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Michael Pollan: Forget Nutrition Charts, Eat What Grandma Said Is Good for You

The author of 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' says science has supplanted cultural wisdom as a guide in telling us what to eat.

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HK: So, being able to do research is important ...

MP: Oh, absolutely, and history in particular. I think if there's a failing of American journalism, and there are many, one is a disregard for history--very often in the origins of a phenomenon you discover the meaning of a phenomenon. And so, it's a perspective I always cover. I'm always very interested in digging back to find the history of whatever I'm writing about. So, even if it's a scientific subject, it's really important to understand the history behind it.

HK: For instance, history can make us aware that the way we get our food today really goes back to the early '70s, and that the appointment of Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz was a pivotal turning point.

MP: Well, that's a great example. We all know that subsidies are part of the problem and a waste of money. And then you dig back and you realize: oh, we changed every thing in the 1970s; we changed our agricultural policies. And there is a real turning point in the history of American agriculture and food, and that is when Earl Butz was appointed by President Nixon with the explicit mandate of forcing down the price of food, because we'd had this about food inflation. Americans took to the streets because food got so expensive in 1973. Nixon hired Earl Butz, who was very skillful in agricultural economics, and he kind of redesigned the whole system of crop support in this country in a way that stimulated farmers.

We used to hold up prices, basically, and he moved from that system to subsidizing crops and encouraging farmers to overproduce, to produce as much as possible. He was the guy who said: get bigger, get out, plant fence row to fence row, move toward monocultures, just crank out that corn and soy, and he redesigned the structure of the subsidies to encourage that.

And you can date the obesity epidemic and so many problems of the American food system to those policies--they are inadvertent consequences of what was a very popular thing, which was driving down food prices. Which he did. Americans only spend 9.5 percent of our income on food today. That's less than anybody in the history of civilization, and we have Earl Butz to thank.

HK: In understanding food and agribusiness, politics is very important.

MP: We're not aware of it, but food, like everything, is political. It is the biggest industry in the country; it's the most essential thing. We've had the luxury of not having to think about it for the last thirty years, thanks to Earl Butz and having all this cheap food around. But you know, if we as a society have to live without gasoline, which is unimaginable, we will figure out how to do it. We did it for millions of years. We've never lived without food. Food is really essential, and when you have anything that's essential, there is enormous political and economic forces that contend about how it will be organized.

In the last thirty years, we have had this kind of agriculture industrial complex, which by some measures has worked quite well. It's kept the price of food low; it's kept the food industry healthy; it's given us a lot of power overseas--we're big food exporters--but what we're getting in touch with, I think, is that the by-products of that system, or the unintended consequences and costs, are catching up--every thing from obesity to diabetes.

Because that was a system that specifically encouraged the consumption of cheap corn sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils from soy, processed foods of all kinds, a lot of cheap meat. So, there's been a public health impact that's dramatic. That is what's bankrupting the health care system: the fact that half of us suffer from chronic diseases linked to the diet.

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