Click here for an expert-led reader forum from April 13-17 on MotherJones.com around the question: Is organic and local so 2008?
Read the condensed version of this interview here.
Mother Jones: I'm here talking with Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and, most recently, a letter to the incoming president, about getting us off of a diet of fossil fuel and back on a diet of sunshine.
Most of our readers are aware of the basic health and environmental problems of our industrial food system. But I wonder if you could tell me if anything surprised you as you were researching this book?
Michael Pollan: A couple things. One is how deeply the food system is implicated in climate change. I don't think that has really been on people's radar until very recently. Al Gore didn't talk about it at all. Climate change was about how we heat our houses and drive our cars and power the grid. But it wasn't a matter of how we eat. And it is; to the tune of 25 to 33 percent of climate change gases can be traced to the food system. Another surprise it that, yeah, we know that diet-related chronic disease is a big deal, but I was surprised, looking at the history of nutrition, that those diseases that we take for granted as what will kill us—heart disease, cancer, other cardiovascular diseases, diabetes—were virtually unknown 150 years ago, before we began eating this way.
MJ: A lot of the blame for the climate issues and the diet issues can be laid at the feet of corn. And I wonder what it is about corn, chemically, that makes it such a problem both for our health and, in terms of ethanol, for the planet.
MP: Well I've often thought, If it weren't corn, would it be something else? Probably I'd be complaining about soybeans if corn weren't there to do it. The fact is there is going to be one plant that can produce more pure energy off of an acre of soil. It happens to be an incredibly productive plant. It also happens to be a plant that just meshes beautifully with industrial capitalism. You can control the intellectual property. It loves machinery. It can be harvested and planted by machines. It is fungible, it can be stored, and it's a source of money. It can be a source of food. So it's the ideal capitalist plant. But there might be another if there weren't corn. But corn has been implicated in a lot of these problems, certainly the diet. We make sweeteners from corn, and this has definitely played a role in type 2 diabetes. I think we're finding that refined sugars like high fructose corn syrup are implicated in things like heart disease as well. We used to think it was just all about saturated fat.
But the soybean does deserve some of the blame for these problems, too. Together they feed all that feedlot meat, and that feedlot meat is a tremendous part of the climate change problem. That's where a lot of those greenhouse gases are coming from—basically feedlots.
MJ: The excrement that the animals produce?
MP: It's that, but it's also the energy that goes into producing the feed. The corn, by and large, that takes so much fossil fuel. At every step of the way there's a lot of greenhouse gas that's produced.
The other thing that soy contributes to, of course, is hydrogenated oil. This is the main oil. This is the fast-food oil. Which we've recently learned is full of trans fats. Corn has to share the blame a little bit with the soybean.
MJ: When you first wrote the mantra "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," did you have any idea what kind of reaction you'd get to that?
MP: Well, I studied my poetry in school and I knew there was something about the way it sounded that made it easy to remember. I did urge my publisher to put it on the cover of the book. I wanted to write a book that had some very easy-to-remember ideas in it. After writing The Omnivore's Dilemma—"Aren't you preaching to the choir?"—I wanted to write a book that got past the choir, that got to people who didn't care about sustainable food or how their food was grown, but who did care about their health. I wanted to make it almost billboard simple. And that phrase certainly helped me do it. It started out as just "Eat food." But then I realized, Eh, not quite good enough. You've got to deal with the quantity issue; a lot of this has to do with how much we're eating, not just what we're eating. And then plants; the more you looked at this the more you realized that the shortage of plants in our diet could explain a lot. Not that I'm against meat eating. But I think we're eating too much. That's why I said "mostly plants."
MJ: Did you hear from the beef lobby?
MP: No, but there's another group, the Weston A. Price Foundation, who are fierce in their love of animal fat. And with pastured animal fat, healthy animal fat, a lot of what they say is right. But they really don't like plants. People feel like they have to take sides on this plant/animal divide, and I don't think we do.
MJ: There's no dilemma?
MP: [Laughs.] No dilemma. Well, not between those two things. And of course a lot of vegetarians were annoyed that I wasn't saying "all plants." You can't win. A simple word like "mostly"…It's a thicket. People have strong, quasi-religious views on these things. Secularizing the issue is challenging.
MJ: Your books have gone from very interior, literally, to large. The audience expands and expands. Has the transition to being the public face of food activism been difficult?
MP: Very unexpected. My work has gotten more political over time, but once you start exploring food you find you're up against economics and politics and psychology and anthropology, all of these different things you have to deal with. I think as a career matter—you know, I used to be a magazine editor, and that's where I did my politics, that's where I thought politically. And my writing was something over here. That was separate and could be a lot more personal and intimate. It wasn't as public, even though you're publishing books. As I gave up editing and became a full-time writer there had to be an outlet for my political side. That's part of what has driven that progression, though I could easily see writing a much more personal book. I'm not going to be writing a whole lot of manifestos; that was pretty unusual. But that comes from sensing a political moment. If you read Omnivore's Dilemma it's not a political book, you see. It tells the story of these food chains and it follows them. There aren't any proscriptions. The last chapter didn't tell anyone to do anything. I just went hunting and made a really amazing meal. And "That's not practical; what do we do with that?" It's really in the next book that I try to draw some political lessons. For me as a journalist I felt a little uncomfortable being prescriptive. I didn't think that was the proper role of a journalist. I guess I've gotten over that.
MJ: Is it hard? You most be called on to be the spokesman on these issues all the time.
MP: Very hard. You still have to draw lines between being a journalist and an activist. There's no question. I can be an activist in my writing and I can be an activist as a citizen but there's a place where it gets mushy. When Obama announced his pick for agriculture secretary I was disappointed; I didn't think that this was the person who was going to lead the charge for reform. He had a lousy record in a lot of ways as governor on ag issues, and I said so in some interviews. I got some calls and emails from very prominent activists saying, "You should really keep your powder dry because we want to have access to this guy; we don't want to be at war with this guy." Who is this "we?" I felt like Tonto. And I realized there was a tactical way to respond and a writerly way to respond. And I understand that if you are an activist you do respond tactically. You have other considerations. You want to say the thing that will drive everybody in the direction you want to go. But as a writer you have a pact with your readers that you'll be really straight with them at all times.
This was true after the last farm bill was signed. Really lousy bill, had a lot of goodies in it for everyone. It was really a crappy bill. And I saw all these activists that I was in a sense working with writing these letters on their websites saying "look at the wonderful things we've gotten in this bill; we've got to get behind it." And I asked what was going on and finally someone explained to me that they all have these funders who've put up a lot of money for this campaign and they have to show their funders they got something. That was a tactical, not an honest, response. In the end I'm still a writer. I'm still a journalist, and my first responsibility is to my readers. That's where I have to draw the line.