Michael Pollan teaches us to think before we eat
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Michael Pollan's most recent book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," appeared on almost every top-ten-best-book list of 2006 and has been nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award. Monday he'll be in Pittsburgh, appearing at the Carnegie Music Hall for the Drue Heinz Lecture series.Michael Pollan
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In "The Omnivore's Dilemma," Mr. Pollan takes us on a journey through our nation's food supply to ask: What should we be eating at the dawn of the 21st Century? And how will the food we eat impact our survival as a species? To answer that question, he explores the origins of four meals: organic; fast food; sustainably grown from a small Virginia farm; and a hunter-scavenger repast with ingredients Mr. Pollan shot or foraged himself. It's a compelling story of where food comes from, and why it matters.
Mr. Pollan is a Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California Berkeley. He is also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.
Last week, we spoke with Mr. Pollan from his home in Berkeley.
Q: What are you going to talk about at the Drue Heinz Lectures?
A: I'm going to be talking about the journey that culminated in the book, and what's happened since. I'm going to talk about what I mean by the omnivore's dilemma, that term, and just how Americans came to be so confused by what is really a very simple matter -- one that most creatures have no trouble deciding -- which is what they should eat. How did the food system become so complicated? How did we become so confused, and how we might begin to untie that knot of confusion?
And I want to take the listener on a journey through the different food chains I've been exploring.
Q: You identify three [food chains] in your book, I believe.
A: Yes, pastoral, industrial and personal. I'll probably talk most about the industrial food chain.
Q: Let's review some words in the news headlines: lettuce, spinach, scallions, peanut butter. Are these the canaries in the coal mine? Is our food supply on the verge of collapse?
A: I don't think the collapse is imminent, but I think the food system is in a crisis, and these are indicators. These are early warning signs that there's something wrong with the way we're producing our food, and that producing that food in monocultures on a huge scale is a very dangerous thing to do, and we're eating from a very precarious food chain.
I think people sense this, and that's why they're flocking to alternatives like Whole Foods, or to the farmers' markets, or joining CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). They sense the food system is out of control and isn't doing what a food system needs to do, which, at bottom, is keep its population healthy
Q: What does the word "organic" mean these days? What should our readers look for when buying food now? Should they go with apples from Washington state that are organic, or apples from nearby farms that aren't?
A: I usually favor local over organic. People are confused about organic, but we do know what organic means and for better or worse. There's an official federal definition of what a food has to be to be organic, and it specifies that no synthetic pesticides have been used in producing it and no synthetic fertilizers. And I think the consumer can rely on that. But there are a lot of other things that people thought organic meant that it doesn't mean.
Organic doesn't mean local; it doesn't mean small family farms. It doesn't necessarily mean the animals have lived under ideal circumstances. There are such things as organic factory farms, there are organic monoculture farms, there are organic feedlots where organic meat comes from.
The challenge is to look beyond organics to food that really does match what we want to see and what we want to eat and that often means buying local. Local food tends not to be grown with lots of pesticides, because a local farmer can't just grow one thing if he hopes to survive.
Q: You and others have suggested that one way to reduce your "carbon footprint" would be to grow salad greens over the winter. Is that a viable option for most people?
A: Having your own garden is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint. It's kind of astounding how much food you can grow, not over the winter where you are, but I think a garden is really part of the solution.
Generally, shopping locally will reduce your carbon footprint, and that's another good reason to do it. People are just now beginning to see their eating decisions are at least as important as their decisions about transportation and power in shaping their carbon footprint.
If your goal is to reduce that footprint, you should really stop eating much industrial meat at all, because meat is a tremendous contributor to global warming. Cattle in particular are directly responsible for 17 percent of greenhouse gases -- both beef and dairy cattle.
It gets complicated, which is why I like to avoid telling people what to eat and instead just kind of help them learn how to think about it.
Q: What would be a good game plan for the average person or family to improve the quality of the food they eat? You've said, 'Avoid meat.'
A: I'm not anti-meat. You should just cut down on the amount of meat and dairy products.
And cook. Cook. That's one word and a whole lot of things come with that. Because if you're going to cook, you're going to buy fresh ingredients. You're not going to buy prepared foods. By cooking you're supporting the better parts of agriculture and you're also avoiding all the issues of processed foods which are both energy intensive; are full of salt and sugar; tend to be more fattening; and tend to have lots of other chemical additives whose healthfulness is really uncertain.
My simple advice would be to buy local and cook it.
Q: What's the good news out there about food?
A: There are lots of good things happening. There's a social movement gathering around food issues, and it has many, many dimensions. The healthy school lunch movement is part of it. Local food is a part of it. You've got a whole lot of farm-to-institution programs going on in hospitals as well as schools, in universities.
One of the reasons there is so much excitement around this issue is that things are changing. There are options in the supermarket now. You can get organic food at Wal-Mart now. We're not stuck with this one-dimensional food industrial chain anymore.
One of the reasons people are drawn to this issue is because they do see these positive developments and they see they can directly affect them through their consuming decisions. I think we feel more power around the food issue than we do around so many other issues in our lives right now.
Q: Recently international trade talks collapsed, in large part because the United States didn't want to reduce agricultural subsidies, but then I read that the Bush administration's proposed farm bill would limit subsidies to farmers making less than $200,000. Is there some good news on that front?
A: It remains to be seen what will come out of this farm bill, but it does appear that more people are getting involved in that debate right now than ever before. It used to really be a parochial matter for the farm-state congressmen to thrash out behind closed doors. Now you've got all these other groups: you've got public health groups, sustainable agriculture groups, environmental groups, all getting involved and throwing their weight around, and I'm hoping it will nationalize this debate about the food bill -- and I call it a food bill, not a farm bill, because that's really what it is. And that's something else I plan to talk about. It's a really important piece of legislation. It sets the rules for the food game we all eat by, and we have a chance to change it this year.
One of the reasons we have so much fast food and junk food is that we subsidize the ingredients you need to make fast food and junk food, which is to say, cheap corn and soybeans.
Q: In your book, you call us 'processed corn, walking.'
A: That's us. That's what we've become, because we eat a diet that really consists of processed corn, in the form of the meat and milk we consume. It's all corn fed. All the beef, all the chicken, all the pork is really processed corn. Then you've got the sweeteners, [such as] high-fructose corn syrup, which we each are responsible for consuming 47 pounds a year of, in our sodas and many other foods. It's processed corn.
If you look at the ingredient labels of all the different junk foods, and you know what all those obscure long chemicals are, you discover, lo and behold, you're really eating corn And why is that? We've organized the system to produce lots and lots of corn.
Q: You had an interesting conversation via e-mail with Whole Foods' CEO John Mackey [about the environmental benefits of promoting locally grown foods over food shipped over long distances]. Have you initiated a similar dialogue with some of the agribusinesses you write about, such as ConAgra?
A: Well, ADM and Cargill do not appear very interested in talking to me. However, I have been approached by people at Wal-Mart to engage with them in some way, and I may end up doing that. And the conversation with Mackey has gone on. We're doing a stage conversation at Berkeley which you'll be able to find online at webcast.berkeley.edu/events.php I've been very encouraged by his openness to further dialogue.
Q: You live in Berkeley, the home of that great restaurant, Chez Panisse. You must eat very, very well. Do you ever go to the supermarket?
A: Oh, sure. I go to the farmers market every Thursday. We have Berkeley Bowl Marketplace, Whole Foods, the Monterey Market. Our farmer's market is open 50 weeks a year. We're very lucky: There's plenty of fresh food in that market all year long. It's very easy to eat local -- probably easier than anywhere in the country.
Q: What are you eating for dinner tonight?
A: Tonight, we're cooking for some friends from New York and we're having salmon.
Q: I assume it's wild.
A: (Laughs.) I'll tell you what. It's not.
Q: You're kidding.
A: No. There's no wild salmon right now on the market. There's a place in Scotland, called Loch Duarte, which grows sustainable, undyed, no-hormones salmon. It's the most sustainable farm salmon you can get. Yes, it's not local. It's come a really long way, but what it shows is we all make compromises.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Mar. 3, 2007) Michael Pollan, author of the 2006 book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," has been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award. The award was incorrectly identified in this story in the PG's food section about Mr. Pollan as originally published Mar. 1, 2007. Mr. Pollan who will be speaking at the Drue Heinz Lectures in Oakland on Monday.Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" has been nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.
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First Published March 1, 2007 12:00 am