Today Grist had the somewhat surreal experience of hosting Michael Pollan, the nation’s premier food writer, for lunch. And just to make it more stressful, we decided to do a potluck — each of us brought in a dish.
Cooking for Pollan! Yikes!
Happily, he enjoyed the food, and we had a nice conversation. We’ll have video of it soon, but three things he said struck me as particularly interesting, so I thought I’d briefly share them here.
First, after conversation turned from Obama and Vilsack, I asked him how the situation for food policy could be improved in Congress. He said two things in particular would help:
1. Make the House agriculture committee exclusive. The most important committees in the House — Energy, Finance, etc. — are “exclusive,” which means their membership has to be drawn from diverse geographical and ideological sources. Ag isn’t exclusive, which means it can be (and is) packed with representatives of Big Ag. It’s where decent ag legislation goes to die.
2. Restructure the farm bill. Right now there are two big pieces, the nutrition parts (mostly food stamps) and the subsidy part. The macabre-ly named “hunger lobby,” particularly the Black Congressional Caucus, believes that food stamps can’t stand on their own and are protected by being attached to subsidies; the Big Ag subsidy suckers agree not to meddle with nutrition in exchange for support. But, says Pollan, nutrition is building a substantial lobby of its own and could stand alone at this point. Subsidies, if they had to stand on their own, would find much less support.
Also, Pollan was asked about GMOs, which used to be the subject of intense debate but seem to have dropped off the map lately. His answer was quite interesting, but it basically boiled down to:
3. Monocrops are the primary problem; right now GMOs are just another band-aid on that problem.
Pollan didn’t say he supported GMOs, but his attitude was that they’re not really a pressing problem in and of themselves. The grand promises of a decade ago haven’t panned out. Gene theory turns out to be much more complicated than it was thought when GMOs were first hot. Plenty of agricultural perversions designed to support monocrops — and many new strains of plants designed for drought resistance and whatnot — are coming from old-fashioned breeding. And finally, GMOs do offer some intriguing possibilities around ethanol.
I guess I’d noticed the GMO debate fading to the periphery, but this was a nice compact explanation of why.
And finally: I asked Pollan how he came up with the greatest lead ever for a piece of long-form journalism: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He said he messed around with it quite a bit. First it was just “eat food.” Then “eat plants.” Once he hit the final version, though, he had a sense it would be iconic. I’ll say.
Oh, and for all you writers out there, who read Pollan’s smooth, conversational, absorbing prose and despair, I asked him if writing is still difficult, painstaking, anxious work for him. You’ll be happy to hear that it is.
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