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Michael Pollan
Author, "The Omnivore's Dilemma"
Tuesday, April 11, 2006; 3:00 PM

Michael Pollan was online Tuesday, April 11, at 3 p.m. ET to field questions and comments about his latest book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," which examines the ethics and ecology of eating.

Read the review (Book World, April 9).

Michael Pollan is the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at University of California, Berkeley, and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.

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Michael Pollan: Greetings to everyone in the chat room, and thanks in advance for the excellent and challlenging questions I've already received. Several touch on the same themes, so I'll try to answer those first. I hope you'll forgive my typing-- I want to move fast to get to as many questions in the hour as I possibly can. Plus I'm a lousy typist.

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Silver Spring, Md: I hope this doesn't sound like gushing, but I LOVE your work. Botany of Desire is one of my favorite books of all time, and I give it out to family and friends like candy (except to read not eat).

So here's my question: after reading a body of literature, I am torn between how to live/eat. Philosophically, do you think eating organic or eating local is more impactful? Practically, it's hard to do one or the other entirely (though getting easier as I learn). I used to think organic was the more important of the two, but after learning about the processes in place to make even some of the tastiest organic foods go through terribly destructive processes. I also noticed that you haven't written too much on organics, and what I have found is somewhat skeptical.

In a nutshell: organic vs. local, thoughts?

Michael Pollan: Several of you asked about whether local or organic is the better choice-- one of the more challenging questions that anyone trying to eat well and sustainably must face. Here in NY (where I happen to be this week) the dilemma is posed quite starkly in Union Square, where the city's most vibrant farmers market is now across the strreet from a new Whole Foods.

I think to answer this question you need to ask yourself another: what values do you want to support with your food dollars? If your paramount concern is, say, your personal health (to the extent it can be teased out from the health of yoiur environment) and you're concerned about pesticides, then organic is the key choice for you., However, if you're concerned about the environment, and our dependence of cheap fossil fuel in particular, and if you're  concerned about your community, and like the idea that there are still farms within a hundred miles of your home, the choice is simple: buy local.

Local supports a great many more values than organic-- even when the local food is not certified organic. At the Whole Foods in NY you can get grass-finished beef, which is wonderful --few things are more important to the health of the land or to the health of meat eaters-- but that beef is coming from New Zealand. Across the street, in the market, you can buy grass-finished beef from the Hudson Valley. That's a no brainer. I don't like my food to come drenched in fossil fuel, and I love the landscape of the Hudson Valley, which, we need to remember, is the creation of farmers and their animals and the eaters of those animals.

Whenever possibly, I eat local.

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Munich, Germany: I presume that cattle and other farm animals are feed corn (and BSE causing animal byproducts - big issue here) in order to fatten them up for slaughter as soon as possible.

Are grass feed cattle a viable alternative for farmers in the mainstream market, or can this be only be a niche market due to slower maturation times and less yield?

Are there advantages in grass feed beef over corn feed that justify a higher price for consumers?

Michael Pollan: The move toward grass-finished beef is growing stronger by the day in America, and few developments are as encouraging. When cattle are finished on grass, and grazed carefully, the result is the closest thing in nature to the free lunch: the land is actually improved by having ruminants on it and the eaters of those ruminants get a tasty product that's a lot better for us (higher in "good fats" and lower in bad ones) than the usually corn-fed feedlot productive.

Is it a niche market? Absolutely-- so far. But I feel that's about the change. And if chains like whole foods make a big commitment to American grass-finished meats, they could do a huge favor to the land, to the ranchers, to the animals, and to the eaters. So bug them next time you're at the meat counter. Or, better, yet, buy it at your farmer's market.

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Huntington, W.Va: Hi, We really enjoyed your book "Second Nature" and think of you as a gardener, so we're surprised at your subject this go-round. Is it California that's turned you into a contemplative carnivore?

Michael Pollan: I'm still very much a gardener, and in fact it was my gardening that inspired my exploration of the food chain. A gardener who eats from his garden lives at the end of the shortest food chain of all. Gardeners know about organic agriculture --the challenges and the benefits-- from the inside, and they also understand the dangers of taking a bog-foot chemical-intensive approach to the problems that crop up. Gardeners remind, in a way few of us in this fast food nation still do, that food comes from the earth, and that, in eating, we enact our most powerful and spiritually fulfilling engagement with the national world.

In my new book, one of the four meals I chronicle is a meal that I hunted, gathered and greew myself-- so gardening is a part of this story too.

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Petworth, Washington, DC: I hope that food literature will stimulate a revolution in eating. Though I've been vegetarian for years primarily for the environmental reasons regarding meat production and all those little styrofoam trays on which it comes to us, it was recent news to me that petroleum is the core of most of our agriculture. I want to escape this for myself. What can I do? Plant crops the little traffic circle park on Illinos Avenue? Get a goat just for the fertilizer? Surely less industrialized nations don't operate this way.

Michael Pollan: You're right: our conventional food chain is drenched in fossil fuel. People don't realize what an important part of the energy problem how we're feeding ourselves is, but nearly a fifth of all the fossil fuel we consume in this country goes to growing, processing, and shpping the food we eat. That's as much as we use driving.

It wasn't always this way, and doesn't need to be this way-- a decentralized food system would have many virtues, not least among the a substantial reduction in our dependence on imported oil. Eating McDonald's meat is tantamount to running a leafblower for 24 hours.

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San Francisco, Calif: Thank you for addressing this important issue without the self-righteousness or histrionics that have unfortunately spoiled the debate in other incarnations. Do you think, as others have argued, that the interests of agri-business in the public school lunch program (a steady paycheck for them, a menu of pizza, fries, and tater tots for students) has contributed to the rise in child obesity? And do you think it feasable for budget-conscious chools to provide healthier food and/or support local farms?

Michael Pollan: There's a lively grassroots movement to change the food in our school and hospitals, and few things would accomplish more, for our health and the health of the land. "Food service", as this sort of food chain is called, represents close to half of all the food eaten in this country.

Is it contributing to obesity? without question. Putting soda machines in the school means you're selling the health of children to cover the school budget-- and that's short-sighted, not to mention unconscionable.

But parents are rebelling again school lunch. The key, as in everything, is whether the desire for these changed will be backed up by the money to pay. Because better food costs more.

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eating locally ...: Seems to me that the Farmer's Market is such a nexus -

so personal, so colourful, so rich. The poster who is in a

philosphical/ethical dilemma should go to the Silver

Spring farmer's market and talk to the various farmers

there about their philosophy of farming - then buy from

the one's that are in tune with his/her own views. I also

always advocate taking children to farmer's markets - to

smell a bunch of basil, run their hands over peaches look

at the crazy colours and through the sensuousness of

food gain a love of eating well.

Michael Pollan: The farmer's market is a wonderful institution, one of the new public squares in America. So much more than a transaction of food for money takes place. Children sample foods they'd never try anywhere else; farmers meet city people, an exchange that enriches both parties; consumers learned from farmers and other shoppers how to prepare unfamiliar foods. Talk about diversity-- here's a place where the city aand the country come together and have a meaningful exchange, not just of money but of views and cultures and forms of knowledge.

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Washington, DC: Your book sounds very interesting. Do you have any advice for those of us who are on tight budgets, but who would also like to buy more ecologically-responsible meat?

Michael Pollan: This is an important question-- however, if you're on a tight budget, to afford better meats. I'd start by investing in a freezer (and dedicated freezers are surprisingly cheap--much less than a fridge). Then hook up with a rancher/farmer (you might try eatwell.com or the eatwellguide.org on the web for leds) and buy in bulk-- a quarter of a steer, which will come cut wrapped and ready for the freezer. You'll find buying high quality meat this ways ends up being no more expense than at the supermarket.

In general buying in season and putting food up is one way to eat well without spending a lot-- there's a couple of weeks in the market when strawberries--fantastic strawberries-- are dirt cheap, as are tomatoes. If you buy then and freeze or otherwise preserve, you can eat well on any budget.

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Carmel, Calif: I read about you and your book at Salon.com the other day, but have not read your book yet. I am very interested in making intelligent food purchases, and I do try to buy local when it's possible.

I am wondering if you have an insight about BSE. I do not eat meat often, and I avoid beef completely as I do not know how to safely buy beef. I lived in the UK during the 1990's and I am now no longer able to give blood in this country, which indicates to me that this is a bigger problem than is being acknowledged. Any thoughts?

Michael Pollan: I don't have any special insight into BSE except I'm sort of stunned that, now that there are three American cases of mad cow disease, people are blithely going about their business, eating meat and the story's not even on page one. The USDA has done a brilliant job of reassuring us about a situation that is not at all reassuring. Our testing program is completely inadequate (it's VOLUNTARY!-- what that means is, if you've got an aniimal acting peculiar and you suspect it might have mad cow disease, what are you going to do? Take it out back and shoot it, not bring it to the USDA for a test which, if positive, will lead to the condemnation of your whole herd!)

Plus there are still huge loopholes in the feed rules. If you think we stopped feeding cows to cows, think again-- we still feed cow blood products and cow fat to cows. The USDA is putting its resources into reassuring us rather than protecting us.

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Washington, DC: I've been interested lately in not only hints but overt

studies that show the problem with fast food consumption

is not just that it's so cheap, but also ignorance. We are,

in fact, raising generations of children who don't know

how to cook on a budget - so that you can relatively

quickly shop and make meals that cost no more than fast

food but are infinately better nutricianally speaking. It

can be done and I'm hearing about some local

governments that are literally teaching this to some low

income single parents. Thoughts on the connection

between how we eat and our knowledge of how to cook?

Michael Pollan: I couldn't agree more, that cooking is a big part of our problem, and fixing that problem has to begin in the schools. We made a huge mistake when we stopped teaching home ec, something we did in large part because it seemed sexist. But both sexes need to learn to cook, and to grow food and, I would submit, should also visit a factory farm as part of their education. That would change American eating habits in a generation.

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New York, NY: You talk about grass finished cattle. Corn fed cattle usually has a multitude of problems such as digestive difficulty, lower immunity and greater need for antibiotics. By the time the beef is on our plates, does the " grass finishing" for the most part correct the problems created by the corn feeding? Aside from the fat content, is it also a meat with less, say, additives?

Michael Pollan: Grass-finishing catthe makes them a lot healthier and happier. They evolved to eat grass, not grain, and we make them sick by giving them a diet they're ill--equipped to digest. (Though we're in the process of evolving the cow to tolerate corn, by breeding for "Success" on the feedlot.)

Simply by taking feedlot cattle off corn AND ONTO GRASS, even for as few as five days before slaughter, will virtually eliminate the e coli 0157:H7, which is one of the most lethal pathogens in the meat supply. Why don't we do it? It would be cumbersome and expensive for the feedlot operators. The industry would rather irradiate the meat than clean it up. I don't know about you, but eating irradiated cow manure isn't that appetizing to me.

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Munich, Germany: In the Washington Post's review of your book, I was surprised to read that fertilizer is derived from fossil fuel, more so now that scarcity of future oil reserves is becoming more and more apparent. Eventually, we'll have to find something else, like maybe manure.

Can you give us a primer on this? When I fill up at the gas station, do I deprive a farmer of his fertilizer? What part of crude oil is used for fertilizer and what implications does this have for the soil that its applied to?

Michael Pollan: Synthetic fertilizer --ammonium nitrate-- is made from petroleum products-- usually natural gas, but it can be made from oil as well. When we spwitched over from natural sources of fertility --like manure-- after WWII, we took our agriculture off its complete reliance on the sun, and made it reliant on fossil fuels-- we turned our cattle into SUVs, in effect. But we can still turned them back into solar collectors, by putting them back on grass.

The move to synthetic fertilizer, the result of a ninveiton by a german chemist named Frtiz haber in 1908, is arguably the most important invention of the 20th century-- and no one knows about. I tell the whole story in the book.

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Fairfax, Va: My wife and I frequent multiple farmers' markets and subscribe to a CSA (community support agriculture). Time and again we hear from the farmers that a lot of customers complain about the price difference between them and the supermarkets. I've always believed that I would rather have the bulk of my money going directly to the farmer (whom I know) than all the middle men involved in the supermarket food chain. And then there are all the environmental costs that don't appear in the supermarkets' price but still get passed along to us anyhow.

What do you think would be the most effective way to get out the word that farmers' markets and CSAs are actually cheaper than the mass market alternatives?

Thanks and I look forward to reading your book.

Michael Pollan: Cheap food is usually an illusion. When you buy organic or from a farmer odds are you're paying the real price. But industrial food, cheap as it appears, comes at a high price-- to the environment, to your health, to the military budget (because that industrial food chain reaches all the way back to the Persian Gulf, where we fight wars to keep the oils we're eating flowing). There is also the cost to the treasury, in the form of subsidies to conventional farmers-- $20 billion a year. So the choice is really do you want to buy honestly priced food or irresponsibly priced foods?

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North Dakota: I just want to applaud your work. Educating people about farming and food is so important. I grew up in a farming family and I don't think people realize how much small farmers care about land and nature. People need to buy more organic products because trust me, the need isn't there to make it economically viable to most farmers. Also buy Local or pretty soon, you won't have the option! My $.02!

Michael Pollan: I agree with your sense of urgency. We may be the last generation who can even choose to buy local, because the small farms are on their way out if we don't.

Whatever you may think of free trade, when it comes to food, I don't think most of us are comfortable being dependent on other countries for our food supply-- and that is precisely where we're heading. At the end of the century it is predicted (by the State of California) that the Central Valley will be wall to wall houses. This is the land that grows almost all our winter produce in America. Do we want to import all that food? If you think our "addiction to foreign oil:" has crippled our foreign policy, a coming addiction to foreign food will be even more crippling.

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White Plains, NY: I look forward to reading the book. In addition to the petroleum needed to grow, pack and ship food, how about the water requirements? Since water wars will soon replace oil wars, shouldn't we also factor that in? Can you comment on fish as well? How does a conscious consumer choose between farmed and wild fish, esp in light of species specific issues (i.e. wild salmon is healthier for us than farmed, but only when harvested sustainably. similarly, farmed shrimp is healthy but often the farms' pollution stream harms the environment). Thanks!

Michael Pollan: Water is definitely an issue. Where I live, in California, the developers and the farmers compete for water, and what will happen over time is that the farmers will sell their water rights to the developers, and then their land, and our food production will move offshore.

As for the fish issue, the wild vs farmed question is answered differently depending on species-- for eg, in the case of salmon, wild is better by any measure (health, environment, flavor, etc); but when it comes to shellfish, farmed is the better alternative. Check out the website of the Monterey Bay Aquarium for species by species guidance.

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Arlington, Va: I read the excerpt from your book that appeared in the NY Times Sunday Magazine and found it thought-provoking without being holier-than-thou. On the other hand, I was nauseated by the piece in the Times Travel section that day in which the author reveled in eating a Roman specialty involving freshly-killed newborn lamb. Did you read that article? Any thoughts?

Michael Pollan: I missed the piece about newborn lamb.

I think for any meat eater, the experience of killing and cleaning an animal is vitally important. I still eat meat, after hunting a boar and SLAUGHTERING some chickens, but I do it with a lot more care, consciousness, and reverence for the animal sacrified for my dinner. I don't waste meat, and I don't eat meat from animals that live a life of misery.

If we could see over the increasingly high walls of our industrial meat industry, we would change the way we eat-- this is what I tried to do with this book. But I didn't just want to put people off their feed-- i wanted to remind them of the complex pleasure that comes from eating food you know a lot about. Some say ignorance is bliss-- maybe, but there are pleasures in knowing where you're food comes from of a whole other order of magnitude. I savor meat now in a way I never did before.

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Silver Spring, Md: local vs. organic here again. THanks for the farmers markets tips. I am getting to know my new farmers markets in Takoma Park.

http://www.harpers.org/TheOilWeEat.html

That's an article in Harper's Magazine (didn't you have a stint there?) called the "Oil we Eat." Interesting as we talk about fossil fuel, oil, and agriculture industries.

Michael Pollan: Yes, I did work as an editor at Harper's for ten years, and am familiar with that article-- The Oil We Eat-- a very good piece, by Richard Manning, a fine writer on these subjects.

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San Francisco, Calif: Re: your response to Washington, DC about buying in bulk. I agree with your thoughts about buying in bulk keeping costs down. But buying a new FREEZER? A freezer is one of the largest single power users in a home, and much of this power is derived from fossil fuels. Just something else to think about. . .

Michael Pollan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But a dedicated freezer, which costs less than $300, actually uses very little energy, because it is so seldom opened. Check out the energy sticker next time you're in an appliance store-- I think you'll be pleasantly suprised.

I don't work for Amana by the way.

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Washington DC: Fluff question: Are you still using your writing hut? We so enjoyed your book about its building, and all your excellent research.

Michael Pollan: Oh I wish I were still writing in that hut. I began The Omnivore's Dilemma there, but then moved to Berkeley to teach at the graduate school of journalism --and research food. So the hut now is occupied by a tenant, but I'm determined to return to it (and haven't even considered selling the property it's on) at some point.

Thanks for the kind words.

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Anonymous: hi, I'll be checking out your book. Is there anything out there on the pyschology of hunger & eating? I think it's fascinating how and why we crave certain foods and why do we seem predisposed to overeating, while many animals do not? American men were brainwashed growing up to eat big portions and meat was a necessity at every meal, the more - the better. And here we are today with an incredible and CHEAP abundance of food.

Michael Pollan: Yes, there's a lot in the book on the fascinating subject of food psychology-- how we're hardwired to like certain tastes (sugar, fat) and hardwired against others (bitter, which is how many plant toxins taste). Also we are programmed to eat all the food in front of us, which is why the strategy of supersizing has been so successful for markets and disastrous for our waistlines. I'm fascinated my human eating habits, in both their cultural and biological dimennsions, and discuss both at length in the book.

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Washington, DC: I recently read an excellent new book from the Worldwatch Institute entitled, "Eat Here," about the benefits of local foods. It has really motivated me to try to find food sources close to home. Would you recommend that readers try to eat as much local food as they can?

Michael Pollan: There are mant good resources on eating locally, including Eat Here, by the Worldwatch Institute's Brian Balweil. Also check out Gary Nabhan's book, Coming Home to East, and Joan Gussow's This organic Life. Also Joel Salatin, the farmer I profile in my book, has a terrific new book called Holy Cows and Hog Heaven, about eating local in your foodshed, so check it out.

There will be, if it's not posted already, a resource guide to local eating, and several useful links, on my website, michaelpollan.com

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Harrisburg, Pa.: The review indicated we don't know for sure whether so much corn is good or bad for our health. After all the years of research into health, was does the evidence state about corn based diets like ours, and does this also mean we are getting too much or too little of other nutrients?

Michael Pollan: Last post. The problem with a heavy corn based diet is that it tends to consist of energy-dense foods we shouldn't eat too much of. Because it's based on only one plant, it also lacks the diversity of nutrients the human body needs-- we need to eat approxinately fifty different kinds of molecules and atoms, and you don't get all of them from a meal based on processed corn. There are a lot more interesting --and healthful-- plants out there.

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Michael Pollan: Thanks to all of you for a stimulating hour of speed thinking and speed typing. Your interest in these issues is part of one of the most positive movements afoot in America, as consumers rediscover they are more than consumers-- they are creators too. We can recreate our food chain simply by making good choices. Those three meals a day are three chances to vote every day, for a better landscape, for better health and more pleasure at the table.

Vote with your fork!!!! --Thanks, Michael

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