Chatting with Michael Pollan of The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Keep your eyes peeled in October for the release of Michael Pollan’s follow up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a young reader’s edition. The new version will be a bit more user friendly, but also updated with more current information. I got the chance to chat with Michael recently and pick his brain on the state of the food industry!

What did you have for dinner last night?
Last night, I made some whole grain pasta, with a sauce I made with cherry tomatoes from my garden, and a little olive oil.

Do you ever feel like you get stares in the grocery store? Like everyone is looking to see what you buy?
Sometimes people bug me in the grocery store. I live in Berkeley and it’s a pretty small community, so people recognize me. I have a weakness for potato chips, and corn chips and nuts, but I’m not really tempted by Twix or Pringles, or things like that. After you don’t eat that stuff for a while your taste buds change and you can’t really eat them anymore. There’s so much sugar and salt in processed foods, that once you go without them for a while and your taste buds readjust, you just can’t stomach them anymore. But I don’t deny myself anything. If I get a craving for a hamburger, and then I’ll have a grass-fed hamburger, which I feel really good about. There are some things that I can’t eat anymore because of what I know, but there are some choices you can make and feel really good about. Like having meat that’s been raised humanely on grass, for example.

What got you started in thinking about food, and the way we eat effects politics, the economy, and the planet? Did you set out trying to prove an idea you had, or did all of your findings lead to certain conclusions?

I set out to answer a question – where does my food come from, because I realized I just didn’t know. The moment came when I was by a feedlot in California, and I was astounded by this nightmare landscape of hundreds of thousands of animals all penned up together, and black ground as far as you could see. There was a giant pyramid of corn and then giant pyramid of manure, and suddenly I realized that this is where hamburgers came from. I had a similar experience in Idaho at a potato farm, and I couldn’t believe that this is where French Fries came from. I thought it would be interesting to follow some foods back to their source. 70 years ago, everybody knew where their foods came from. You couldn’t write a book about that. But now, nobody really has any idea.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching Omnivore’s Dilemma?

There were a couple of things. First, how much one plant has infiltrated our diets. If you trace back a processed meal it always ends up at corn. Everywhere you turn, all the ingredients on the packages that you can’t pronounce, those are all made from corn also. That this one plant has become such a staple without anyone knowing it was really shocking. Another surprise was the way we grow meat on these factory farms. How efficient it is but also how brutal it is. To make a 99-cent hamburger, and to think that beef was a luxury at one time – it takes a lot of ingenuity and a lot of brutality. There were also some positive surprises though. There are many farms in this country that are growing really high quality foods in ways that didn’t diminish nature, rater they were dedicated to improving nature. These are organic farms and grass fed beef ranches, and they have very sophisticated systems with high quality meat and happy animals. There’s a lot of hope in the book as well. It’s not all scary!

How did the researching/writing evolve?

At different points I went and worked on a farm, to work on the middle section of the book. I bought a cow that I followed from his birth to his slaughter, I made myself a baby cattle rancher! I had a lot of hands-on experience. One of my heroes was George Plimpton. He had a way of helping readers get an experience that they wouldn’t usually get. In my own silly, small way I tried to do that, to immerse myself in a way that would give me a perspective that you don’t really usually get. There was a lot of detective work also, taking that burger and tracing everything back to where it initially came from.

Then, the challenge of writing something long is to break it down in to manageable pieces. You break it in to pieces that are digestible and not daunting. I broke the book down into four meals, and I knew every section had to end with a meal, so that gave my writing a final destination. I tell my students if you can write 8,000 word piece for a magazine or paper, you can write a book. Those 8,000 words are a chapter.

What do you think is the most important thing for readers to take away from Omnivore’s Dilemma?

To think about where your food comes from. To ask questions, and be aware. I’m not telling people what they should eat. I’m giving people information so they can make a more informed decision. Make the decision, and don’t be passive about it. Eating thoughtlessly is the only thing that I think I would criticize. Your eating decisions link you to the world, and your decisions have a profound effect on the animals, on the planet, and on the workers that prepare the food. Your food comes from a whole system and you should approve of that system or not, and you should be aware. When people are aware they make better choices. Also it’s really interesting to find out where your food comes from. There are mysteries and detective stories…and it’s really interesting!

In an ideal world, what steps would you take to change the food industry?

I think the basic thing is that we have to put health front and center. When we design agricultural systems in the government we have to think about health first. We have a huge public health problem, and it’s the reason health care costs are out of control. Food is driving that issue, and we’re going to go broke unless we figure out a way to improve the American diet. By which I don’t mean just the diet, it’s the national food atmosphere. Processed food is more accessible and more affordable than healthy foods, which is something that really needs to change.

How do you feel about the growing interest in biofuels? I can imagine you wouldn’t be pro-ethanol…

It’s driven up costs and made people hungry around the world. So much corn and soy was going to biofuels and not enough people were getting food. Food is too precious to be going towards our cars. I think we have to put our auto system on an electric grid and then find ways to power that grid with solar or wind power. Ethanol isn’t even really all that effective, the energy yield is really low. There are plans to make ethanol out of other things that wouldn’t compete with food, like grass, but the science isn’t proven yet. If they could do that, it would be something to look at. The way we’re doing it now isn’t helping the environment. Also, if you look at the production of corn for Ethanol  now, it’s not carbon neutral at all. Think about all the fossil fuels that go in to growing the crops, etc. just to get the end product. Also, think of the fuels used to raze jungle in the Amazon, and all around the world to make space to grow corn.  It’s just not worth it at all.