By Nicki Gostin
The last few years have been interesting times for food and eating habits, as "slow food," locavores and farmer's markets have entered mainstream conversations about how we eat. This spring saw Michelle Obama planting the first garden on White House grounds since the era of President Roosevelt. One of the Pied Pipers leading the movement to eat more fresh, local fruits, vegetables and meats has been author Michael Pollan. In books such as In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto and The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan explains why junk food really is junky and why it's so important not to eat food that has ingredients that you can't even pronounce. Now Pollan appears in the new documentary Food Inc., a disturbing look at giant food companies in the United States, with a focus on the beef industry. NEWSWEEK's Nicki Gostin spoke with Pollan about whether the cost of food at farmer's markets is worth it, why Europeans eat better than Americans and the steps we can all take to improve how we eat. (For more Pollan, check out head-to-hoof article on pork, for which Pollan was interviewed). Excerpts:
Gostin: Why is it so terrible that cows eat corn?
Pollan: Because it makes them sick when they eat it in large quantities. A little corn is not going to kill them, but when it's 80 to 90 percent of their diet, it deranges their metabolism. They are evolved to eat grass, that's what they're good at; when you put corn into that amazing organ called the rumen, it acidifies it and creates an environment where acid-loving bacteria such as E. coli 015787 are able to evolve. What's beautiful is a rumen has a very different ph than a human stomach; whatever bacteria live in the rumen would normally get killed by our stomach acids, but if you make the cow's digestive system more like ours, any bugs that evolve there will survive their transit to our stomach and go on to possibly make us sick. That's really the E. coli story, but there are other problems, too: To keep the animals healthy on that corn diet, you have to give them lots of antibiotics, they just wouldn't survive otherwise.
It's amazing in this film to see how removed the food industry is from actual food.
Even people who follow these issues in print for the last few years I think will be shocked to see this film, because the camera takes you places you have not been. One of the most noteworthy things about our food system is how invisible it is to most of us. The packages still have pictures of farms, but people don't see the places where their food is produced. As a journalist, visiting these places was transformative. To me, going on feed lots, chicken and hog operations, it changed the way I eat. You can't go through these places without being changed. You lose your appetite for certain kinds of food.
But farmer's markets are expensive and out of reach for a lot of people.
I think that's right, and that's why it's not enough to vote with your fork; if you can afford to, you should, but we have to vote with our votes to get in a different set of policies. It's not an accident that fast food is so cheap. This is what the government underwrites. Factory farming does not exist without subsidized corn, it doesn't exist without it being legal to give important human antibiotics to cattle, it doesn't exist without basically regulatory indulgence. And the fact [is that] we don't make these animal cities clean up their waste the way we would a human city of the same size, so the cheapness of this food is a result of government policy. If the government would put those kinds of resources into underwriting healthy and real food, whether that's grass-fed beef or organic produce, then the healthy calories could compete more effectively with the unhealthy calories. Healthy food should not be out of reach. On the other hand, I don't think it's ever going to be as cheap as junk food.
You do get what you pay for. There is a qualitative difference, and the goal should not be to make healthy food as cheap as junk food.
In Europe, people pay more for their food.
It's a culture question. Also they have a better safety net [in Europe]. You can afford to spend 15 to 17 percent of your income on food if you don't have to worry about healthcare, if you know you're going to get, I don't know, five weeks of vacation a year and your retirement is not in doubt. So one of the reasons we're so dependent on cheap food is we have a society that makes it hard to afford anything else.
There's also the problem that a lot of kids don't know what fresh fruit and vegetables are.
I was talking to the head of school lunch in Baltimore, and he had a field trip where he took some kids out to a peach orchard and he said a significant percentage of kids had never had a fresh peach. They'd only had peaches in syrup, and it blew their minds. And that should not be. Everyone in America should experience a fresh peach.
I find it depressing.
Well, there's a lot of money to be made selling cheap food, and there's a lot of power behind it, so it won't be easy to change. But school lunches are a very important place to push, because that is where you make this food accessible to everyone. The school lunch is the least elitist arena where you can bring about change, but it's going to cost money. I happen to think it would be a real investment, a real down payment on health-care reform, if you gave kids one healthy meal a day.
The movie talks a lot about Monsanto. Can you explain this?
It's a company that genetically modifies seeds, and they sell a very high percentage of the seeds worldwide now, and they're gradually consolidating their hold over the world's seed supply. They don't want farmers to save seeds. They are great believers in the fact [that] you should come to them every year, and so this age-old tradition of farmers saving a certain amount of seeds for the next year, they're determined to stamp it out. Now they have the law on their side. Beginning in 1985, the patenting of seeds in America has been the law. I think that was a really big mistake, and there should be exclusions for farmers who want to save their seeds.
[Editor's note: Asked for comment, Monsanto representative John Combest wrote in an email, "Monsanto invests more than $2.6 million each day in research and development in order to bring new tools to farmers. If farmers ignored patent laws and saved our seeds, we would not be able to continuously fund the development of newer and better technologies." He added, "Regarding 'monopoly' allegations: Farmers have the option not to purchase biotech seed and also have the option not to purchase seed from Monsanto. … Farmers can purchase seed from over 200 different seed companies, many of whom sell both conventional and biotech seed."]
You said before you've changed your eating habits. How?
I don't eat industrial meat anymore. I eat grass-fed beef, organic chicken from a place I know. It is more expensive, and as a result I eat less meat.
Which is a good thing, right?
It's a very good thing in matters of health and climate change. Your meat consumption is probably your biggest contribution to climate change. You can point to very healthy populations that eat a lot of meat, but they're not eating the kind of meat we're eating. They're eating wild meat. In general, meats have pushed fruits and vegetables and whole grains off the diet, and those are really important for your health. So the less meat you eat, the more you're going to be eating of those other things, and by and large, those are much better for your health. Meat is nutritious food; it has a lot of things your body needs, but we eat altogether too much of it.
Also, the other thing I changed in my diet is I cook more. I think the first step in taking back control of your diet from the corporations who would feed you is to cook. To start with real food, real ingredients, and nothing will do more for your health than actually making food from scratch. That's a pretty subversive act in America these days, cooking.
Also, shopping at the farmer's market, getting out of the supermarket as much as you can. Now is the time, it's June, the markets are full of great produce. If you want to help build this food movement and improve your health and keep farmers in your community and keep the land open near where you live, the best thing you can do is go to a farmer's market.
Do you think it's a pivotal time for food right now?
I do. I think we are reaching a tipping point, to use a cliché. This is one of the most interesting social movements afoot right now. The politicians haven't quite recognized it yet. There are a very small handful who realize that there are votes in these issues. Hopefully this movie will be part of the change. We are realizing that the way we are eating is making us sick. The phrase "health-care crisis" is in large part another term for the catastrophe of the American diet. More than half the money we spend on health care goes to treat preventable diseases linked to diet.
Did you get a little verklempt when Michelle Obama dug her garden?
[Laughs] I did. I thought it was great. Also, when she goes to food kitchens, she talks about the importance of real food and getting off processed food. I think she's a very important teacher. She didn't have to say [the White House garden] was an organic garden, and she did.