Michael Pollan: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

With The Omnivore’s Dilemma, an unflinching look at America’s foodways and politics, author Michael Pollan has been propelled to the forefront of the food scene, becoming a spokesperson for better eating across the country. The idea that we need to pay better attention to where our food comes from is not new to Pollan’s work — his previous book, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, about the relationship between humans and plants, was already popular among “serious” food people — but it seems fair to say that his current level of mainstream appeal is at its highest. A survey of articles, Web sites, and blogs reveals that an army of people have changed the way they eat because of this book. We charged writer Anne E. McBride with talking to Pollan to find out a little bit more about the making, and the maker, of such a masterpiece. But it wasn’t easy pinning him down. When he’s not traveling the country to discuss topics brought up in The Omnivore’s Dilemma or researching pieces for the New York Times Magazine, he’s at work as director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley.

Anne E. McBride: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Michael. The publication of The Omnivore’s Dilemma has had quite an effect on the food world and people in general.

MP: It’s been an amazing year. There’s been so much interest in the issue [of foodways and food politics], I feel like I’ve been riding a wave of concern and excitement around food.

AM: I think it reflects how your book has affected the food world, and people in general.

MP: It’s been an amazing year. There’s been so much interest in the issue [of foodways and food politics], I feel like I’ve been riding a wave of concern and excitement around food.

AM: Why do you say that?

MP: Well, the energy that I felt when I was out on the road, talking about the book. It wasn’t the only book on food — there were several successful books — but our culture, for some reason, has turned its attention to the issues of the food system in a way that it hadn’t in a very long time. I don’t know what sparked it. Later in 2006, of course, there was the concern about E. coli and spinach, and that whole recall did turn people’s attention. Every time we have one of those crises, it becomes a teachable moment, and people start paying attention to where their food comes from. But obviously it was happening last spring, too.

At a time of enormous political frustration, the food issue seems a little bit more tractable. You feel like you can do more about it than you can about the war in Iraq, or any number of other problems that we have, because there is something that every individual can do. We don’t always feel that. A lot of political energy in our culture is flying to the food issue because it seems much more manageable and tractable than many of the other issues we face. I think that’s part of what I was feeling: The energy I was sensing in audiences was political energy, as much as anything else.

AM: Is that really true, that people can do something about it? Granted, certain people can. Probably the people who are reading your book can afford do more about it than the people whose biggest worry is just surviving.

MP: There is definitely a class issue here. To do the right thing, when it comes to food choices, takes more money, there’s no question about that. It’s one of the biggest problems we face. But there are a lot of Americans — more than half, I would say — who have the wherewithal to spend a little bit more money on better food choices. I think, in a large part — certainly for my audience, probably for your audience — it’s a matter of priority rather than affordability. We spend a remarkably small, shamefully small, percentage of our income on food. We manage to spend money on lots of other things. All up and down the social ladder you find people with plenty of money for cell phones, home entertainment systems, all other forms of entertainment. Look at television: 80 or 90 percent of folks spend more than $50 a month on television. It used to be free. Yes, there is a problem at the very lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. But for most of the population, there is a lot of money that could be spent, if people decided it was worthwhile.

AM: What about access? You’ve been critical of poor inventory at supermarkets, and even stores like Whole Foods. And it’s true that organic products at Wal-Mart are not going to be small-farm organic products. But is there some good even in that because it means that people who may not have farmers’ markets in their neighborhood can have access to better food?

MP: Yes. I think that Wal-Mart and Safeway and other companies getting into organic is your classic good news-bad news story. There’s a very good side to it. You’re right: It makes organic accessible to many more people who were never exposed to it before. It will drive down the price of organic, which means that, in the process, millions of acres of farmland in America will not get treated with various toxic pesticides and fertilizers, and that’s a very good thing.

The food system is a very complex beast. There are people who are going to get their food at Wal-Mart or at Safeway; they’re not going to the farmers’ market; they’re not going to join a CSA [a group for community supported agriculture]. Those people need choices too. So the fact that organic will now be available where they shop is a very healthy and happy thing.

AM: Let’s talk about the book more specifically. What is the dilemma of today’s omnivore? How do you define it?

MP: There are a couple of different dilemmas. The basic dilemma is: What do you eat when you can eat just about everything? There’s a set of nutritional answers that people are struggling for. What are the healthy foods to eat? There’s also a set of ethical dilemmas. If you want to eat ethically, should you eat organic or conventional? Should you eat local or organic? Should you eat meat at all? Those are really hard questions. And there is really no simple answer. The answer really depends on what matters to you, what your values are.

Energy, for example, is a big part of the food story. Seventy percent of our fossil fuel goes to feeding ourselves, in this country. If you care about energy, you really should look at local food, which has a much lighter environmental footprint. You should get out of the supermarket and go to the farmers’ market or join a CSA. If you care about the animals, actually, organic might not be the best answer because now we have organic feedlots, organic factory farms. If you care about the environment — pesticides, especially — organic is the answer. You see, it all depends on what values are driving your decisions. We all have different priorities. There’s no one single set of ethical rules.

My hope is that if people have the knowledge, and if they actually see where their food comes from and have access to the information, they will make better ethical choices. Whatever those choices are, they’ll be better than eating in ignorance, and shopping in ignorance, which is what most Americans today do — because it’s very hard to understand anything about your food. The food chain has gotten so long, so intricate, and so opaque that most people have no ideawhat they’re eating.

The first step towards solving the omnivore’ s dilemma is knowledge: eating with full consciousness. When that happens, I have a lot of confidence that people will make good choices.

AM: The subtitle of your book is A Natural History of Four Meals. What are these meals and how do they weave together to form the book?

MP: The book was a quest to figure out what I was eating and what “food chains” I was a part of, we’re all a part of. So I organized each meal by a food chain. The first meal and food chain, industrial food, culminated in a meal at McDonald’s that all my family ate while on a drive on Route 101 in Marin County, California.

The second meal was an organic meal that was bought at Whole Foods, here in Berkeley. It was what I call “industrial organic,” meaning all the food in it was organic but came from big farms and had traveled a great distance. There was asparagus from Chile, berries from Mexico — the kind of globalized organic food that is becoming increasingly prevalent.

Then I had a local meal that was prepared within a single food shed in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. Most of the food came from a single farm, where I spent a week working as a farm hand. It was Joel Salatin’s Polyface farm. The meal was made from food that Joel had grown or that came from that very specific area. Nothing had ever been on a truck or traveled very far. The meal consisted of chickens I had participated in killing and cleaning, eggs from Joel’s farm, and corn that Joel had grown. It’s a very elaborate polyculture. The fact that you can get a whole meal out of a single farm sets it apart, makes it very distinctive actually, because that’s generally not the case.

The last meal of the four was, in a way, the most fanciful. That was the meal that I had hunted, gathered, and grown myself. I went boar hunting, I went hunting for morel mushrooms, I grew fava beans and some other things. I just wanted to see if I could do the whole thing myself, do a meal to which no barcode had ever been attached, no money had ever been spent, put together the old-fashioned way. I had never hunted before, and I didn’t know much about hunting mushrooms. In a way, that was, for my money, the most successful meal, because it was the most transparent of all, the shortest food chain of all.

AM: Was it the tastiest, too?

MP: [a bit proud] I would say it was, yes. I thought it was a delicious meal. I don’t want to sound conceited about it, but wild boar is delicious meat, and an enormous amount of care went into getting and cooking it. Although, the second-to-last meal, from Joel Salatin’s farm, was pretty good, too. Taste has to do with what’s in your head as well as what you feel on your tongue. With the fourth meal, the one I foraged for myself, there was a great sense of satisfaction, almost a spiritual satisfaction, because I had seen the whole process. I could imagine the trees, the forest that fed these pigs, fed these mushrooms. I understood the precise sacrifice — life — and the effort that went into this meal. So it was almost a ritual meal, a kind of seder for me. Because it was really about a basic relationship to the natural world. It was a reminder that, in the end, what feeds us is nature — not industry, not the food system, not the industry of food, but these species. That’s a very powerful thing to be reminded of.

AM: Did you select these meals after you had selected the structure of the book? In which order did that take place?

MP: I knew that I wanted to deal with these different food chains. Then I wanted to eat and describe meals that were at the end result of these food chains. To some extent, the food chain dictated the meal. I knew, for example, that industrial food would end up at McDonald’s. But I also knew where I wanted to end up. Also, a lot depended on factors such as what I could hunt and gather, what was growing on Joel Salatin’s farm. So it was a little bit of both.

AM: When did you decide to write The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and how did you decide to write it?

MP: I’ve been writing about nature, and the places where the natural and the human worlds intersect, for a long time. I’ve written about gardens, I’ve written about domesticated plants, I’ve written about architecture. So it seems to me that since my real interest is how we engage with the natural world in our everyday lives, that food, sooner or later, would come into it. At the end of my last book, The Botany of Desire, I had written about the food system to some extent. I wrote about genetically modified potatoes, and learned a lot then about industrial and organic food. Also, I wrote a series of articles for the New York Times Magazine. Then, somewhere around 2002, I decided that I wanted to write a whole book about food, and that I would approach it as a naturalist instead of a food critic. I was looking at our eating the way an ecologist, say, looks at any species eating. You can understand a lot about a species by what it eats, and what eats it. So I knew what my perspective was, and that I wanted to look at food chains. Then I was off.

AM: You call yourself a “natural historian.” What exactly is that, and how do you take to food. Can you expand a bit on what you explained in your previous answer?

MP: A natural historian is somebody who looks at something in terms of its relationship to the rest of the natural world. You look at things ecologically. When you see a cow on a feedlot, you don’t just see a cow; you see a cow that is eating certain food. You follow that food and that food takes you back to a corn field. Then, you actually follow that corn and you look at how they grow that corn, and you see that they’re using fossil fuel fertilizer. So you realize: that cornfield is attached to that cow, but it’s also attached to the oil economy because that’s where you get that fossil fuel fertilizer. A natural historian looks at food in terms of its ecological relationships and sees the whole web in which we are implicated and in which the animals and plants we eat are implicated. We are trying to trace food back to that fundamental relationship, which is photosynthesis. [grows more animated] Everything we eat begins with a plant turning solar energy into carbohydrates. Everything. Whether we’re eating meat or eating vegetables, it all begins there. So I’m always interested in taking things back to the beginning.

AM: Have you had scientific training?

MP: I have no scientific training at all. I was an English major in school. Everything I learned about science I’ve learned as a journalist would, finding out what I needed to know. I’ve always been interested in plants because I’m a gardener, so I have a basic understanding of botany and things like that, but it’s all self-taught.

AM: You never felt you had to take a course, to fill in the gaps or anything like that?

MP: No. [sounds pensive] You know, I probably should [laughs]. I have the wrong education for what I ended up doing, there’s no question about that.

One of the skills of a journalist, though, is to find people who can teach him what he needs to know. So instead of taking courses, I’ve been very lucky in that I found teachers — scientists, especially — who were willing to teach me what I needed to know, whether it was about genetically modified crops or how photosynthesis works, and so on. I just find my teachers and don’t have to pay for my education.

AM: One of my biggest gripes about food writing is that too many people write, but they’re not really journalists so they’re not really reporting their stories.

MP: I think that’s true. It’s very important to get out, to do reporting. It’s also really interesting. I come at it as a journalist, and I think that’s helped me, and I come at it as someone who sees nature wherever he looks, and that helps, too. People forget that eating represents their most profound engagement with the natural world. Through our agriculture is how we change the world, more than anything else we do.

AM: That brings up something else that you discuss in your book: the fact that food companies have a large hand in the way we eat today, as does the government.

MP: Yes. There’s no question that the way we eat is in large part determined by legislation, the Farm Bill in particular. There’s a set of rules for the food system, and those rules are written into the Farm Bill. Most of us are unaware of this bill and don’t understand how this whole system works. The reason that fast-food is so cheap is in large part because we subsidize the growing of corn and soybeans, which are turned into livestock feed very cheaply, and the former into a very cheap sweetener, in the case of high-fructose corn syrup. So we unwittingly made a set of choices, without any of us really being consulted about how we would eat. It’s no accident that this is a fast-food nation. Policy has a lot to do with it. So if you’re going to change the food system, there is a lot that you, the consumer, can do on your own; but in the end, it will be very important to make changes at the national level.

AM: You talked about that in the article you wrote for The Nation’s food issue earlier this fall. Why do you think people don’t care about the Farm Bill and what it says?

MP: I think the people involved don’t want anyone else getting involved. It works really well for them that it’s treated as a parochial piece of legislation only of interest to the senators from Iowa or Nebraska or Illinois. Part of it starts with calling it the “Farm Bill.” Nobody thinks that farming is their issue. They think it’s a piece of legislation of interest to farmers. It should be called the “Food Bill” because it really is about how we get our food. People aren’t aware of the impact of this piece of legislation. If they were, they would pay more attention, and there would be a larger political debate around it. I’m hoping this year there will be.

AM: Well, your platform is particularly strong right now. Have you thought of using that as a way to bring awareness to things we can do, for the Farm Bill for example?

MP: I am going to write about the Farm Bill, and I’m organizing a panel discussion about the Farm Bill here in California for later in spring. I do want to shine a light on it. I don’t have any answers, I don’t know exactly what should be in the Farm Bill, and I’m not a policy-maker, but I do think that more people need to pay attention and realize that this is their issue. If you care about food, if you care about the environment, if you care about the land, you’ve got to pay attention to this piece of legislation. I will work to make that awareness happen.

AM: You’re organizing that panel in California, and you’ve done a lot of talks there, as well as in New York and the surrounding area.

MP: Here in Berkeley, I teach a little program in journalism, so I do a lot of programs in connection with that. I do travel around the country. I’m all over the place these days, and I talk about the Farm Bill.

AM: What are some of the differences you feel in audiences between, say, a Midwestern state and New York or California? Are there differences, first of all?

MP: There are very different levels of political energy around the country, right now. I would say that it’s lowest on the East Coast and highest on the West Coast, and that energy levels rise as you travel from east to west. I felt that the people in Chicago and Minneapolis were much more excited about the issue than people in New York or Boston or Washington. When you get to the West Coast — Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, LA — the interest is intense. So it’s like a wave that’s spreading from west to east. And that makes sense. There’s been a lot of innovation in food that emanates from the West Coast. The organic movement has deep roots on the West Coast. But I feel it everywhere. I’m just saying that it’s stronger in the West.

AM: That’s funny! Because people in the food circles in New York feel that the energy is just so strong here, so it’s interesting to hear that that’s actually not the case.

MP: There is a lot of interest in New York, there’s no question. But if you think about the chefsin New York, you get a very small number who are active in the food issue — Peter Hoffman, Dan Barber. Whereas every chef in the Bay Area is deeply involved in sourcing their food with great care, and they know all their farmers and they go to farms. You still have many chefs in New York whose focus is on technique, on what happens in the kitchen, not on the farm.

AM: Do these differences come from the consumers?

MP: I think they do. Eating in New York is still a more hedonistic experience, and eating in the West Coast is a more political experience. That comes out of the ‘60s, and the fact that the food culture in the Bay Area was heavily influenced by Alice Waters. She got into food through politics. I think the ’60s food culture has deeper roots on the West Coast than it does on the East Coast. I’m kind of overdrawing that difference — because there are exceptions to the rule on both sides — but, in general, that’s my take.

Also, real estate prices in New York dictate a different kind of food. Restaurants have to charge a lot more on the East Coast. And if you charge a lot more, you have to dazzle people a lot more. So your clientele becomes much more interested in technique, and it’s not enough to have wonderful ingredients simply prepared, when you’re charging $40 for an entrée. You prepare the kind of things that diners couldn’t conceivably make at home. Whereas a lot of the food you have in California, you could make at home. It’s a cultural and economic difference.

AM: It’s interesting to think that in the marketplace, the foods that have the most done to them, the super-processed foods, are the cheapest.

MP: Yes, that’s right. In a way, the more techniques you apply, the less important the ingredients are. It shouldn’t be that way, but you can get away with it. But if you’re highlighting this astounding artichoke, it’s got to be an astounding artichoke [laughs].

AM: A lot of writers visit Leite’s Culinaria, so let me ask you about your writing process. Can you describe it briefly?

MP: [laughs] That’s a big question! I try very hard to tell stories and not lecture. I try to approach things as an amateur and not an expert, so that when I’m doing something, I’m starting out in a place a lot like where my readers start out — which is to say, naïve.

Most of my stories are stories of education, my education on certain subjects. I work very hard on finding good characters who can explain things to me, and I use them to help tell the story. I organize my pieces not just around people but around animals and plants, energy flows, the path that carbon takes through the food system. I give 14-week courses to explain my writing process to my students, so it’s hard to describe succinctly. I really try to write as an ordinary person would, not as someone who’s too sophisticated about food, or too knowledgeable about things. I also try to write in the first person — the first person not of a journalist but of a carnivore [laughs], an eater, a gardener, someone trying to figure out what to feed his family.

AM: If there’s one thing that you hope the readers of The Omnivore’s Dilemma will take away with them, what would that be?

MP: Eat with consciousness. When you eat with consciousness, and you know what you’re eating, and you eat it in full appreciation of what it is, it’s enormously satisfying. You also confront certain ethical dilemmas. I think it’s important that we do that. One of the most irresponsible things we can do is eat in ignorance, without any awareness of what our eating is doing to the world or to other species. I guess that’s what I would leave them with