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Michael Pollan Fixes Dinner (Extended Interview)

America's favorite food intellectual talks about ethanol, the carrot lobby, and secularizing food. With podcast.

| March/April 2009

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.

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