Click here for an expert-led reader forum from April 13-17 on MotherJones.com around the question: Is organic and local so 2008?
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.
MJ: So what do you think of the appointment of Tom Vilsack, the governor of Iowa, an agribusiness state known for its love of corn and all things ethanol?
MP: Well, you know, if you look at it historically, there’s reason to be very concerned. He oversaw a tremendous expansion of feedlot agriculture, ruining the Iowa countryside, ruining the lives of many farmers. This move toward a confinement hog production. He helped to get local control over the zoning decisions. He also has been very friendly toward Monsanto and genetically modified products and was named governor of the year by BIO, the big biotech trade organization. There’s not a lot there to get hopeful about.
But people who I respect say that he is someone who will listen. He is someone who has an open door to organic activists and local food activists. He was interested, in Iowa, in developing local food systems, helping Iowa to feed itself to a greater extent than it does. It feeds the world but it doesn’t feed itself. It’s a food desert, weirdly enough. All the raw material leaves the state and comes back in processed form, even though you can grow anything you want there. It’s some of the best soil in the world, and it’s just a shame that people aren’t eating from that. I also think, and this is putting the most positive spin I can on it, that as governor of Iowa there are some positions that you simply must have. One is support for corn-based ethanol. Another is a tacit support for feedlot agriculture and biotech. But he’s no longer governor of Iowa and he is a politician; his positions are circumstantial, as will be President Obama’s. And I’m hoping that as a politician, when he senses where the wind is moving, he will move with it. It could have been a whole lot worse; there were people on the short list who were truly alarming in their commitment to the most retrograde and unsustainable forms of agriculture. I think he’s a blank slate on a lot of issues, like commodity subsidies and stuff like that. We don’t know who will be designing the agenda; it may not be him. It may be people in the White House.
MJ: Although it seems that, as a former governor, he has a vested interest in insuring that we always have an Iowa caucus. How much of our current agricultural policy can we lay at the feet of the Iowa caucus?
MP: Look, you get rid of the Iowa caucus and you could have a much more realistic debate about food and agricultural policy. You can’t be elected president of this country without passing though Iowa and bowing down before corn-based ethanol, before agricultural subsidies. You can’t get out alive. And that’s too bad. I mean, even McCain was a critic of ethanol, but when he got to Iowa he was singing a different tune. On the other hand, this time around the candidates talked to other people and they learned there is a progressive farm lobby. Iowa came close to electing as agriculture secretary of the state a woman organic farmer. Almost won until the farm bureau realized what a threat she was and came after her.
And I think Obama saw, in fact he said he saw, the importance of local control. He said a lot of progressive things in Iowa, too. That idea that there is a monolithic farm bloc—I wouldn’t say it’s starting to crumble—but there are interesting cracks. The challenge for the food reform movement is to make those cracks bigger.
MJ: What do we know of Obama’s history? Obviously he’s from Illinois and he must have had to curry favor with his own farm lobby. He’s spoken well of corn-based ethanol.
MP: He has. I think we’ll see him back off of that pretty soon because he’s no longer a senator from Illinois, and he has to look at not only the national but the global implications of this folly.
MJ: You were saying over lunch that you actually have a lot of hope that this corn-based ethanol will be phased out pretty quickly in the US.
MP: I don’t think we’re going to be talking about it that much longer. It’s an experiment that’s been tried and it’s been disastrous, specifically what it did to food prices both here and around the world. It’s estimated that about 30 percent of the increase in grain prices could be attributed to the decision to embrace biofuels, particularly corn-based ethanol. It has done nothing for climate change and the business is in real trouble now with the collapse of oil prices. It’s completely dependent on a dollar subsidy and tariff from the government. I don’t think it’s proven itself of any value except, you know, to ADM and the people who built these refineries. And there’s the fact that Obama appointed Steven Chu as secretary of energy, a fierce critic of corn-based ethanol, a physicist and a Nobel Prize winner. I think it will be his job to argue the president and Vilsack out of corn-based ethanol. What better way to change your position on that than to have a Nobel Prize laureate explain to you exactly why it’s a bad idea.
MJ: Are there any biofuels that are still showing promise, or are they all slowly revealing themselves to be problematic?
MP: Well, we don’t yet know about cellulosic ethanol, basically taking cellulose—wood, other plant wastes, parts of plants you can’t eat—and using them to produce ethanol. You can’t yet do it economically because the cellulose is very hard to break down and it takes a lot of energy to break it down. But there’s a lot of work; this is supposedly the next generation. There are people who will tell you, No, that’s impossible too. It’s impossible to get a significant amount of liquid fuel out of it. And that remains to be seen. And the fact is that the kind of refineries that we’ve been building for corn will not work for cellulose. This whole infrastructure we’re building is going to have to be tossed out. I don’t know enough about it to say that it’s not going to work.
I think using waste oils as fuel makes sense. We do waste a huge amount of vegetable oil in this country and using that as a fuel source strikes me as fine. I don’t know if it’s significant, but there it is. I think one of the things we got in touch with was that using your farm for fuel, you’re going to have to replace that acre of farmland. So people deforest Indonesia, Brazil. It’s very shortsighted. It’s all based on the fact that we have this infrastructure and these oil companies and they need a replacement liquid. And that’s why we do so much work on it; we’ve got to find the next liquid.
MJ: Explain that. Oil companies need a liquid because they’re interested in refining, burning a liquid?
MP: It’s what they’re good at. And they have gas stations. There’s this whole huge structure that is about finding a new liquid for the tank. And the idea that maybe there shouldn’t be a liquid, that maybe the best is an electrical grid, a sustainably powered electrical grid that we all plug into, that doesn’t sit well with oil companies; they don’t have a seat at the table if we have that discussion. So they’re invested in going down a certain road. That’s why BP has given half a billion dollars to this campus [Berkeley] to help develop it. I think that Obama will put a lot of money into cellulosic ethanol to help develop it. I just hope it’s not wasted.
MJ: I understand that some European countries, before they give out any kind of subsidy for biofuels, they’re saying you have to prove that there’s a net climate benefit, and, if not, kiss your subsidy goodbye. Is there a chance that something like that could happen in this country?
MP: Well, Obama just announced that he’s going to have this performance manager who’s going to evaluate the performance of all of these investments. I think that’s a terrific idea. It’s the same way foundations, before they give out money, ask you to have some benchmarks for success and that your future funding depends on you hitting these benchmarks. If indeed the reason we’re getting into ethanol is to mitigate climate change, show us it works. I think it makes great sense.
MJ: And, in fact, ethanol producers are asking that some kind of the economic stimulus, green jobs, trillion dollars go to them.
MP: Can you believe it? We’re already being asked to bail them out. They’re only like two years old and they were started with subsidies and would not exist except for the fact that in 2006 President Bush began these mandates. They now, on top of that, need a bailout. That may be just the fastest arc. It took the auto companies almost a century to get there, but ethanol companies are there in just two years.
MJ: If you had a magic wand, would you get rid of subsidizes or would you reform them?
MP: I think what I would do would be to give farmers the exact same amount of money we’re giving them now but give them the money to do something else with it. It’s a political dead end to try and eliminate subsidies because then you get all of America’s farmers, who have political power out of all proportion of their number, and that has a lot to do with the way they get two senators for all of these virtually empty states. So I think that’s a political loser. You unify the farmers against change. You don’t want to do that; you want to divide the farmers. The way you do that is to offer, for a certain amount of time, to keep their income steady but change the set of incentives. Right now the incentives are to get them to produce as much as possible, whatever the cost in terms of the environment, water quality, the erosion of the soil, and our health.
But you can imagine another set of assumptions, another set of incentives so that they’re getting incentives to sequester carbon, say. So that they’re getting incentives to clean the water that leaves their farm, so that they’re getting incentives for the quality, not the quantity, of the food they’re growing. And then suddenly they’re making a contribution to what we’re trying to do with regard to the environment, public health, climate change. That’s where I would go. I don’t know how to devise that system, but it can be devised. The Europeans are working on that, and in the past we have had other incentives. It was not as hell-bent on maximizing production. That’s where you get into trouble.
MJ: Why is having a secretary of agriculture from an urban community, where the majority of eaters live, not a possibility?
MP: Good question. Historically it’s always been someone from a farm state because the Ag Department has been viewed as a bureaucracy whose goal is to advance the interest of the American farmers, not eaters. For many, many years though, advancing the interests of farmers and eaters was the same thing. When the great public heath problem in America was not enough calories for everybody, having a set of policies that encouraged farmers to produce as much as possible made sense; the quantity of calories mattered more than the quality. Look at the school lunch program or the food stamp program. The interests of agribusiness and the interest of the recipients of these programs were once identical just because it was about getting enough food on the table or in the cafeteria. Now our problem is different; it is the poor who suffer disproportionately from diet-related illnesses and chronic diseases. So merely giving them enough calories is not the answer.
One of the more encouraging things that Vilsack said in his press conference when he was nominated was that he was going to put nutrition at the center of his nutrition program in the Department of Agriculture, which must have struck a lot of listeners as, “Well, duh,” but in fact nutrition has not been at the center of these programs; disposing of agricultural surplus has been at the center of these programs. So if that really comes to pass I think that would be wonderful. One of the things you might want to consider is getting these programs out of the Department of Agriculture. The interests of eaters need to be represented in a way that they have not been. One of the things that was discouraging was that neither Obama nor Vilsack used the word “food” or “eating.” It was very much cast in terms of interest groups, but eaters are the biggest interest group of all, and their interests are not being taking into account at all.
MJ: One of the criticisms of the food activism community is that, you know, it’s easy enough for Clara Jeffery and Michael Pollan to talk about organic and locally grown food because we walk out the door and we trip over a farmers market and we can afford it. How do we democratize better quality food for people? If we want to get toward a more local and organic food system, can the poor afford it?
MP: It is the important question. Much more has to be done to democratize the food movement. One of the reasons that healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy food is that the government supports unhealthy food and does very little to support healthy food, whether you mean organic or grass-fed or whatever. The incentives we have make processed food or fast food or junk food very cheap. I mean we subsidize high fructose corn syrup. We subsidize hydrogenated corn oil. We do not subsidize organic food. We subsidize these four crops—five altogether, but one is cotton—and these are the building blocks of fast food. One of the ways you democratize healthy food is you support healthy food.
I think you have to work on access. I think we have food deserts in our cities. We know that the distance you live from a supplier of fresh produce is one of the best predictors of your health. And in the inner city, people don’t have grocery stores. They have to get on a bus and take a long ride to get to a source of fresh produce. So we have to figure out a way of getting supermarkets and farmers markets into the inner cities.
MJ: Do you think it’s a matter of drawing them in or somehow mandating that they come in?
MP: I don’t know. I don’t know how you do it. One way we’ve seen that works when we’ve experimented is that when we give people farmers market vouchers on the WIC [Women, Infants, and Children] program or food stamps, lo and behold, the farmers markets show up in those neighborhoods.
You talk to people here at Berkeley who run the ecology center and you say, “West Oakland, the first of the month there will be $15,000 worth of vouchers that can be spent in farmers markets”: They’ll be there. They’ll set up the booths. The farmers will be there. It won’t take long, either; it doesn’t need a lot of infrastructure to build. That being said, one of the best things that Obama could do would be build 12-month farmers markets, especially in inner cities—that could be your legacy, those beautiful glass buildings you see in Barcelona or Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. This would be a wonderful way to make farmers markets a central part of these communities. It would drive economic development and local agriculture. And what happens around these neighborhoods is that you get all of these businesses sprouting up on the edges selling, you know, all kinds of groceries, or restaurants. Anywhere you go and you see a permanently located farmers market you will find economic redevelopment. You go all over Europe where they have these places—they’re real economic engines.
The other way that you democratize the food movement is through the public school system. If you can pay enough for the school lunch system so that it can actually be cooked and not just microwaved, so that these schools can buy local food, fresh food, because right now it’s all frozen and processed, you will improve the health of the students, you will improve the health of the local economy, and you will have better performing students. There are so many gains from that one step. Supposedly it would take about a dollar per student per day to really change the food system.
This is the part you don’t hear about. I mean, everyone loves to put arugula on the cover of their newsweeklies and talk about organic and elitism, but a big part of this movement is community food security collation, and there are people working very hard on that idea of access. Alice Waters here in Berkeley with the public schools. Michelle Nichon, a chef who’s working with these farmers market vouchers for food stamp recipients and WIC recipients and having incredible success with that.
The other more general thing I’d say, as an indictment of the movement, is that the movement is elitist in certain ways. And that’s not surprising; a lot of social movements begin that way. I mean, you look at women’s suffrage, you look at abolition, and you look at the environmental movement. Movements often begin with people who have the resources and the time to consider social change. The real test comes if it’s still elitist in 20 or 30 years and it hasn’t democratized itself. I think this movement will.
MJ: Could any of this have been put into the farm bill, or is it about government procurement to WIC and other individual procurement programs?
MP: Well some of it is in the farm bill. The farm bill is a many-headed beast. Commodity subsidies are a part of it. Food stamps are a part of it. The rules for food stamps are set in it. But also there is money for farmers markets. There is money for research on organics. You could argue that the seeds for change are being granted through little grants in the farm bill.
MJ: Does WIC still specify that you buy cheese and dairy?
MP: Yes. We had a huge fight to get a little more produce in the WIC basket. It’s basically a basket of food the government will support, and it’s heavy on the cheese and milk, not because there’s a health benefit to cheese and milk, but because the dairy lobby is very powerful. So they fought and they fought and they fought, and they got a bunch of carrots in there. [Laughs.]
MJ: That’s it? Specifically carrots? Who knew: the carrot lobby?
MP: Specifically carrots. The next big lobby. But there is also money in this farm bill for fresh produce in school lunch. There’s about $2 billion. See, the price of getting the subsidies was getting the California delegation on board, and their price was a couple billion for what are called specialty crops. Fresh fruit and produce that is produced largely in California. There is money; it’s not subsidies; it’s kind of demand driven. There’s money to put it in schools and there’s other money to encourage you to eat your five a day, if California was willing to stand up to Iowa and Illinois and realize that the bigger farm economy is here. If they got organized they could really drive some useful change. A lot of the public health solutions around food would be very beneficial to California farms, because they tend to be growing vegetables and fruit.
MJ: If a consumer can’t afford or access all organic, what’s the best place to start? Is it organic milk for your kids…?
MP: In terms of buying organic I don’t think that’s necessarily the most important thing you can do or the only thing you can do. I think there are certain products that it’s worth buying organic just because the alternatives have so much pesticide. There’s a list of the dirty dozen that you can get off the Web. Strawberries, potatoes. A handful of crops that have very high pesticide residues if you don’t buy organic. If you eat that a lot, that’s a good place to invest.
But there are other things, like broccoli and maybe asparagus, that have very little pesticide residues and that might not be such a good place to invest. Farmers market food has very little pesticide and it also has the benefit of being very, very fresh and therefore often nutritionally superior. It’s picked at the moment of ripeness rather than a week or 10 days before, which often happens with organic food that goes to the supermarket. And there are moments, there are seasons, when food at the farmers market is cheaper than food at the supermarket. And then knowing what to do: “Okay, this week I’m going to buy A LOT of strawberries and then freeze them, can them, make jelly.”
That’s one of the ways we used to eat economically. One of the things that happened is that we lost the cultural skills that used to allow people to eat well cheaply. For example making three or four meals from a chicken, rather than buying chicken breasts. Every peasant cuisine has incredible ingenious tricks for getting a lot of nutrition out of a small amount of ingredients. There are people who don’t have the money to invest in better food, but perhaps they have the time. There’s a trade-off: The more time you’re willing to put into food preparation, the less money you have to spend. And people have gone out and done studies on “Can you eat locally on a food stamps budget?” And you can, but you’ve got to put in like all day Sunday cooking meals. And a lot of people feel as pinched for time as they are with money, but you’re going to have to invest more time or more money if you want to get off this industrial food chain, and that is a challenge.
MJ: What do you say to those who claim that organic and locally grown would mean lower yields and greater starvation worldwide, if we could somehow engineer that to happen?
MP: Show me the evidence. There’s a lot of research that suggests that organic yields are close or superior to conventional yields depending on factors like climate. In a drought year an organic field of corn will yield more—considerably more—than a conventional field; organic fields hold moisture better so they don’t need as much water. It simply isn’t true that organic yields are lower than conventional yields. You can find studies that suggest that there’s a yield drag of 20 percent. You can find others that say there’s a yield benefit of 10 percent. I think it’s incredible that organic yields should be that high considering how little R&D money has been spent. All money for agricultural extension, land grant universities has been toward developing industrial food. Lots of money has been invested toward maximizing yield. If you took even a small amount of that money and put it toward organic research, I don’t have any doubts you could match those yields.
MJ: You talk about weaning us off of an industrial system. I’m curious about the mechanism. Should we be trying to go as quickly as possible toward organic and local or does a move like that let the perfect be the enemy of the good?
MP: That’s why I don’t know if organic is the last word. It’s sort of an all-or-nothing idea, and it’s very important—I mean, you think of another time that we looked at a technology, we’ve looked at a development and said, “This is a mistake; we’re just going to not do that anymore”? Childbirth is one thing, or nursing, where there was a glamorous technological approach that we turned away from. And it’s interesting that it should be around these very basic technological questions. But people getting it partly right is very important. Getting your chickens out in the open and out of those cages is important, even if you’re not getting them organic feed. Those will not be organic eggs, but they will be so far superior. There are many varieties of sustainable agriculture we should support; it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Let 1,000 flowers bloom and let’s see what works. The whole problem of industrial agriculture is putting all of your eggs in one basket. We need to diversify our food chains as well as our fields so that when some of them fail, we can still eat.
MJ: Do you have a secret food shame?
MP: I have a weakness for potato chips. I don’t really have a big sweet tooth, thank god. My junk food would be like nuts, chips. I can’t think of something that I’d be really embarrassed about.
MJ: How far would you go out of your way to avoid a McDonalds or something like that?
MP: Not that far. Last summer we stopped at a McDonalds. Because my son, who’s 16 now, had this Proustian moment where we were on this road where there was this McDonalds where we used to stop. And he just had this craving for chicken nuggets. I wasn’t sure exactly what to do, and I just said, “Eh, let him have his chicken nuggets.” Special-occasion food is a great institution. I think our problem is that we let special-occasion food become everyday food. That goes for soda and french fries. One of my rules of eating is that if you’re willing to cook it yourself, have all the junk food you want. I mean, if you’re willing to make that Twinkie, great. Or even fry potatoes. It’s so much work and it makes such a mess that you’ll have it about once a month, which is about right. So I said, “Sure, and why don’t you get the biggest box you can.” And the first one he was like, “Dad, this is so good. I forgot how good these are. You got to try one of these.” But by the six or seventh he was like, “Ohh, I got a stomach ache.” And he realized it wasn’t that great. I mean, this food is engineered for the first bite and it’s really effective, but I tried it and it’s all just fat and salt and some notion of chicken flavor; I wasn’t impressed.
MJ: Nick Kristof of the New York Times proposed that Obama create a secretary of food. Thousands of people have signed an online petition to make you the secretary of food. If you were offered that position, would you take it?
MP: No. That would be such a mistake for all concerned. I don’t have the skills to run a bureaucracy of 97,000 people and a budget of $100 billion. I think I can be much more useful on the outside. Not that this would ever happen. You can’t even imagine the opposition to even the whisper of such a position. Harry Reid said recently that the two most powerful lobbies on Capitol Hill, and he should know, were the insurance industry and agribusiness. They are fierce and they are powerful and they are not going to let anyone even remotely like me cross that threshold.
MJ: You’ve been a mentor to many a young journalist, both when you were an editor at Harper’s and now at Berkeley. What do you say to people right now who are coming into this industry? It’s pretty grim out there.
MP: It’s really grim. I’m at a loss with my students as to what they should do. I still think that knowing how to write, knowing how to clearly argue a position and tell a story, is an incredibly valuable and extremely rare skill. It will be rewarded in some way. The cultural authority of print—in the midst of this whole Internet revolution—I am constantly amazed at the power of print. They may not pay you as much for that print as they once did, and finding a business model to support that print is going to be a challenge, but it still has more influence than anything else when you’re talking about that realm. One well-done op-ed piece will trump whatever you put on television or the Web. The prestige and authority of print in Western culture goes way back to the Bible.
MJ: Do you think that pursing a topical specialty is key to ongoing success?
MP: One of the things that I urge students to think about is, in addition to developing your skills as a storyteller or analyst, know about a subject. You need to be able to sell not only that you can tell a story but that you have something to say. And you’re not going to have something to say unless you’ve mastered a subject. And you don’t have to stick with it your whole career. You can change. Then when you’re trying to get assignments you offer something more than sheer writing ability. You have a head start. You have a point of view; you know where the bodies are buried. And also, a very important source of work for writers these days is public speaking. You’re someone who can go out there and make speeches and talk about a subject and get involved in the community that cares about it. That’s a really important strategy. Looking ahead, it’s not hard to predict the topics that it will be important to master. One is resource economics. Water, energy, food. These are real basics that are coming into crisis. Knowing enough about these issues gives you something in the marketplace that is more than just putting a good sentence together.
Look, people are reading like crazy.
MJ: I know, I keep telling people that sales of serious nonfiction are up.
MP: And look at what people are doing on the Web; they’re reading. It’s just that they don’t want to pay for it. Nowadays you can publish anywhere and you can find the right audience. A couple of years ago I had an idea I wanted to do for the Times and they weren’t interested. I wanted to write a piece about slow food. So I went and did it for Mother Jones. Well I reached all the same people I would have reached at the Times because of the Internet. The difference, though, is who’s going to give you that really nice fee? It’s not an audience problem; it’s a business problem. And also giving people enough money so that they don’t just opine but they can research and report and investigate. The danger when you choke off the financial line to writers is that you get more opinion and less information. You see that on the Web.
We’re going to wake up one day and there will not be a major paper in a state capital or a major city and certain things will not get uncovered and you will have a corporation scandal that the TV reporters didn’t get and people on the Internet didn’t get and people will sorely miss those newspapers. You start to see that now on the bloggers. It was sort of fun to make fun of the papers when they were big and strong, but now that they’re not…
MJ: You don’t have their reporting to riff on…
MP: Exactly. How many bloggers live by the grace of the New York Times and the Washington Post? I think as a society we’re about to have that moment. Do we really want to see these institutions go or become weakened? If you’re producing something that people want and need, good information about the state of the republic, there will be a way. We’re just at that moment of reinventing exactly what that way is. But it will happen. I wouldn’t discourage anybody from getting in, but, I mean, you can call this a profession, but you’re not going to have the security that comes with other professions. We’re all freelance at this point. We’re going to have to reinvent ourselves every 5 to 10 years. You can look on that prospect with dread or excitement. You have to take an entrepreneurial view of your career and do a lot of different things. If that’s what you’re looking for, security, than go to law school I guess. But if you’re up for something a little sketchier, it’s still a great career. It’s a culture that still reads and still listens and that’s not going to go away.