Back to nature

We are what we eat, which is why Michael Pollan wants to change the American diet

Iconoclastic food and cultural critic Michael Pollan believes modern farming and food-processing methods have led directly to the obesity and adult-onset diabetes epidemics, and he’s got the research to prove it.

Iconoclastic food and cultural critic Michael Pollan believes modern farming and food-processing methods have led directly to the obesity and adult-onset diabetes epidemics, and he’s got the research to prove it.

Photo courtesy of michael pollan

To learn more about Michael Pollan, changing the American diet and sustainable agriculture, go to

Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers.

It’s arguable that no person has done more to change the way Americans think about food than New York Times best-selling author Michael Pollan. His three books on the topic—The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Botany of Desire and the recently released in paperback In Defense of Food—have all explored a singular theme: Today’s modern industrial-farming and food-processing methods are doing us far more harm than good. From the obesity epidemic to the dramatic rise in adult-onset diabetes to the ongoing degradation of the environment, factory farming is quite literally killing us.

As bleak as that may sound, Pollan’s no doomsayer. In fact, he argues that the solution to our problem is simple. If we return to the farming methods of the not-so-distant-past, before the advent of large-scale industrial agriculture, we can both eat healthier and be better stewards of the environment. He supports this contention with the sort of thorough research and elegant prose you’d expect from UC Berkeley’s Knight professor of science and environmental journalism.

SN&R president and CEO Jeff vonKaenel is no stranger to what many are now calling the “grow local” movement, and he jumped at the chance to interview Pollan in advance of his sold-out appearance with A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Sacramento on June 10. In a freewheeling conversation, Pollan explained that there’s never been a better time than now to get back to nature.

In your three books, Botany of Desire, Omnivore’s Dilemma, and In Defense of Food, I’m reminded of the Winston Churchill quote, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.” Is it the same for our food systems?

No question. We redesigned our food system in the early 1970s, and moved it on to these giant monocultures of corn and soy, and it seemed like a good idea, because it would reduce the prices of food—that was the goal. But it ended up reshaping us, literally. It made us a lot fatter and changed the way we eat—moved us on to this fast-food diet. By simplifying our agriculture and really ramping up production of just a few crops grown in monocultures—specifically of corn sweeteners and hydrogenated soy oils from the corn and the soy—this really is a big part of the rise of fast food, and that’s had huge effects on our public health, on our landscape and, as it turns out, on the climate. So yeah, we shape our food systems and then they shape us.

You’ve been writing about this now for a while; have you seen changes in how these issues are now being discussed and how the politics are playing out?

Well, they are being discussed, and that’s a new thing. Food was invisible for many years. There was plenty of it around, nobody worried about it, hunger wasn’t an issue in America by and large, and food was off the radar as a political issue or as a social issue. But it is back with a vengeance. People are very concerned about food, from the point of view of its safety—obviously, we’ve had one food-safety scandal after another—and from the point of view of public health—we have this crisis of obesity and type 2 diabetes, which is bankrupting the health-care system.

When we talk about bringing down health-care costs, what’s behind those increases? Yes, there’s bureaucracy and too much treatment, but by and large, what we’re treating is diet-related chronic disease. The bulk of the money on health care is spent to treat things like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, the 40 percent of cancers that are linked to diet.

So the issue is claiming our attention, and that’s a very good thing. There’s a growing recognition that our food system is broken and needs to be reformed, and there is a very vibrant social movement rising to change the food system. You see it at every level, except, perhaps, on the agricultural committees of the U.S. Congress, which are really still mired in the past.

How much do you think the Obama administration is going to change things?

I have some grounds for optimism. The noise they’ve been making has been encouraging. Obama has talked about the links between the way we grow food and the health-care crisis on the one side and the climate change crisis on the other. He connects the dots. How far he can go, though, pushing reforms through Congress, is an open question. I think what we will see happen is that this Department of Agriculture will put a lot more resources into local food, organic food, alternative food of all kinds, and that will be really good. I don’t know whether they’ll attack mainstream, industrial food; when I say “attack,” I mean attack it as a problem and try to reform it. There’s no question that there is political pressure about the way we’re subsidizing agriculture such as we haven’t seen in a very long time, there is a political constituency for reform that is growing. It’s not easy to change course in this whole area, but I think we have as good a chance to do so as we’ve had in a generation.

Why, in terms of the farm-industrial complex, are they so set on growing certain crops, when you can make more per acre by developing higher-value specialty crops?

Agriculture is very conservative, especially when you leave California. California agriculture is very different. In California, as soon as the farmers get a new market signal, they’ll rip out one kind of crop and plant another. Look at all the almonds we’ve planted in the last couple years. Look at the cattle industry, suddenly it takes over the state. And they’ll move on to something else when the market does. But you go to the Midwest, and it’s a much more hidebound industry. Farmers, by and large, grow what their parents grew, and what their grandparents grew, and they’re very resistant to change. The subsidy system also locks them into a certain way of growing things, because really, there’s no infrastructure to grow anything else. The grain elevator is the only buyer in town, and they only want corn and soy. So, if you’re a farmer and you want to do something a little different, it’s very, very hard there.

Also, there’s no population left. This kind of agriculture has gotten so consolidated that the population of the farm belt has shrunk, and the land can’t support as many people because it’s so highly industrialized. So setting up, say, a local-food system is a lot harder there than in a place like California, where you actually still have plenty of eaters around. Iowa is one of the great food deserts in the country, yet it has the best topsoil in the country. The rules for subsidies actually prohibit you from growing specialty crops on subsidized land, which was a concession to California interests, obviously. So let’s say you’re growing corn and soy, and you want to take some of that land and grow broccoli for the local market. You’re not allowed to, because you’ll lose the ability to collect subsidies forever on that land. So they’re really locked in, and to change it, you would really have to change the incentives through the whole system.

How optimistic are you that by making those kind of microchanges in the subsidy programs we can then create new markets?

I don’t think you can actually begin at the level of the farm. I just don’t think farmers have enough power in the food system today. We need to drive change on the demand side. We spend about $880 billion dollars a year on food in this country. The farmers are earning only about $69 billion of that, and there’s about $15 billion of subsidies in there. The people who make the packages—the cellophane, the cardboard, the plastic—they’re making $79 billion. They earn more than the farmers do. A lot of the power in the system is with the people who process and package and market our food. I think you’re not going to get a big shift until we change the culture of food, until people are willing to eat more fresh produce and support a different kind of agriculture. We’ve seen that beginning with organics, certainly, and [the local-food movement], and these are the fastest-growing segments of the food industry, but they’re still tiny. One of the reasons we subsidize grain is because you can store it if you end up with too much of it, or turn it into other things. We don’t know yet how to turn broccoli into, you know, a cheap sweetener, or something like that. You need to work on the marketplace as well as the subsidies.

I think in general, the approach should be to change the incentives, so that farmers are rewarded. We give them the same amount of money we’re giving them now, but we ask them to do something else for it. We have to send them a new signal: It’s not about producing flat out as much corn and soy as you can, it’s really about taking care of the land, about sequestering carbon to help with climate change and diversifying fields to help us diversify our diet a little bit. I have no doubt that America’s farmers, who are ingenious, so highly skilled and so productive, will meet the challenge, if we just put it to them.

Well, sort of what we’ve done with the energy companies, where PG&E is now getting rate hikes if they reduce the amount of energy that goes out. That’s changed their whole focus dramatically.

That’s a great example. Agriculture, like energy, is a game. It’s a game played according to a set of rules, and those rules are written by the government. We can change those rules. If we do, the genius of capitalism, the genius of American farmers, you know, is that they’ll figure out how to win. We just have the wrong set of rules right now.

You often relate our tremendous health-care costs and food.

We spend about $2 trillion on health care, and according to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], $1.5 trillion of that—three-quarters—is to treat preventable, chronic disease. Now, not all of that is food-related. You’ve got cigarettes and alcoholism, and these are preventable chronic diseases, too. But the lion’s share of it is the heart disease, the type 2 diabetes, the obesity, the stroke and the 40 percent of cancers that are all linked to diet. So it’s hard to imagine you’re really going to take a big bite out of that spending, unless you change the American diet.

That’s a big project, but there’s a lot the government can do. Once the government does take more responsibility for our health care [and its costs], I think the government will have a very strong interest in changing our diet. Now that sounds very paternalistic, but I’m talking about really strong public-health campaigns around soda, for example. Soda is a tremendous contributor to obesity and type 2 diabetes, in American children in particular. We never see the kind of really tough advertising that would help parents, and kids, see that simply by removing that thousand-calories-a-day of soda that many children are consuming, they can avert the worst effects of type 2 diabetes and obesity. I’ve seen this over and over again. That’s the one simple change that has a huge effect. But our government doesn’t dare demonize soda because of the power of the industry. If it was paying for all the costs of type 2 diabetes in young people, I think that they would come around on that question.

In your books, corn syrup and the corn industry come up quite a bit. How big a problem are they, in your mind?

I’m guilty of demonizing high-fructose corn syrup, not that it deserves a free pass by any means. It really is not that different from sugar, in terms of biological matter. What’s important about high-fructose corn syrup is that it’s so ubiquitous because we subsidize corn so heavily, the industry started putting it in everything. You have products that have never been sweetened before, like various bread products, like various condiments for the table, that they started amping up with sweeteners, because the high-fructose corn syrup was cheap, and it also has other qualities that make it a food scientist’s dream. There’s a whole lot more sweetener in the world as a result of the cheapness and usefulness of high-fructose corn syrup.

Today, the industry is reformulating, because so many people have been critical of high-fructose corn syrup, and the consumer has gotten this idea that it’s bad for you. They’re coming out with HFCS-free products. Now what’s interesting about that is, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I actually think it’s a bad thing in the sense that it’s implying that cane sugar is a health food. If you’re boasting about the fact that there’s no high-fructose corn syrup in your product, it’s like no fat, you know, it must be healthy if it has none of the bad stuff. Well, no, it’s still soda.

Another thing about high-fructose corn syrup is that it’s so cheap that it allowed the soda makers to supersize their portions; it’s the reason why we moved from that 12-ounce soda to that 20-ounce soda. So I’m hoping that if they go back to sugar, which does still cost more … perhaps the portion size will shrink. If that happens, it will be good news.

Could we switch subsidies from corn to, say, broccoli?

No, you can’t subsidize perishable crops. You can’t store them. As soon as you subsidize anything, you have a crisis of overproduction. I think what you have to do is subsidize demand when it comes to specialty crops, and we’re doing that. We have this fresh produce in the schools, or fresh fruit in the schools, it’s all been a boon to California agriculture. … You need to give farmers’ market vouchers to everybody receiving food stamps, or fresh produce vouchers to everybody receiving WIC [welfare program for mothers]. You increase the demand, which will help people’s health, encourage farmers to grow more and perhaps bring down the price.

What about the environmental impact of mono-farming?

It’s tremendous! The only way you can keep monocultures alive—and this is not just corn or soy, this is anything—is with lots of synthetic fertilizer. Because if you leave the same crop on the land for too long, it depletes the nutrients. Mono-cropping has a very high pest load. As soon as you have a million acres of almonds, or broccoli, you’re going to get the associated pests, their population will explode. One of the very important issues of diversifying agriculture is that it’s a very good way to control pests, and this goes for even different varieties of the same crop. We found in China that if they alternate different types of rice every 10 rows or 50 rows, they cut way down on disease. This is nature’s strategy for controlling diseases—biodiversity. The pests of one crop or one animal are not likely going to be the pests of another. It’s very important that we diversify our landscape for the benefit of the environment.

You’ve laid out the problems really well. So I’m going to let the Food Fairy give you three wishes. Let’s remove all politics from the equation. As food czar, what three wishes would you put into place?

Well, I think the first thing I would do is reform school lunch. Nothing would do more to change the food system than if we were willing to spend more on our kids’ lunch. We need to have a garden in every school so we teach kids where food comes from, because they don’t know, and they need to be reminded. When kids garden, they actually eat vegetables. It’s much more appealing for them to eat peas or string beans off of the vine than off of a plate. Then we need cooking classes in the schools to teach them how to cook, because it’s a critically important life skill. We’re not going to get off processed food, which is killing us, unless we actually cook. Many of us just don’t know how to cook. Our parents don’t know, and we didn’t learn in school. Thirdly, we need to teach kids how to eat, to sit down at a table with other people, sit there for a while, and eat in a civilized manner. Now that sounds paternalistic, but it’s important to remember that we are, right now, teaching kids how to eat, when you give them chicken nuggets and tater tots in school and 10 minutes to eat them in. We’re teaching kids how to become fast-food consumers, and that’s the last thing we need.

I’m going to add one other wish to this plan—that we require every school district to spend a certain small percentage of their food budget on locally grown food—food grown within 100 miles of the school, let’s say. This would have so many good effects. It would begin to change the food culture. You would stimulate local food economies. The food would be fresher; it would not travel as far, it would not use as much energy to get to the schools, and you would do a great deal for the health of our children.

Great, well, you’ve got two more wishes.

Another wish would be that the government, if it’s serious about combating climate change, really takes a good, hard look at agriculture, and includes agriculture in whatever carbon-trading scheme we come up with, with a set of very well-designed carrots and sticks. The environmentalists really just want sticks, the industry just wants carrots, but you need both. If you rewarded farmers for sequestering carbon in their land, which they can do by going back to perennials and grazing animals on grass or by simply growing sustainably, [farmers would respond to the incentive]. Then you have sticks, which is to say, when feedlots have huge manure lagoons which they don’t treat, and all the nitrous oxide and methane that emerge from those … there should be a penalty for that. We can’t just look at carbon, we have to look at these other greenhouse gasses, which are more serious in some ways. Methane traps about 300 times as much heat as carbon. It’s not as long-lived in the atmosphere, but it has a real short-term, serious impact. Nitrous oxide, from nitrogen fertilizers, is another serious greenhouse gas. We need to penalize bad practices in regard to climate change and reward good practices. That’s wish No. 2. I get one more, right?

You get one more. It’s a very generous Food Fairy.

This is great; this is fun. I would hire America’s best architects, the best architect in each city, and give them a commission to design a four-season farmers’ market, especially in the underserved neighborhoods of those cities. Four-season farmers’ markets, for those of us in California, it means nothing, we have them already. But in the rest of the country, you would have to enclose them. So I’m thinking about beautiful buildings, like you see in La Bocarilla in Barcelona, or the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia … places where farmers can rent the stalls at a reasonable price, all year long, that have counters where you can have fresh food cooked for you. These would do a lot to revitalize blighted neighborhoods, and they would do a lot to stimulate local agriculture. I think that would be a great legacy for this administration. I offered them that idea, free of charge.

Well, you’ve been very good with your wishes.

Yeah, some of them are a little pricey. The school-lunch one is very pricey.

If you factored in the health changes, do you think that it would [make it more affordable]?

Well, exactly. At the end of the day, it will be cheap. Changing school lunches is a down payment on health-care reform, it really is, because if we can change the diet, we will save a lot of money. It will take a while. The CDC estimates that one in three American children are going to get type 2 diabetes. In New York City, where there is a real public-health system, apparently each new case of type 2 diabetes will cost the city $500,000. Averting that is a tremendous savings. Type 2 diabetes is very expensive to treat, and it’s a lifelong sentence. So, you would save that money, you would get it back. But our accounting doesn’t really help with that, because we don’t see spending on food, on school lunch, as an investment in health care. But we need to. We need to connect those dots.

Here in Sacramento, there’s been kind of this bizarre coalition of government types, who like the increased amount of dollars per acre that one gets from growing specialty crops, and the positive environmental and health aspects, and the potential eco-tourism. There’s this unusual coalition that wouldn’t normally work together who share common interests that make sense, and who they’re opposing a lot of times is the food industry.

Yeah, well, the food industry, remember, has a different model, which is to take simple foods—cheap foods—and process them as much as possible. You make the profit in the processing. Whereas if you’re growing specialty crops, that food is less processed, generally, and more of the dollars go to the farmer and less to the processor. That’s where that tension comes from. [The processors] would rather people grew just rice and corn and soy and wheat, and let them do the magic to turn that into food, rather than grow real food. I actually think, given the trend, California is in a great position, because its agriculture is much more geared toward growing real food. There are problems with our monocultures, pollution, and obviously water is a tremendous issue. But by and large, California is growing the food we all need to eat more of, and as the American diet comes under the microscope and people start looking at how much we’re paying for the way we’re eating, I think that attention will flow more toward fresh produce. Obviously, that’s what California is really good at.