An Interview with Michael Pollan
By Jaime Lewis

America has spoken. We hereby crown Michael Pollan Lord Protector of Food. Author of uber-bestsellers The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, Pollan investigates how Americans’ wacky relationship with food has been shaped – and often controlled – by “nutritionism,” politicians, and the bottom line of agribusiness. I had the opportunity to speak with Pollan in anticipation of his visit to the Central Coast.


JL: OK, here’s the big, hard question. Is it really every Americans’ right to have access to good food?
MP: Well I don’t know if “rights” is the language I would use. We’re too quick to put the word “right” on things we want. I think it’s really important that people have access to good, healthy food, and there are policies and practices that are getting in the way that need to be changed or defeated.

JL: You encourage your readers to change the food supply chain by voting with their forks. Do you have any suggestions on how to vote with our votes, too?
MP: Voting with your vote is just as important as voting with your fork. Voting with your vote is paying attention to legislative websites and getting involved, receiving alerts from Food & Water Watch – or whichever group reflects your take on these things – and weighing-in on these crucial moments in the legislative process. We saw this happen last year with the Farm Bill. Many thousands of people got involved. We didn’t end up with a great farm bill, but we did give them a wake-up call, and there was a new understanding that you can’t make agriculture policy in isolation. You can’t just ignore eaters. It will happen again this fall in the next big fight which is the National School Lunch Program. And on that issue, I would encourage your readers to check out Slow Food to see what they’re up to with the Time For Lunch campaign. I see [Slow Food] taking the lead on this issue in a very positive way.

JL: Wouldn’t it be more effective to synthesize existing organizations to gain the political will and influence to advance the sustainable food agenda?
MP: Well, it’s a complicated agenda and it has a lot of moving parts. I think at different points different issues are really important. Like right now: school lunches. Another coming to the fore this fall is antitrust, a very important issue. We only have three or four giant meat-packers that are packing 80 or 90 percent of our beef, which explains a lot of the difficulty ranchers are having because they have to be price-takers against such powerful entities. So, you can get involved in all of these issues or you can pick the ones you care most about. They’re all pushing in the same direction, I think.

JL: How have the Internet, blogs, Facebook, etc. impacted the evolution of our food chain? Is it changing the playing field?
MP: I think it’s had a wide effect. It’s hard for small, niche farmers to reach their market, but the web makes it possible. I know lots of ranchers who, without the Internet, would be spending all their days in a farmer’s market or a lot of money on advertising. The beauty of the Internet is that it lets the person who wants the product find the person who’s selling it without the seller having to do a lot of work. What the Internet has done for farmers is cut out the middle men, and that has really been the key to the growth of alternative agriculture. Shortening that distance between producers and consumers is really important to this movement and the web is a fantastic tool.

JL: What needs to happen for the sustainable food movement to become a significant part of the mainstream?
MP: Well, this movement already is coming into the mainstream. Take a look at the cover story of tomorrow’s TIME magazine [August 31 issue]. It’s a big cover story on the industrial food system – what’s wrong with it and how to fix it. You could not have imagined this two or three years ago. So, the mainstream will find us, whether we want it to or not. There’s still a huge amount of work to be done in terms of national politics. I think, as is often the case, that the public is far ahead of the politicians. And there is not a national politician who has discovered the power of this issue yet. I guess Michelle Obama comes closest.

JL: OK, one more thing: if you’re at liberty to tell me, what are you working on right now?
MP: Well, there’s a documentary of Botany of Desire that’s going to be broadcast in October that I’ve been involved with. And then I’m publishing a book of what I call “food rules” in January that’s like a pamphlet of rules to help people navigate this treacherous food landscape a little more easily. It’s kind of based on the ending of In Defense of Food where I laid out a bunch of food rules to help people distinguish real food from edible food-like products. It will be an inexpensive book that doctors can give to patients, or parents could give to kids or vice-versa. It’s really for people who don’t want to immerse themselves in nutrition science but want to eat well.

Michael Pollan will present a free public lecture at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 15 at Cal Poly’s Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center. He will also be the guest speaker at Cal Poly’s Sustainable Agriculture Resource Consortium fundraiser dinner, “A Taste of the Future,” on Wednesday, Oct. 14. For tickets, call 805.756.5086.

 

LINKS & RESOURCES
National School Lunch Program: www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Lunch/
SLOW Food USA: www.slowfoodusa.org
Farm Bill information: www.usda.gov/farmbill
National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture: www.sustainableagriculture.net
Community Alliance with Family Farmers: www.caff.org
Food and Water Watch: www.foodandwaterwatch.org
Kilman, Scott. “Antitrust Enforcers Begin Visiting Farm Belt.” Wall Street Journal. August 8, 2009, p. A3.
Walsh, Bryan. “The Real Cost of Cheap Food.” Time. August 31, 2009.