Michael Pollan has built a reputation as a sleuthing agro-journalist. In his writing for The New York Times Magazine and a quartet of books, he’s trailed a steer from birth to dinner plate, traced America’s obesity epidemic to corn subsidies, and narrowly, fumblingly outwitted a small-town cop who came uncomfortably close to his marijuana patch. His writing — an engaging mélange of travelogue, economic analysis, and sheer, tactile joy in the pleasures of food — has made him a favorite among the foodie and enviro crowds alike.

Michael Pollan.

In his latest book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he brings his investigative skills to bear on four meals. One is the typical American overprocessed fare; one is composed of what Pollan calls “industrial organic” — organic food grown on huge mega-farms alongside standard crops; one comes from a small organic farm that refuses to sell outside its neighboring community; and one is hunted and gathered entirely by Pollan himself. (His account of tracking and shooting a wild boar is bizarrely gripping.)

The author — now a journalism professor at U.C.-Berkeley — dropped by the Grist offices for a long, leisurely chat. We asked him about Big Organic, local food systems, and the cult of convenience, and hoped he wouldn’t notice the large bowl of SweeTarts on our conference table.


What’s the most worrisome aspect of the current U.S. food system?

That’s a tough one. But the thing that really struck me is just how much energy goes into the process. The most recent study I’ve seen, from the University of Michigan, says that 20 percent of our fossil-fuel consumption is going to feeding ourselves.

This happens at three different stages. One is on the farm, because we use synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which is made from natural gas and a great deal of electricity.

Then we take commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans and wheat, and we process them intensively, adding another seven calories of fossil-fuel energy for every one calorie of food. It’s a very intensive process to take the corn and turn it into the high-fructose corn syrup, or take the corn and turn it into the chicken, and the chicken into the Chicken McNugget. As we move further away from eating food to eating highly processed, complicated food products — as we move from yogurt to Go-GURT — it takes more energy, and more energy in the packaging. We’re putting a lot of time into redesigning our whole food supply so we can eat in the car. Nineteen percent of meals [and snacks in the U.S.] are eaten in the car right now.

And then we drive [the food] around the country, if not fly it around the world. You can get your organic asparagus from Argentina, you can get your grass-fed beef from New Zealand.

So given that our most serious environmental problem is global warming, I’d have to say the most serious problem with the food system is its contribution to global warming.

What did you find when you looked into the organic industry? Is it less sustainable than people think?

Organic is still an important part of the answer, to the extent you’re concerned about pesticides, which are another serious environmental problem.

Do you know where your asparagus comes from?

Photo: iStockphoto.

But as organic has gotten bigger, the kind of industrial systems, the kind of scaling up that it takes to meet the expectations of the supermarket and the expectations of industrial eaters — because we are industrial eaters, we want that strawberry 12 months a year, we want that food we can microwave, we want that convenience — as you move toward that, you’re finding that a lot more energy goes into organic.

Most of the produce on the East Coast comes from the Central Valley of California. We’re taking organic lettuce, grown with great care, terrific cultural practices, and we put it on a truck and we keep it cold from the moment we pick it, 36-degree cold chain all the way across the country for three to five days, and that takes 56 calories of fossil-fuel energy to get one calorie of organic lettuce. Now technically that product is organic. In any meaningful sense of that word, if you think back in the values embedded in that word and its history, I have trouble calling it organic. So organic has become less sustainable as it’s gotten bigger.

Say you live in Boston and you want to buy organic. You can buy that lettuce and support the care of some land in the Central Valley of California. If you buy local you can support some land on the outskirts of Boston. So if you’re motivated by environmental considerations, you may find — and I’m not telling anybody what to do, I’m just trying to give them information so they can make their own decisions — you may find that more of your values are supported by buying local than organic. Because that local buying decision is also an act of land conservation — you are protecting farms in your community from sprawl by keeping those farms around.

Those beautiful agricultural landscapes outside of Boston, all over New England, will not be saved by environmental groups. They’ll be saved by eaters. With some help from the land trusts, definitely, but keeping that food chain going is as important as writing checks to environmental organizations.

Now you say, well OK, but organic is grown without pesticides and the local may or may not be grown without pesticides.

Sort of a health vs. environment question?

Yeah, except not really. Because that local farm, even though it’s not certified organic, may not be using pesticides, and you should ask. If you’re buying local you’re meeting your farmer, you’re at the farmers’ market or you’re in the CSA [community-supported agriculture] — you can ask them and they’ll tell you. And in general a local farm feeding a local community does not have great need of pesticides because it’s a polyculture. You can’t just be the corn guy for Boston, because after corn’s over, that’s it; you’re gonna need a great many crops. And as soon as you have a great many crops, you don’t have a big pest problem. Pest problems come out of monoculture. I think you’ll find that most of these local farms are sustainable to one degree or another. And also you have a lot of people just checking out of the organic certification; they don’t want the paperwork. They haven’t changed their practices, but they feel since they know their customers they don’t need the federal government to certify what they’re doing.

And eating locally, eating sustainably, eating organically, food tastes better too. Because these sustainable foods, it’s not like the underpowered car or the lower thermostat in your house. There’s no trade-off in pleasure. In fact, there’s a gain in pleasure. There’s greater cost, no question.

There’s the inconvenience too, if you accept people’s way of phrasing it. It seems like avoiding inconvenience has become a religion in America, even though all we do with all the time we save is watch more TV.

That whole cult of convenience strikes me as a bit of brainwashing. This is how you sell products: “This will save you time.” Time for what? Well, so you can watch ads for more products. We’re concerned about energy, but there’s the energy that we generate ourselves as people who can chop instead of buying pre-chopped food, who can cook instead of buying pre-cooked food.

So yeah, people are going to have to work a little harder to have a better food system, but coming back to the point of pleasure: procuring your food, foraging for it, if you will — even in the marketplace — and preparing it, is one of the great pleasures of life. It is a lie that it’s drudgery. And it’s a lie perpetrated by marketers for very specific reasons. They make a lot of money selling convenience.

Laura Shapiro wrote this book called Perfection Salad and she talks about how when General Mills and Betty Crocker came along and they had all these new convenience foods, women resisted them. They liked cooking. They felt good about putting food that they cooked on the table. And one of the keys to selling cake mixes — which originally were just powder and you added water, women were like, ew — was they said all right, we’ll get rid of the dehydrated egg and we’ll let the women open the egg.

Love the devious psychology involved in this.

Very devious. I think we were sold a bill of goods. And somebody will say, well that’s very sexist, now women are in the workforce so there’s less time to cook. Yeah, but it doesn’t take me three hours to put dinner on the table. It takes me 20 minutes. I think we need to reexamine and say, is it really true that you don’t have any time to cook?

I mean, we’re finding plenty of time to deal with the internet. We’re finding plenty of time for television. We’re finding plenty of time for the telephone. It’s a matter of priorities. I think if people want to put some time into getting good food and cooking good food, they absolutely could do it.

And you know what, a lot of them could afford to pay for it too. We spend only 9 percent of our income on food. That’s half of what it was in 1960 when I was a kid. In that time we’ve acquired some new bills we didn’t have. Cell phones, $50, $60 a month. We’ve absorbed that without any problem. And pay television — $60, $70 for television, we’ve gotta do it. So where did that income that we’re not spending on food go? It’s going to entertainment by and large. Well, I find cooking and eating very entertaining. And so I think that we could arrange our priorities if we wanted to. The challenge is to convince people it’s worth it: worth it for the environment, worth it for their health, and worth it for their pleasure.

Has the feedback you’ve gotten from The Omnivore’s Dilemma and from your writing about this subject encouraged you? Do you see movement in the right direction? Are you optimistic?

Yeah. I see a lot of movement. So far the response to this book has been very positive. And people seem to want to have this conversation, which is great. I don’t know that that would have been true five or 10 years ago.

But I also see it in other ways. The market for grass-fed beef, as an example, is growing all over the country. There are ranchers doing really well with this.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan, Penguin Press, 320 pgs, 2006.

I think people are looking for answers. And again it’s why they’re walking into Whole Foods. You can look at those people and say “yuppie consumers,” or you can see the seeds of a movement — that this food system isn’t working and we want an alternative. You know, the Whole Foods consumer is not quite as affluent as you would think. It’s actually much more diverse, according to their marketing numbers — racially, ethnically, and financially. And we hear about the growth of Whole Foods, but at the same time the number of farmers’ markets has doubled. There are 4,000 of them now.

The food issue is such a great entree to environmentalism and to thinking about social-justice issues, thinking about macroeconomics.

It’s where you reach people. Of all the topics I’ve written about in my career, it is the most powerful for reaching people, because everybody’s gotta eat. I call it ecological journalism. It’s a great way to get people to think about the environment.

I’ve often thought that the environmental movement institutionally doesn’t take nearly as much advantage of food and agricultural issues as it could.

Well, there’s a history of hostility there. For a long time, environmentalists didn’t really recognize organic as important, they simply saw industrial agriculture as point-source pollution. But also, environmentalism is very hung up on this wilderness ideal, this idea that untouched land is the goal and agriculture, just like cities, represents a fall from this ideal. And it is true that agriculture’s been very destructive, but, you know, we need to eat. And so there has been a history of hostility that is melting; I think it’s over.

I was speaking to a group today, and it was foodies and environmentalists. I think it’s a very powerful alliance, so I’m very encouraged by that. The food issue and the environmental issue are coming together in ways that are I think very fruitful for both parties.