A Conversation with Michael Pollan
In your latest book – In Defense of Food – you write that the principles of Slow Food “may still sound like an elitist club for foodies”. Hasn’t there been some progress in how the movement is perceived in the US?
Many people in the American media still think of Slow Food in this way. But that changed a lot in the last months. Slow Food Nation went a long way towards changing the image of Slow Food in the US. It underscored to people that there was a very serious critic of the industrialized food system here and some very concrete proposals on how to change it and that it is not just a dining club for affluent foodies.
Nevertheless, many people in Europe and the US would argue that sustainable agriculture remains a privilege of the rich and that industrial food is a necessity to feed the world.
This is the argument that has been sustained by industrial agriculture for a long time: that there is not enough farmland to feed everybody and that you need to maximise production. There are some problems with that: one is that this model depends on cheap fossil fuel, which we won’t have. So it is not a choice. We will have to learn how to feed the world with less fossil fuel energy. Those big monocultures of corn, wheat, rice, cotton and soy, which are the basis of the industrial food system, depend on tremendous amounts of fossil fuel for the fertilizers, for the pesticides and for transportation. Whether you think that’s a good idea or not, it is going to have to change. We have to figure out how to grow more food with less oil. Sustainable food is a way to do that.
But can sustainable agriculture feed the world?
The honest answer is: we don’t know, because we have not tried. However, in the same way we have to figure out how to run an industrial civilization with less fossil fuel, we have to figure out how to grow food with less fossil fuel. There is a lot of evidence that it can be done. We have seen small farms that are more productive than big farms. We have seen that polycultures, which require less fossil fuel, can grow more real food. We have to keep in mind that all this high yield, commodity agriculture is not producing real food. 50 % of what we are growing is feed for animals and another 10% is food for our cars. Ethanol and biofuel are industrial raw materials, not food people can eat. If we would grow food people can actually eat, there would be plenty of land. I question the assumption of the argument that you need industrial agriculture to feed the world. We are not feeding the world. We are feeding animals and cars and people are going hungry with this system. The idea of Slow Food to grow real food near to where people are going to eat it has enormous potential. But it will take a lot of time and work. We will need to put the kind of research and development that we put into industrial food into polycultural agriculture.
Both your presidential candidates though, officially declared that they want to keep producing and subsidizing biofuel.
One of the problems in America is that when you want to get elected president, you have to pass through Iowa. And when you go to Iowa, you have to bow down before crop subsidies and ethanol. Both candidates did it. But I also have a feeling that as president they will both back off from biofuel and ethanol option because of its destabilizing effects on the world.
Still, one does have the impression that politicians do not realize all the impacts our food chain has on society. Is it – as you like to put it – really enough to vote with your fork?
You’re right; the politicians don’t recognize that yet. It is, of course, not enough to vote with your fork. The only people that will vote with their forks are the ones who can afford alternatives. What we need is changes in our national policy and that is going to take political leadership. We are building a constituency for that kind of change and Slow Food, I hope, will contribute to that process. The problems that are on the agenda and that both candidates talk about, are in a large part food problems. The issue will force itself on the attention of the next president.
Isn’t that a bit too optimistic? Although Senator Obama is talking about introducing a national health care system, it still seems that food, as an issue, has largely been forgotten in the presidential campaign.
Yes, that was his plan. If, after the financial crisis, he will have enough money to do that, is another question. In any case: whoever becomes the next president will have to deal with the food system and that is because they can’t make progress on the health care crisis, on the energy crisis and on the climate change crisis, without dealing with the food system. If you look closely, food plays a very important role in all three problems. The main reason health care costs are so high in this country – they stand for 16% of our national product – is the fact that we have such a high level of diet related chronic diseases. Heart disease, type 2 diabetes, many types of cancer… Unless you deal with the catastrophe that is the western diet, you cannot deal with the health care crisis. From looking at his statements about diet and healthcare costs, I believe Obama understands that. You cannot deal with climate change without dealing with the biggest part of the economy, the food economy. Agriculture contributes somewhere between 20 and 30 % of greenhouse gases. And it is also responsible for 20% of the fossil fuel energy we’re consuming.
Does that mean that we are at a political turning point in confronting these problems?
One can say that we are approaching a turning point. We haven’t got there yet, but the crisis is near.
Your work seems to become more and more political. Are you questioning the American principals of the free market and free trade?
The free market is a myth. There is not such a thing. We like to flatter ourselves by saying it is a free market. But especially concerning agriculture, the government – at least since the depression – is deeply involved. We talk a lot about free trade, but it is not what we have. It is very unfair to insist that poor countries practice free trade, while we practice subsidized trade. We can change the food system without giving up on the free market. But the food system has not been a creation of the free market. It is a creation of a set of agricultural policies of the government here and in Europe. It is a game and it is played by a set of rules that are determinate by the government, who has encouraged agriculture to get very big and monocultural and to rely on fossil fuels. We subsidize soy and corn and wheat and rice, we don’t subsidize fresh food and vegetables. I think we have to change the rules by which the free market plays. Only then it will play the game we want it to play.
One subject you do not mention is the problem of illegal workers on which European and American agriculture is relying nowadays.
It is one of the failings of the food movement, not to have considered the workers. I know it’s a principle of Carlo Petrini’s. According to him, food must be good, clean and fair, where fair stands for paying a fair wage to the people growing the food. Still, we did not spend enough time dealing with that problem and there’s a lot to be done. But the illegal immigration problems are also connected to our agricultural policies. Our free trade pool with Mexico led to a dumping of American corn on the Mexican market. It bankrupted 1.5 million Mexican farmers, many of whom are now illegal immigrants in the US. It is all connected. What you want is agricultural politics in the first world, that allow farmers in the developing world to stay on their land and not to be forced to come to work for slave wages in the US. I admit that we tend to overlook that problem.
A long passage of The Omnivore’s Dilemma is dedicated to the ethics of meat eating. Your conclusion is that it is morally correct to eat meat.
Everyone has to resolve the question of eating animals for themselves. I have deep respect for people who come to a different conclusion than me and believe that it is, in fact immoral. But if you look at it in an ecological way and not in the perspective of human rights – and so far these people are applying human rights – then you see that there is a place for sustainable meat production. On a farm it is very hard to have sustainable agriculture without animals to recycle nutrients. There are also many animals, which would not exist without agriculture. There are domesticated animals that have made an evolutionary bargain with us. We take care of them and in exchange we eat them. This has allowed their population to survive and in many cases to soar. There is also the fact that there are many places in the world where meat production or dairy production is the most sustainable way to take food off of the land. I am talking about hilly areas, with poor soil where grass grows and raw crops do not. I don’t know how you’d feed people in those areas without animals. There is definitely a place for meat agriculture. But this is not to defend the way it is practiced today, which is unsustainable, brutal and incredibly wasteful. We need to look at the environmental footprint of meat eating, which is very large indeed. The UN estimates that it is responsible for 17-18% of climate change. When in In Defense of Food I recommend to eat mostly plants, I mean that eating meat is all right, and that it is good, nutritious and delicious food, but we are eating way to much of it, for our own health and that of the planet.
But isn’t it also an ethical problem that we only eat some parts of the animal while we throw others away or sell them to poorer countries?
Ethical meat eating is respectful of the whole animal and means not to waste anything. It is a big mistake that we essentially only eat the muscles. If you look at other cultures, like hunter and gatherer cultures for example, they eat the organs first. In a well-raised animal, the organs are the healthiest part, containing the most vitamins and nutrients. We should eat those parts. The problem is that in industrial meat production, the organs collect the toxins and are not that healthy. In the American feedlots, the livers are very often abscessed and infected because of the bad diet, specifically, the corn diet. Most of the livers have to be thrown out. If you give your animals chemicals, and put chemicals in their feed, these supposedly healthy parts of the animals are not going to be that healthy. This is really healthy food they are polluting with a bad diet. First you have to clean up the agriculture and grow the animals right and then you can eat the organs. The problem is also connected with subsidies. Because of subsidies, feedlots can buy grain for less than it costs to grow it. Therefore, it is more efficient to raise animals in feedlots than on farms.
The topic of meat and its production is an important part of your work, fish isn’t. Is that because fish is an even more delicate subject?
I have not looked at fish very closely yet. It is also a difficult case. When it comes to fish, what is best for our health is not best for the environment. In general, eating sustainably will give you the healthiest food. It is best for the land, it is best for the animals, and it is best for the eaters and for taste. A part from the financial aspects, there are no trade-offs. When it gets to fish, there are some trade-offs. We all need it, it is very healthy food, but there are not enough fish left. So it is hard to recommend people to eat a lot of fish, when this could be leading to a crash in the world’s fisheries.
What about aquaculture?
Developing a truly sustainable fish farming is as important as it is difficult. First of all we need to farm fish that can be grown without using other fish for feed.
Those are the fish that the market does not want.
It is true that the consumers are not so excited about catfish and tilapia. We have to figure out how to grow fish we like and how to do it on land, in closed systems. Fish can be part of permacultural systems; it can produce nutrients and fertilizers for fields etc. I see a lot of potential here. Generally speaking, permaculture is something we need to take a much closer look at. But there are also still some sustainable fisheries in the wild. What we need here are stricter laws. We need to get more inefficiency in the system. We are too good in catching fish.
Some people would say that the pleasure of eating does not play as an important part in your work as it does in Carlo Petrini’s, for example.
Maybe it doesn’t by Italian standards (laughs), by American, it does! A big part of Slow Food’s contribution is to show us that pleasure and politics do not need to be in conflict. I take great pleasure in food. But it is pleasure informed by knowledge about how the food was made and who grew it and how it got to my plate. One of the messages of my book is that the most pleasurable way to eat also happens to be the most sustainable and socially responsible. That is why I feel such a spiritual kinship with the Slow Food movement. Americans generally think pleasure and politics are opposites. It is Carlo’s single contribution, when he is suggesting that they can be reconciled. It is not easy but it can be done. Pleasure of food is not only for the affluent and should be available to everybody. The pleasure of working to produce food is something we have to think about too. Farm work should be pleasurable. Most Americans have trouble understanding that a movement dedicated to pleasure could be serious. That is one of the reasons why Slow Food has had a frivolous image in this country, until now. But that is changing.
Georges Desrues, Austria, is a journalist and student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences
First published in Slowfood (38)