At mealtimes, most of us pick what sounds good, or what’s quick, or what’s cheap, or maybe what’s good for us. Rarely do we stop to consider where our food comes from, or how our eating habits affect our culture and our environment. In his new book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin Press), journalist Michael Pollan asks what we should eat. How we answer, he says, defines our relationship with the natural world.
Pollan grew up on Long Island in the early sixties, when farms still outnumbered strip malls on the outskirts of New York City. An avid child gardener, he grew tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, peas, and beans in his family’s landscaped suburban yard. At harvest time he’d sell the produce at a little stand to his sole customer, his mother, who was his primary influence when it came to growing food. (His father was, in Pollan’s words, “the great indoorsman,” whose idea of gardening was to stay in the garage tinkering with the irrigation system.)
Pollan’s mother also inspired his love of writing and literature, and by the age of fourteen he was writing for his high-school literary magazine and newspaper. He majored in English at Bennington College in Vermont, where his mentors were novelist John Gardner and author Alan Cheuse — now a book critic on National Public Radio. Believing “writer” wasn’t a realistic career choice, Pollan got a job as an executive editor at Harper’s in 1983. Four years later he became a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, and his work has appeared regularly there ever since.
For Pollan, an early proclivity for gardening grew into a lifelong fascination with plants, nature, and food production. His books deal with the intersection of human society and the natural world, from Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (Grove Press) to The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (Random House), which was excerpted in the May 2003 issue of The Sun. What distinguishes Pollan from most other journalists is his willingness to immerse himself in his subject matter. Whether diving for abalone in chilly waters or hunting a feral pig — which he did for his latest book — he likes to get personally, messily involved.
Over his career of more than two decades, Pollan has received numerous journalism awards, including the Humane Society’s Genesis Award and the Global Award for Environmental Journalism for his reporting on genetically modified crops. In 2003 he was appointed the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, which meant leaving the rocky soil of northwestern Connecticut for the grow-anything terrain of northern California. (He now lives just minutes from the Berkeley campus.) I spoke to him in his living room, where artwork by his wife, Judith Belzer, hung on the wall. In person Pollan is energetic and easy to talk to, with a boyish face that belies his fifty-one years. My only regret is that I didn’t get to sample any of his cooking.
Cooper: What was your goal in writing your latest book?
Pollan: To answer the question of what I should eat — for my health, for my karmic well-being, and for my pleasure. There’s a huge amount of confusion right now about what to eat, and people want to be more conscious of what they’re eating, either because of their health or because they care about the natural world and animals. People want to do the right thing. What the right thing is, however, depends on what you value.
Cooper: What is “the omnivore’s dilemma”?
Pollan: It’s the existential predicament we’re in regarding food. Humans need to eat a great many different types of food to get all the nutrients we require. If you look at our teeth, our jaws, and our digestion, you see that we’re designed to eat meat as well as vegetable matter. But deciding what to eat out of all the potential foods available is a complicated process. The world is full of toxins. Not all plants want to be eaten, nor all the parts of each plant. Fruit wants to be eaten as part of the plant’s reproductive strategy. Leaves, no. One bite of some mushrooms will kill you.
Our human ancestors had to navigate this promising and perilous landscape of good things to eat and poisons. As a result, they developed cognitive tools that enabled them to remember how something felt and tasted and what effect it had on them. Many anthropologists and sociologists believe that the size of our brain and its sophistication flow directly from this dilemma of what to eat. Most omnivores are pretty smart. Rats, for example, have complex mechanisms for figuring out what to eat. A cow, on the other hand, eats only one thing, so its skill is not in its brain but in its gut, which can take grass and get every nutrient the animal needs from it. That’s a form of intelligence too; it’s just not sheer brain power. The cow doesn’t have to devote a lot of time to figuring out what to eat: if it’s grass, it’s dinner. Anything else is poison.
As human cultures developed, they established rules about what to eat and how much to eat and what order to eat things in, which helped solve the dilemma. But the cultural tools that once helped us choose our meals are rapidly disappearing. Families used to control what their members ate and pass along learned wisdom in the form of a food culture. Now that’s gone. Most people don’t eat as families. We eat individually, going one-on-one with the food supply, which is how the food industry likes it.
Today we find ourselves in an industrial food environment that is very good at fooling our eating instincts. For example, we’re instinctually drawn to sweetness and repelled by bitterness. Fat tastes good to us and feels good in our mouth. Why should that be? Well, both sugar and fat have very high concentrations of energy, and our human ancestors needed to store up plenty of energy, in case their food supply ran short. Now McDonald’s pushes our evolutionary buttons by making things very sweet, salty, and fatty. And that’s where we start getting into trouble. Our instincts don’t work in the industrial food environment, because they lead us to eat too much sugar and fat. In a sense, we’re facing the omnivore’s dilemma all over again, only instead of being in a natural landscape, now we live in a landscape of supermarkets and fast-food franchises.
Cooper: Your book is structured around four very different meals that you ate as part of your research. How did you choose them?
Pollan: Each meal exemplifies a particular food chain. I made an “industrial organic” meal from ingredients bought at Whole Foods in Berkeley. I followed a bushel of corn to a lunch at McDonald’s. I had a meal that came entirely from the pastures of farmer Joel Salatin in Virginia, consisting of chicken, sweet corn, rocket salad, Virginia wine, and egg soufflé. Finally I ate a meal that I’d hunted, gathered, and grown myself, consisting of fava-bean toasts, pasta with morels and fava beans, roast loin and braised leg of wild boar, cherry tart, and wine that had been made by a guest at dinner.
Cooper: Let’s start with the industrial organic meal. How did you decide what to have?
Pollan: I chose the food labels that engaged me, starting with the chicken, which came from Petaluma Poultry, a big organic-chicken grower. In the produce section I bought from some of the big companies like Earthbound and Cal Organic, to show how far the reach of organic food has grown; you can now get organic asparagus from South America any time of the year. Which raises the question: Is it in the spirit of organic farming to ship asparagus across the world using fossil fuel?
Cooper: I recently bought some eggs that were “cruelty-free,” with “no animal byproducts” and recycled packaging. I realized after I got home that they were from New Zealand.
Pollan: There’s a lot of New Zealand organic food getting into our market, both because there’s such a shortage of organic products here, and because shipping is so cheap, although that’s going to change with rising oil prices.
That kind of agricultural system isn’t sustainable in the long run. Consumers should be paying more attention to the environmental issues raised by food transport, not just to pesticides and treatment of animals. Maybe if you live on the East Coast, you shouldn’t eat salad in the winter. There are plenty of local winter vegetables you can eat, and lettuce has very few calories. Essentially you’re shipping water across the country.
Cooper: Why was it important for you to eat a McDonald’s meal? Everyone knows what fast food is, and you’d eaten it before.
Pollan: I wanted to have that meal because I saw it through a whole different lens this time, and that was the lens of corn. That chapter comes at the end of a long section of the book in which I follow a bushel of corn, the cornerstone of the American food chain, to market. I don’t think people have any idea when they look at a McDonald’s menu that they’re mostly looking at different manifestations of corn. It was fed to the animals that were turned into meat; it was used to fry the French fries; it’s the basis of the salad dressings and the sodas. With the help of a scientist on the Berkeley campus, I took a McDonald’s meal and put it through a mass spectrometer. We found that a very high percentage of it could be traced back to cornfields in Iowa. It ranged from 15 percent of the bun to 100 percent of the soda. And I ate that meal in a moving car, which had 10 percent ethanol — made from corn — in the gas tank.
Corn and soybeans are the great commodities of American agriculture, and we have learned to grow them in huge quantities: 10 billion bushels of corn last year. Those crops are very good at converting sunlight and chemicals into carbohydrates, which we then convert into sweeteners, gasoline for our cars, and feed for the animals from which we get our protein. We can also make protein directly from soybeans. Because we subsidize corn so much, and because of the skill with which our farmers grow it, it’s incredibly cheap: $1.50 for a bushel — fifty-six pounds. And that’s just the kernels! That’s a lot of food for $1.50. The challenge is to turn that cheap corn into something more expensive. And that’s what the food industry and McDonald’s do so well.
To grow corn that cheap, you need more than just subsidies. You also need vast quantities of fossil fuel. The food industry consumes about 20 percent of imported petroleum, much of which goes to fertilize cornfields. Corn takes a great amount of nitrogen to grow, and the way we make artificial nitrogen is to turn natural gas into ammonium-nitrate fertilizer. So something else you’re eating in that McDonald’s meal is fossil fuel. A pound of beef takes a half gallon of oil to grow. A bushel of corn also takes about a half gallon. It takes ten calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy that way. So to eat that McDonald’s meal, we need to keep the oil flowing. That’s one reason we’re in Iraq.
I don’t want to sound like a monomaniac who blames every ill in this country on corn. I love corn. Corn is an amazing plant. I just think we’re growing too much of it.
Families used to control what their members ate and pass along learned wisdom in the form of a food culture. Now that’s gone. Most people don’t eat as families. We eat individually, going one-on-one with the food supply, which is how the food industry likes it.
Cooper: Why was it important for you to forage your own meal?
Pollan: I was curious to see whether I could do it, whether I could actually provide for myself. I hadn’t hunted before, and I wanted to see how I felt about killing an animal and cleaning it. My underlying assumption in this book is that our relationship to food constitutes our most profound engagement with the natural world, and we’ve really lost sight of that. We deal with nature when we go camping, but we don’t realize that, at the dinner table, we’re dealing with nature too. In writing this book, I wanted to recall that fact. That’s why I worked on a farm for a week; that’s why I planted corn with a farmer in Iowa; and that’s why I went hunting and gathering.
I also wanted to deal with the primal transactions involved in feeding ourselves. How do I feel about hunting? How do I feel watching this animal die? Why am I disgusted as I’m cleaning this animal I’m going to eat? How am I going to get over that disgust? I do think that, if you are going to eat meat, you should at least once in your life deal with killing an animal. And I dealt with it and was still able to eat it, but there was a moment when I wondered if I could.
As far as gathering goes, I had the usual American fungiphobia. When you’re hunting mushrooms, you have to be good at identifying them. Apparently I don’t have a problem now distinguishing a false chanterelle from a true one, because I’m still alive. [Laughter.] Gathering chanterelles and morels in the Sierras was a pleasure. It was like a treasure hunt. At first you’re kind of blind to them, and then suddenly they start popping up, as if they were talking to you. It’s like harvesting your garden, only better, because you didn’t have to plant it.
All types of hunting and foraging are intimate ways to experience the natural world. You’re so engaged, so focused. On the hunt I was as alert in nature as I’ve ever been, even more intensely than when I’ve gotten lost in the woods. I saw better; I smelled better; I heard better.
Cooper: So you hunted and killed a feral pig.
Pollan: I did. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I had mixed emotions about it. I was extremely pleased when I succeeded, because I’d worked very hard, and it had taken me a couple of tries to shoot the animal. I didn’t have the moment of shame that I’d thought I might have when I saw the pig lying there. On the contrary, I was excited and proud. My companion even took a photograph of me: the classic Hemingway trophy shot. But when I got home that night and looked at the picture, that’s when I felt disgusted with myself and had that moment of shame: who was this asshole who was so happy about having killed a big animal?
Cooper: How ambivalent are you about eating meat?
Pollan: I’m not ambivalent about eating meat when I know where it’s come from and that it has been raised sustainably; that the animals got to live lives consistent with their creaturely character and were slaughtered humanely. This means I don’t eat much meat.
Cooper: You said earlier that we are “designed to eat meat.” Does that mean we should eat meat?
Pollan: When I began work on this book, I was very concerned as to whether I could morally, ethically, and ecologically defend meat-eating. I wrestled with the moral and ethical issues when I hunted that wild boar. And I found that, ecologically, meat-eating is very defensible.
I used to live in New England, where the landscape is hilly and rocky — not very good farmland, except in some small valleys. The only way for humans to get much food from that landscape is to eat animals that convert grass into protein. There are many other parts of the world where that is the best way to feed the population — much better than transporting food from distant farms, which requires fossil fuel and technologies to keep food fresh.
Then there’s the fact that when you grow crops, you’re still killing animals. Every time you drive a tractor over a field, you crush woodchucks in their burrows. And croplands destroy animal habitat and are very hard on the environment, especially in hilly places. Even with organic farming, there is the risk of erosion and often the loss of biodiversity. Grasslands are environmentally one of the most benign habitats there are. I’m talking about pastures, prairies, savannas, and other landscapes where animals graze. We tend to think trees are better for the environment, but grasslands have plenty of biodiversity and help lessen the greenhouse effect by reducing carbon- dioxide levels in the atmosphere. All plants take in carbon dioxide, sequester the carbon, and release the oxygen back into the air. What’s important about grasses is that they sequester most of that carbon in the soil, and very little in their actual “bodies.” Trees sequester carbon primarily in their trunks, and when they fall over and die, the insects and fungi break them down, and that carbon goes back into the air.
I do think that, if you are going to eat meat, you should at least once in your life deal with killing an animal. And I dealt with it and was still able to eat it, but there was a moment when I wondered if I could.
Cooper: Do grasslands remain ecologically benign when we graze cattle on them? In 1991 Ted Williams wrote in Audubon, “Cattle grazing in the West has polluted more water, eroded more topsoil, killed more fish, displaced more wildlife, and destroyed more vegetation than any other land use.”
Pollan: That’s true, in the case of continuous grazing on brittle lands. But when grazing is well managed, the grasslands actually improve, erosion is reduced, and topsoil is built. It’s all in how you do it.
That said, the way we’re raising animals for meat now is not only ethically objectionable but ecologically disastrous: we’re growing row crops and feeding them to animals kept in cages. In America, where we have more than enough food, we should be grassing that land over and grazing animals on it instead.
Cooper: Rather, it seems we’re grassing over the rain forest.
Pollan: The irony is that part of the rain forest may once have been grassland. Charles Mann’s book 1491 describes how, in the places where agribusinesses have deforested the Amazon for cattle grazing, they’ve found evidence of roads and earthworks and all sorts of human activity. So a lot of the Amazon probably was grass and crops before the collapse of the native civilizations due to colonialism beginning in 1492. It’s an untended garden at this point, an orchard gone wild. The reason there are so many useful plants in the Amazon may be that they were planted there.
I’m not proposing we turn the Amazon back to grassland. My point is that when meat is raised on grass, the calculations of environmental damage need to be redone. All the environmental critiques of meat refer to feedlot beef, which is raised in pens and fed corn. It’s not the eating of animals so much as the way they live and the way we feed them that creates environmental problems.
Cooper: What percentage of U.S. cattle farmers are producing grass-fed beef?
Pollan: Definitely less than 1 percent — although all beef is grass-fed for part of its life, usually the first six or eight months, because the animal will die if it’s put on corn right away.
Cooper: Why don’t we feed our cattle grass?
Pollan: The U.S. government makes the rules for agriculture, and those rules favor the production of corn and soybeans, not grasslands. The government doesn’t subsidize grasslands. It could, though. It would be very easy to change the rules and turn 20 percent of cornfields back into grasslands within a couple of years. To encourage that, we need to increase demand for grass-fed beef. The only kind of meat I will eat is grass-fed. If restaurants don’t have it, I order something else.
Cooper: Is it possible to feed all the meat-eaters in the U.S. on grass-fed beef?
Pollan: I can’t imagine that it is. But the proper question is not “Can we feed all the beefeaters we have?” It’s “How much meat should we eat?” The reason we have so many beefeaters is that the whole process of raising beef on corn has been subsidized, and we would not be eating meat three meals a day if it weren’t, because it would be more expensive. Before industrial agriculture and fast food came along, meat was for special occasions, and it wouldn’t be so bad if it went back to being that way. We’re definitely eating too much meat for our health and the health of the planet. Meat should be a luxury.
Cooper: In your article “An Animal’s Place” you write that people who think of animal domestication as a form of exploitation have misunderstood the human-animal relationship.
Pollan: I don’t see domestication as solely a human imposition on other species, be they plants or animals. Domestication is a reciprocal process. Many plants and animals refuse to be domesticated: the oak tree, for example. People have tried to grow oak orchards, but for one reason or another, oaks have no interest in being domesticated. It’s remarkable how few species have been successfully domesticated given how many species are out there.
Domestication works only when it suits the interest of the other species. Certain species have realized — and I mean that metaphorically — that linking their evolutionary destiny to ours is a beneficial way to go. Compare the dog and the wolf. The two species have similar traits and evolutionary histories, but dogs were able to see themselves as members of our pack, or vice versa. The result is, there are something like 50 million dogs in this country and only ten thousand wolves. So domestication was a good evolutionary strategy for the dog, if you measure evolutionary success in numbers. The same was true for the pig and the chicken. It was a good strategy for them to trade a certain amount of independence for the relative safety of human protection. Of course they’re trading their flesh too, because pigs and chickens are killed in this relationship. But in the meantime we feed them and protect them from other predators, so their populations grow.
That said, I think the original reciprocal relationship has been replaced by a relationship of complete dominance and exploitation. It’s hard to imagine the evolutionary advantage for pigs of finding themselves standing on a steel-slatted floor over an open sewer, in a box too small to turn around in. And what we’re finding is that animals do not do well in this confined, industrial environment. They get sick and can’t live without drugs. So these animals are not in a coevolutionary relationship with us anymore. They’re in a coevolutionary relationship with antibiotics. And many studies have traced human illnesses to the drugs that are being fed to these animals.
Cooper: Beyond that, do you believe this mistreatment of animals affects us spiritually?
Pollan: I think it does. A society that treats animals the way we do has a real dysfunction, and it will pay a price ecologically, and maybe karmically as well. Mad cow disease is an example. Here we’ve done something profoundly at odds with nature: turned a grass-eating ruminant into a cannibal by feeding cows to cows. This offends nature, and the result is a horrible disease. Animal factories also give us antibiotic- resistant strains of disease and various forms of pollution. I can’t imagine this system will last long, because it’s unsustainable. I think there will be pressure from all sides to eliminate factory farming. If more people knew about this behavior, we would not tolerate it as a society. But I also worry that, as we do start to see this and recoil, the animal factories will just move to other countries where we won’t have to see it, and dumping our dirty industry somewhere else is no answer.
Cooper: Another concern is how eating meat — even organic, grass-fed meat — affects our health.
Pollan: I think we can eat anything, short of toxins, if we eat it the right way. Look at the French. They have held on to their food culture, which dictates that they eat smaller portions, don’t snack, and rarely eat alone. The consumption of something extremely rich and fattening like foie gras — goose-liver pâté — is wrapped in a set of rituals and practices that make it nearly impossible to gorge on. People who did gorge themselves on foie gras in the past developed gout, so French society discouraged people from eating too much of it.
With formal meals, there are also the other people at the table to consider, and the ritual of courses. Foie gras is not usually a main course. The elaborateness of French cooking places yet another control on the process. All these things are part of a complex system for regulating consumption of foods that might not be good for us in great quantities. In small quantities foie gras could be very good for you. I have no idea.
Cooper: Do you think there’s any way to get Americans to adopt this kind of culture of moderation?
Pollan: Yes, but there are very powerful forces arrayed against it. The entire food industry is essentially in the business of promoting the consumption of more food. But there’s a limit to how much we can eat. If we buy too much food, it goes bad — or, at least, it used to. And the population’s growing by only about 1 to 2 percent a year; a food-industry company needs to grow 10 percent a year in order to please its stockholders. So how are you going to sell more when demand isn’t going up? One way is to sell convenience: get people to pay more for the same food by processing it — selling sliced apples in plastic bags, for example. Another way is “supersizing”: increasing quantity while reducing price per calorie. This works because we appear to be programmed to feast and store fat for times of famine. If you put larger portions in front of people, they’ll eat up to 30 percent more.
And the government reinforces the “eat more” message. Marion Nestle’s book Food Politics is a brilliant inside account of how this came about. She worked on government nutritional guidelines in the 1970s, and she and her colleagues were absolutely forbidden to advise Americans to eat less. So they couldn’t say, “Eat less red meat.” They had to say, “Eat more lean meat.” They could say, “Eat more whole grain,” but not, “Eat less refined grain.” The result is, we’re eating two hundred more calories per person, per day, than we were in the 1970s.
On the other side of the issue, you have the “slow-food” movement, which wants to bring back cultural traditions regarding food, to promote agricultural biodiversity, and to show that food can be indulged in safely. It’s not a scolding movement; it’s based around pleasure and recognizes that at some point taste has to come into this. If you can educate people’s palates, they will find a cheeseburger from McDonald’s incredibly disappointing. We have to make people realize that there are more-interesting tastes. We should teach people to be more sophisticated about food.
Cooper: Some people criticize the slow-food movement as being geared toward people who have money.
Pollan: It’s true that eating well costs more than eating poorly. But many movements for social change began as elitist movements: abolition, women’s suffrage, the environmental movement. They were all started by people who had the money and the leisure time to pursue them, and then they filtered down.
The food industry tries to label organics “elitist” and cloaks itself in the mantle of populism: “Look how much food we’re putting on poor people’s tables.” You can go to McDonald’s and get dinner for three dollars. But a McDonald’s meal is not as cheap as it looks. The real cost is not reflected in the price, because the government has chosen to subsidize those particular calories. We spend $20 billion a year on agricultural subsidies. Most of that money goes to corn and soybeans, which can be easily turned into sugar and fat.
Another cost attached to that McDonald’s meal is the damage to the environment. Frogs that live downstream from the feedlots where the beef was raised can’t reproduce because of hormones in the waste stream. Chemical fertilizer from cornfields is running into the rivers, and there are weeks in Des Moines, Iowa, when you can’t give your baby tap water because it contains too many nitrates. And that water has run down into the Gulf of Mexico and created a dead zone the size of New Jersey. Those costs are going to be borne by future generations. They’re being borne right now by the mothers in Des Moines who have to buy bottled water. If you eat at McDonald’s, you’re pushing the cost of that cheap meal onto other people.
Organic food is expensive right now because the organic-food industry is less efficient in various ways, but that will change. When big retailers get serious about organic foods — Wal-Mart is starting to sell them — the prices will come down. Which raises another question: Should food be so cheap? As a society we’ve chosen to value cheapness over quality when it comes to eating. We spend less of our income on food than any other people in the history of the world: around 11 or 12 percent. In Europe it’s closer to 20 percent. For most of history, 50 percent of people’s income went to feeding themselves.
We’re making a decision to spend less money on food and more on luxuries such as cable television, cellphones, and bottled water. We need to become connoisseurs of food the way we are connoisseurs of cars and televisions and clothes. My guess is that, if people cared more about food and appreciated how important it is, they’d be willing to spend more on it. It’s really a matter of priority. To the extent that we’re willing to pay more for local, organic food, we’ll take better care of the environment, and there will be more farmers living in our communities.
I don’t think people have any idea when they look at a McDonald’s menu that they’re mostly looking at different manifestations of corn. It was fed to the animals that were turned into meat; it was used to fry the French fries; it’s the basis of the salad dressings and the sodas.
Cooper: Do you think this emphasis on quantity of food over quality has led to the obesity problem?
Pollan: I think it’s one factor.
Cooper: So why aren’t we using our sophisticated brains to look down and notice that we can’t see our feet?
Pollan: [Laughter.] That’s a good question. I think we’re beginning to recognize that we have a problem, but that, too, has started among the elites. In the upper middle class, obesity is not such a problem. It’s only when you go farther down the socioeconomic ladder that it becomes a serious issue. It all goes back to the supermarket, where the cheapest calories are also the unhealthiest. Say you’ve got a dollar, and you’re foraging for energy in the supermarket. That dollar will buy you more calories on the chips-and-snacks aisle than it will on the produce aisle. Why? Because processed food is subsidized, and broccoli isn’t. The potatoes, corn, and fat in the chips are cheap and abundant. You can get a whole lot more soda for a dollar than you can orange juice, and soda has more calories. We’ve set up the rules so that, if you don’t have a lot of money, it makes more sense to buy junk food. But we can change those rules.
Personally, I am convinced that when you eat better food, you’re satisfied with less. I think part of what happens when you eat junk food is that, on some deeper level, you’re not satisfied. Every bite promises satisfaction but keeps failing to deliver. A scientist here at UC Berkeley theorizes that processed food lacks various nutrients because the processing removes vitamins, so we continue to crave nourishment. My own experience is that, to the extent that I eat well, I eat less food. Each bite is so satisfying. But it’s a theory that remains to be tested.
Cooper: What about food labeling? Does it accomplish anything?
Pollan: I think it has an effect on the industry. If companies are required to disclose the amount of trans fats in their products, for example, they’re going to be less likely to include them. So it’s a good regulatory tool. But consumers sometimes get information overload, and the industry is happy to confuse matters. Already meat is sprouting labels that show pictures of ranchers and cowboys and open ranges, which are a complete lie.
Labels are a poor substitute for knowledge of where your food comes from. The organic label is an assurance of certain practices, but it doesn’t protect farmworkers and animals, and the food may still be an industrialized product. Ideally, you would not need labels, because you would know who was growing your food.
Joel Salatin, the farmer who supplied the food for one of my meals in the book, points out that we would never be so careless about choosing the person who repairs our car as we are about choosing the people who grow our food. We entrust our food to a very opaque and complex system. Farmer’s markets are an answer to this, and if you buy fruits and vegetables in season, they’re cheap, too.
Cooper: Do you read labels?
Pollan: Sure. Nowadays when my son wants a sweet drink, I’ll challenge him to find one with under eighteen grams of sugar per serving, or I’ll challenge him to find a cereal with less than twelve grams of sugar. These thresholds at least get him off the Fruity Pebbles and onto something better. Is that a victory? A small one, perhaps.
Cooper: You’ve criticized the low-carb craze as “carbophobia,” but we’re still seeing low-carb menu choices all over. Don’t you think some good has come out of it?
Pollan: I think the diet industry is too spasmodic. It encourages us to see things as black-and-white, when no nutrient is good or evil; it’s really certain combinations or excesses that are bad for us.
These diet trends actually become ways to get people to eat more. We were eating too many carbs; now we’re eating too much meat. Every swing of the pendulum essentially brings the message “Eat more of this!” The “more” message is the only one that gets through. You’ll never start a fad around “Just eat less,” because there are no products to sell. Our lack of a deeply rooted food culture makes us susceptible to these pendulum swings.
Cooper: Why don’t we have a traditional food culture? We must have had one a hundred years ago.
Pollan: Actually America was very early to discover processed food. We had a big food industry at the end of the nineteenth century, with a great deal of marketing and prepared food and canned food. This is partly because we came out of an Anglo tradition that doesn’t enjoy cooking. I think our Puritan heritage, too, made it hard to develop a good food culture: the idea that you shouldn’t make things too ornate nor derive too much pleasure from the senses. We also didn’t develop a good gardening culture, because Puritans weren’t comfortable with nature. The great cuisines in Europe originated more in Catholic countries, where there’s a slightly Dionysian attitude. But I think we’re getting better. We’re becoming better gardeners and better cooks.
Cooper: Other countries have had the same cuisine for hundreds of years, but they haven’t adapted it to the way people live now. For example, the Cornish pasty in England is a very heavy food, perfect for the miners who once worked there, but not for office workers.
Pollan: That’s a very good point. There’s no question that as we’ve become more sedentary, we’ve continued eating just as much, or more. English people in the 1700s were getting the same percentage of their diet from processed sugar as we are now, but they burned more of it off. A food culture needs to adapt. The consumption of calories has to correlate with the spending of calories.
Cooper: You write a lot about nature, but you’re not a typical “nature writer.” What sets you apart?
Pollan: I like to find nature in my backyard; on my plate; in my house. These are much messier places to engage with nature than the wilderness, because at home we’re changing nature and being changed by it. But those messy spots are where we can learn constructive ways to deal with nature, besides just leaving it alone. There is a way to use it without abusing it. When you cook well, garden well, or build well, you’re not simply destroying. The environmental movement, to a great extent, says, “Don’t touch.” That’s very important for certain places, but it’s a negative message to present overall, because it says that whatever we do, we’re damaging nature.
That’s why gardening has always been so important to me. Here’s a place where you can actually improve nature. Adding to the biodiversity of the garden adds to the fertility of the soil. We need to realize that we don’t just screw things up. To eat well, to eat consciously, does a lot to heal the planet.