The Fruits of His Labour

It has been a busy year for Michael Pollan. It is a year in which he broke fresh ground, planted new ideas, and watched previous plans come to fruition. About a year ago at this time, Pollan was one of the key speakers at San Francisco’s Slow Food Nation which, for many, marked the beginning of a collective movement towards sustainable food and the birth of a nation-wide attempt at creating a new food culture. Shortly after that event, in the final heated days before the American presidential election, Pollan published a bold and ambitious open letter to the “Farmer in Chief” that was printed in the October 12th, 2009 edition of the New York Times. In his letter, he asked no less of the president-elect than to plough under a portion of the White House lawn and turn it into a vegetable garden. In March 2009 it was done. An 1,100-square-foot plot is now home to a flourishing organic garden t ended by neighbouring schoolchildren as part of their academic curriculum. Soon after, Pollan’s most recent work, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, was published. More than just a follow-up to its best-selling predecessor, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan’s manifesto branched into unmapped territory, describing what a sustainable North American diet looks like, driving home the ills of the current Western diet, and putting in print the first plans of a foundation for a new national food culture. On a book tour for In Defense of Food, he swung by Vancouver for an interview with EAT so we could talk about the products of his fruitful year.

In Defense of Food famously begins, “Eat food.  Not too much. Mostly plants.” Things get complicated when Pollan unpacks the specifics of these brief dictums. The seemingly simple word food, for example, must be defined by a series of rules-of-thumb such as ‘that which is capable of rotting’ or ‘that which your grandmother would easily recognize.’ Think about it; these two simple suggestions rule out packaged granola bars, McNuggets, low-fat yogurt, Gummi Bears, Gatorade, and all variety of packaged, processed, skillfully marketed foods that either claim to be health foods or admit unashamedly to being junk. Pollan calls these “the modern cornucopia of highly processed foodlike products” (14) and strips from them the distinction of food to be more accurately classified as industrial food or store food. If nothing else, Pollan asks the reader of In Defense to recognize the distinction between these two groups: edible foodlike substances versus real food. “We should simply avoid any food that has been processed to such an extent that it is more the product of industry than of nature,” (143) he writes, citing the idea of food researcher and writer Gyorgy Scrinis (and coiner of the word ‘nutritionism,’) who proposed that the only two food groups worth including in a food pyramid are whole foods and industrial foods.

‘Nutritionism,’ though it sounds like it may be a h ealthy thing, is anything but. It is the term for being unhealthily obsessed with being healthy, a preoccupation that characterizes the American public’s attitude toward eating, according to Pollan. Nutritionism is a way of looking at food that, as it was eloquently put by New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle, dissects a vegetable beyond recognition. “The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient  nutrition science,” she is quoted in In Defense, “is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of  the diet, and the diet out of the context of the lifestyle” (62). The trouble is that when we choose what to eat in pursuit of, say Omega-3’s over conviviality, or fiber over pleasure, low fat over taste, eating becomes a laborious, almost mathematic task instead of a cultural connector and a meaningful element of our families and our lives. The inevitable result is a people who are content to gracelessly shovel down edible foodlike substances in solitude, in front of the television, while driving to work, or at the office desk. Though these may (or may not) sound to you like harmless acts on their own, what Pollan believes is that they have a hugely detrimental affect on a population, both physically and socially.

So why are we North Americans so lacking in food culture and what does that mean exactly? Food culture is the culmination of rules, traditions, and customs that shape a peoples’ way of eating. In France that may include the taboo on taking seconds, for the Jewish community it’s choosing kosher foods, in Japan it is customary to serve your table companions first, and so on. Both Canada and the U.S. are immense chunks of land that are populated, essentially, by a kaleidoscope of immigrant groups that have mingled and moved around since the (relatively recent) birth of both countries. Many of the well-established traditions and kernels of wisdom involving food were lost in the process and some, perhaps, have just not yet been formed. “It may very well be,” said Pollan in our interview, “that [North Americans] will look back in a hundred years and say this is the time when we began to develop our traditions around food.”

Though Pollan never says it outright, he skirts around the idea that the women’s liberation movement may have contributed to our current lack of gastronomic culture. When mothers doffed the role of housewife and pursued careers, families turned elsewhere for cues on what to eat and why. The idea of looking to a diet book or a scientist for such basic knowledge, says Pollan, is absurd. For most of human history we didn’t have to research the big question of what to eat; we learned it from “culture, which at least when it comes to food, is really just a fancy word for your mother.” (3)

Dovetailing with this dramatic change in the household landscape was the steady drumbeat of the industrial era, the rise of nutritionism, and a series of government policies that subsidized the cheapest grains to grow (and easiest to store): soy and corn. The attributes of these two grains, along with their ability to be morphed into a multitude of forms (corn alone can be made into corn syrup, corn starch, dextrose, and corn oil, to name a few) made them a sure bet for farmers. In fact, farms across the Midwest began producing them so copiously —egged on by generous government subsidies— that a corn and soy surplus ballooned out of control, ultimately resulting in overconsumption of these two ingredients. In his essay, “We Are What We Eat,” printed by the Center for Ecoliteracy, Pollan writes:

“Overproduction sooner or later leads to overconsumption, because we’re very

good at figuring out how to turn surpluses into inexpensive, portable new products.

Our cheap, value-added, portable corn commodity is corn sweetener, specifically

high-fructose corn syrup. But we also dispose of overproduction in corn-fed beef,

pork, and chicken. And now we’re even teaching salmon to eat corn, because

there’s so much of it to get rid of.”


None of these conditions —the fog of nutritionism, the overabundance of a mere few crops, or the lack of food rules— would be worrisome if they were benign. The problem is that our food policies and eating habits have created a continent with more than half the population suffering from obesity or overweight conditions. According to the Canadian Community of Health Surveys conducted by Statistics Canada, 65.2% of men and 52.4% of women were overweight or obese in 2004 , a number that was expected to rise. Even more alarming is the rate at which children are gaining weight. In Canada between 1981 and 2001 the rates of overweight (including obese) children ages 7 to 13 increased by 200 to 300%.  Written in his book and echoed in his essay “Farmer in Chief,” Pollan reports: “Four of the top ten killers in America today are chronic diseases linked to diet: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer.” Furthermore, “The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in three American children born in 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes. The public needs to know and see precisely what that sentence means: blindness; amputation; early death. All of which can be avoided by a change in diet and lifestyle” (“Farmer” 15).

It seems that without a strong culture around food, North Americans became susceptible to the often erroneous word of nutritionism, succumbed to persuasive advertising that was put in place to sell crop excess, and developed a diet high in sugar, low in moderation, and completely out of the context of traditional food customs. “We don’t have a national food culture that can withstand the onslaught of food marketing and scientific advice,” said Pollan in our interview. “If you don’t have one strong food culture that everybody subscribes to, you’re much more vulnerable when someone comes along and tells you how to eat. It’s very hard to resist that.”

“Food is about to demand your attention,” Pollan wrote to Obama in his letter “Farmer in Chief.” The eighteen-page-letter is the cherry on top of Pollan’s highly productive year. In our interview in Vancouver he told me, “I try to change minds through story-telling.” He said it rather modestly, but there is nothing demure about the public letter to the president. In it, Pollan drives home the details of how the current national food policies exacerbate climate change, are a major cause of the national obesity epidemic, and leave the country vulnerable to national security threats. The impressive thing about the letter is that, although the circumstances Pollan outlines are depressingly dire (the heavy pollution of industrialized farming, for example, or the devastating statistics on disease related to diet), his ideas for creating a solution are prolific, brilliant, and sound refreshingly do-able.

In our interview, Pollan and I talked a lot about how our two countries might go about forming a positive food culture to replace the poor habits that have led us so far into environmental ruin and physical infirmity. “There are no fixed, immutable rules,” Pollan told me. “Cultures can be creative.” Throughout his books and essays, there is an enduring sense of hope and a pervasive sense of humour that makes his story-telling all the more effective. But it’s the proliferation of genius proposals that compel me to read his work. His open letter is thick with them: “[C]reate tax and zoning incentives for developers to incorporate farmland (as they do now ‘open space’) in their subdivision plans; all those subdivisions now ringing golf courses could someday have diversified farms at their center” (“Farmer” 11) is one such idea. There are also the suggestions of buying CSA memberships for the elderly in retirement communities, government support for commodity farmers to grow as many different crops as possible (because the greater diversity of crops on a farm, the less fertilizers and pesticides are needed), the creation of mandatory municipal composting programs to cut down on landfill waste and the need for fossil-fuel fertilizers, incentives for hospitals and universities receiving federal funds to buy fresh local produce, and of course, the symbolic and illustrative action of planting a garden on the White House lawn.

The grandest design he outlines in the letter —Pollan actually refers to it as the ‘One Big Idea’— and a subject he talked at great length about at Slow Food Nation (where I was in attendance) is the idea of returning to sun-based agriculture. That is, quite simply put, depending on the good old system of photosynthesis to grow food rather than relying on chemicals and oil —a change that offers potential solutions to the energy crisis, climate change, and unemployment. “We can’t do this without tens of thousands of new farmers,” Pollan said at Slow Food Nation. In his letter to the President he acknowledges that some of those ‘farmers,’ may in fact be home gardeners, learning for the first time to plant carrots and tomatoes in their backyards. Pollan himself is a prolific backyard gardener who in a recent interview with Bill Moyers on PBS described having arrived at his career of food journalism on a path “through the garden.”

Our interview eventually came around to a d iscussion of our own personal kitchen gardens (as is apt to happen amongst people who love to putter in the dirt). Suspecting Pollan has largely been motivated to write in defense of food because of the relationship he has formed with it in his own backyard, I asked him if growing one’s own sustenance, at least some of it, is an essential part of the rehabilitation process for North Americans who want to mend their relationship with food. “I’m not saying that everyone needs to garden,” he replied, “But I’m saying that it does feed the process of reconnecting with food.” For kids it is especially helpful, he said, in demonstrating that nature feeds us, not industry.

Many of Pollan’s ideas seem to sprout from or return to the simple garden. It is quite easy to imagine some of the accomplishments of his bountiful year may have started out in his own backyard. “Plant some food,” he suggested simply at the end of his Slow Food Nation talk. “And a whole long trail of wonderful things will follow.”

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