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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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But that whole discussion--and that worship of wilderness-- doesn't help you with many other questions, or with the 92 percent of the American landscape you can't lock up. There are so many places where we need to engage with nature without destroying it, but we also can't just leave it alone. And the garden, in a way, is the great symbol of that place.

It's a place where we mix ourselves up with nature, where we are in this reciprocal relationship with other species affecting us, and we're affecting them, and it's a beautiful place, ideally. There is conflict, though; there are weeds; there are bugs. You can't get away from that, but merely sitting back and worshiping it will give you a disastrous garden and no crop to eat.

So, I began then, with that very first book, getting interested in that messy place between the human world and the wild, and trying to figure out how to behave in that world in a way that I could get what I wanted while also not destroying or diminishing nature. Food is another one of those messy places. I think that the garden is a really important model and that if we would let the garden guide us in our dealings with the natural world--and by that, I mean agriculture, architecture, design--I think we would be better off.

HK: How has agribusiness failed to consider this?

MP: Basically it's pushed too hard on the culture side of that dialectic and not appreciated that nature can't be bent to our will completely. Agribusiness essentially conceives of a farm or a garden as a factory: you put in these inputs--fertilizer, irrigation water, hybrid seed, pesticide--and you get out those outputs, and nature is just the factory floor.

That doesn't work because nature has its own interests. Nature pushes back. Nature is an obstacle to certain things we want to do, so that you need to think more like a gardener than a factory manager. When you do that, you find that there are ways to grow food of incredible quality, beauty, and healthfulness, while nature goes about getting what she needs. And that's really the challenge of good farming, figuring out a non-zero sum way.

Most of our farming is like mining: we extract from the earth, we extract nutrients from the soil, we diminish the land the longer we farm it. So, is there a way we can get what we want from nature and leave nature not just undiminished but actually improved?

The garden shows that yes, that's possible. You have to know a lot; you have to know about ecology, entomology, soil science, but we have models. I've been on farms that are doing that right now. So, that's really the challenge--to bring the wisdom of the gardener to these larger arenas like the farm.

Harry Kreisler is the author of Political Awakenings: Conversations With History (The New Press, 2010).

 
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