Acclaimed writer and activist Michael Pollan visited the College on Oct. 20 to discuss his work related to food, agricultural systems and the environment.
The event, at the MainStage in the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, featured a discussion between Pollan and Henry Art, professor of environmental studies and biology.
Pollan started out by talking about the role of meat in the typical American diet in response to a question by Art, who explained that whwhileen growing up in the Chicago suburbs during the 1950s, his family ate “meat and two veg” for every dinner until the advent of TV dinners.
Pollan described this “protein and two veg” phenomenon as “very much the Anglo-American way of eating. You go around the world and you realize what a bizarre way of eating that is.” In most cultures, meat is used as an accent rather than the bulk of a meal. “It became a mark of affluence in America that we can have that big muscle on our plate,” Pollan said. “Unfortunately, it’s become the aspiration of people all over the world to eat that way. That amount of meat is not only contributing to ill health but, even more importantly, is having a disastrous effect on the climate.”
Pollan elaborated on the “tremendous problems” the industrial food system, particularly that of beef, poses for the environment. Food production contributes about 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and people are only now realizing the size of the problem. In the case of meat production, emissions come from transportation, animals releasing methane during digestion, processing and, in particular, the corn used to increase the speed of cattle growth. The corn is grown with “lots of fossil fuel fertilizer,” which releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas many times worse than carbon dioxide, Pollan said.
Next, Art asked about the trajectory of Pollan’s career – how he transitioned from earning his English major at Bennington College and his master’s degree in English at Columbia to becoming one of the foremost authors and journalists investigating American diets.
Pollan described reading in college about the uniquely American transcendentalist view of nature, a “devotional” attitude toward the landscape. “You never know how your liberal arts education is going to pay off,” he said, to laughs from the audience. However, the “seminal moment” for Pollan, when he dedicated himself to studying the relationship between nature and society, occurred in his garden a few years later. A woodchuck was mowing down the crops, and Pollan did all he could to scare the woodchuck off, until one particularly creative trick, throwing a fire into the animal’s burrow, went awry. “I was thrown back by this flame and sort of shocked into a realization that this was really not the way to get along with an animal or with nature,” Pollan said. He suddenly realized “all my species’s attitude toward the natural world and our sense of entitlement, that we should be able to control and outwit other species.” He started to work on a better approach.
The first step, according to Pollan, was actually pushing back against the transcendentalist “ideology that founded America, [that] the land itself was divine and everything else was profane.” This “cultural baggage about nature” works to protect the small amount of American landmass that is wilderness, Pollan said. However, Pollan does not see an environmental ethic for the large majroity of landmass “where most of us live, grow our food, have our houses.” Pollan started exploring these questions through writing about gardening.
“I got very interested in this human engagement with nature in places where we can’t simply lock it up and throw away the key,” Pollan said. This interest inevitably led his work into the realm of food production “because that is the most powerful way we change the natural world,” in many more ways than we realize, Pollan said.
He told the story of the first time he visited an industrial farm, realizing the differences between how our food is produced and how we want to think it is produced. While Pollan was writing for the New York Times in the late 1990s, the agrochemical company Monsanto invited him to visit a 35,000-acre potato farm in Idaho, where he found the farmer behind “his computer screens, adjusting the water and pesticide and fertilizer, all remotely,” for the whole area. The farmer was growing a certain type of potato with an extremely potent neurotoxin pesticide because these were requirements to sell potatoes to McDonald’s. “I realized then that it was our aesthetic needs for a long French fry, and McDonald’s’ market power, that was dictating [the farmer’s] use of a pesticide he really hated and all the things that flowed from it,” Pollan said.
Pollan then transitioned into the “ideological battle going on between big [agriculture] and journalists and transparency,” including legal protections for environmentally harmful farms such as the one he visited. Speaking on the role of government, he also touched on the issue most personal to the audience: how we should choose what to eat. Government dietary guidelines “reflect in some ways a good faith effort” to communicate nutrition science, but also are the object of major lobbying and “the limitations of a political world in which you can’t say, ‘Eat less meat,’” Pollan said. Pollan’s own advice is simpler, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
The societal obsession with certain nutrients is “counterproductive,” in part because the components of processed foods can change to reflect any dietary fad. “The thing we don’t want to face is that we’re just eating too much,” Pollan said. “It’s much better to argue about nutrients and try this food and, you know, take gluten out of your diet than just [to realize] we’re consuming … more calories than we were in the 1980s so, guess what, we’re fat.”
Pollan acknowledged that discussing food and diets can be a sensitive subject. “It’s a very fraught political issue,” he said. “Food is tied up with identity.” But, according to Pollan, there are ways to present the individual changes he proposes in a way that promotes, rather than limits, the choice of what food to buy. The choice is “a palate of options,” depending on our values and tastes. “It’s a very American thing to take pleasure out of your politics,” Pollan said. However, he feels that his approach to eating doesn’t have to include a sacrifice.
If society wants to improve the environmental and health impacts of the food system, Pollan says that it will need to figure out how to scale up sustainable agriculture. In the 20th century, industry and the government deliberately developed the food production system “based on corn and soy” on which Americans depend to produce massive quantities of cheap food. The Nixon administration “was very successful in instituting the policies that would give us this cheap food wonderland,” Pollan said. “Nobody really thought about the downsides.” Policy intervention will again be needed for systemic changes towards sustainability, according to Pollan. There is consumer interest in such a shift, but agribusiness is slow to catch on. For example, “The organic market is growing very quickly but organic acreage is not,” Pollan said.
All the considerations raised about health, environmental impact and cost of food can be overwhelming to the average American simply trying to eat. Pollan offered some advice to those in the audience privileged enough to afford a choice. According to Pollan, Americans should approach grocery shopping thinking, “I have this great opportunity. I can afford to pay a little bit more than the base price for this particular food. What values do I want to support?”