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Michael Pollan: We Are Headed Toward a Breakdown in Our Food System

Pollan gives a glimpse at the current state of food politics inside the White House and within his own home.
 
 
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Michael Pollan's famous motto for a smart, healthy diet is "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Add to that: "And when you happen to be on your publisher's expense account, splurge." The night we met up to chat at a place of his choosing, he tucked into a roasted slab of B.C. wild Chinook salmon, a tangle of salad greens and several glasses of good Okanagan Pinot Gris in the swank environs of the Blue Water Café in Vancouver's Yaletown neighbourhood.

Pollan, who lives in Berkeley, California, has championed the cause of stronger local food networks with his bestsellers The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. He was in town to sign books and headline a sold-out picnic fundraiser to preserve the University of British Columbia's urban farm as a working laboratory for sustainable agriculture. His rousing talk drew a standing ovation, and even a few tears.

As a dinner companion, Pollan is loose, friendly, and, as you might expect, intellectually omnivorous, peppering his interviewer with more questions than he was asked.

Along the way, he sketched the current state of food politics inside the White House and within his own home. He was surprised to learn the 100-Mile Diet was launched in British Columbia (on The Tyee) and said meeting 100-Mile Diet creators Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon is on his list of things to do (message delivered, Alisa and James). He compared today's food movement to Martin Luther's reform of the Church and he predicted certain breakdown for a North American food system far too dependent on cheap energy and big corporations. Between bites, here's what else Pollan shared …

On raising an ultra-picky eater:

Michael Pollan: My 16-year-old son Isaac has been a very complex, tortuous food story. He was a terrible eater. One of the reasons I got interested in writing about food is he didn't eat anything. I love food, my wife loves food, and he just was tortured about food. He was one of these kids -- and there are many of them -- who only ate white food. He ate bread, pasta, rice, potatoes. There are a lot more of these kids than there used to be. I'm not exactly sure why.

But he basically found food scary and overwhelming. And so he controlled that by eating food that was as bland as possible. He was the same way about clothes. He didn't like any variety in clothing. So he wore black clothes for about eight years of his childhood. Ate white, dressed black. In both cases, in retrospect, he was trying to reduce sensory input. It was overwhelming. Smell was overwhelming, taste was overwhelming, colour was overwhelming. And he just had trouble processing.

A very interesting turnaround happened about two years ago. He discovered food. He became very serious about it, partly through cooking. And now he loves food. But he doesn't eat everything. No seafood, for example. But he'll eat any kind of meat, many kinds of vegetables. Last summer he worked a summer job in a kitchen. He worked as a chef. So he's gone through this really interesting transformation.

But I've since heard that many chefs have gone through this as children. That they couldn't eat because their sensory apparatuses were overly receptive. And I heard this story from [famous Chez Panisse owner and chef] Alice Waters, who herself was a very, very picky eater as a child. She predicted Isaac would flip around. She met him when he was young and actually tried to cook for him when he was eleven. Such a waste of her talent! (laughs).

So anyway, my son's whole journey around food has been interesting for me to watch. And now he likes to cook and we cook together and he's a good cook. But now, of course, he's a horrible food snob. It'll be like, he's doing homework so I'm doing the cooking, and he'll say, 'What are we having?' And I'll say, 'Well, I've got this nice grass-fed steak I'm going to make'. And he'll say, 'Can you make a reduction to go with that? Maybe a Port reduction would be good'. And I'll say, 'Fuck you! If you want to do a Port reduction, you do it'! (laughs) And depending on how much homework he has, he will do it. He'll make this delicious Port reduction for his steak. He's a complicated character.

On the personal politics of pint-sized picky eaters:

MP: Kids' relations to food are complex. This generation will have its own neuroses, that's for sure. But it's very concerning that there are such high levels of allergies among kids nowadays. The reasons are as yet unexplained. But I've heard that it has complicated kids' relationships with food because so many have allergies, or think they do.

I've discovered cooking and gardening are great ways to get kids to reorient their relationships to food in a positive way. Kids will eat things that they'll pick in the garden that they'll never eat off the plate. Or they'll eat things that they've cooked themselves. Because I think a big issue for them is control. Food is really, I think, a primary political phenomenon. It is the first time you can control what you take into your body, and the first time you can say no to your parents and assert your identity. So I think food and politics are very intertwined.

On whether Barack Obama is going to be good for food:

MP: We don't know yet. I think Obama gets the issues. He's a great dot connector. He connects the dots between the way we grow food and the health care crisis and the climate change crisis and the energy crisis. He understands that and he's spoken about that eloquently. The question is how much political capital he is going to put into changing the system.

So far the most significant thing is what his wife has done, the way Michelle Obama has been talking about food, especially the importance of giving your children real food. When she planted a vegetable garden at the White House, she was very careful to let the world know that it was an organic garden. And that's a big deal, because organics are fighting words in this battle and in fact the industry came back at her.

A group with the wonderful name of the Crop Life Association, which is the lobbying group for the pesticide manufacturers, was very upset that she was casting aspersions on conventional agriculture. The Crop Life Association really should go by the opposite name, the Bug Death Association. (laughs) They understood Michelle Obama's garden to be a critique of non-organic agriculture. And it was a critique. But their backlash hasn't deterred her. She is going to make food one of her issues.

I was a bit surprised. I thought she was going to be leading with, like, war widows, families of soldiers, which she said was going to be her issue. But this came out first. And she's got great feedback on it and is going to do more, from what I've heard.

On Obama's side, you've got Tom Vilsack who is the Secretary of Agriculture. As the former governor of Iowa, he seemed like a real conventional choice. But in fact he's been quite surprising, too. He's also planted a garden at the Department of Agriculture, which you could dismiss as symbolism, but he's talking a lot about local food and urban agriculture. Most significantly, he appointed as his number two a woman name Kathleen Merrigan, who is a genuine reformer. She founded the organic program at USDA, she wrote the original organic law for Senator Patrick Leahy and she's a real staunch supporter of sustainable agriculture and she's running the Department of Agriculture! That's pretty mind blowing. We'll see. She's up against incredible forces of inertia.

On the health dollar costs of America's 'diet catastrophe':

MP: At some abstract level Obama sees that he's not going to get his health care costs under control unless we change the way Americans eat. Because the crisis of rising costs in the American health care system can be translated very simply as the catastrophe of the American diet, which represents probably half of what we spend on health care in America. We spend about $2 trillion a year. The Centers for Disease Control says that 1.5 trillion goes to treat chronic disease. Now you've got smoking in there, alcoholism, but other than that, chronic disease is mostly food related. So you really can't get control of that system unless you are preventing some of those chronic diseases. And the way you do that, really, is to change the food system. But, you know, it's very, very hard to do.

My bet is that what we'll see from the Obama administration is a lot of support for alternative groups such as local and organic. Money for farmers to transition, money to rebuild local food economies. Whether we'll actually see an attack on conventional agriculture is less likely, given the politics of it. The reason is you can't do anything with the current agriculture committees we've got in Congress. You can't drive any reform through. It's going to take a few years to change the populations of those committees.

On whether he's trying to rally a movement in time to avert disaster, or just prepare us for the inevitable mess caused by scarcer oil, degrading ecologies, and global warming:

MP: It's more the latter. We need to have these alternatives around and available when the shit hits the fan, basically.

One of the reasons we need to nurture several different ways of feeding ourselves -- local, organic, pasture-based meats, and so on – is that we don't know what we're going to need and we don't know what is going to work. To the extent that we diversify the food economy, we will be that much more resilient. Because there will be shocks. We know that. We saw that last summer with the shock of high oil prices. There will be other shocks. We may have the shock of the collapsing honey bee population. We may have the shock of epidemic diseases coming off of feed lots. We're going to need alternatives around.

When we say the food system is unsustainable we mean that there is something about it, an internal contradiction, that means it can't go on the way it is without it breaking up. And I firmly believe there will be a breakdown.

On whether he's a fan of the 100-Mile Diet:

MP: I think the 100-Mile Diet, as a pedantic exercise, is really important. People really learn a lot. They learn what's available. They learn how much they appreciate things that come from far away. It was one of the great teaching exercises. And we need those. People don't know where their food comes from and they have no idea what they are eating.

But you know, when I was working on The Omnivore's Dilemma I talked to Joel Salatin, a farmer who is kind of a hero of alternative agriculture. He is radical. Beyond organic. Really uncompromising. In fact he hates organic, thinks it's already sold out. So I asked him: 'Are you going to blow up this food system?' He said, 'No, this isn't a revolution, this is a reformation.' And that's a good metaphor.

It's like once upon a time there was one way to feed yourself spiritually as a Christian. It was the Catholic Church. And you had to go through those doors to have any relationship with God. And then Luther came along and suddenly you have many denominations. And that's where we are now. Luther is like the organic pioneers, maybe Wendell Berry, I don't know. And these alternatives are thriving, and everyone is very excited about the possibilities. But the Catholic Church didn't go away. It just got smaller, you know? And I think realistically that's what’s going to happen. There still will be supermarket food. There still will be food that travels around the world. I just hope there is less of it and more good alternatives.

On the communal pleasures and benefits of 'locavore' eating:

MP: It's a part of the food movement that people don't pay enough attention to. Actually I met Agriculture Secretary Vilsack and at some point, apropos of nothing, he went into this incredibly eloquent riff about farmers' markets. He just loves farmers' markets. He said, 'You know, this isn't about food, this is about community. People are starved for community.' And he's absolutely right. And I'm amazed that the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture has that insight.

At my farmer's market, people go whether they are going to be cooking or not. They go to hang out. They go because they're going to see their friends. They go because there's politicking and music and massages and all these other things happening. And it's just as important.

On how food insecurity can unravel an empire:

MP: That's what brought down Soviet communism, you know. By the end of the Soviet Union, 50 per cent of the food was being grown outside the official system. And people just realized, okay, supermarkets aren't working, we're going to set up this other economy. We're going to grow it ourselves, we're going to tend small allotment farms. And I think it was the crisis of legitimacy of the whole system. Again, it was another reformation. The collective farms were still there, still producing large amounts of bread or whatever. But you had this alternative that just rose up.

 
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