Lancaster Farming Speaks With Michael Pollan

In this issue of Lancaster Farming we interview Michael Pollan, guru of the “real food” movement. He spoke recently by phone from his home in California with Northern edition editor Tracy Sutton.

Pollan is the author of “In Defense of Food,” and the previous critically acclaimed best-seller “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.” The Omnivore’s Dilemma was voted one of the best books of 2006 by both The New York Times and the Washington Post and was a finalist for the National Critics Circle Award. Pollan has written extensively on the natural world, agriculture, and our food system. He’s considered the “reluctant leader of the real food movement.” Pollan prefers to think of himself as someone who began a conversation about what we eat.

Pollan, a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and was previously executive editor at Harper’s magazine.

In this interview he speaks out on the need to get more people on the land and incentives for young farmers as well as musing on milk labeling, farm preservation and eating according to what “great-grandmothers ate.”

Dairy Issues

LF: I thought you made a very compelling argument in your new book, In Defense of Food, about “nutritionism.” The orthodoxy that food is the sum of its nutritional parts: vitamins, minerals, proteins — yet we don’t even understand those parts very well. You cite the example of human milk and baby formula.

What is your take on our milk labeling controversy here in Pennsylvania? And do you think science understands milk well enough to declare that there is no difference between milk produced using artificial hormones and milk that does not?

MP: I don’t know the answer to that. They can measure the level of hormones. If indeed they have not found any significant degree of hormones, that’s interesting.

I do think that the First Amendment should apply to a dairyman who wants to say that he’s not administering rbST [recombinant bovine somatotropin] to his cows. This is a fact of how the milk was produced and it is relevant to the consumer’s decision. Even if the consumer is not making a rational decision. It doesn’t matter. You should know. For the same reason you should know if your food has come from transgenic crops.

Bans on farmers communicating with their consumers strikes me as a violation of the First Amendment. I strongly support the rights of farmers to label their milk.

The issue of hormones in milk is complicated. You know, milk naturally has hormones in it and it has actually higher levels of growth hormones in it today than it did 50 to 75 years ago. That is a real concern.

LF: Is that because of what cows eat? Because they aren’t pasture fed?

MP: No, as I understand it, it is because they are bred for productivity. The modern Holstein cow has been selected now for many generations for maximum production. And maximum production correlates with maximum numbers of growth hormones…

We also have been milking further into pregnancy than we used to. With the result that the product “” even organic “” if it’s from modern Holstein cows, with these modern production methods, is higher in hormones than it used to be.

LF: So is rbST just gilding the lily?

MP: It’s adding to the problem.

My objections to rbST are, yes, there is some possible safety issue for the consumer, however, we do know that there is a definite safety issue for the animal.

It leads to a mode of production in which the animals get burnt out very quickly. It’s a brutal way to treat animals and to do business.

LF: Well, what do you think of the criticism that you hear, that environmentally it is better to have fewer cows that give three times as much milk as cows that aren’t treated with hormones. Isn’t it better to just have the efficient cows? Given the methane, and what they eat, etc. Just fewer super efficient cows, versus more less efficient cows?

MP: Well if you extend [that logic] out, the milk should all come from one Huge Giant Cow.

LF: A science fiction monster cow?

MP: Yeah, that’s the argument used for industrial agriculture all the time. And genetically modified food — that maximizing productivity is the best use of resources. But the productivity must come from somewhere.

Those animals have to eat more. And they have to be replaced more often, so the number of cows and resources used may be quite the same.

The cows only go through a couple of lactations before they’re sent off to the hamburger plant. So I don’t know if it is in fact a more efficient use of resources.

LF: It’s a controversial subject. The paper gets a lot of letters about it.

MP: Milk is very primal.

The Farm Bill

LF: You wrote: “The human animal is adapted to, and apparently can thrive on, an extraordinary range of different diets, but the Western diet, does not seem to be one of them.”

You make a strong argument that the overabundance of high fructose corn syrup and refined processed foods in the American diet are making us sick, and that our food culture also contributes to our declining health as a population.

It’s harder for people to eat the sort of food you advocate in your book. For example, we spend less than a million dollars a year — as a nation — promoting farmers markets.

How do you see this changing? Do you have any hope for our recent Farm Bill?

MP: I hadn’t seen that figure before.

LF: The last Farm Bill allocated less than a million dollars in spending to promote the 3,700 farmers markets in America.

MP: That’s astounding, considering.

I think there is more money in this new Farm Bill to promote farmers markets and the consumption of more specialty crops.

LF: So you think there is some progress there?

MP: Yes, I think we should spend more on it. Farmers markets are a very important part of the solution, at many, many levels and we need to promote them. We also need to get them into the inner-city and help deal with the food deserts there.

When people are shopping at farmers markets, the farmers win, the people win, your health wins, the local economy wins. It’s just such a clear positive. I can’t think of anything negative attached to spending more on farmers markets. And it’s a very viable strategy to many farmers who would otherwise be growing commodities and suffering in the marketplace. It allows them to keep more of the consumers’ food dollar.

But it’s true though, that it takes farmers a lot of time. There are other schemes like CSAs (community supported agriculture), which in some ways are better for farmers. And we need to promote those too. You know, a lot of people don’t know what CSAs are.

The Farm Bill could help with that. What is a CSA? How do you join one? Imagine! Just from my book, just mentioning CSAs, people had never heard of them and then they went out and joined one. Farmers tell me too that people came to them after reading about CSAs in (The Omnivore’s Dilemma).

This is a secret to the larger society. That you can subscribe to vegetables. What a wild concept!

There should be a public education campaign. And a website you go to and type in your Zip code and they could tell you where the nearest CSA is.

LF: It seems that the Farm Bill is rather schizophrenic. On the one hand, providing more money for things like CSAs, more farmers markets, more conservation, and then, on the other hand, all the old, big fat subsidies from before.

MP: Yeah, it’s schizophrenic, but they’re connected. See, what happened with the Farm Bill is there was so much criticism of agricultural policies that the big farm state legislators, who run the show, had to buy off their critics.

In the same way they used to buy off their urban critics with food stamps. Now they’re buying off their critics of the Farm Bill with more nutrition programs, better school lunches, more money for specialty crops, more money for organics –research and conversion.

So that’s what we have. The price of defending the subsidy status quo is all these goodies. These little gems that are buried in the bill. Hopefully they will remain. There is a lot of effort to strip them out.

LF: It seems that legislators who support these programs have a tendency to hold their noses and look the other way, just as long as “I got mine,” we’ll ignore the subsidy issue.

MP: Exactly. This is how legislation is done in Washington.

But there is a new politics around it that I am very hopeful about. The public health community weighed in. There was much more resistance to the status quo than anyone on Capitol Hill had seen in a generation. So I’m optimistic.

Sustainable Farming

LF: The big argument we hear is that large-scale, industrial agriculture brings the efficiency we need to give people the cheap food they are demanding. You could never feed all the nation and the world with Joel Salatin-type farms. [editor's note: The sustainable farmer from Virginia who features in Pollan's last book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.] The argument goes that his kind of agriculture will always be just a “niche.”

Can the two kinds of farming exist side by side? Is it just a niche?

MP: Well, it starts as a niche, but it’s going to get much bigger than a niche. People want this food. There is a very strong market for clean, well-grown food from healthy soils grown by farmers — and that is going to grow and grow.

I think the shortage is going to come from the supply of farmers. You’re already finding places where there are not enough CSAs [community supported agriculture], where managers of farmers markets are recruiting new farmers to participate. I think that’s where the bottleneck is.

The other bottleneck is slaughter facilities for small meat production. There is a huge demand for that and farmers want to supply it, but there is that obstacle.

I think the question of efficiency is interesting, but you know, it depends on how you judge it. On a per-farmer basis, industrial agriculture can produce more food than any other system. On a per-acre basis, that is not necessarily the case. A farm like Joel Salatin’s is wildly more productive. There is a lot of food coming off that very small acreage.

But the difference is that there is a lot more labor involved. Industrialization is about getting more labor production per worker — and getting more farmers off the land.

We actually need to be getting more farmers on the land. If you want to use the land well — and get enough food to feed 10 billion people — you need more people on the land.

The other thing about efficiency is, that is one important factor, but there another factor — and that is resiliency.

Efficient systems are sometimes very precarious. This is true of industrial agriculture.

But we need systems that are resilient in the face of shocks. And there are shocks coming. There is no question about that. That is why we must nurture all these alternative food systems. It is not a choice between organic and industrial, because some of them are going to fail. When they fail, we still want to eat.

LF: Some argue, if they hadn’t gotten big, they would’ve lost the family farm. Industrial agriculture has enabled some farm families to remain profitable enough to stay on their land.

MP: Certainly that’s been true. That’s one set of choices. One sort of decision tree. If you’re selling commodities and the price of commodities is low and historically trending lower, the only way you survive is by becoming the least costlier supplier and expanding your volume. And selling on volume. And the way you do that, is getting bigger.

That is one path that people have taken, and it is usually ruinous in the long term. But in the short term, it works.

There are other paths. One path is adding value yourself as a farmer. Dairy people, for example, getting into cheese production. And the other path is diversifying toward the direct marketing world, which is very good strategy for some people.

So it’s not like there is only one way to survive. There are several ways to survive. The test is what happens long term.

Getting out of the commodity business has been the key to survival, not intensifying commodity production.

Preserving Farms

LF: It seems that there are many challenges to keep the family farm, or to get into farming as a career, period. Just the capital start-up costs, the real estate values, the lack of health care, the lack of security…

MP: The average age of a farmer in this country now is 55.

I think we have to make it easier for people to get into farming. There are a lot of young people who would like to pursue this as a career. They want to do it and they find it very difficult to do. We need incentives. We need programs to encourage land owners to lease land to farmers. We need land trusts to preserve farmland, to find ways to keep the farm going.

I see a day where we require a certain amount of farmland from developers, before we allow him to subdivide a piece of property. And that they lease it to farmers on good terms. Some day it will be as desirable in your suburban community to have a farm as it is to have a golf course today.

LF: What do you think of land preservation trusts in which farmers sell the development rights?

MP: Well, there is a problem when that happens, that then they need someone to farm it. Farmers can’t live in this community anymore because it has gotten too expensive. I know some land trusts in Connecticut that have actually gone out and found farmers to take care of the land. I think for the next generation farm preservation will be really important.

What if you sell your development rights and your kids leave the farm? What do you do? You don’t want someone just mowing it.

LF: It’s not a farm in perpetuity?

MP: Well you have a problem there “” you can’t force people on tractors!

It’s going to get more complex in the future, if the economics of farming don’t favor staying on the land after the development rights have been sold. It can only be sold once. What happens when farms take that one-shot benefit, and the kids leave, and it’s sold to someone who doesn’t want to farm it? Can you oblige them to farm it? These are all hard questions we’re going to be facing in the future.


LF: What do think of converting biofuel — we have a mandate to convert to biofuel by 2025, is this the new farm economy? Will biofuel be what we grow?

MP: No, I don’t think it is what we’re going to be growing. Putting food and fuel into competition with one another is going to be a disaster.

We’re already finding this. It’s driving up the price of land. It’s great that farmers are getting a fair price for their corn for the first time in years, but on the other hand, if all our land was converted to ethanol production the entire thing would only meet 7 percent of our fuel needs.

It’s not even a solution, and the problem it causes along the way, in terms of driving up food prices, biofuels are going to create a very hungry world population. You’ll have a situation where American SUVs are competing in Mexico for land. And who’s going to win that battle?

Long term, I think we will recognize the folly of this. The other part of the folly is you don’t get much energy out of ethanol.

LF: In the Northeast, and especially at the Cornell University conferences we’ve covered, they’re talking about switchgrass and woodpellets, more than ethanol.

MP: Well, that’s a good idea in prospect, but it’s just in prospect. The technology doesn’t exist. It’s an idea and if they can make it work, wonderful.

The Future of Farms

LF: In another interview you said, “Those beautiful agricultural landscapes of New England will not be saved by environmental groups. They’ll be saved by eaters. With some help from the land trusts, definitely, but keeping that food chain going is as important as writing checks to environmental organizations.”

Could you please elaborate on this point?

MP: I think for people who are environmentally inclined in the Northeast, who love their landscape, that patchwork of field and forest, of stone walls, of animals grazing, everything they come to the Northeast for, they need to realize that writing checks will not keep that land.

The forest will retake it very quickly. What created that landscape was farmers, their animals, their plants, and the eaters that supported those farmers. That’s the food chain that makes that landscape. You can’t have landscape without that food chain.

The Eastern forest is so vigorous within five years it would obliterate that landscape.

So, you could pay people to mow those farms to look nice, and you could put out some plastic cows, but the easier, better way to do it is to buy the food that comes from those farms. Keep them in business.

People don’t see that. They buy into a fantasy of living in a rural landscape.

Not only do you need to buy that food, but support local slaughterhouses too. Which probably doesn’t go with your pastoral dream.

LF: Do you think there is some prejudice against farmers that they are not friends of the environment?

MP: Sure, there is a history of distrust between environmentalists and farmers. But I think it is changing. At least in the land conservation moment, but in the environmental movement generally there is a recognition that farmers are a part of the solution.

Good farmers know how to get what we need from the land, without destroying the land — that is the entire issue that confronts environmentalism.

There are models in farming that can teach environmentalists everything they need to know.

LF: Consider the Amish and Mennonites in Lancaster Co., Pa., (who, while not environmentally perfect,) have subsisted on this land and endured as farmers for hundreds of years.

MP: Exactly. It’s sustainable. We’re talking about how can you get what you need from the land, from the atmosphere, from the water, without diminishing it. And good farmers have been pointing the way for centuries.

Sustainable farming has models environmentalists can learn from. We know that farmers are not spoilers and polluters of the land. To the contrary. They will lead the way.