your Byzantine efforts at defending an indefensible position are boring.
The the important features of eating local organic produce are:
1) increased nutrients in the produce when consumed locally
2) a marked decrease in pesticides, pesticide residues, and other
industrial chemicals in the food
3) cleaner water
4) reduced use of petroleum for shipping (typically 2,400 mi. to your
table), cleaner air, and less chance of contamination in transit
5) reduce and eliminate the hazards of GMOs (unknown effects of unique
proteins that they produce, encouragement of increased pesticide use,
(points 1 thru 5 lead to better health and lower medical costs, i.e.
another example of business profiting from a problem that they created
and deferring the cost to the public)
6) better flavor of food
7) reduced erosion of top soil, and the possibility of adding to it
and restoring loss habitat
8) reduce our dependence on petroleum
Food processors like Archer Daniels Midland, don't farm. They along with
their co-conspirators, screw farmers and consumers alike leading to
fewer family farms (thus reducing food security), and over-fed and
If you have any desire to know more, keep reading.
Food Travels Far to Reach Your Table
By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC, November 21, 2002 (ENS) - As families travel across the
United States next week to gather for the Thanksgiving holiday, many
will sit down to eat food that has traveled even farther - between 1,500
and 2,500 miles (2,500 and 4,000 kilometers) from farm to table. A new
study by the Worldwatch Institute details the lengthy journeys that much
of the nation's food supply now takes, finding a growing separation
between the sources and destinations of American food.
Supermarket produce may have traveled thousands of miles to reach your
local store. (Photo by Ken Hammond. All photos courtesy U.S. Department
The distance that food travels has grown by as much as 25 percent,
according to the report by the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental
and social policy research institute based in Washington DC. The
nation's reliance on a complex network of food shipments leaves the
United States vulnerable to supply disruptions, the group argues.
"The farther we ship food, the more vulnerable our food system becomes,"
said Worldwatch research associate Brian Halweil, author of "Home Grown:
The Case for Local Food in a Global Market."
"Many major cities in the U.S. have a limited supply of food on hand,"
Halweil added. "That makes those cities highly vulnerable to anything
that suddenly restricts transportation, such as oil shortages or acts of
This vulnerability is not limited to the United States. The tonnage of
food shipped between countries has grown fourfold over the last four
decades, while the world's population has doubled. In the United
Kingdom, for example, food travels 50 percent farther than it did two
This reliance on long distance food damages rural economies, as farmers
and small food businesses become the most marginal link in the sprawling
food chain, says the Worldwatch report. Long distance travel also
creates numerous opportunities along the way for food contamination, and
requires the use of artificial additives and preservatives to keep food
Shipping fish and other products from around the world requires the
burning of fossil fuels, contributing to global warming. (USDA Photo by
Food transportation also contributes to global warming, because of the
huge quantities of fuel used for transportation. A typical meal bought
from a conventional supermarket chain - including some meat, grains,
fruit and vegetables - consumes four to 17 times more petroleum for
transport than the same meal using local ingredients.
"We are spending far more energy to get food to the table than the
energy we get from eating the food. A head of lettuce grown in the
Salinas Valley of California and shipped nearly 3,000 miles to
Washington, D.C., requires about 36 times as much fossil fuel energy in
transport as it provides in food energy when it arrives," Halweil said.
While most economists believe that long distance food trade is efficient
because communities and nations can buy their food from the lowest cost
provider, studies from North America, Asia, and Africa show that farm
communities reap little benefit from their crops, and often suffer as a
result of freer trade in agricultural goods.
"The economic benefits of food trade are a myth," said Halweil. "The big
winners are agribusiness monopolies that ship, trade, and process food.
Agricultural policies, including the new [Bush administration backed]
farm bill, tend to favor factory farms, giant supermarkets, and long
distance trade, and cheap, subsidized fossil fuels encourage long
distance shipping. The big losers are the world's poor."
The Crescent City Farmer's Market meets in New Orleans, Louisiana every
Saturday morning, offering baked goods, fresh fruits and vegetables,
herbs and canned goods. (USDA Photo by Bill Tarpenning)
Farmers producing for export often go hungry as they sacrifice the use
of their land to feed foreign mouths, Halweil writes. Meanwhile, poor
urban dwellers in both developed and developing nations find themselves
living in neighborhoods without supermarkets, green grocers, or healthy
"Of course, a certain amount of food trade is natural and beneficial.
But money spent on locally produced foods stays in the community longer,
creating jobs, supporting farmers, and preserving local cuisines and
crop varieties against the steamroller of culinary imperialism," Halweil
added. "And developing nations that emphasize greater food self reliance
can retain precious foreign exchange and avoid the instability of
Halweil points to a vigorous, emerging local food movement that is
challenging both the wisdom and practice of long distance food shipping.
"Massive meat recalls, the advent of genetically engineered food, and
other food safety crises have built interest in local food," he said.
"Rebuilding local food economies is the first genuine profit making
opportunity in farm country in years."
Communities that seek to meet their food needs locally will reap
benefits including a more diverse variety of regional crops, cheaper
food that avoids added costs from intermediate handlers and shippers,
and a boon for the local economy as money spent on food goes to local
growers and merchants. Of course, many consumers will choose local
produce just for the flavor.
Unlike supermarket tomatoes, which are often shipped green and ripened
artificially, these locally grown tomatoes ripened on the vine. (USDA
Photo by Bill Tarpenning)
"Locally grown food served fresh and in season has a definite taste
advantage," Halweil said. "It's harvested at the peak of ripeness and
doesn't have to be fumigated, refrigerated, or packaged for long
distance hauling and long shelf life."
In the United States, for example, more than half of all tomatoes are
harvested and shipped green, and then artificially ripened upon arrival
at their final destination.
Consumers now have a growing variety of local food providers to choose
from. The number of registered farmers' markets in the United States has
jumped from 300 in the mid-1970s and 1,755 in 1994 to more than 3,100
today. About three million people now visit these markets each week,
spending more than $1 billion each year.
Innovative restaurants, school cafeterias, caterers, hospitals, and even
supermarkets are beginning to offer fresh, seasonal foods from local
farmers and food businesses.
Consumers can promote local growers by choosing to buy their produce and
baked goods from farmers markets. (USDA Photo by Bill Tarpenning)
North America now boasts more than a dozen local food policy councils,
which track changes in the local food system, lobby for farmland
protection, point citizens towards local food options, and help create
incentives for local food businesses.
But the most powerful force behind the growing local food market is the
consumer. The Worldwatch report offers several suggestions for how
consumers can help to promote local food systems, including:
* Learn what foods are in season in your area and try to build your
diet around them.
Shop at a local farmers' market, or link up with your neighbors
and friends to start a subscription service featuring seasonal foods
from local growers
* Ask the manager or chef of your favorite restaurant how much of
the food on the menu is locally grown, and then encourage him or her to
buy food locally.
Take a trip to a local farm to learn what it produces.
* Host a harvest party at your home or in your community that
features locally available and in season foods.
Produce a local food directory that lists all the local food
sources in your area
* Buy extra quantities of your favorite fruit or vegetable when it
is in season and experiment with drying, canning, jamming, or otherwise
preserving it for a later date.
Plant a garden and grow as much of your own food as possible.
* Speak to your local politician about forming a local food policy
For more information on the report, "Home Grown: The Case for Local Food
in a Global Market," visit the Worldwatch Institute at:
February 13, 2008
In Defense of Food: Author, Journalist Michael Pollan on Nutrition, Food
Science and the American Diet
Acclaimed author and journalist Michael Pollan argues that what most
Americans are consuming today is not food but ³edible food-like
substances.² His previous book, The Omnivore¹s Dilemma: A Natural
History of Four Meals, was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by
the New York Times and the Washington Post. His latest book, just
published, is called In Defense of Food: An Eater¹s Manifesto.
Michael Pollan, Professor of science and environmental journalism at UC
Berkeley. His previous book, The Omnivore¹s Dilemma: A Natural History
of Four Meals, was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by the New
York Times and the Washington Post. His latest book, just published, is
In Defense of Food: An Eater¹s Manifesto.
AMY GOODMAN: ³You are what to eat.² Or so the saying goes. In American
culture, healthy food is a national preoccupation. But then why are
Americans becoming less healthy and more overweight?
Acclaimed author and journalist Michael Pollan argues that what most
Americans are consuming today is not food, but edible food-like
substances. Michael Pollan is a professor of science and environmental
journalism at University of California, Berkeley. His previous book, The
Omnivore¹s Dilemma, was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by the
New York Times and Washington Post. His latest book is called In Defense
of Food: An Eater¹s Manifesto.
Michael Pollan recently joined me here in the firehouse studio for a
wide-ranging conversation about nutrition, food science and the current
American diet. I began by asking him why he feels he has to defend food.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Food¹s under attack from two quarters. It¹s under
attack from the food industry, which is taking, you know, perfectly good
whole foods and tricking them up into highly processed edible food-like
substances, and from nutritional science, which has over the years
convinced us that we shouldn¹t be paying attention to food, it¹s really
the nutrients that matter. And they¹re trying to replace foods with
antioxidants, you know, cholesterol, saturated fat, omega-3s, and that
whole way of looking at food as a collection of nutrients, I think, is
AMY GOODMAN: Shouldn¹t people be concerned, for example, about
MICHAEL POLLAN: No. Cholesterol in the diet is actually only very
mildly related to cholesterol in the blood. It was a ‹ that was a
scientific error, basically. We were sold a bill of goods that we should
really worry about the cholesterol in our food, basically because
cholesterol is one of the few things we could measure that was linked to
heart disease, so there was this kind of obsessive focus on cholesterol.
But, you know, the egg has been rehabilitated. You know, the egg is very
high in cholesterol, and now we¹re told it¹s actually a perfectly good,
healthy food. So there¹s only a very tangential relationship between the
cholesterol you eat and the cholesterol levels in your blood.
AMY GOODMAN: How is it that the food we eat now, it takes time to
read the ingredients?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: You actually have to stop and spend time and perhaps
put on glasses or figure out how to pronounce words you have never heard
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, it¹s a literary scientific experience now
going shopping in the supermarket, because basically the food has gotten
more complex. It¹s‹for the food industry‹see, to understand the
economics of the food industry, you can¹t really make money selling
things like, oh, oatmeal, you know, plain rolled oats. And if you go to
the store, you can buy a pound of oats, organic oats, for seventy-nine
cents. There¹s no money in that, because it doesn¹t have any brand
identification. It¹s a commodity, and the prices of commodity are
constantly falling over time.
So you make money by processing it, adding value to it. So you
take those oats, and you turn them into Cheerios, and then you can
charge four bucks for that seventy-nine cents‹and actually even less
than that, a few pennies of oats. And then after a few years, Cheerios
become a commodity. You know, everyone¹s ripping off your little
circles. And so, you have to move to the next thing, which are like
cereal bars. And now there¹s cereal straws, you know, that your kids are
supposed to suck milk through, and then they eat the straw. It¹s made
out of the cereal material. It¹s extruded.
So, you see, every level of further complication gives you some
intellectual property, a product no one else has, and the ability to
charge a whole lot more for these very cheap raw ingredients. And as you
make the food more complicated, you need all these chemicals to make it
last, to make it taste good, to make‹and because, you know, food really
isn¹t designed to last a year on the shelf in a supermarket. And so, it
takes a lot of chemistry to make that happen.
AMY GOODMAN: I was a whole grain baker in Maine, and I would
consider the coup to be to get our whole grain organic breads in the
schools of Maine for the kids, but we just couldn¹t compete with Wonder
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: ‹which could stay on the shelf‹I don¹t know if it was
MICHAEL POLLAN: That¹s amazing.
AMY GOODMAN: Ours, after a few days, of course, would get moldy,
because it was alive.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Right. And, in fact, one of my tips is, don¹t eat
any food that¹s incapable of rotting. If the food can¹t rot eventually,
there¹s something wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: What is nutritionism?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Nutritionism is the prevailing ideology in the
whole world of food. And it¹s not a science. It is an ideology. And like
most ideologies, it is a set of assumptions about how the world works
that we¹re totally unaware of. And nutritionism, there¹s a few
fundamental tenets to it. One is that food is a collection of nutrients,
that basically the sum of‹you know, food is the sum of the nutrients it
contains. The other is that since the nutrient is the key unit and, as
ordinary people, we can¹t see or taste or feel nutrients, we need
experts to help us design our foods and tell us how to eat.
Another assumption of nutritionism is that you can measure these
nutrients and you know what they¹re doing, that we know what cholesterol
is and what it does in our body or what an antioxidant is. And that¹s a
And the last premise of nutritionism is that the whole point of
eating is to advance your physical health and that that¹s what we go to
the store for, that¹s what we¹re buying. And that¹s also a very dubious
idea. If you go around the world, people eat for a great many reasons
besides, you know, the medicinal reason. I mean, they eat for pleasure,
they eat for community and family and identity and all these things. But
we¹ve put that aside with this obsession with nutrition.
And I basically think it¹s a pernicious ideology. I mean, I don¹t
think it¹s really helping us. If there was a trade-off, if looking at
food this way made us so much healthier, great. But in fact, since we¹ve
been looking at food this way, our health has gotten worse and worse.
AMY GOODMAN: Let¹s talk about the diseases of Western civilization.
MICHAEL POLLAN: The Western diseases, which‹they were named that
about a hundred years ago by a medical doctor named Denis Burkitt, an
Englishman, who noted that there‹after the Western diet comes to these
countries where he had spent a lot of time in Africa and Asia, a series
of Western diseases followed, very predictably: obesity, diabetes, heart
disease and a specific set of cancers. And he said, well, they must have
this common origin, because we keep seeing this pattern.
And we¹ve known this for a hundred years, that if you eat this
Western diet, which is defined basically as‹I mean, we all know what the
Western diet is, but to reiterate it, it¹s lots of processed food, lots
of refined grain and pure sugar, lots of red meat and processed meats,
very little whole grains, very little fresh fruits and vegetables.
That¹s the Western diet‹it¹s the fast-food diet‹that we know it leads to
those diseases. About 80 percent of heart disease, at least as much Type
II diabetes, 33 to 40 percent cancers all come out of eating that way,
and we know this. And the odd thing is that it doesn¹t seem to
discomfort us that much.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about coming from another culture and coming
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: When you specifically talk about sugar, refined
wheat, what actually happens in the body?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, that¹s where you see it most directly. When
populations that have not been exposed to this kind of food for a long
time‹we¹ve seen it with Pacific Islanders, if you go to Hawaii, we¹ve
seen it with Mexican immigrants coming to America‹these are the people
who have the most trouble with this diet, and they get fat very quickly
and get diabetes very quickly. You know, we hear about this epidemic of
diabetes, but it¹s very much of a class and ethnically based phenomenon,
and Hispanics have much more trouble with it. And the reason or the
hypothesis is that, culturally and physically, they haven¹t been dealing
with a lot of refined grain, whereas in Europe, we¹ve been dealing with
refined grain for a couple hundred years.
AMY GOODMAN: And what does refined wheat do?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, what happens is, when you‹there was a key
invention around the 1860s, which is we developed these steel rollers
and porcelain rollers that could grind wheat and corn and other grains
really fine and eliminate the germ and the bran. And the reason we
wanted to do that was we loved it as white as possible. It would last
longer. The rats had less interest in it, because it had less nutrients
in it. And also you get a kind of a real strong hit of glucose. I mean,
basically it digests much quicker, as soon as it hits the tongue. I
mean, everyone has‹you know, if you¹ve ever tasted Wonder Bread, you
know how sweet it is. The reason it¹s sweet is it¹s so highly refined
that as soon as your saliva hits it, it turns to sugar.
Whole grains have a whole lot of other nutrients. You know, it
once was possible to live by bread alone, because a whole grain loaf of
bread has all sorts of other nutrients. It has omega-3s, it has, you
know, lots of B vitamins. And we remove those when we refine grain. And
it¹s kind of odd and maladaptive that refined grain should be so
prestigious, since it¹s so unhealthy. But we¹ve always liked it, and one
of the reasons is it stores longer.
AMY GOODMAN: We¹re talking to Michael Pollan. His new book is In
Defense of Food: An Eater¹s Manifesto. ³Eat food. Not too much. Mostly
plants.² Talk about the funding of nutrition science.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, nutrition science is very compromised by
industry. Organizations like the American Dietetic Association take
sponsorship from companies who are eager to find‹you know, be able to
make health claims. Not all nutrition science. And there are very large,
important studies that are, you know, published‹that are supported by
the government and are as good as any other medical studies in terms of
their cleanness. But there is a lot of corporate nutrition science
that¹s done for the express purpose of developing health claims. This
science reliably finds health benefits for whatever is being studied.
You take a pomegranate to one of these scientists, and they will tell
you that it will cure cancer and erectile dysfunction. You take, you
know, any kind of food that you want. And now, it¹s not surprising,
because food is good for you, and that all plants have antioxidants. And
so, you know, you¹re bound to find‹
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what an antioxidant is.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, an antioxidant is a chemical compound that
plants produce, really to protect themselves from free radicals of
oxygen that are generated during photosynthesis. They absorb these kind
of mischievous oxygen radicals, molecules, atoms, and disarm them. And
as we age, we produce a lot of these oxygen radicals, and they¹re
implicated in aging and cancer. So antioxidants are a way to kind of
quiet that response, and they have health benefits. They also help you
detoxify your body.
So‹but my point is kind of, you don¹t need to know what an
antioxidant is to have the benefit of an antioxidant. You know, we¹ve
been benefiting from them for thousands of years without really having
to worry what they are. They¹re in whole foods, and it¹s one of the
reasons whole foods are good for you. And there are not that much in
AMY GOODMAN: Isn¹t it odd that the more you put into foods‹so
that¹s processing fruits‹the less expensive is? The simpler you keep it,
getting whole foods in this day and age in this country, it¹s extremely
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah. Well, there are reasons of policy that that
is the case. You¹re absolutely right. Most processed foods are made from
these very cheap raw ingredients. I mean, they¹re basically corn, soy
and wheat. And if you look at all those very-hard-to-pronounce
ingredients on the back of that processed food, those are fractions of
corn, and some petroleum, but a lot of corn, soy and wheat. And the
industry¹s preferred mode of doing business is to take the cheapest raw
materials and create complicated foodstuffs from it.
The reason those raw ingredients are so cheap, though, is because
these are precisely the ones that the government chooses to support, the
subsidies‹you know, the big $26 billion for corn and soy and wheat and
rice. So it¹s no accident that these should be the ones, you know, grown
abundantly and cheap, and that¹s one of the reasons the industry moved
down this path. There was such a surfeit of cheap corn and soy that the
food scientists got to work turning it into‹
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, getting away totally from sugar to corn
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, that¹s right. And we don¹t‹yeah, there¹s
very little sugar in our processed food. It¹s all high-fructose corn
syrup, which, in effect, the government is subsidizing.
AMY GOODMAN: Cottonseed oil, is it regulated by the FDA? Is it
considered a food, even though it¹s in so many of the processed foods we
MICHAEL POLLAN: Is it considered a food? Yeah, I think it¹s
AMY GOODMAN: I was wondering, because‹to do with the pesticide
that is in it‹
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: ‹that if it¹s considered‹if it¹s done for cotton, it
doesn¹t matter how much pesticide there is.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: But if it¹s for food, it does matter. And it¹s in so
much to keep it right, stable for so long on the shelf.
MICHAEL POLLAN: That¹s right. That¹s right. And it¹s a food I
would avoid. I mean, you know, humans have not been eating cotton for
most of their history. They¹ve been wearing it. And now we¹re eating it.
And you¹re right, it receives an enormous amount of pesticide as a crop.
How many residues are in the oil? I don¹t really know the answer, but it
has been approved by the FDA as a foodstuff. And‹but it¹s one of these
novel oils that I¹m inclined to stay away with. I mean, my basic
philosophy of eating is, you know, if your great-grandmother wasn¹t
familiar with it, you probably want to stay away from it.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Pollan is our guest. Talk about‹well, you
started with a New York Times piece called ³Unhappy Meals,² and in
it‹and you expand on this in In Defense of Food‹you talk about the
McGovern report, 1977, what, thirty years ago.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, that¹s really, I think, one of the red
letter days in the rise of nutritionism as a way of thinking about food.
It was a very interesting moment. McGovern convened this set of hearings
to look at the American diet, and there was a great deal of concern
about heart disease at the time. We had‹we were having‹you know, after a
falloff during the war in heart disease, there was a big spike in the
¹50s and ¹60s, and scientists were busy trying to figure out what was
going on and very worried about it. McGovern convened these hearings,
took a lot of testimony, and then came out with a set of guidelines. And
he said‹he implicated red meat, basically, in this problem. And he said
we¹re getting‹we¹re eating too much red meat, and the advice of the
government became‹the official advice‹eat less red meat. And he said as
much. Now, that was a very controversial message. The meat industry, in
fact the whole food industry, went crazy, and they came down on him like
a ton of bricks. You can¹t tell people to eat less of anything.
AMY GOODMAN: As Oprah learned when she said she won¹t eat
MICHAEL POLLAN: Exactly. This is just a taboo topic in America. So
McGovern had to beat this hasty retreat, and he rewrote the guidelines
to say, choose meats that will lessen your saturated fat intake,
something nobody understood at all and was much to the‹and that was
acceptable. But you see the transition. It¹s very interesting. We¹ve
been talking about whole food‹eat less red meat, which probably was good
advice‹to this very complicated construct‹eat meats that have less of
this nutrient. It¹s still an affirmative message‹eat more, which is fine
with industry, just eat a little differently. And suddenly, the focus
was on saturated fat, as if we knew that that was the nutrient in the
red meat that was the problem. And in fact, it may not be. I mean, there
are other things going on in red meat, we¹re learning, that may be the
AMY GOODMAN: Like?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, some people think it¹s the protein in red
meat. Some people think it¹s the nitrosomines, these various compounds
that are produced when you cook red meat. We see a correlation between
high red meat consumption and higher rates of cancer and heart disease.
But, again, we don¹t know exactly what the cause is, but it may not be
AMY GOODMAN: And then the political economy of, for example,
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, that‹because of that‹I mean, that¹s why
McGovern lost in 1980. I mean, the beef lobby went after him, and they
tossed him out. And so‹but from then on, anyone who would pronounce on
the American diet understood you had to speak in this very obscure
language of nutrients. You could talk about saturated fat, you could
talk about antioxidants, but you cannot talk about whole foods. So that
is the kind of official language in which we discuss nutrition.
Conveniently, it¹s very confusing to the average consumer.
Conveniently to the industry, they love talk about nutrients, because
they can always‹with processed foods, unlike whole foods, you can
redesign it. You can just reduce the saturated fat, you know, up the
antioxidants. You can jigger it in a way you can¹t change broccoli. You
know, broccoli is going to be broccoli. But a processed food can always
have more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff. So the industry
loves nutritionism for that reason.
AMY GOODMAN: So, for people who don¹t have much money, how do they
eat? I mean, when you¹re talking about whole foods, they have to be
prepared, and if you don¹t have much time, as well, processed foods are
cheaper and they¹re faster.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, processed foods‹you know, fast food seems
cheap. I mean, if you have the time and the inclination to cook, you can
eat more cheaply. But you do‹as you say, you do need the time, and you
do need the skills to cook. There is no way around the fact that given
the way our food policies are set up, such that whole foods are
expensive and getting more expensive and processed foods tend to be
cheaper‹I mean, if you go into the supermarket, the cheapest calories
are added fat and added sugar from processed food, and the more
expensive calories are over in the produce section. And we have to
change policy in order to adjust that.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you do that?
MICHAEL POLLAN: You need a farm bill that basically evens the
playing field and is not driving down the price of high-fructose corn
syrup, so that, you know, real fruit juice can compete with it. You need
a farm bill that makes carrots competitive with Wonder Bread. And we
don¹t have that, and we didn¹t get it this time around.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel like any candidates are addressing this
MICHAEL POLLAN: No, because they all pass through Iowa, and they
all bow down before conventional agricultural policy. In office, I think
that, you know, there have been‹Hillary Clinton has had some very
positive food policies, basically because she has this big farm
constituency upstate, and she¹s very interested in school lunch and
farm-to-school programs and things like that. John Edwards has said some
progressive things about feedlot agriculture and what¹s wrong with that,
while he was in Iowa.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain feedlots.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Feedlots are where we grow our meat, in these huge
factory farms that have become really the scourge of landscapes in
places like Iowa and Missouri, I mean these giant pig confinement
operations that basically collect manure in huge lagoons that leak when
it rains and smell for miles around. I mean, they¹re just, you know,
miserable places. And they¹re becoming a political issue in the Midwest.
And I think they will become a political issue nationally, because
people are very concerned about the status of the animals in these
places. My worry is, though, that when we start regulating these
feedlots, they¹ll move to Mexico.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Pollan¹s latest book is In Defense of Food: An
Eater¹s Manifesto. We¹ll come back to him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to our conversation with award-winning author and
journalist Michael Pollan. His latest book is called In Defense of Food:
An Eater¹s Manifesto. I asked him about his earlier book, the acclaimed
bestseller The Omnivore¹s Dilemma.
MICHAEL POLLAN: The Omnivore¹s Dilemma is, if you¹re a creature
like us that can eat almost anything‹I mean, unlike cows that only eat
grass or koala bears that only eat eucalyptus leaves‹we can eat a great
many different things, and meat and vegetables, but it¹s complicated. We
don¹t have instincts to tell us exactly what to eat, so we have‹we need
a lot of other cognitive equipment to navigate what is a very
treacherous food landscape, because there‹as there was in the jungle and
in nature, there are poisons out there that could kill us. So we had to
learn what was safe and what wasn¹t, and we had this thing called
culture that told us, like that mushroom there, somebody ate it last
week and they died, so let¹s call it the ³death cap,² and that way we¹ll
remember that that¹s one to stay away from. And, you know, so culture is
how we navigate this.
We are once again in a treacherous food landscape, when there are
many things in the supermarket that are not good for you. How do we
learn now to navigate that landscape? And that¹s what this book was an
effort to do, was come up with some rules of thumb. And so, you know, I
say eat food, which sounds really simple, but of course there¹s a lot of
edible food-like substances in the supermarket that aren¹t really food.
So how do you tell them apart?
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about shopping the periphery of the
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah. Well, that was one rule that I found really
helpful. And if you look at the layout of the average supermarket, the
fresh whole foods are always on the edge. So you get produce and meat
and fish and dairy products. And those are the foods that, you know,
your grandmother would recognize as foods. They haven¹t changed that
much. All the processed foods, the really bad stuff that is going to get
you in trouble with all the refined grain and the additives and the
high-fructose corn syrup, those are all in the middle. And so, if you
stay out of the middle and get most of your food on the edges, you¹re
going to do a lot better.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the localvore movement?
MICHAEL POLLAN: The localvore movement is a real new emphasis on
eating locally, eating food from what¹s called your foodshed. It¹s a
metaphor based on a watershed. You know, a certain‹draw a circle of a
hundred miles around your community and try to eat everything from
there. It¹s an interesting movement, and I¹m very supportive of local
food. I think that it¹s verging on the ridiculous right now‹I mean, you
know, because, frankly, there¹s no wheat produced in a hundred miles of
New York. You know, do you want to give up bread? I¹m not willing to
give up bread. So people get a little extremist about it.
But the basic idea of when products are available locally, eating
them and eating food in season, is a very powerful and important idea.
It supports a great many values. The fact is that food that¹s produced
locally is going to be fresher. It¹s going to be more nutritious because
it¹s fresher. You¹re going to support the farmers in your community.
You¹re going to check sprawl. I mean, you¹ll keep that farmland in
business. You are going to keep basically, you know, some autonomy in
our food system. I mean, make no mistake: the basic trend of food in
this country is to globalize it, and there will come a day when America
doesn¹t produce its own food. In California, the Central Valley is
losing, you know, hundreds of acres of farmland every day, and the
projections there are that we will no longer produce produce in
California by the end of the century. I don¹t want to live in that
world. I‹you know, we lost control over our energy destiny, and we don¹t
want to lose control over our food destiny.
AMY GOODMAN: What are the environmental effects of transporting
food across the globe?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, the biggest is energy. I mean, it¹s a‹people
don¹t really think about food in terms of climate change, but in fact
the food system contributes about a fifth of greenhouse gases. It is as
important as the transportation sector, in terms of contributing to
greenhouse gas. It¹s a very energy-intensive situation. What we did with
the industrialization of food, essentially, is take food off of a solar
system‹it was basically based on photosynthesis and the sun‹and put it
on a fossil fuel system. We learned how to grow food with lots of
synthetic fertilizers made from natural gas, pesticides made from
petroleum, and then started moving it around the world. So now we take
about ten calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food energy.
Very unsustainable system.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about the argument of efficiency, and if you
want to feed the planet? You have sugar growing in Cuba. You have grapes
and meat in Argentina and Uruguay and Chile.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, that¹s the argument. There are a lot of
problems with it. First, it does depend on cheap fossil fuel, and we are
not going to have cheap fossil fuel, so that if Uruguay loses its
ability to produce anything else, they¹re going to be hungry. It¹s very
important that you have local self-sufficiency in food‹some
self-sufficiency, not complete‹before you start exporting. If you put
all your eggs in the basket of, say, coffee, when the international
market shifts, as it inevitably does, because it will always go to
whatever country is willing to produce it a little more cheaply, you
will decimate your industry. And‹
AMY GOODMAN: What if you only consume coffee and nothing else?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Oh, you have all sorts of problems we don¹t even
want to get into. You cannot live on coffee alone. It¹s not like bread.
So globalizing food has certain advantages of efficiency, but it
also has very high risks. And, you know, efficiency is an important
value, but resilience is even more important, and we know this from
biology, that the resilience of natural systems and economic systems is
something we have to focus more on. This globalized food system is very
brittle. When you have a breakdown anywhere, when the prices of fuel
escalates, people lose the ability to feed themselves.
What¹s happening with Mexico and NAFTA and corn, you know, they
opened their borders to our corn, and it put one-and-a-half million
farmers there out of business. They all came to the cities, where you
would think, OK, now the price of tortillas should go down, but it
didn¹t go down, even with the cheap corn, because there was an oligopoly
controlling tortillas. Tortilla prices didn¹t go down. And so, a lot of
these former Mexican farmers became serfs on California farms, and this
was the effect of dumping lots of cheap corn.
AMY GOODMAN: And now they¹re the target‹
MICHAEL POLLAN: Now the price
AMY GOODMAN: ‹of main politicians all over the country to‹³We send
our food down, and you send immigrants back who are coming here.²
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, ³And we don¹t want your immigrants.² And,
you know, we don¹t understand that these things are connected, that we
make a decision in Washington and that this is what leads to an
immigration problem. And‹but the dumping of our corn on Mexico is a big
part of the immigration problem.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you know anything about cloned livestock? The Wall
Street Journal says cloned livestock are poised to receive FDA clearance.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, well, the FDA has been looking at this.
There are techniques now to clone livestock, usually for breeding
purposes. If you have a really champion bull, the semen of that bull is
very valuable. So, gee, if you could turn that bull into five bulls,
wouldn¹t that be great? Actually, it won¹t be great. It¹s the rareness
that makes the semen so valuable. But‹
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, if you‹you know, if you multiply your
champion bull, the supply will go up and the demand will go down.
So‹but, anyway, so the FDA needs approval so that once they¹re done
using these animals for breeding purposes, they can just drop them into
the food system as hamburger. And there is some controversy over whether
we should be eating cloned livestock. I¹m not, you know, familiar with
the risks. I¹m a skeptic on genetically modifying food. But the specific
risk of cloning livestock, I don¹t know. I don¹t want to be eating them.
AMY GOODMAN: You have the French farmer, Jose Bove, who has just
gone on a hunger strike to promote a ban on genetically modified crops
MICHAEL POLLAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I hadn¹t known that. The Europeans
have reacted much more strongly to genetically modified crops than we
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think it¹s so different?
MICHAEL POLLAN: A couple reasons. We have a misplaced faith in our
FDA, that they¹ve vetted everything and they¹ve taken care of it and
they know what¹s in the food and that they know the genetically modified
crops have been fully tested, which, in fact, they have not, whereas the
Europeans, after mad cow disease, are very skeptical of their
regulators. And when their regulators tell them, ³Oh, this stuff is
fine,² they¹re like, ³Oh, wait. You said that about the beef.² So
they¹re much more skeptical. They also perceive it as an American
imposition, as part of a cultural imperialism. Even though a lot of the
GMO companies are European, the perception is it¹s Monsanto. And for
some reason, the European countries have managed to get under the radar
on this issue.
AMY GOODMAN: Does it also have something to do with our media
sponsored by food companies?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, it does. And we‹and the fact that our‹we
have not labeled it, so nobody knows whether you¹re eating it or not. I
mean, that¹s been a huge fight. You know, Dennis Kucinich has tried to
get labeling. Very simple. You know, he¹s not saying ban the stuff; he¹s
saying just tell us if we¹re eating it, which seems like a very
AMY GOODMAN: And Monsanto fought this.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Viciously.
AMY GOODMAN: They said that if you say it does not have GMO‹
MICHAEL POLLAN: That¹s right.
AMY GOODMAN: ‹genetically modified organisms, in it‹
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, you can¹t even say that.
AMY GOODMAN: ‹that that suggests there¹s something wrong with it,
so when Ben & Jerry¹s tried to do that‹
MICHAEL POLLAN: That¹s right.
AMY GOODMAN: ‹they weren¹t allowed.
MICHAEL POLLAN: That¹s right. There¹s a lot of litigation over
that still in Vermont and other states, in California, as well. Now, why
is the industry so intent on not having this product regulated‹labeled?
Well, they think, rightly, that people wouldn¹t buy it. And the reason
they wouldn¹t buy it is it offers the consumer nothing, no benefit. Now,
if you could‹Americans will eat all sorts of strange things, if there
was a benefit. If you could say, well, this genetically modified soy oil
will make you skinny, we would buy it, we would eat it. But so far, the
traits that they¹ve managed to get into these crops benefit farmers,
arguably, and not consumers.
The other reason, I understand, that they resist labeling is that
if there were labels, there would be ways to trace outbreaks of allergy.
Any kind of health problems associated with GMOs you could tie to a
particular food. Right now, if there are any allergies that are tied to
a GMO food, you can¹t prove it. And so, one of the reasons the industry
has fought it is that they¹re vulnerable to that.
When the GMO industry was starting transgenic crops, they made a
decision not to seek any limits on liability from the Congress, as the
nuclear industry did, and they decided that would not look good to ask
for that, so they just took a chance. And this is, in the view of many
activists, their great vulnerability, is product liability. And so,
labeling is a way to help prevent that eventuality. So they fought it,
you know, ferociously and successfully.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Pollan, what were you most surprised by in
writing this book, In Defense of Food?
MICHAEL POLLAN: I was most surprised by two things. One was that
the science on nutrition that we all traffic in every day‹we read these
articles on the front page, we talk about antioxidants and cholesterol
and all this kind of stuff‹it¹s really sketchy that nutritional science
is still a very young science. And food is very complicated, as is the
human digestive system. There¹s a great mystery on both ends of the food
chain, and science has not yet sorted it out. Nutrition science is where
surgery was in about 1650, you know, really interesting and promising,
but would you want to have them operate on you yet? I don¹t think so. I
don¹t think we want to change our eating decisions based on nutritional
But what I also was surprised at is how many opportunities we now
have. If we have‹if we¹re willing to put the money and the time into it
to get off the Western diet and find another way of eating without
actually having to leave civilization or, you know, grow all your own
food or anything‹although I do think we should grow whatever food we
can‹that it is such a hopeful time and that there¹s some very simple
things we can all do to eat well without being cowed by the scientists.
AMY GOODMAN: The healthiest cuisines, what do you feel they are?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, the interesting thing is that most
traditional cuisines are very healthy, that people‹that the human body
has done very well on the Mediterranean diet, on the Japanese diet, on
the peasant South American diet. It¹s really interesting how many
different foods we can do well on. The one diet we seem poorly adapted
to happens to be the one we¹re eating, the Western diet. So whatever
traditional diet suits you‹you like eating that way‹you know, follow it.
And that‹you know, that¹s a good rule of thumb.
There¹s an enormous amount of wisdom contained in a cuisine. And,
you know, we privilege scientific information and authority in this
country, but, of course, there¹s cultural authority and information,
too. And whoever figured out that olive oil and tomatoes was a really
great combination was actually, we¹re now learning, onto something
scientifically. If you want to use that nutrient vocabulary, the
lycopene in the tomato, which we think is the good thing, is basically
made available to your body through the olive oil. So there was a wisdom
in those combinations. And you see it throughout.
AMY GOODMAN: The whole push for hydrogenated oils? I grew up on
margarine. ³You should never eat butter! Only margarine!²
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, I know. I did, too. And that was a huge
mistake. That was a mistake.
AMY GOODMAN: Can we go back in time?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, we can. Yeah, the butter, fortunately, is
AMY GOODMAN: Re-eat?
MICHAEL POLLAN: We can¹t re-eat, but we can switch to‹one of the
AMY GOODMAN: Where did it come from?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, margarine was cheaper. Again, take a cheap
raw material, which was to say they had developed these technologies for
getting oil out of cottonseed and soy and all this kind of stuff, and
there then was this health concern about saturated fat, the great evil.
I mean, one of the‹another hallmark of nutritionism is that there¹s
always the evil nutrient and the blessed nutrient, but it¹s always
changing. So the evil nutrient for a long time has been saturated fat,
and the good nutrient was polyunsaturated fat. So people thought, well,
let¹s take the polyunsaturated fats, and we¹ll figure out a way to make
them hard at room temperature, which involved the hydrogenation process.
You basically fire hydrogen at it. And then you had something that
looked like butter.
It was very controversial, though. People‹actually, in the late
1900s, several states passed laws saying you had to dye your butter pink
so people wouldn¹t be confused and would know that that¹s an imitation
food. And then the Supreme Court‹the industry got the Supreme Court to
throw this out. So butter was elevated as the more modern, more healthy
food. And it turned out that we replaced this possibly mildly unhealthy
fat called saturated fat with now a demonstrably lethal one called
AMY GOODMAN: How is it demonstrably lethal?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, they have since proven to, you know, pretty
high standard that trans fats are implicated both in heart disease and
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Pollan is a UC Berkeley professor. His latest book
is called In Defense of Food: An Eater¹s Manifesto. Oh, and by the way,
this interesting note: the New York City Board of Health voted to
require restaurant chains operating in New York to prominently display
calorie information on their menus and menu boards beginning on March
31st. It applies to any New York City chain restaurant that has fifteen
or more outlets nationwide and includes posting calorie information
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