Michael Pollan: "Don't Buy Any Food You've Ever Seen Advertised"
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Amy Goodman: Energy, healthcare, agriculture, climate change, global outbreaks like swine flu—what do all these topics have in common? Food. That’s right, none of these issues can really be tackled without addressing some of the fundamental problems of the food system and the American diet.
Well, my next guest is one of the leading writers and thinkers in this country on food. Michael Pollan is a professor of science and environmental journalism at University of California, Berkeley, author of several books about food, including The Botany of Desire , The Omnivore’s Dilemma and his latest, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto , which just came out in paperback. ... Let’s start with the latest news over the last month, swine flu. How is that connected to industrialized agriculture?
Michael Pollan: Well, we don’t know for sure yet. We’re still kind of investigating. But the best knowledge we have is that this outbreak came from a very large industrial pork operation, pork confinement operation, where, you know, tens of thousands of pigs live in filth and close contact. And this was in Mexico.
And, you know, it’s very interesting. Last year, eighteen months ago, the Pew Commission on animal agriculture released a report calling attention to the public health risks of the way we’re raising pork and other meat in this country. And they actually predicted in that report—they said the way you’re raising pigs in America today creates a perfect environment for the generation of new flu pandemics, basically because once you get that mutation, which sooner or later is about to happen, it very quickly—you have ... so much genetic material coming together, so concentrated, and then so many pigs can catch it, and ... we’ve created these Petri dishes for new diseases. And here we go.
Goodman: And what has been the industry response?
Pollan: Oh, the industry response and the media response, by and large, is not to pay attention to that part of the story. We haven’t gotten a lot of investigation of, well, exactly how do these things evolve and how did these conditions contribute to it.
The other angle, too, is that, you know, as we bring any pressure to bear on American animal agriculture, the tendency is going to be for it to move to Mexico. And indeed, that appears to be the case here, that these are American corporations who have to escape any kind of environmental regulation, have moved their confinement, animal operations, south of the border.
Goodman: Explain how these animal operations work.
Pollan: Well, a pig confinement operation is a pretty hellish place. They are, you know, tens of thousands of animals, kept jammed together. The animals are so close together that they have to snip their tails off, because the animals are so neurotic—I mean, pigs are very intelligent; they’re smarter than dogs—that they will nip at each other’s tails. They’ve been weaned so early that they have this sucking desire, and so they take it out on the tails of the animal right in front of them. So they snip the tails off, not to stop the procedure, but to make it so painful that animals will avoid having their tails bitten, just to make them raw and painful.
They administer antibiotics to these animals on a regular basis, because they could not survive without them. And the waste goes down directly below the animals into this giant cesspool that’s flushed, two or three times a day, out. I mean, ... they’re incubators for disease.