Which is better: Organic or locally-grown food? Rice milk or dairy? Tofu or grass-fed beef? Michael Pollan’s not telling.
The author of the New York-Times’ best selling book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Pollan is a luminary within an impressive group of writers who examine America’s food industry to find out exactly how our food gets to our plates.
Pollan’s ground-breaking work has profoundly impacted the lives and habits of eaters across the country (mine included), and even inspired beautiful artwork. But despite his great influence, Pollan strongly believes that when it comes to figuring out, “What’s for dinner?” the right answer is ultimately up to each individual consumer.
I spoke with Pollan about the power of making food choices, truly valuing our food, and the importance of holidays, like Pesach, to connect us to the earth, and to each other. Click on “Read More” for the interview.
LK: With the amazing success of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and many of your articles for the New York Times Magazine, you’ve become regarded as a leading figure on food ethics. What does it feel like to go from being a journalist to one of the spokespersons of the food movement?
MP: It’s a little bit uncomfortable actually. I’m much more comfortable in the role of a journalist. The problem is, when you’re part of a movement, you lose your ability to criticize the movement. So I’m trying very hard to preserve my role as a journalist, and I’m not advocating a specific set of policies. I am advocating a way of generally approaching food choices and how to think about them. But in terms of having a well-developed policy for the Farm Bill or telling people exactly what they should buy or where to shop, I’m not doing that.
I also think people should figure this out for themselves. What we can do as journalists is give you the information that you need. And that’s really where I focus my energies. I say, “This is what happens when you buy local – if you like those things then it’s obvious that’s how you should shop.” Ditto, “This is what happens when you buy your food at Mc Donald’s.” It’s up to the reader though, to draw the conclusions about their own behavior.
LK: That reminds me of something that came up at a recent Food, Ethics, and the Environment Conference at Princeton. I think that at the conference you used the term “value pluralism” when it comes to food and eating. Could you explain a little bit more about what that means?
MP: I don’t think I used that term, though that would be a fair description for the ideas. Basically, there are values at work in your food choices, but depending on what values you hold, you will approach those questions very differently. If your concern is pesticides in the environment, the logical decision is to buy organic, whether that organic is coming from near your home, across the country, or across the world.
If your concern is preserving farmers in the community, then you might not like organic because it benefits farmers in California or China. So if you’re concerned about farmers in your own community, or urban sprawl, or land conservation, then you might think about local.
And then there’s the issue about welfare of animals. Some of the smallest most sustainable farms in terms of animal welfare are not organic.
They’re all good values, and I don’t know how to decide which is more important. But if you basically know where your food comes from and how it was grown, then you automatically put your values into your decisions. But we won’t all come out at the same place.
LK: And that’s OK.
MP: I think its fine because on balance prioritizing any values besides a good bargain is going to lead to a better food system, whether it’s organic, local, or biodynamic. By being conscious about what you’re doing, and deciding you are going to let your consumer decisions be affected by your values, your way ahead of the game.
LK: As someone who runs a CSA program [Tuv Ha’Aretz], I always get the question, “Well is it worth my money?” I usually point to the example from your book about farmer, Joel Salatin, who has customers drive up to his farm in BMWs and then complain that his eggs cost $3.50/dozen.
MP: That is such a powerful example. When [Salatin] mentioned that to me it sort of clicked that we do understand value in all these different areas. We don’t begrudge BMW what they’re charging because we think it’s worth it. For some reason though, with eggs we do.
LK: What has been one of the more surprising things you’ve noticed taking The Omnivore’s Dilemma around the country.
MP: I guess what’s surprised me has been people’s receptivity to these issues. There are a lot of other problems in the world these days and people seem to want to talk about food. I was pleasantly surprised by that, though somewhat baffled given that we have a war going on in Iraq and climate change and so many other issues that are in some ways more momentous. I interpret it that we can do something about food here and now in a way that we can’t about other issues. We can make changes in our lives that will have a profound effect – and we can see it. We’ve seen the organic market grow by consumers making choices, and we’ve seen the market for pasture animal protein grow. I think that’s very empowering for people at a time when they generally feel kind of powerless.
In this political moment it’s no accident that people are looking to food, because in a way it’s our most primal political power, meaning “I will take this in my body, or not.”
LK: I recently read the book Deconstructing the Twinkie, which, like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, takes a look inside America’s food system. One chapter talked about a factory in New Jersey that has the sole purpose of cracking 7 million eggs every day. Realizing the scale of the industrial food system left me slightly discouraged. Do you think that alternative agriculture, and people “voting with their pocketbooks” ultimately has the power to make a big difference?
MP: Yes, I do think it has the power to make a big difference. You’re right, we’re only talking about 1% of the food supply, but it doesn’t have to topple the industrial food supply to be valuable. I don’t think the industrial food system will go away. I think there will be a large powerful alternative, and new hybrid food systems along the way that will be neither organic nor conventional, but somewhere in the middle. It will be large enough to protect huge amounts of land and animals in the country, and I think it will make a very large difference.
People said the same thing about organic when it was just starting. They said, “This is sentimental, and reactionary, and it’s not going to go anywhere,” and now it’s the fastest growing sector of the food economy, and its 14 billion dollars a year in this country alone. So the numbers are still small, but I think we’re about to see organic take off now that it’s in Wal Mart. Will we replace the conventional food supply with organic? No, there will always be people who don’t care, or can’t afford to care, but even that will be modified in some ways by the alternatives.
LK: What do you think about the longevity of Americans’ current interest in food? Do you think it’s here to stay for a while?
MP: Well you never know – the culture moves so quickly now, and loses interest in things. But I think it will be around for a while because health is very high in our concerns these days, and that is intimately tied to our food. Four out of 10 of the leading killers in the country are related to diet – obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. And you have an aging population that’s more concerned about health. Food is also closely intertwined with other very important issues such as climate change. [Climate change] we can assume will be at the forefront of our attention for the rest of our lives because of the changes that have been set in motion. And food is a big part of that problem. People focus on transportation, or heating, or electricity generation as part of our carbon footprint, but food is just as important. 18% of fossil fuels burned in this country are used to feed ourselves the way we do – that’s the same as personal transportation. So, to the extent that we will be reorienting our economy and society to deal with climate change, we will be dealing with food as well.
I also think that concern for animals is just beginning in this country, and will get much bigger as people learn about the animals they eat are raised. So I think it will be here for a while.
LK: And how about in your own work, are you working on any food-related projects right now?
MP: I’m writing a book that will be food related. It grows out of this piece I did in the Times a couple of weeks ago about nutrition and health and how people should think about these choices. It’s an answer to a lot of the questions people had after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I spent a year studying nutritional science and trying to figure out, “What do we really know about the link between what we eat and our health? And how should we eat, given what we know?”
LK: Since this interview is part of Jcarrot’s Passover launch, I wanted to end by switching gears and hearing a bit about your own memories of Passover seders. Do you have any fond memories from celebrating seders?
MP: Oh sure, I have memories as recently as last year and going back long before that. I have a family that practices the big Jewish rituals, and doesn’t practice every week. My wife’s side of the family does, and we participate with them from time to time – Sabbath dinner and things like that.
But we do a seder with my family usually. I mention the seder in passing at the end of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I think ceremonies around food are very important and I’ve always loved Passover and Thanksgiving because they revolve around ceremonial meals where we rehearse our key relationships, both to one another and to nature. The seder is the older and more profound one – but Thanksgiving is important to our identities as Americans.
I think there’s not enough ceremony in our eating, so any time we are forced to slow down and rehearse the relationships, and symbolism and the meaning of the food we eat, and the connections that they enact, is enormously useful. We do so much thoughtless eating and the seder is an opportunity for very conscious eating. Everything on your plate has a very specific meaning – it ties to history and ties to nature.
LK: An alternate name for Passover is Chag Ha’Aviv, the Spring holiday – so it’s also very specifically about celebrating the renewed bounty of spring.
MP: Yes, that too. That’s what food is – it’s communion on two levels, social communion with our families, and communion with nature. And we need to be reminded of that over a meal, but we usually aren’t. We get a couple of occasions over the course of a year where we do get reminded, and to me they’re the most joyous holidays we have.
Michael Pollan is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and author of several food-related books in addition to The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, including The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, and Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. He is also the Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley.