Michael Pollan may have one of the hardest jobs in the country: trying to encourage Americans to eat better — or at least better understand the current food system and how it has led to a diet that’s slowly making us sick.
The author and activist’s work sometimes leads him away from his computer and to venues like the Strathmore, where late last month he managed to pull off a careful balancing act. Pollan had to explain modern food manufacturing and complex agricultural policies while simultaneously keeping a music hall full of people entertained. He used props from the supermarket (sometimes known as processed foods). He used humor. He even used scare tactics.
On stage, he’s sort of like the Gallagher of the food movement, smashing old concepts instead of old vegetables.
I had a chance to sit down with Pollan for about 40 minutes before his Strathmore talk, which wasn’t nearly enough time to broach all the questions I had for him. Below is an edited excerpt of our conversation, the first of several planned for the All We Can Eat blog.
All We Can Eat: At an earlier stop on your tour, you told a Cleveland audience, “Really intelligent young people are getting into farming. Some will crash and burn, but someone will be the Steve Jobs of agriculture.” What do you imagine the Steve Jobs of agriculture will look like?
Michael Pollan: [Laughs.] I think the challenge is going to be to come up with farming systems that are sustainable, by which I mean don’t require a lot of fossil fuel and that are nevertheless quite intensive. The ability to produce large amounts of food in small spaces.
We have some examples. I think Joel Salatin is a possible contender. Will Allen, the urban farmer who has a very complex system involving fish and greens and other vegetables, where fish waste feeds the greens and the greens clean the water for the fish. So I’m talking about people who can come up with new rotations and new relationships between species to maximize production. I think there is a lot of experimenting going on.
The amazing thing is that it’s done without any help from the government. Very little research money goes into this. It’s just visionary farmers just figuring out how to do it. So I’m not talking about inventing a new vegetable we’re all going to want, but I’m talking about systems, devising innovative systems to use biology to grow food without a lot of fossil fuel inputs.
AWCE: I saw recently that Americans spend about 7 percent of their income on food. By contrast, China spends 33 percent of its income on food, France, 13.5 percent, and Japan, 14.2 percent. Americans seem to have this incapacity to spend more on food. How do you begin to change that?
MP: I think it’s an enormous challenge, because right now cheap food is baked into our economy and our society. It wasn’t always this cheap. When I was a kid, it was 18 percent of our income went to food, twice what it is now, at least. But we, beginning really with the Nixon administration, figured out ways to drive down the cost. This was a matter of agriculture policy and technological breakthroughs.
AWCE: Earl Butz.
MP: Earl Butz, exactly. And coming up with a system that promoted overproduction on the farms, and then that led to all this innovation in processing. How do you take all that cheap corn and soy and turn it into food? Or feedlots: Figuring out how to put animals in these highly concentrated operations and the use of pharmaceuticals that allow that to happen. So that has been the focus of our food system since the ’70s — driving down the cost of food.
We’ve gotten really good at it, but it turns out…that cheap food has enormous costs. In the same period of time that we went from spending 18 percent of our income on food to under 9 percent of our income on food, we’ve gone from spending 5 percent of our national income on health care to 17 percent of our income on health care. So we’re paying for that cheap food with our higher health care costs.
It’s not the whole story, obviously. There are other reasons that health care costs have gone up, but we could trade off spending more money for higher quality food and save enormously on health care costs. But there are no two entities putting those two things together. The government doesn’t put it together. They have agriculture policies that breed a health care crisis that they have to pay for with Medicaid and Medicare. The government operates at cross-purposes. The whole society operates at cross purposes.
AWCE: So how do you put that horse back in the barn?
MP: I don’t know the answer. I really don’t know the answer. I mean, it’s not enough to say we all should pay the true costs of food. We have to give people enough money to pay the true costs of food. It’s a bigger problem than the food movement alone can solve. It’s a social problem.
One of the reasons that Americans tolerated the decline in income from the ’70s to today, in real income…is that food was getting cheaper. People would not have tolerated that if food were getting more expensive or staying the same. So our ingenuity in driving down the costs of food, in the end, has subsidized the decline in wages. So we’re going to have to deal with the wage side, too, if you’re going to make food more expensive.
I mean, there are other things you can do. The government can shift the emphasis of its agricultural policies to make produce more affordable and soda less affordable. Right? Because we’re subsidizing soda right now. We have to align agricultural policy with health policy. That’s the challenge, in a nutshell.
AWCE: As you have mentioned, just cutting the ag subsidies to corn and soy is…
MP: It’s not going to solve the problem.
AWCE: Because a lot of these crops can’t be subsidized. They’re not durable. They don’t have the shelf life.
MP: Right, you can’t subsidize broccoli. A silo full of broccoli would be a compost pile. [Laughs.]
AWCE: A lot of people think, just cut the subsidies and subsidize something else. It doesn’t seem…
MP: It sounds right, you know, we should subsidize what we want to see more of. But the reason we got into subsidizing commodity crops is that they’re storable commodities. That’s the definition. So if you end up with an oversupply of corn, you can put it in a silo for five years, no problem.
If you want to encourage consumption and production of produce, you need to work on the demand side. I think that’s pretty well understood. You have to figure out a way — incentives for produce sections and supermarkets — to get the prices down. Vouchers to food stamp recipients expressly designed to buy produce, which would be very controversial. Food stamps advocates don’t believe there should be any restrictions on what you can buy with food stamps.
But let’s say you had a supplement, a $10-a-month produce supplement with your food stamps. That would do a great deal for moving the needle on American agriculture, and it would do a great deal for health in the population that struggles most with obesity and diabetes.
AWCE: That dovetails with something I wanted to ask you. Rule No. 13 in your recently updated book, “Food Rules,” says: “Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.”
MP: [Laughs, anticipating the question.] Did you read that Journal piece? [Note: The story is about food manufacturers wanting to insert their products in the produce aisles.]
AWCE: The Journal piece. To me it was like: For every idea that the food movement comes up with, you’re dealing with a much larger business entity...
MP: And more intelligent. [Laughs.]
AWCE: That says, ‘I can go around this.’ How do you begin to compete with corporate America that can take every idea you, or anyone else in the movement has, and turn it against you?
MP: It’s a great question. Since I’ve been involved in this conversation with the public about how to eat and coming up with rules, there has been time after time where they have figured out a way...to take a rule and turn it into a new marketing campaign for junk food.
Haagen Dazs with their five campaign. I said — and I’m not the first to say this — ‘Don’t buy anything with more than five ingredients.’ They went out and started boasting, and it was the same five ingredients they had before. They didn’t change anything. Tostitos ran a TV ad where this woman picks up a thing that looks like Pringles or something, and she looks at the ingredients and says, “There are more ingredients in these chips than I’m going to have people to dinner.” Then she puts them back, and she takes Tostitos: “Only three ingredients!”
Now this latest thing, where we’ve been celebrating the produce section and the peripheries where you have this real food, so now the package-food people want to get in on that. And they’re very bold about it. They say, “We want the halo that comes with produce.” Well, that’s totally deceptive.
Fortunately, the supermarkets are resisting. They understand they’ve got something special, and the supermarkets are not in the same boat. We can generalize about Big Food, but supermarkets can make money selling many different things. They can make as much money selling fresh produce as they can package goods — and according to some I’ve talked to, even more. So they've got a cash cow in the produce section, and they’re not going to let Kraft [mess] it up. I mean, if they can help it.
So, yeah, the rule about shopping the peripheries is being eroded. What I did on the marketing was added a rule that said... “Don’t buy any foods that you see advertised on TV.” Anybody with that kind of marketing budget is selling packaged foods. Okay, the prune growers sometimes will get it together and get a public service ad on about prunes. The supermarket thing...well, that’s just another argument for going to the farmers market. They haven’t gotten in there yet.
Coming Monday: marketing food to children, the economy’s effect on the food movement and America’s ongoing love for McDonald’s.