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Michael Pollan


I was looking around for Michael Pollan’s discussion for the need to fund the development of methods in agriculture. The funding tends to go to stuff you can sell – fertilizers, Genetically Modified ‘living pollution’.. He has some great stuff on the net. Looking at your daily life, the food you eat and then moving up into The Corporation and Znet stuff seems like a concrete, accessible way to go. I didn’t find the exact qoute I was looking for but there was a lot of other good stuff.

Like this interview about The Omnivore’s Dilemma manages to draw Michael Pollan and Naomi Klein(poetic review) together? Have they ever been together?

OR: In some ways, this book seemed to make the case for the "shock doctrine" of the food industry. There’s this notion that what’s bad for us is good for the industry.

MP: There is a disconnect between the economic imperatives of the food industry and the biological imperatives of the human eater. You make money in the food industry by processing food as much as possible. It’s very hard to make money selling whole foods as they grow. They’re too cheap and common; farmers are too productive. The price of commodities is always falling.

But if you process food, you then have a way to add value to it. For example, it’s very hard to make money selling oats. Very simple grain, really good for you. I can buy organic oats for .79 cents a pound. That’s a big bag of oats. But there’s little money in it for anyone. If you turn those oats into Cheerios, there’s a lot more money in it. Suddenly, you have your intellectual property, your little design, donut-shaped cereal, you have a convenience food, you just have to add milk, you don’t have to cook it anymore and you can charge about four or five dollars for much less than a pound of oats. So that’s a good business.

But in fact, over time, those Cheerios will turn into a commodity, too, and all the supermarkets will have their store brand and it will be hard to expand your market and grow. So what do you do? You go up the next level of processing, and you make honey nut Cheerios cereal bars. These new bars that have a layer of synthetic milk through the middle and the idea is that it’s a bowl of cereal that you could eat dry in the school bus or in the car.

OR: You have a way of making that sound really unappealing.

MP: They really are. Look at the ingredients on the label — it will say "made with real milk." Check out what the real milk is. It’s ten ingredients that include some powdered milk and a lot of other strange things. But then you’re selling a few ounces of oats for a great many dollars. By the pound, you’ve taken that 79 cents, and my guess is you’re up to 10 or 20 dollars a pound for your oats because you’ve added all of this excitement and novelty.

And then you go up another level: Now you have these cereal straws. You take that oat material, and you extrude it through some machine that turns it into a straw and then you line that with that fake milk product. Then your children sip milk through it and you feel virtuous because you’re increasing their milk consumption. But at every step of the way, this food has gotten less nutritious. None of them are as healthy as that bowl of oatmeal, and the reason is, the more you process food, the less nutrients it has unless you add them back in. And even if you try to add them back in, you’re only going to add in the stuff you know is missing. There are other things you don’t know about because nutrition science doesn’t see them yet.

So that’s the capitalist imperative behind food. The fact is we would be better off with the oatmeal. The industry has many tricks to make sure we don’t eat the oatmeal. One is to market the wonders of these processed products. The other is to convince us we’re too busy to cook. And they’re very good at that. If you look at the picture of American life, family life on view in food commercials for television, you would think it’s this frenetic madhouse in every household in America, where the idea of cooking is absolutely inconceivable.

Yet, at the same time, there are images of people lounging in front of the television, doing their email and doing all sorts of other things, but there’s simply no time to cook. I think we’ve been sold this bill of goods that cooking is this heroic thing that only happens on special occasions.

And then there’s this on Subversive Gardening. I you want a jolt of Hope in the Dark check out Ruth L. Ozeki’s  All Over CreationMy Year of Meats was good too but not as exciting with the anarchist crochet. (I was pronouncing the word ‘crotch it’ for while, unintentionally – apparently its ‘Crow Shay’ as in ‘Shashay’ which is what you were supposed to do in front of draft boards during the Vietnam war).

OR: Your book draws on scientific studies and provides an incredible amount of information about nutrition science, but it’s also a manifesto of sorts. You say that "in our time cooking from scratch and growing any of your own food qualify as subversive acts."

MP: It’s funny to think of something as domestic as cooking and gardening as subversive, but it is. It is the beginning of taking back control from a system that would much rather do everything for you. The food industry wants to cook for you, shop for you, they want to do everything but digest for you and if they could figure out a way to do that profitably, they would. It’s all about making money. They need to convince you that you can’t do this stuff on your own. That gardening is hard, growing your own food is old-fashioned. Cooking is just so hard, we have to cook for you.

I think it’s really an important thing to do. The fact is we’ve had 50 years of letting corporations cook our meals, and it appears now that they were not doing a very good job of it. The food they’re cooking is making people sick. It is one of the reasons that we have the obesity and diabetes epidemics that we do. And it’s not surprising because they do not take as much care of our health and welfare as our parents do when they cook for us.

If you’re going to let industries decide how much salt, sugar and fat is in your food, they’re going to put as much as they possibly can. Why? Because they want to sell as much of it as they possibly can and we are hard-wired to like sugar, fat and salt. They will push those buttons until we scream or die. That’s in the nature of things. If you want to sell a lot of products, you make it as appealing as possible, but that’s not the same as cooking with an eye toward our health. We have responsibility for our health. We shouldn’t expect them to look out for us. And indeed, they don’t.

And with the former police chief of Seattle on Democracy Now doing a mea culpa for ‘chemical agents’ during the ‘Battle of Seattle’ after arguing for the legalization of Marijuana from a lawman’s standpoint you can’t skip this.

I was curious to know how the D.E.A. explained its priorities, but the agency did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. However, in a recent internal report, entitled "California Cannabis Cultivation: Marijuana in the 90’s," the agency defended Green Merchant, and its war on marijuana generally, as a necessary response to "a rapidly escalating problem." The report claimed that marijuana was a "gateway drug" leading to the use of more serious drugs; that THC posed "potential health hazards," which the increasing "quality and quantity" of domestic marijuana were making even worse, and that chemical runoffs from marijuana farms posed a threat to the environment. "There is good scientific reason," the report concluded, for "grouping marijuana with other very serious and harmful drugs."

Whatever the rationale, the war against marijuana is expensive—as much as $1.7 billion in criminal justice costs each year, by one estimate. And that fact, sooner than any shift in the ideological climate, is what could prove its undoing. In an era of shrinking government budgets, locking up nonviolent drug offenders becomes harder to rationalize. Last month, Gov. George E. Pataki of New York, looking to slash government spending, proposed relaxing the state’s mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, some of whom may even be released. If they aren’t already, marijuana growers should probably be voting Republican, since Republicans alone have the financial incentive, and the political cover, to reassess the costs and benefits of the drug war they started.

And here’s class with pot. South End Press is going to have to go back and redo Between Labor and Capital. (Erik Olin Wright was in there too.)

He described the mental effects of the winning variety with almost as much exactitude. It produced a "rapid, enveloping high," he said, yet it had all the clarity of a fine sativa. Connoisseurs will often characterize a particular variety by situating it on a spectrum of marijuana highs ranging from the distinctly physical, narcotic effects of the archetypal indica to the comparatively stimulating, cerebral effects of a sativa. By manipulating the proportion of sativa genes to indica genes, breeders can design strains with precisely the effects they seek. Brian distinguishes between "blue collar" and "white collar" marijuanas. Customers who do physical work for a living "want to put their feet up at the end of the day and smoke a big, heavy indica," he told me; an urban professional might prefer something more "uppy."

Connoisseurship of this order tends to complicate one’s view of marijuana as a drug, especially when you think about the sort of bootleg product Prohibition is remembered for—just about anything with alcohol in it, some of it poisonous enough to blind or kill. Interestingly, most of the pot smokers I met expressed distaste for pills and white-powder drugs and disdain for their users. Marijuana connoisseurship suggests that, at least in this particular corner of the "drug culture," the accent is as much on the culture as it is on the drug.

I don’t want to get too distracted with pot, it was just on my mind as it became an issue in Miyazaki when 3 surfing store guys were arrested with a kilo – that they had grown themselves or something. You get all the gateway drug and foreign import scare speculation, the whole ‘Marijuana Pollution'(Taima Osen) just seemed a bit hysterical to me…

Here’s Michael Pollan trying to think through a policy to save farmland. The CSA idea – ‘subscibing to vegetables’ might be a way to foster alternative institutions. Like suppose you friend, or a Co-op runs a worthwhile bar or restaurant but is having trouble staying afloat? What if 20 people ‘subscribed’ by paying 50 to a hundred dollars up front each month and then just paid whatever they consume over that amount each month. If they don’t consume as much as they paid for – well they contribute to maintaining a decent place in their community. Here he’s talking about why there isn’t more money for farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture in the Farm Bill.

MP: Yes, I think we should spend more on it. Farmers markets are a very important part of the solution, at many, many levels and we need to promote them. We also need to get them into the inner-city and help deal with the food deserts there.

When people are shopping at farmers markets, the farmers win, the people win, your health wins, the local economy wins. It’s just such a clear positive. I can’t think of anything negative attached to spending more on farmers markets. And it’s a very viable strategy to many farmers who would otherwise be growing commodities and suffering in the marketplace. It allows them to keep more of the consumers’ food dollar.

But it’s true though, that it takes farmers a lot of time. There are other schemes like CSAs (community supported agriculture), which in some ways are better for farmers. And we need to promote those too. You know, a lot of people don’t know what CSAs are.

The Farm Bill could help with that. What is a CSA? How do you join one? Imagine! Just from my book, just mentioning CSAs, people had never heard of them and then they went out and joined one. Farmers tell me too that people came to them after reading about CSAs in (The Omnivore’s Dilemma).

This is a secret to the larger society. That you can subscribe to vegetables. What a wild concept!

There should be a public education campaign. And a website you go to and type in your Zip code and they could tell you where the nearest CSA is.

You think the rural organic farmers aren’t interested in urban poverty(taken in by stereotypes maybe), maybe there’s some kind of racist divide, then you’re pleasantly surprised to find Wes Jackson, in Becoming Native to This Place talking about how important it is to save East St. Louis and urban areas and wild areas at the same time.

He has a great section on markets using Jerome Ellig to slam Dr. Ronald Coase’s "serious proposal to sell air" with its "beginnings around 1960" in an article "entitled ‘The Problem of Social Cost.'(p. 69) I searched the net for Wes Jackson and markets but nothing came up. It’s exciting to find a seeming natural Znet/Parecon/Michael-Albert-On-Markets ally so I’ll have to find some time to type in key passages.

And as a grand finale to an overly long post, Here’s some good anti-corporate Apple Pie Americana. Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark finds environmental allies among ranchers in a rural bar. Invigorating! Here’s an on-line mention of an ‘uncomfotable moment’ at a farmer’s lunch table with a corporate rep.

At lunch on his farm in Idaho, I had asked Steve Young what he thought about all this, especially about the contract Monsanto made him sign. I wondered how the American farmer, the putative heir to a long tradition of agrarian independence, was adjusting to the idea of field men snooping around his farm, and patented seed he couldn’t replant. Young said he had made his peace with corporate agriculture, and with biotechnology in particular: "It’s here to stay. It’s necessary if we’re going to feed the world, and it’s going to take us forward."

Then I asked him if he saw any downside to biotechnology, and he paused for what seemed a very long time. What he then said silenced the table. "There is a cost," he said. "It gives corporate America one more noose around my neck."

And then there’s this gem illustrating Chomsky – ‘the historical record is very clear’ that ‘regulatory agencies tend to get taken over by the industries they regulate’ and how it makes sense as the industries a big powerful institutions… ALl that good shit

Monsanto executives offer two basic responses to criticism of their Bt crops. The first is that their voluntary resistance-management plans will work, though the company’s definition of success will come as small consolation to an organic farmer: Monsanto scientists told me that if all goes well, resistance can be postponed for 30 years. (Some scientists believe it will come in three to five years.) The second response is more troubling. In St. Louis, I met with Jerry Hjelle, Monsanto’s vice president for regulatory affairs. Hjelle told me that resistance should not unduly concern us since ‘, there are a thousand other Bt’s out there"â€"other insecticidal proteins. "We can handle this problem with new products," he said. "The critics don’t know what we have in the pipeline."

And then Hjelle uttered two wards that I thought had been expunged from the corporate vocabulary a long time ago: "Trust us."

Yeah, That’ll work. Trust this(insert non-verbal gesture of you choice here.)

Monsanto executives are quick to point out that mad cow disease has made Europeans extremely sensitive about the safety of their food chain and has undermined confidence in their regulators. "They don’t have a trusted agency like the FDA looking after the safety of their food supply," said Phil Angell, Monsanto’s director of corporate communications. Over the summer, Angell was dispatched repeatedly to Europe to put out the PR fires; some at Monsanto worry these could spread to the United States.

I checked with the FDA to find out exactly what had been done to insure the safety of this potato. I was mystified by the fact that the Bt toxin was not being treated as a "food additive" subject to labelling, even though the new protein is expressed in the potato itself. The label on a bag of biotech potatoes in the supermarket will tell a consumer all about the nutrients they contain, even the trace amounts of copper. Yet it is silent not only about the fact that those potatoes are the product of genetic engineering but also about their containing an insecticide.

At the FDA, I was referred to James Maryanski, who oversees biotech food at the agency. I began by asking him why the FDA didn’t consider Bt a food additive. Under FDA law, any novel substance added to a food mustâ€"unless it is "generally regarded as safe" ("GRAS," in FDA parlance)â€"be thoroughly tested and if it changes the product in any way, must be labelled. "That’s easy," Maryanski said. "Bt is a pesticide, so it’s exempt" from FDA regulation. That is, even though a Bt potato is plainly a food, for the purposes of Federal regulation it is not a food but a pesticide and therefore falls under the jurisdiction of the EPA. Yet even in the case of those biotech crops over which the FDA does have jurisdiction, I learned that FDA regulation of biotech food has been largely voluntary since 1992 when Vice President Dan Quayle issued regulatory guidelines for the industry as part of the Bush Administration’s campaign for "regulatory relief."

Under the guidelines, new proteins engineered into foods are regarded as additives (unless they’re pesticides), but as Maryanski explained, "the determination whether a new protein is GRAS can be made by the company." Companies with a new biotech food decide for themselves whether they need to consult with the FDA by following a series of "decision trees" that pose yes or no questions like this one: "Does … the introduced protein raise any safety concern?"

Since my Bt potatoes were being regulated as a pesticide by the EPA, rather than as a food by the FDA, I wondered if the safety standards are the same. "Not exactly," Maryanski explained. The FDA requires "a reasonable certainty of no harm" in a food additive, a standard most pesticides could not meet. After all, "pesticides are toxic to something," Maryanski pointed out, so the EPA instead establishes human "tolerances" for each chemical and then subjects it to a risk-benefit analysis.

When I called the EPA and asked if the agency had tested my Bt potatoes for safety as a human food, the answer was … not exactly. It seems the EPA works from the assumption that if the original potato is safe and the Bt protein added to it is safe, then the whole New Leaf package is presumed to be safe. Some geneticists believe this reasoning is flawed, contending that the process of genetic engineering itself may cause subtle, as yet unrecognised changes in a food.

The original Superior potato is safe, obviously enough, so that left the Bt toxin, which was fed to mice, and they "did fine, had no side effects," I was told. I always feel better knowing that my food has been poison-tested by mice, though in this case there was a small catch: the mice weren’t actually eating the potatoes, not even an extract from the potatoes, but rather straight Bt produced in a bacterial culture.

I should be outside moving worm-poop filled terra-cotta containers on this beautiful spring day. Do some Shoeki Ando’s ‘Direct Cultivation.’

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