. Otherwise, you have a situation where the government is, as it is now, essentially underwriting both sides in the war on Type 2 diabetes. We spend a fortune as a society – and we’ll spend more now with Obamacare – dealing with the cost of Type 2 diabetes when it hits teenagers and kids. Very, very expensive to treat, and the government’s on the hook and insurance industry’s on the hook, because they have to insure everybody. At the same time, we’re subsidizing the production of high fructose corn syrup and making sugar unreasonably cheap, and underwriting the calories that are causing Type 2 diabetes. That’s insane. So how do you adjust your farm policies to support your health policies?

One way to do it is if you put it under one framework. If you look at the industrialization of agriculture, it is essentially taking this solar technology and putting it on fossil fuel. When we figured out how to do that – and that happens when you have fossil fuel-based fertilizers, fossil fuel-based pesticides, chemical agriculture – we found that you could step up your productivity enormously and farm with many less farmers. But it also forced us down this path of monoculture, and most of the ills of the food system and agriculture flow from too much of the same thing – too much corn, too much soy, too much wheat, too much rice. So if you made it your goal to take agriculture and put it back on a solar footing – which is what it is, it’s based on photosynthesis – it should be the easiest technology of all. It’s chloroplasts that make the whole game go. So to the extent you get it off fossil fuel and back on the sun, you’ll find a whole lot of things changing automatically.

One way you do that is to diversify your crops, because you need to use plants to synthesize nitrogen. You need legumes, and you need more and different crops in your rotation. You need to capture more sunlight, so you need more perennials. Corn is incredibly productive, but if you fly over a cornfield, it’s only green three or four months of the year. All that solar energy is wasted when you see that black ground, which is what you do see all spring and most of the fall. So you need either cover crops, or you need to put it back to pasture, and then let animals harvest that solar-created energy. And suddenly, as you diversify the farm to deal with this input, the energy flows, you will diversify our diet, so that you can solve for the problem of environment and energy and health at the same time, if you keep that as your North Star.

Let’s re-solarize agriculture. It doesn’t mean going back. There are much more sophisticated systems now for capturing solar energy, and that’s what I was writing about in Omnivore’s Dilemma – things like rotational animal agriculture, the kinds of long rotations that they have in South America. So I think we know how to do this. There are lots of reasons we don’t do it. Essentially, we make more money selling inputs to farmers than persuading them to use systems that are more productive. But it’s a solvable problem, and you have this added benefit of sequestering huge amounts of carbon.

I really do think agriculture has the potential to be a big player in solving climate change, and that we haven’t begun to take advantage of that, partly because we are just learning to measure carbon capture in the soil. You know, people have this sense that they understand the value of forests in capturing carbon. Soil is much better. It’s much more stable, potentially much more long-lived, and much faster, if you’re properly grazing your crops and managing it. I think it is potentially one of those areas where you could solve for several problems at once. Are we going that way? Incrementally, in places. I think it needs a lot of public support.

Speaking of “public support” – last year, on the verge of the election, you wrote about how the food movement needs to get political. How do you feel about the state of the sustainable food movement today?

I was writing in the context of the GM labeling [ballot initiative in California]. That was a loss that’s actually looking more like a victory all the time.

How so?

Well, first of all, the idea is spreading around the country. We’ve had two states in New England approve it. They’re waiting for four states before they’ll implement it. There’s a ballot initiative in Washington State, which will be decided before this comes out. But I think that the chances there are better than they were in California. Many of the food companies are not supporting Monsanto this time around. I think they felt burned. They put a lot of money into [opposing the California initiative] and they found themselves in this really uncomfortable place, which is – are you against 50 percent of your consumers? And realizing: “Hey what’s in it for us? We could make our food, we could make our cereal, from any kind of grain. We don’t need GM grain; it offers us no advantages. It’s that just Monsanto scared us into thinking it would be really expensive to switch.”

So I think we’ll see labeling. We may end up with some diluted federal label – which I think is their fallback position. How important is that? You know, to me it’s more symbolically important. I think it’s important to remember, for people who get so worked up about GM, that if you succeeded in getting it banned, what would you have accomplished? You would have demonstrated your power, but you’ll basically be taking agriculture back to 1995-96 when it was introduced, which was no utopia. That was a chemically intensive agriculture – all the problems we’re dealing with now were present then. So you don’t solve that much by eliminating GM, if that’s your goal.

What you have asserted is that the public wants a say in these very important decisions about how their food is produced, and want transparency. The story of how food is produced is of keen interest to people now. And, as Chipotle is learning, people will pay for meat that they can feel good about now. To the extent that companies now have to grapple with that, that the consumer cares not just about the attributes of a food, but the story behind it, that represents a real change, and you’ll see a lot of changes in animal agriculture as a result. The elimination of antibiotics is possible. We’re already seeing corporations negotiating to get rid of battery cages for hens, and the Humane Society has done an amazing job of pushing that agenda.

So once the public gets engaged in how food is produced, and takes an interest in it, and you can make money appealing to that interest, legislation won’t be too far behind. You can see I’m an optimist.

One last question. As a lifelong gardener, what was the hardest thing about moving from the Northeast to California?

Knowing when your garden should be put out of its misery, I would say, is the hard thing. There is this great moment that comes on the East Coast – I was in New England – and you get what is called a hard frost. It usually comes in October sometime just about now, and it just zaps everything except the kale, and maybe the lettuce and a few other things. And everything just hangs dead, black, and you put it all in the compost pile, and you get this new, clean page, and you just wait for spring. You get a break and get to read seed catalogs, and not garden.

Here we are in October, and I still have that tomato. I did kill off a few of my tomato plants this weekend, but that one is still putting out some tomatoes. Here you have to finally just decide to assassinate your tomatoes. On the other hand, you do have food all winter. I’m just saying it’s a mixed blessing. I like a break from gardening, and I’m not getting it anymore.

By Jason Mark

Jason Mark is a writer-farmer with a deep background in environmental politics.  In addition to his work in the Earth Island Journal, his writings have appeared in the San Francisco ChronicleThe NationThe Progressive,Utne ReaderOrionGastronomicaGrist.org, Alternet.org, E magazine,and Yes!  He is a co-author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots and also co-author with Kevin Danaher ofInsurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power. When not writing and editing, he co-manages Alemany Farm, San Francisco’s largest food production site.

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