Michael Pollan On How to Redefine Food


Michael Pollan is the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, named by The New York Times as one of the top-five nonfiction books of 2006. In his book, he explains how our food not only affects our health, but has far-reaching political, economic, and environmental implications. Michael Pollan is the director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley and contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine. Check out his more-recently released book, In Defense of Food.

1. In an ‘open letter’ to the new president that was published in The New York Times, you wrote your own advice on food policy. Do you think anyone in the Obama administration read it?

I’ve been gratified to see the ideas have taken flight and been embraced. It has started some conversations in the new administration. Obama himself quoted from the article in an interview he did with Joe Klein in Newsweek. It was actually interesting to see him do that. He immediately got some pushback from Charles Grassley, the Republican senator from Iowa. Obama had talked about how the way we grow food contributes to obesity and climate change and Grassley said he was “blaming the farmers for contributing to obesity and climate change.” So you can see how the conversation is going.

2. Tell me how you see the current state of the economy helping or hurting the movement to reform our food system?

The downturn in the economy has been good and bad. A lot of people end up at McDonalds when the economy is bad. When you’re broke, you buy the cheapest sources of calories you can afford, and unless you’re a good cook and know where to find the cheap ingredients, you’re going back into fast food. But there are some good things too. Gardening is exploding. Revenues of companies that sell to gardeners are going up. The company Ball Jars has seen a big increase in revenue. And it’s likely we’ll see a movement toward home cooking as well.

3. What does the food system have to do with issues that Americans regularly cite as more important to them, such as health care, energy independence, national security and climate change?

Food is the shadow issue over all of them. It’s not the only factor but it’s a very important factor. Agriculture contributes a third of greenhouse gases, more than transportation, and it makes up a fifth of the energy we burn. Four out of the top ten killers are diet-related in this country, and that’s bankrupting the health care system. If you ask people what are the most important issues, they’re more likely to say climate change or health care or energy, and they don’t realize that inside that, lurks this issue.

4. Tell us about the idea to provide grants to towns and cities to build year-round, indoor farmers’ markets.

This would be a powerful idea. Farmers’ markets are taking off. They’ve been a boost to neighborhoods where they set up. They’ve become a hub, but in much of the country they disappear for 6 months, due to the weather. They’re outdoor summer affairs. But in places like Philadelphia and Cincinnati, they have vibrant, heated public markets. If you could have this experience functioning 12 months of the year, you’d encourage farmers to grow in winter and to add meat and cheese, in addition to produce. It’d be especially powerful if you could put these markets in underserved neighborhoods, where it’d provide economic stimulus in the city and stimulate the local agricultural economy. So it’d accomplish a whole lot.

5. What’s the role that food safety regulations play in punishing small farmers?

They’re not set up to punish small farmers, but they have that effect. They’re designed to deal with large businesses and the assumption they’re based on is that the problems are the same. In our attempt to make these regulations scale-neutral, we discriminate against small farms which can’t afford these regulations.

6. What can be done to discourage the consolidation of meat-slaughtering houses?

All ranchers are hurt by that; when you have so few buyers, they dictate prices and you’re shut out if they don’t want to buy from you. When you sell to a monopoly, you don’t get competitive prices. The big houses can process meat much cheaper too, so if you’re a big company you can take a steer to a box of beef for $50 dollars while a small farmer can do only $150 or $200.

7. You have advocated for redefining the word “food”—what’s that all about?

It’s a thought experiment really. If we define the word more tightly, it’d exclude certain things we eat and therefore those foods wouldn’t be subsidized by school lunch or nutrition programs or the tax code. Things like soda come under the label of food, and they should come under label of candy or alcohol, which are taxed. That would discourage the consumption of soda. I mean, why isn’t wine defined as food? Soda is something we want to discourage as food because it’s pure calories without nutrients. It’s a sugar. Soda is less nutritious than red wine.

8. Any ideas for improving the quality of food in low-income schools?

There are projects already to do that. The edible school yard in New Orleans and Berkeley do that. They began this reform, and it’s very important. Schools feed everybody, and they’re a place where children learn about food and eating habits and what food is. They’re learning today to eat fast food and tater tots and soda, and they have five minutes to do so. We could be teaching them in a very different way. We could teach them cooking and gardening skills, and we could develop their palates for something more than salt, fat and sugar. There are a whole lot of solutions.

9. We’ve been wrestling with this issue since the Nixon administration. Any reason to think we might see some change now?

We shouldn’t be overconfident because of powerful opposition to reforming the food industry. Harry Reid says that big agriculture is one of the two most powerful lobbies on Capitol Hill – the other is the insurance industry. But there’s more consciousness than ever before, and we seem to have the ear of the government and that’s encouraging.