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

This excerpt originally appeared in Political Awakenings: Conversations with History, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission. Copyright © 2010 by Harry Kreisler. 

Harry Kreisler: Where were you born and raised?

Michael Pollan: I was born on Long Island in the town of Hempstead and grew up the first five years in Farmingdale, on the South Shore, and then in a town called Woodbury on the North Shore.

HK: And looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

MP: Oh, in many ways, my parents and my grandparents. I got very serious about gardening as a young boy. I had a grandfather who had been in the produce business, and he was a passionate gardener--this is the late '60s--and he was very kind of reactionary, and there was not too much we connected on except plants.

I put in a garden at our house, too, in imitation of his garden, but I didn't call it a garden. I called it a farm stand, and every time I could get six strawberries together in a Dixie cup, I'd sell them to my mother. She was the only customer.

That was one thread. Another was that I have a mom who's a terrific cook and very aware of food. My grandparents still cooked very traditional Jewish food, used duck fat, goose fat, or chicken fat to cook with. I remember stuffed cabbage, big deal special holiday food, and blintzes, and a whole range of Eastern European Jewish cooking. My mother did not cook that way. She fashioned herself more of a cosmopolitan, and she cooked every different ethnic food--sometimes French, Chinese, Italian--it was the '60s, it was that moment, you know, the World's Fair.

You wanted to cook in every different kind of cuisine, and she was very good at all of them. And she doesn't cook the way my grandparents did; I don't cook that way now. So, one of the things that has struck me, writing about food, is how little stability we have in our food culture in this country, that we haven't held on to the immigrant traditions. Certain ethnic groups have more than others, but Jews? I don't think to such a great extent.

HK: It's part of the homogenization that comes with American culture.

MP: Homogenization and demonization in the case of traditional Jewish food. Everybody assumes that's lethal, to cook with all that animal fat, that that was too much meat, too much fat. It's all mythical, but the surgeon general didn't approve of a traditional Jewish diet for many, many years. So, I think that's part of it.

HK: Let's talk about being a writer and being a science writer. What are the skills involved here, do you think?

MP: I would argue that you could know too much about science to be a successful science writer. In other words, I don't have a deep background in science, and I have learned what I need to learn, article by article, book by book. I'm not far ahead of my reader. I don't take anything for granted. The jargon is weird to me, too; it's deeply unfamiliar, so I think I can write about it in a way that isn't so daunting. In one sense, science journalism is no different than any other kind of journalism. You find people who know the story, you interview them, you watch as much as you can, and you tell the story. A lot of journalists are intimidated because science seems so much more mystifying than politics, but it's no more mystifying than politics.

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.

There are $250 billion a year in costs tied to that. So, that's one set of problems.

The other set, of course, is environmental. The food system contributes more greenhouse gases than anything else, any other industry, and that happens at every level. It happens at the field, the way we fertilize crops, in the amount of energy that goes to produce that fertilizer, the way we use machinery on the farms, the way we process the food, the amount of animals, and the methane we release. It's about a third of greenhouse gases [that] come from the food system, and transporting the food all around the world, not to mention the agricultural pollution. Feed lots are the biggest source of pollution we have.

I mean, it's quite an accomplishment that you can go to a restaurant, eat a fast food meal, a big chunk of meat, French fries, large soda, for less than the minimum wage. In the history of humankind, that's quite an achievement, but it's come at a very high cost, and that cost, I think, is what we're getting in touch with right now.

HK: You've suggested that part of the problem is that industrial capitalism and agro-capitalism essentially take a discovery and then find the best way to make the most money as soon as possible ....

MP: With incomplete information.

HK: Right.

MP: Well, genetically modified crops is another great example. We figured out something about genes, and we understand some connection between a gene, a protein, and a trait, and so we figured out a couple crops where we could introduce new genes from other crops. It works, but we overlook a whole lot of complexity, which we just dismiss as static. Why is it that when we introduce this gene, 90 percent of the time you get a freak plant?

Well, we don't really know; it has something to do with gene expression; it has something to do with junk DNA. Look, reductive science is very powerful, but it's always important to understand that you're missing some of the complexity. When you apply that reductive science you can get into trouble because you're mistaking what you know for all there is to know. So, there's a lack of humility involved, and there is a tendency to apply these things long before we know what's working and what's not working.

HK: A key turning point here is the Haber-Bosch process, which you've written about. Talk a little about that because it is a major turning point in seeing synthetic fertilizer as the be-all and end-all of every thing.

MP: The great crisis of 1900 was there's not enough nitrogen to feed everybody. Before then, all the nitrogen that was used in agriculture came from bacteria in the soil fixing it. That was proving to be inadequate; crops were failing. The Haber-Bosch process is basically the fixing of nitrogen, synthetic nitrogen, and it was a great invention; by some estimates 40 percent of the people on earth are here because of that process.

However, it's a great example of a powerful technology that's had a lot of negative effects. Synthetic nitrogen, when it oxidizes in the soil, becomes nitrous oxide, which is a very potent greenhouse gas. Nitrogen fertilizer became so cheap and is used so profligately that it runs down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico, where it has created this dead zone. And over time we have found that using too much synthetic nitrogen ruins the structure of the soil; it becomes too salty and basically nothing will grow. And you have the declining yield curve that we've seen all through the green revolution countries because of too much nitrogen in the fertilizer.

The green revolution, for example, is the application of these technologies to the developing world: hybrid seed, fertilizer, ammonium nitrate fertilizer, and irrigation techniques, and growing in monocultures. There're a lot of very good intentions. There was a serious goal of feeding the world, but over the long term, it's been a disaster.

So, a lot of these technologies are double-edged swords. They're wonderful and powerful, and they're horrible and disastrous.

HK: And what happens, it seems, is a loss of checks and balances, that we don't continue to monitor the process and, as more information comes along, think about what the implications are. Is journalism at fault here, because we have no language to address the problems?

MP: Journalism could play a more aggressive role in assessing these things, but, in the end, journalism reflects the political culture of a country. One of the reasons we didn't have a debate about genetically modified crops before we introduced them in this country is because both the Republicans and the Democrats supported Monsanto and GMO technology, and when both political parties are on the same side, there's no space for journalists to operate.

When you're introducing technologies, you need a public discussion, and you need to think through what are the benefits and what are the risks. And that must be decided publicly, not privately.

I think a lot of our problem is that we assume all technologies are innocent until proven guilty, in this country especially. We're technological utopians, and we think you're a party pooper if you raise questions about genetically modified crops. There's a lot of money and potential in it, a lot of interesting intellectual property for a lot of people, and you're a Luddite if you raise any kinds of questions. And then forty, fifty years later we deal with the possible impacts. It's not to say that synthetic fertilizer was something we should not have done, but had we applied more of a precautionary science to it, we might have anticipated some of the problems and been able to mitigate them before they got too serious. So, I think it's a society problem.

HK: You've written about 'nutritionism' as a kind of ideology that purports to be a science--tell us more about that.

MP: We've adopted the reductive language of nutrition from the scientists: we all talk about saturated fats, high fructose corn syrup. It's fascinating to listen to Americans talk about food today. They sound like a bunch of amateur scientists. They don't talk about foods; they talk about nutrients. It's bizarre when you think about it, and it's been a fascinating phenomenon to watch.

"Nutritionism" is an ideology about food that's become general, and it's got four basic principles. The first is: foods don't matter, nutrients do. A food is essentially the sum of its nutrient parts, and a food, like steak, is a vehicle for carrying protein and saturated fat, because that's what matters.

The next premise is that you can divide the world into good and bad nutrients. There's always an evil nutrient that we're trying to rid from the food supply--trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, or saturated fat--and, on the other side is a blessed nutrient: if you could just get enough of that you'll be fine, you'll live forever. And that, of course, was fiber for a long time; now it's antioxidants or omega-3 fatty acids.

A third principle is if the important thing in food is a nutrient, and nutrients are invisible to normal people, then you need experts to tell you how to eat.

And the fourth premise of nutritionism is that the whole point of eating is health. You're either ruining your health or you're improving your health with every meal. And that's a kind of bizarre view of food. I mean, people eat for a great many other reasons.

So, I think we've lost our sense of food; we've lost our sense of eating as a complex social, as well as biological, phenomenon, involving community and identity and pleasure. All these categories have vanished under this regime of nutritionism. My last book is kind of a manifesto against nutritionism and in favor of returning food to the center of our discussion about food and making health a byproduct of a happy relationship to food, rather than the goal of eating.

HK: And that takes you back to the culture of food that you might have found at your grandparents' table, I think.

MP: You're right. We've essentially displaced culture as a guide in telling us what to eat and put science in its place. We think cultural wisdom about food is just old wives' tales; if your grandmother thought it was true--I mean, what did she know? We have scientists now who can tell us all about antioxidants.

Yet the grandmothers were right about a lot of things. I was on a call-in show in Australia recently and a woman called and said, "My grandmother used to always say, eat your colors." Now that's a very interesting rule. We now know that the important plant chemicals all have a different color, and indeed, eating different colored foods is a guarantee that you are getting the diversity of antioxidants and phytochemicals you need to be healthy.

How did that grandmother know that? This was before we knew what an antioxidant was.

So, my premise in this book is that culture still has a lot to teach us about food, and indeed, it is still wiser about food than science. I have enormous respect for nutrition science, and I hope that someday they'll figure it out, but they haven't yet. Nutrition science is approximately where surgery was in the year 1650.

We would do well to tune down that whole debate about fats and carbs that you read in the media, and not put so much stock in the latest nutritional finding, because it will be contradicted by the next nutritional finding, and to return to the cultural wisdom about how to eat, which guided people very well for a very long time.

HK: You write about creating your own garden, which is a source for you not only of the subjects of interest but also of the values that drive your perception of the world. In that discussion, you also make a distinction between a gardener and a naturalist. Talk a little about that, because you seem to be suggesting that to see things whole, you have to be whole yourself, and gardening is a way to get there.

MP: I think that's right. Look, a lot of my work grows out of my experience in the garden. My first book, called Second Nature: A Gardener's Education, was really an attempt to use what I was doing and experiencing in the garden as a place to explore our relationship to the natural world.

Traditionally in America, if you wanted to explore your relationship to nature you'd go to the wilderness, you'd do the Thoreau thing, the Emerson thing, the Melville thing. You have your confrontation with wild nature, and that's essential and authentic and a beautiful discussion, and it's given us things like the wilderness park, an American cultural invention, the idea of preserving a wild place that for most of history was regarded as wastelands and ugly landscapes. We learned how to appreciate them, and we've elevated them, and we've saved them.

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.


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