Taking a Bite out of ‘Organics’

For organic farmer Judith Redmond and others like her, Michael Pollan, who wrote “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals,” is more than a bestselling author. “In our world,” she said, “he’s a rock star.”

That’s why the balding, bespectacled Pollan cannot shop at his Berkeley farmers market without being approached by adoring fans who thank him for bringing debates about green living and the “sustainable food movement” into the mainstream.

They have all read his book, which calls Americans “the people of corn” and suggests that we are a hopelessly obese and diabetic nation because of the presence of corn in everything we ingest “” from the feed our cattle eat to the high fructose corn syrup in our soda. These readers feel as if they intimately knew Rosie, the organic chicken Pollan tracked in the book only to discover that her free-range, pastoral life was more myth than reality. And when, in the New York Times magazine, Pollan weighed the pros and cons of Wal-Mart entering the organic food business, readers were riveted.

How best to live authentically green is the question Pollan keeps coming back to. It’s a debate that’s surfacing in architecture (Do we really need that wood from halfway across the world?), in fashion (Is there genetically engineered corn in my jeans?), in beauty (What are all these chemical ingredients?) and even in fitness (What about the plastics in my yoga mat?). But nothing is more visceral than the food we eat, as Pollan discovered in May when more than 300 people showed up to see him at a Seattle bookstore.

“I had never seen a crowd like that at a bookstore,” Pollan said. “After I talked for a while I realized this wasn’t about me. The energy in the room was political. Honestly, I think there are more important issues–the health of the republic, whether we are going to lapse into tyranny, the war in Iraq–so I began to ask myself: Why are people turning out in such big numbers to talk about food and grass-fed beef?”

Probably for the same reason that in June Pollan’s friendly-yet-tense online exchange with John P. Mackey, the co-founder and chief executive of Whole Foods, was eagerly read and e-mailed among the green intelligentsia, who were pleased Pollan took on the corporate titan. (It can be accessed on Mackey’s blog on the Whole Foods website or at

“Other issues are hard to do something about,” Pollan said. “Food is unique because we can all do something about it today. We get to decide three times a day what we take into our bodies, so we can vote with our forks and do our part to change the world.”

The conflict between the author and the CEO started in the pages of Pollan’s book, where he wrote that some “jet-setting” organic asparagus from Argentina he had bought at Whole Foods may have been pesticide free, but it tasted like “damp cardboard”–and what’s “organic” about all the fuel it took to get it to California? Then there was the organic milk he bought there–the Holsteins that produced it ingested organic corn, but they were confined to inhumane feedlots and milked three times a day just like their conventional counterparts.

Mackey started the exchange with an open letter, posted on the Whole Foods website, that chastised Pollan for not interviewing him for the book. Mackey requested a meeting and offered Pollan a $25 gift certificate to make up for the disappointing asparagus. Several e-mails and one face-to-face meeting later, the chain eased its distribution policies, making it easier for individual stores to work directly with small farmers. Whole Foods even allocated $10 million for small loans to local farmers.

Pollan said his meeting with Mackey made him more sympathetic to the forces the executive has to deal with, but he pointed out that “organic is going through an identity crisis.” Exchanges like this, he said, encourage people to ask, what does “organic” mean, anyway? And do those values get compromised when organic business reaches corporate, industrial proportions?

This kind of probing is why Doreen Stabinsky, who works on agriculture issues for Greenpeace in Latin America, e-mails most things Pollan writes to colleagues all over the world. “He keeps issues on the table that wouldn’t otherwise be there, especially if market forces forged ahead unchecked,” she said.

Pollan finds his newfound status as a kind of public conscience of the sustainable food movement both shocking and heartening. After all, debates about the nuances of green have been going on for decades, especially in Berkeley, where Pollan moved to from New York in 2003 to become a journalism professor at UC Berkeley. But if he has taken the discussion to a new level of public awareness, he won’t characterize himself as an activist, because he said he wants to preserve his journalistic independence.

The danger, he said, is getting “swept up in the movement, especially when I agree with a lot of it.” But Northern California farmer Redmond, co-owner of Full Belly Farm, said that whether Pollan likes it or not, he is an activist. Since the Mackey/Pollan exchange, she said, she has noticed “a sea change of difference” in the way Whole Foods is doing business in her region. (Whole Foods turned down requests for comment for this article.)

Now Wal-Mart is calling Pollan to discuss organics, and the public-speaking requests are “endless.” While he hasn’t endured the food industry’s wrath, as did author Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal”), who has been met with protests and smear campaigns, Pollan’s opinions are not always embraced. George Kaligridis, the president of Ojai-based George’s Organic, who is also very active in the Organic Trade Assn. (which counts among its members big organic businesses like Whole Foods), called Pollan an unrealistic “flame thrower” who has the unfair advantage of a powerful platform. “No one thinks buying local and supporting local farmers is a bad idea, but it’s easier said than done,” he said. “There are already forums to have these conversations. So why does someone have to throw a bomb to get attention?”

Pollan said there’s some truth to the charge that he is a provocateur. “I don’t want to preach to the choir,” he said. “I could have a career writing for people who already care about and are obsessed by food. But I want to talk to people who haven’t thought about their food before.”

But being a journalist has gotten a little complicated because as Pollan’s renown grows, he jeopardizes his access to sources such as big agri-business, which doesn’t want his scrutiny. That’s one reason he teaches a journalism course at UC Berkeley called Following the Food Chain.

“I consider teaching part of my political work,” he said, noting that now his students write the stories he no longer can. One has already been published in Harper’s Magazine (where Pollan used to be the executive editor), and another wrote a piece for the New York Times.

Pollan said he hasn’t yet determined the subject of his next book, but he’ll continue to delve into the soul of organics by contemplating topics such as animal welfare and whether organic Coca-Cola and Twinkies are a good idea for our health and our environment.

“That’s one of the great things I can do as a writer,” he said. “I can take a topic like agriculture–that’s generally not very interesting “” and tell some stories that hopefully will make it accessible and meaningful to people who didn’t care about it before.”