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As he sows: An interview with Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan, the acclaimed author of five books, including The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, will be in Madison next week for a series of events as part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Go Big Read common-reading program and this year's Food for Thought Festival.

The following interview, used in preparation for the cover story about Pollan in the Sept. 18 edition of Isthmus, was conducted by phone on Aug. 24, 2009 and recorded with permission. This is an edited transcript.

Bill Lueders: You probably hear this every single day but I love your writing.
Michael Pollan: I never tire of hearing it.

In Defense of Food felt different from your other books. You sort of morphed from reporter to advocate, and that's kind of changed your status, from journalist to leader of the sustainable food movement. Has it been a comfortable transition or are you conflicted by your new political role?
I'm definitely conflicted by it because I feel I'm primarily a writer, a journalist, and even though I'm doing advocacy work it must be rooted in the primacy of the individual voice, and not in movement politics.

It's true that In Defense of Food was a much more prescriptive book than I've written before, and in that sense it's a departure. But it really grew out of so many people who read Omnivore's Dilemma who wanted me to take the next step, to say, "Okay, I know all this, now what do I do?"

It was a more politically calculated book. I was trying to answer a question for myself, which is always the wellspring of journalism. But I also wanted to bring people into the movement, people who aren't necessarily political about their food choices but are concerned about their health.

It expanded your base but also put you at the center of the movement.
Yeah, and that part of it is, you know, kind of beyond my skill set. Writing is what I like doing, and my contribution to the movement, such as it is, will come through my writing, not through any kind of political work.

I mean, there was a whole movement to draft me for secretary of agriculture, which is my idea of a complete nightmare job. It was not a smart idea on anybody's part. Maybe it sent a message and helped the new administration see this movement out there, but I write as one and I speak as one person. And that's the difference between acting politically, and acting as a writer.

When [former Iowa Gov. Tom] Vilsack was appointed, I was asked what I thought. I gave a modest personal answer, which may not have been smart politically. I said something like it was a good day for corn, not so good for America's eaters, and I said it was agribusiness as usual. And a lot of activists were kind of ticked at me, they said: "We're trying to get in with this guy. We think we can work with him. So keep your powder dry." I kept hearing that.

And so I realized that when something like that happens, there's a tactical response and there's the individual writer's response, and I'm only comfortable with the latter.

When it comes to food, do you see yourself as being a man on a mission?
Well, I have a strong point of view. I have arguments to make. But they're very much based in my investigations as a journalist, and my research. I come to conclusions, and I advocate for things, but…I'm still a journalist.

The point at which the need to be part of a movement forces you to accept things you don't believe in the spirit of compromise -- all that sort of stuff, the heart and soul of politics, is not the heart and soul of journalism.

So, look, I support organic agriculture, but I've written very critically about it, and I hope that when the food movement starts making big mistakes I'll be able to write about it, and not just kind of bite my tongue because I generally agree with what they're doing. So I pride my independence as a writer, even though I advocate for things other people are advocating for. Other people have to do the politics.

Do you in your own life consistently follow the rules set forth at the end of In Defense of Food?
(Laughing) Yes, to a great extent. Every now and then, I'll find myself in a fast-food outlet with my son, partly because I don't impose all my beliefs on him.

Do you find these rules hard to keep?
No, I don't. I find eating this way enormously pleasurable. It takes more money and it takes more time, but I feel strongly it's time and money well spent. I do live in a bubble, in Berkeley, and eating this way is easier here than a lot of places. You know, there are three different lines of grass-fed beef at the supermarket where I shop. I can get it from Uruguay, I can get it from two places in California. So I do live in an unusual place, although I think that these things will be available to everybody fairly soon.

But there is the escape hatch of special occasions, where you eat things that don't exactly conform to your ideals. And I think it's important that people understand it's not an all-or-nothing proposition. In voting with your fork, you're not going to get it right three times a day. You're going to find yourself in a restaurant where you can't, or you're going to find yourself a guest at somebody's house, or you're just going to have a Big Mac attack.

The important thing is to get it right when you can, because a lot of people give up if they find they can't be absolutely consistently faithful to their ideals. They then throw out their ideals, and that's a bigger mistake."

That's a very similar argument to what Karen Dawn makes, that if you're too hardcore about a vegan diet you lose people.
That's right. I don't want people to lose track of the fact that pleasure is a very important part of this, and being neurotic about eating is not good for your health. You know, there's a great M.F.K. Fisher quote: "All things in moderation, including moderation." I think she's got the right idea.

Have you heard any criticism of your food books that you thought was on the mark?
One criticism of Omnivore that I thought was valid is that I paid a lot more attention to the welfare of animals than I did to the welfare of people in the food system -- farm workers, for example. I haven't been as sensitive to the labor issues involved, the people who work on the farm. And I think that's a fault of the book.

Some people draw conclusions about what you're saying that aren't always right, like: He's a locavore; he's coming out for all local food all the time. And that's because I spent a lot of time highlighting a brilliant local farmer, in Joel Salatin.

So there's always a tension between being overly explicit and letting the story tell itself. And, as a writer, you always want to show rather than tell and let the reader draw conclusions. But sometimes people are looking for more. They really want guidance. They really want conclusions. They really want a set of policies and prescriptions. So I've answered that criticism with other things I've written, both In Defense of Food and the "Farmer-in-Chief" article I wrote about policy.

In an interview with Time magazine in October 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama mentioned an article you had written in The New York Times about food production and global warming. Have you heard or seen anything since he took office that suggests he's taken your ideas to heart?
Many people have these ideas, and I don't take credit for anything positive that's come out of the administration. But several positive things have come out. Vilsack has turned out to be friendlier to local food and sustainable agriculture than anyone had expected. I think Michelle Obama planting a garden on the White House lawn and the way she's been talking about this has been very important and very galvanizing.

And just the other day, Obama was talking about the importance of having schools provide healthier local food. We'll see what comes of this; this is mostly still talk. But that's not the way we've ever heard a president talking about food and health. He's really making the link between the American diet and the health care crisis. Now. He's making it rhetorically; we'll see if he can make it in terms of policy. But the words at least are very encouraging.

I think what's key is that Obama and Vilsack and Michelle Obama understand that the food chain is a key part of the three crises we face: the health-care crisis, climate change crisis, energy crisis. I think they get that. But it's a long way to address it with changes in policy.

I've heard you say you were surprised to learn how big a factor our food system is in global warming, accounting for 25% to 33% of the climate change gases. Why do you think Al Gore never mentions the food system or urges changes in how people eat in An Inconvenient Truth and in his standard lecture?
I don't know, and I'm reluctant to speculate, but a lot of people have talked to him about this, myself among them. I gave a speech on this subject while he was sitting there in the front row. It was a great opportunity. And I understand he's doing a new book about solutions, what people can do about climate change, and there's a section on food in this book. So my guess is he just wasn't aware of it.

Besides the dust-up at Washington State University, have you seen other signs that agribusiness considers you something of a threat and would like to minimize your influence?
(Laughing) Yeah, I think that there are more and more of those signs. I think there is a counteroffensive that's taking shape. Did you see the article by Blake Hurst? He's a Farm Bureau guy. It was published in the Journal of the American Enterprise Institute. And then there was another one in a meat magazine.

I think Food Inc., the documentary, has convinced the industry they really need to start responding. Now this is all to the good. This is a debate I welcome. They've kind of ignored those who criticize the system, and been very dismissive. And now they're joining the debate. And that's exactly what we need. We need a debate about the future of food and farming in America.

Hurst writes as a farmer, and I think this is part of industry's tactic, which is to lead with farmers. And that particular tack was cast very much in the framework of the culture war: Intellectuals against farmers. And it overlooked the fact that there are many farmers making this critique, even before I did.

I do object to is this contention that I'm anti-farmer. There is a real effort to cast the critique as blaming farmers -- that we're blaming farmers for the health care crisis, for obesity, for climate change. And that's just rhetoric. I'm blaming the system. I'm blaming a set of incentives. A system in which many farmers really feel trapped.

Now that you work for a major university…
(Laughing) A land-grant university, I might add.

…can you comment on whether you think funding from agribusiness in areas like food science and the study of agriculture is corrupting the academic agenda?
Well, corrupt is a strong word. [Agribusiness funding] has an effect on the academic agenda, and it is one of the reasons you see so much support for biotech solutions to agricultural problems rather than sustainable solutions. For example, there's so much emphasis, both in the political debate and the research agenda, on genetic modification, and you would not know that conventional crop breeding has achieved more [than biotech] in the last 20 years in terms of increasing yield.

As soon as you allow industry to fund your agricultural research, you're going to find yourself working on products to sell to farmers rather than processes that farmers can adopt. That's not a question of corruption. That's just the way capitalism works.

But let's say what is most needed are really clever new [crop] rotations for the Farm Belt, or figuring out ways to incorporate livestock. Who's going to get rich from that research? It's not intellectual property, so it doesn't get funded. That's a powerful reason why you need the public sector involved -- not exclusively, but substantially -- so the research can reflect what farmers need and the public needs, not what the input suppliers need.

It's been interesting to watch your career evolve book by book; the connections from the garden to the building of a dwelling to getting into the issues of plants and then agriculture and then eating, and now onto cooking and cultural rules on eating.…
There are two different projects there. I'm doing a book in January called Food Rules, a compendium of cultural wisdom on food. It's a pamphlet, more than a book -- it's 60 pages, 60 rules and a paragraph on each one. It's kind of really simplifying the message as much as I can, for people who don't want to read a whole book, don't want to know the background, don't want to know the science, but just want some guidance on how to eat, and that's not framed in the language of science, but culture.

Cooking's a separate thing. I've gotten very interested in cooking and writing about cooking. Because I realize, the more than I look at this whole question, I've looked at it kind of on the supply side -- that is, we produce too much corn and soy so we end up with too much processed food. But of course there's a demand side too, with the collapse of cooking. And I don't think we're going to make real progress on the food system unless we start cooking again. So I think it's a very important part of the puzzle.

Have you thought about where it's all going to end?
(Laughing) For me or the food system?

For you, this progression.
Yeah, no, who knows where it's going to end? I don't want to know. I mean, there are areas I haven't looked at. I haven't really done a look at the global food situation. I started working on that last summer and want to do more. But I haven't been in a position to do the kind of travel I want to do for that. I haven't been to Africa. I haven't been to Asia, and at some point I want to do that, and figure out: You know, all right, how do you feed the world, going forward, and what is the role of sustainable agriculture in Africa or Asia? And do we need these biotech seeds to feed the world, as people contend?

So I'm very interested in those kind of questions, the food crisis that we have and is coming.

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