Celebrated food writer Michael Pollan talked with Mother Earth News about easy ways to eat well and opt out of the broken food system.
He may make his living from a computer keyboard and a classroom lectern, but Michael Pollan — author of the best-selling books The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and, most recently In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto — will tell you he’s happiest where the worlds of humanity and nature collide. In particular, he’s happiest at the intersection of dirt, the food that springs from it, and the humans who eat that food.
In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan explored how what we eat — whether produce, meat, seafood, sweetener or grain — gets to our plates. Perhaps more importantly, he examined what the consequences are to our bodies, our planet and our ethics when we consume the type of food that makes up most of what’s offered on supermarket shelves.
In In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, which he sub-subtitled “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants,” Pollan goes a step further and deconstructs what used to be so simple just one or two generations ago … eating.
Furthermore, he points out, the concept of better living through chemistry has backfired on us at the dinner table. The butter that our grandmother served? Turns out it’s better for us than the partially hydrogenated oils used in margarine, once touted as a wondrous — and healthier — substitute.
The same argument can be made, Pollan says, for limited amounts of sugar versus corn syrup for sweetening, as well as old-fashioned mashed potatoes versus what comes out of a box.
In fact, Pollan advises, there are three general rules that most folks concerned about their eating habits can use whenever they’re in a grocery store:
1. If it says it’s vitamin-enhanced, chances are it’s so incredibly processed that all semblance of the original nutrients were removed.
2. If your grandmother wouldn’t know what it is (Go-Gurt, anyone?) it’s not really food.
3. If it has more than five ingredients on the side panel, skip it.
Mother Earth News caught up with Pollan to talk about his newest book as he was coming off a standing-room-only book tour, relishing the return of warm weather and intent on “landscaping” his front yard with new lettuce seedlings.
Food is critical to life and ought to be one of the simpler acts we’re faced with every day. When did the act of eating become so complex?
I think one of the key moments was back in the '70s when the government decided that we were eating badly and they wanted to change the way we eat. The episode that I describe in the book — when McGovern issues his dietary goals for the United States — was a really big deal because the government had never endeavored to change the way the whole country eats before. They first wanted to tell people to eat less red meat but when that message ignited a firestorm, they retreated to the phrase “choose meats that will reduce your saturated fat intake.” It really put us on the path of obsessing about nutrients, which is to say the path of confusion and complexity and anxiety.
Your first book that was specific to the ethics of eating, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, raised a firestorm of its own. You took on big agriculture, monoculture in farming, the livestock industry, the definition of ‘organic,’ and a whole host of other topics that may have left readers feeling … hungry. Was In Defense of Food already in the works or was it readers’ reaction to The Omnivore’s Dilemma that spawned this new book?
In Defense of Food really grew out of the questions I was hearing from readers and audiences when I went around the country speaking about The Omnivore’s Dilemma. There were people for whom The Omnivore’s Dilemma had deepened their dilemma rather than ease it. Plus I kept running into this (generic) reader who would tell me “I’m halfway through your book and I loved it but I can’t go any further.” I would ask why and he or she would say “Because every time I turn the page there’s something else I can’t eat anymore! I thought organic was OK, I thought ‘natural’ was OK, but you’re telling me that ‘no, no, it’s not what you think.’ I’m afraid if I keep reading I’m going to get to the end and I’m [laughs] going to starve because there will be nothing left to eat.” That was a little disheartening!
Now, I would have urged them to press on because the book got much more hopeful and optimistic as it moved on [laughs] but at the end I realized I hadn’t given people what they really, clearly wanted: some concrete, practical guidance and advice … a handbook. So the new book has politics, but the politics are somewhat covert in that while I am addressing people’s concerns about their health, in fact the solutions to those concerns lead to a very different food system that would, in many ways, be wonderful. And not just for their health. So [laughs] that’s why it’s a manifesto.
So, is it fair to say that “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” is the sum of your manifesto?
Yeah. You know, it’s not exactly “Workers of the World Unite,” but I mean it does come down to that. There is politics to it, because if people would start eating food and not edible foodlike substances, much would change. They would leave supermarkets and they would take their money to farmers markets. They would pay attention to where their food comes from and they would stop eating processed food.
OK, so what if enough readers of your book, and readers of Mother Earth News, did what you suggest and stopped buying the majority of their groceries at the supermarket and at superstores? Where would that leave the stores — who receive much of their indirect income from corporations and agri-business entities — and the economy of the communities they’re in?
Well, the first thing we’d have would be revival of local agriculture which would take more people on the farms — both to work and to buy — and I think we’d see improvements in public health. Part of my message is not just about what you eat, but the fact that if you’re going to buy real food you need to cook it [laughs]. Suddenly you’re eating meals. Suddenly you’re sitting down with your friends to eat. That has a positive effect on your family life and your community life. The industrial food system would shrink as these other alternative food systems grew and that would be all for the good. The corporations will adapt. I wouldn’t worry about them!
It’s not like everyone has to move at once or the whole system has to change at once. There won’t be that kind of suddenness. We can individually declare our independence from the industrial food chain. We don’t have to do it all at once. And we don’t have to blow up the industrial food system, either! We just have to walk around it. Or pretend it’s not there.
In the past decade alone there’s been enough consumer concern over pesticides and the quality — both in the food and its production — of food that terms like “fair trade,” “farm-raised” versus “wild-caught,” “free-range” and “grass-fed” are common grocery lingo. Plus it’s spawned a whole new retail business in the “organic” category. With that in mind, can consumer demand create new business and a whole new paradigm within the food growing and processing category?
Yes, and it’s happening right now. I know of one manager of a farmers market in Washington D.C., who’s scouring the countryside right now for farmers growing great produce and that encourages people to start farming because she has so much demand. So she’s out there like Johnny Appleseed selling seeds! And this has become the great (new) problem at farmers markets … satisfying consumer demand. The market response is felt on the farm and you have people who were perhaps growing commodity crops for the grain elevator suddenly thinking, ‘Hey! I’m going to take some of my land and I’m going to grow some actual food and bring it to the farmers market. I’m going to make some real cash that way.’ Or you have people saying ‘I’m not going to send all my cattle off to the auction house after they’re six months old. I’m going to finish some of them here and let them graze because there’s a market for grass-fed beef. I’m going to keep them on the farm and I’m not going to put them on corn.’ It’s astounding how much of this is happening. There is a food movement in every community I’ve visited. These are very good days for people selling local food.
As recently as two or three generations ago, it was typical for every family to grow at least a portion of their food in some form of garden or farm. Today, less than 10 percent of all Americans have any food growing where they live, whether they have acreage, a home on a lot or an urban balcony or patio. How did we get so disassociated from our food and where it comes from? Is it because we’re such an affluent nation?
Yes, and we’re very busy — or we fashion that we’re very busy — and a lot of us don’t have land. That can be an issue. But the victory garden movement was a big chunk of the food supply for five years; something like half of all fresh produce consumed in America during World War II came from these gardens. There were 40 million of them! And how many people were there then? Not many more than 100 million probably. So it was something like half were growing these gardens and it made a huge contribution. It falls off really, really fast after 1946 … people just stopped growing food at home. Rationing was over and people embraced meat again. They embraced butter, eggs, sugar and all those things that they had been missing. And, by the way, public health went way down.
As you move around the country, are you getting the sense that people are returning to self-sufficiency? That they want to produce some of their own food and be a little less reliant on outside and often unknown providers of their produce, their meat, their seafood and so on?
I am seeing a bit of that, but people aren’t making the connection nearly enough. I’ve been talking quite a bit about gardening. People talk a lot about the carbon footprint of their food and obviously the food with the lightest possible carbon footprint is food you grow yourself! There really is a free lunch [laughs] from a carbon point of view, even from a monetary point of view. It’s in your front yard. I think gardening is an important part of the solution in a great many ways but people don’t always connect the dots. They don’t connect the dots between their garden and their health and they don’t connect the dots between their gardens and climate change. But they will and in this generation. As oil becomes precious, the reasons to garden will multiply and somehow it will come under the umbrella of ‘local food.’ It’s the most local food there is.
My wife and I have a garden. We had a front lawn and we took it out and put in vegetables and it’s very productive. There are a couple of artichokes bearing right now, a couple different kinds of chard, kale, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. There are peas and radicchio. It’s incredibly productive for such a small space. There’s a persimmon tree, a fig tree and a Meyer lemon tree and, once these seedlings are big enough, lettuce.
You’ve got a 15-year-old son…does he participate in the garden?
He participates by eating what comes out of the garden. He’s not particularly interested in gardening at the moment [laughs] but he’s definitely interested in food and he understands the qualitative differences, too. He’ll ask ‘Where are these carrots from?’ and he knows the names of the local farms. He knows where his food comes from.
So for parents with kids, how easy is it—and how important is it—to provide that kind of information?
I think it’s very important to take your kids to the farmers market so they meet farmers and see food when the roots are still attached to it and the leaves are still attached to it, and they understand that carrots are roots! A lot of kids think that carrots are pinky-sized bullets, and they’re shocked to discover otherwise.
Also, at farmers markets there’s the chance to try things; there are little dishes of five different peaches or all the tomatoes that are available. It’s a very low-cost way for them to try things, and committing for kids is really the big issue when they’re little and they’re trying a new food. And, you know, there’s an energy at a farmers market that’s very different from the energy at the supermarket. Kids will always look for the sweetest thing wherever they are and at the farmers market it will be a carrot. At the supermarket it will be … well, you know what it will be: Cocoa Puffs! And you’re going to relent eventually, so it’s better to be at the farmers market.
You have written about — and bemoaned — the loss of what you have called “the steadying culture of food.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
People focus, I think, unreasonably on the content of their diet. You know, ‘Am I eating too much saturated fat? Too much fiber? Too many refined carbs?’ Well, few people worry about eating too much fiber, I guess [laughs], but people don’t pay nearly enough attention to the culture surrounding food which is to say when people eat, how they eat, where they eat, with what do they eat, the combinations of food, the size of the plate, do they eat at a table or standing up, do they eat in their car … that kind of stuff.
I think that’s part of our problem in America, not having a food culture that governs our relationship to food and leaves us vulnerable to the marketing messages which are, of course: ‘Eat all you want 24/7.’ I mean, Taco Bell is out promoting the Fourth Meal! They really are looking for new eating occasions and they’re designing food for your car. If there were a food culture here, there would be something to withstand that. Europeans are disgusted by the idea of eating in the car. It’s a real turn-off. We don’t really have any taboo to get in the way of that.
You’ve argued that there is no such thing as cheap food, but many fast food companies will argue that. They’ll say ‘We have 99-cent tacos or burgers. You get carbohydrates in the bun or the tortilla, you get meat, you get lettuce, some tomato and you get it all for just 99 cents.’
And you get diabetes, you get heart disease, you get pollution of the waterways, you get abused animals, you get miserable farm workers who are paid pennies per pound for the tomatoes on that taco … you get the whole package for that 99 cents! You get a lot for that money, but it’s not all food and it’s not all things you’re going to feel good about. It may look cheap but there’s always a price long-term.
But what about when someone’s already struggling to make ends meet and are looking at, say, nearly $9 a gallon for organic milk?
Look, there are people who can’t afford to spend more on food, and for them we have to address and look at things from a policy point of view. We have to figure out a way to make healthy food compete more effectively with so-called cheap food. We need to look at the Farm Bill and the way we’re subsidizing agriculture and access to food in the inner city. But, you know, there are lots of people in this country who can afford to spend more money for food, and they tell themselves they can’t because they’d rather spend it on other things. They’d rather spend it on their cable television bill or their cell phone bill or whatever it is. So before people say ‘I can’t afford the organic milk,’ we all need to do a little audit and say ‘What am I spending my money on?’
As Americans, we spend less than 10 percent of our income on food in this country — that’s the lowest in history and lower than anyone else on Earth — and it’s fallen by nearly half since 1960. I’m arguing that it’s a matter of priority for a lot of us. With food, as with so many other things, you get what you pay for and there is much that comes with buying better food.
Most Mother Earth News readers are already pretty savvy about what alternatives they have in the way of food sources — farmers markets, community gardens, CSAs, etc. — but what about readers who have supermarkets as their primary source of food, especially in cities or large urban areas. What tips do you have for them?
One guide I offer in the book is to shop the perimeter; meat, produce, diary, fish. The foods that have been least fiddled with are along the edge, because they’re perishable and they need to be replenished and cold and near the doors and loading docks. It’s the middle of the stores where they put the absolutely non-perishable, processed foods … the stuff like Twinkies that can last forever.
See also: America's New Hunger
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