A consuming interest: Pollan puts his mouth where his research is

UC Berkeley journalism professor and author Michael Pollan sat down with me, and a cup of tea, at the long dining table in the home his family rents in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood to talk about a few ideas from his latest book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.”

Q: How does “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” spring from your first three books, on gardening, building and “The Botany of Desire”

A: Looking back, all of my books have been about the same thing — the human relationship to nature. But I don’t like to go to the places nature writers go, which is to say the wilderness. I’m much more interested in the places of engagement between nature and culture — the messy places. And food is the biggest of these, a place where we change nature and nature changes us. We remake the Earth to feed ourselves. We remake the balance of species as we feed ourselves. It seems almost natural that I would have gotten to this point.

In a more narrow sense this book came out of “The Botany of Desire,” where I grew a genetically modified potato. As part of that I got my introduction to industrial agriculture visiting these huge potato monocultures in Idaho. And I also got my introduction to organic farming, visiting alternatives to those monocultures. In the process of doing that I realized how we feed ourselves is really a rich subject to look at — you can look at it ecologically and ethically.

Q: What do you mean when you say America has a national eating disorder?

A: It’s the most basic thing for a creature to know what to eat. I mean that we’re confused and anxious about this most basic of activities — what should we have for dinner? What should we eat?

Culture used to be a very reliable guide. Culture’s just a fancy way of saying your mom. And your mom learned from her mom. There were a whole set of cultural rules and taboos and practices and that shaped people’s eating — and those have fallen apart.

The family dinner is on its way to extinction. And we’ve industrialized our food supply. There are all these new foods, pushed by very powerful marketing budgets, that we don’t really know what to do with and our bodies don’t know what to do with, as it turns out. Then you also have science, nutritionists weighing in with what appears to be conflicting advice every several weeks.

Q: So what’s your problem with corn? You write that the “cornification” of America is making us sick and fat and ruining farmers and the environment.

A: This was one of the big surprises to me. I realized that before I can answer the question “what should I eat?” I had to figure out what I was eating — and I didn’t really know. I didn’t know what was in that chicken nugget that my son wanted at McDonald’s, or where that produce I was eating came from. So I decided to trace some of these foods.

When it came to supermarket foods and fast foods, as I tried to follow their paths back to nature, I kept coming back to the same place. Metaphorically, it was a cornfield in Iowa. And that was stunning to me. The corn becomes the beef and the chicken, the sweetener in the soda, the additives and flavorings in processed food.

Q: Why does it matter?

A: When we eat this highly cornified diet, we’re eating a highly processed diet. By the time corn comes out as fast food, or snack food, or soda or whatever, all it is is carbon. People who eat that kind of diet are not getting enough phytonutrients, the trace things that you get from eating a great variety of plants. So there is a health implication and there’s a huge environmental implication.

Agricultural policy has a lot to do with this. The fact that we write a check to farmers for every bushel they grow has pushed overproduction, and that’s had disastrous effects on things like public health.

Q: Where does organic food fit in?

A: Organic is a very important alternative, but now we’re moving toward organic junk food. You can buy the organic version of the Oreo. It doesn’t have any trans fats, the sweetener is organic, but have you really solved the problem? I don’t think so.

The key is in what you eat. If you switched from a heavy fast food diet to conventional produce you’d get a lot more healthy. It doesn’t have to be organic.

I do believe organic food is better for you in certain ways. It seems to me that, all things being equal, if you can keep endocrine disruptors and carcinogens out of your children’s diet, you probably should do that, if you can afford to do that. I buy organic when I can. And organic certainly solves environmental problems on the farm.

Q: You write critically about organics. What’s that about?

A: I think organic is not quite what people think at this point. I call Whole Foods one of the great storytellers in the American marketplace. When you walk through that store, it’s like a day in the country. I call it Supermarket Pastoral.

But if you go visit those farms, they’re disappointing. That organic milk may be coming from a small farm with 200 cows and grass or, increasingly, it’s coming from a 4,000- or 5,000-cow dairy out in the desert where there is no grass. And that cow is essentially on a feedlot getting milked three times a day and eating grain, eating corn, that happens to be organic. And that’s not what the label strongly implies, and it’s not what Whole Foods is implying.

Is that better than conventional milk? Well, conventional milk is even worse, so yeah, it’s better. But it’s not what people think. The free-range chickens, too. Do the chickens actually go outdoors? No, hardly ever.

Q: The small, sustainable farm you describe sounds like a model for a better way of eating. But can we feed ourselves locally?

A: Yes, to a greater extent than we do. And I think it’s a very important movement, supporting local food. I think it’s much more important to go to the farmers’ market than to go to Whole Foods. You support land conservation, you support having farmers in your community, you support an exchange of information between farmers and city people that’s very valuable. Not to mention that it’s really fun to be at a farmers’ market, and children learn a lot there.

What stands in the way of this is the price of land near cities. With sprawl, it’s a race against time. I think there have to be many solutions.

Q: What do you do if you don’t have that $4 a pound for farmers’ market nectarines?

A: We have to make healthy and sustainably grown food more accessible to people. As organic becomes bigger, the price is falling. But I also believe strongly that more of us can spend more on food than we think. There is probably 10 percent of the population, or 5 percent, that absolutely cannot afford to spend more, and we need to help them. We need to change the food assistance programs so you can buy produce.

For the rest of us, the amount of our income we spend on food is only 9 percent — half what it was in the late ’50s. So where has that money gone? It’s going into entertainment, leisure — cell phones and iPods and pay TV and all the things we think are essential. I’m not saying people shouldn’t have those things. But if they were to make food a higher priority, if they were to appreciate its importance to their health and the health of the environment, they could spend a lot more. If we went back up to that 18 percent, we could revolutionize the food system.

And to the extent that we could move our food system from one based on quantity to one based on quality, we could make a tremendous impact not just on public health but on our pleasure, in everyday life. It seems to me if we’re really going to move toward a different food system, we have to be a different kind of eater. The industrial eater wants strawberries 12 months a year, doesn’t want to cook, wants to be able to eat that meal in a car. We have to reinvent ourselves as eaters in order to reinvent the food chain. It’s all connected.

Eating seasonally is a big part of it, and giving up this obsession with convenience at all cost. And if we’re really going to move to a new kind of eater, I think we really do have to rediscover cooking.