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Michael Pollan: "Don't Buy Any Food You've Ever Seen Advertised"

"The real food is not being advertised. And that's really all you need to know."

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You know, another piece of advice from In Defense of Food is, don’t eat any food that comes with a health claim. It sounds counterintuitive, but if you’re worried about your health, that is not the healthy food. The healthy food is in the produce section. It’s sitting there very quietly, without budgets to do this research, without budgets for marketing, without packages to print health claims on. So just kind of tune that out.

Goodman: What do you make of the new Agricultural Secretary, Tom Vilsack?

Pollan: Well, it’s interesting. When Vilsack was appointed, I was disappointed initially. And I said something like, this was agribusiness as usual. He has surprised me in various ways, and I have some reason, cautious, for hope. I think he has a mandate from President Obama to begin reforming things.

He has appointed as his number two—the woman running the Department of Agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan, is a proven reformer. She developed the organic program in the department and as a staffer to Senator Leahy back in the ’90s. And she is really committed to sustainable agriculture. This woman will be running the Department of Agriculture. I think that’s wonderful. We’ll see what she can do. She’s up against an incredible amount of opposition.

He made an initial move to go after subsidies that was not very well handled and was rebuffed very easily by the agriculture committees in the House and Senate. He, I think, will do a lot to support local agriculture. He’s very committed to farmers’ markets and developing these local food chains, and I think that’s very encouraging.

But he has a mission to make “nutrition” the watchword of the nutrition programs in the Department of Agriculture: School Lunch, Food Stamps, WIC. Now, that sounds kind of “duh,” but, in fact, those programs have nothing to do with nutrition right now. They’re essentially ways to dispose of agricultural surpluses. So if they actually raise the nutrition standards and make that the focus—

 Goodman: What do you mean, they’re the way to—

Pollan: Well, the reason we have a School Lunch Program, you know, it began as an effort really to get rid of this incredible overproduction of American agriculture. I mean, we’re using our children as a disposal for excess, you know, cheap ground beef and cheese and all these corn products, and that the—you know, under the School Lunch Program, we feed our kids chicken nuggets and tater tots in school. We’re using the School Lunch Program to teach them how to become fast-food consumers. So, it’s not about health, and it needs to be about health. So, if he can move that program in that direction, I think that will be wonderful.

Goodman: Michelle Obama’s organic garden, that the pesticide industry had in a memo that they shuddered when they heard her use the word?

Pollan: Yes. You know, I think her garden is actually a significant development. I mean, you can dismiss it as symbolic politics, but in fact symbols are important. And the word “organic” are fighting words in this—is a fighting word in this world. And she did not have to say it was an organic garden; she could have simply said it’s a garden. And that she did was noticed.

And the Crop Life Association, the trade group of the pesticide makers, wrote her a letter, being as cordial as you must be to a First Lady, saying, you know, “You’re really casting aspersions on industrial agriculture, and we really hope you will use our crop protection products.” In other words, “Buy our poisons, whether you need them or not.”

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