Michael Pollan on Food Chains, Dead Zones, and Licensed Journalism


“The first time I opened Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, I was dining alone at the Palm, trying to enjoy a rib-eye steak cooked medium rare.” The Palm is a restaurant known for its beef, the sentence is the opening of an article in the New York Times Magazine, and the author, Michael Pollan, is now a professor of journalism at Berkeley. The sentence shows how Pollan works as a writer. He doesn’t lecture or assume a superior position; instead, with a comic juxtaposition, he places himself (and, by extension, the reader) directly inside a cognitive dilemma, setting up a tension for the article to resolve. Pollan finished the steak, and continues to eat meat, although his prime choice is grass-fed beef rather than animals that have been stuffed with corn, antibiotics, and hormones.

 

Pollan writes what he calls “food detective stories,” but the way he stalks his prey sets him apart from others who write about our palate and plate. For an article about genetically modified food, for instance, his first step was to plant Monsanto’s genetically modified NewLeaf potato in his garden. He then went to St. Louis to interview the folks at Monsanto, and to Idaho to talk to potato farmers. He called the FDA and the EPA, and interviewed people like Richard Lewontin, the Harvard critic of biotechnology. He read and admired scholarly articles, including “The Potato in the Materialist Imagination” (by Berkeley English professor Catherine Gallagher). He then mixed all of this, and much more, into a wonderful narrative stew, all the while continuing to tend his patch of potatoes, both old and NewLeaf. At the end, he had to decide whether or not to eat the Monsanto potato. The article’s last sentence: “I choose not.”

 

Pollan has chosen to wander between his study and the garden and into the world beyond in numerous articles and three books: Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991), A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder (1997), and The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001). A former editor at Harper’s magazine, and since 1995 a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, he was named Knight Professor of Journalism at Berkeley in 2003.

 

While Pollan likes to get involved in what he writes about, he’s never far from the library. He took up gardening and building in part because of the delicious reading that both activities would bring into his hands. His library research produces fascinating facts. The broomstick that witches are said to ride, he tells us in The Botany of Desire, was actually a dildo used to insert intoxicants from the witches’ brew, which very likely made them “fly.” “That’s why I don’t write fiction,” Pollan says. “You can’t invent things like that.”

 

As readers of Second Nature know, Pollan grew up on Long Island, the oldest of four children (he has three sisters). His mother, Corky, spent 17 years editing Best Bets at New York magazine and now serves as style editor of Gourmet magazine. Michael describes his father, Stephen, as “one of the world’s great indoorsmen.” Stephen is also a best-selling writer, co-author of such books as Die Broke and How to Fire Your Boss, which come off the presses at the rate of one a year. Asked if he and his father ever discuss their craft, Michael says: “Yes. My father asks: ‘Why do you take so long to write your books?’ I answer: ‘Because I write them myself!’”

 

Pollan earned his B.A. in English at Bennington College in Vermont, spent a year studying literature at Oxford, and received a master’s degree in English literature at Columbia University in 1981. He then took what he calls “a major personal gamble”–betting that he could write meaningfully about American culture, and in particular our relation to nature, as a journalist rather than as an English professor. After working on several start-up magazines, in 1983 he was hired by Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham to help overhaul the publication. Pollan started out as senior editor responsible for Harper’s Index and the magazine’s Readings section. The magazine won six National Magazine Awards during his tenure, which included ten years as executive editor.

 

In The Botany of Desire — a literary, philosophical, and social history of the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the genetically modified potato — Pollan describes John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”) as an American Dionysus, “innocent and mild,” but with more than a hint of eccentricity: He had “the thick bark of queerness on him,” as a biographer cited by Pollan notes. These all could be descriptions of Pollan’s own sensibility. His writing displays an innocence tempered with knowledge of the world, and a mildness that has been forged out of various kinds of wildness. Streaks of eccentricity and extravagance (which etymologically means “to wander off a path or cross a line,” Pollan reminds us) lace his paragraphs. Last month, Michael Pollan sat down–playing with his son’s tiny toy pig (“I love pigs!”) and sipping tea in the kitchen of his south Berkeley home — to talk about writing and journalism.

 

What are you working on now?

 

I’m writing a book about the three principal food chains: the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer. We’re all part of the first; I’m part of the second, since I garden organically; and, for the third, I’m going to learn to hunt.

 

You’re going to take up arms?

 

Yes, but first I have to take a 14-hour course on gun safety at the Chabot gun club. Then I’m going out with a couple of chefs to hunt boar in the vineyards of Sonoma, where boars are a problem.

 

This sounds like some of the things you’ve done for your other books and articles.

 

Yes, I very much like to have a personal stake in what I’m writing about. One of the most influential books I read growing up was George Plimpton’s Paper Lion, where he describes his experience playing football with the Detroit Lions. Most journalists are in the stands, or in the press box. Plimpton inserted himself onto the field of play.

 

I got my training as a journalist, in large part, at Harper’s magazine. The editor, Lewis Lapham, insisted that the writers of our big pieces put in a paragraph somewhere that sort of declares where they’re coming from — why they cared about a subject, and where they were standing.

 

Why?

 

Because he thought that writers hid behind the convention of the third-person omniscient objective journalist, which allowed them to write a very slanted article, all the while pretending that they were absolutely disinterested. He felt that writing, finally, is an individual talking; we shouldn’t forget that there is a man or woman behind these sentences, and we should know where he or she is coming from. I find a lot of truth in that, even though I find myself in a school where students are taught to do precisely the opposite.

 

Shouldn’t journalists be taught to be objective?

 

I think perfect objectivity is an unrealistic goal; fairness, however, is not. Fairness forces you–even when you’re writing a piece highly critical of, say, genetically modified food, as I have done–to make sure you represent the other side as extensively and as accurately as you possibly can.

 

Anyway, in my writing I’ve always been interested in finding places to stand, and I’ve found it very useful to have a direct experience of what I’m writing about. For example, when I bought a steer as part of writing about the cattle industry, the fact that I owned a steer forced me to give more credence to and to be more fair to points of view I disagreed with. I was able to understand the logic of why you would give a hormone implant to a steer: There is essentially no way you could make money in the system if you didn’t do that.

 

Any other virtues in taking a first-person stance?

 

Yes. It gives you enormous comic possibilities. You can write about yourself as a naïf, as the man from Mars, or a babe in the woods. For me, that’s a very comfortable stance to write from — as someone who is learning, who is a rank amateur, kind of clawing his way to some knowledge and success at something. That way, you never write down to your readers. Plus, I love comic writing. Nothing satisfies me more than finding a funny way to phrase something.

 

Your first person seems fairly ego-less.

 

My writing is remarkably non-confessional; you actually learn very little about me. There’s an assumption that if someone writes in the first person it’s self-indulgent and self-regarding. I just look at it as a tool to understand the world and my experience in it. It’s not a tool to understand myself.

 

Was there a favorite writer you edited at Harper’s?

 

Yes: Walter Karp, who wrote extensively for the magazine before his death in 1989. He was a terrific political writer–he wrote things that sort of sizzled in your hand–and he set the political tone for the magazine. One of his chief virtues was his understanding that you have to look at what politicians do rather than at what they say. We don’t tend to do that. Journalists go to politicians and ask them what their actions mean. That’s kind of weird. As a result, in the mainstream press what is regarded as important is what politicians tell us is important, and what things mean is what those same politicians tell us they mean.

 

But Walter Karp always kept his eyes on the political actor’s deeds, not on his words. He understood that journalism, in this country, is largely licensed by politicians, by the leadership of the two political parties.

 

What do you mean by “licensed”?

 

Sanctioned. I mean that if points of view are not represented in the circle of mainstream Congressional opinion, they do not have a voice.

 

Can you give an example?

 

Look at an issue I know something about, genetic engineering. Why was its introduction into our food supply not a contested fight in America?

 

Over labeling that would say that the food was genetically engineered?

 

About labeling, but also, before that, about whether we should even approve this technology. The reason there was not a fight is because both political parties were on board for it. The Republicans were predictably pro-business and anti-regulation. And the Democrats had allied themselves with the biotechnology industry, had picked it as one of the growth industries in the early 1990s. Also, the biotech industry, in the person of Robert Shapiro, the president of Monsanto, was very close to Clinton and his administration.

 

The key moment, when the rules and regulations were being decided for the industry, came at the end of the first Bush administration and the beginning of the first Clinton administration. Both parties agreed that the industry should proceed with as little regulation as possible. The result was that biotech was introduced with no political debate and remarkably little journalistic attention.

 

The larger meaning here is that mainstream journalists simply cannot talk about things that the two parties agree on; this is the black hole of American politics. Genetically modified crops were in the black hole until the Europeans reacted so strongly against them; then we began to have a little bit of politics around the issue, but still not very much. The things journalists should pay attention to are the issues the political leadership agrees on, rather than to their supposed antagonisms.

 

War, for one?

 

War, definitely. Globalization is another example. There’s a bit of a split now in the Democratic Party over free trade. But, essentially, both parties agreed to sign on to GATT and the WTO and those kinds of agreements. And you scarcely read a critical word about free trade in the New York Times during that period of complete collusion.

 

The Times has a lot of power to shape debate.

 

The Times has much less power than you think. I believe we attribute power to the media generally that it simply doesn’t have. It’s very convenient to blame the media, the same way we blame television for everything that’s going wrong in society. Again, the mainstream press cannot take political positions that aren’t well represented in the leadership of Congress. The Congressional leaders set the agenda for journalism; it’s not the other way around.

 

Watch what happens in the year going forward, after the re-election of the President. If the Democrats in power decide they want to take on the role of a loyal opposition, the Times will have the cover it needs to be an opposition force. If the mood in Congress becomes, “Let’s cooperate, let’s move to the right,” so, I would wager, will the Times. And when I say “the Times,” I’m speaking of the mainstream press in general.

 

And it’s always been this way?

 

For the past century; but it might be about to change. There appears to be money to be made now by selling partisan information in a way that hasn’t been done since the 19th century. Fox News is obviously changing the rules of the game a bit. People may be ready for a more partisan kind of journalism.

 

Consider the fact that some of the best journalism in the last year has come from comedians. I’m thinking of Jon Stewart, who has done some excellent journalism on the Daily Show. He looks at what powerful people say and then juxtaposes it to their previous statements. When Dick Cheney says something like, “I never claimed that Hussein was directly behind 9/11,” the mainstream press lets that stand.

 

Jon Stewart finds the videotape that contradicts the statement and juxtaposes it with the denial, exposing Cheney as having lied. That’s powerful and objective journalism. I’ve asked network TV producers, “Why don’t you do that sort of thing?” and they say: “We can’t. It’s considered too political.” But why is it regarded as political to simply put one fact next to another fact?

 

One thing we’re trying to do over at North Gate Hall [home of the Graduate School of Journalism] is to sensitize the students to these issues and to give them a more critical perspective on the press.

 

Let’s talk about science journalism.

 

Science journalism is more dependent on official sanction than any other kind. This has to do with the question of authority. In general, science journalism concerns itself with what has been published in a handful of peer-reviewed journals — Nature, Cell, The New England Journal of Medicine — which set the agenda. This is fine when you’re covering scientific developments and new discoveries, but what happens when science itself is the story? We’re letting scientists set the agenda in much the way that we let politicians set the agenda.

 

Another problem is: How do you deal with dissident scientists? With, to take an example on this campus, [biotech critic] Ignacio Chapela. As a science journalist, I don’t know exactly where one stands to write the defense of Chapela in a mainstream newspaper after Nature and the scientific establishment have spoken against him. The journalist can’t do the experiments that would prove or disprove the contested science in this case. All we can do is quote other authoritative scientists; and the people who have the loudest voices tend to be the Nobel laureates and all those others who benefit most from the scientific consensus around biotechnology.

 

That’s the power, in this case?

 

That’s the power, exactly. The big journals and Nobel laureates are the equivalent of Congressional leaders in science journalism. And that is pretty much where political journalism was before Watergate made journalists a bit more skeptical of official political opinion. I believe we should be taking a more critical approach to science, and I’m encouraging science journalism students to do that.

 

You’ve taken a critical look at what you’ve called “the cornification of America.” What do you mean?

 

It appears I have a kind of corn obsession. I’m like that character in Middlemarch, Professor Causabon, who thought he had the key to the universe, the key to all mythologies. In corn, I think I’ve found the key to the American food chain.

 

How so?

 

If you look at a fast-food meal, a McDonald’s meal, virtually all the carbon in it — and what we eat is mostly carbon — comes from corn. A Chicken McNugget is corn upon corn upon corn, beginning with corn-fed chicken all the way through the obscure food additives and the corn starch that holds it together. All the meat at McDonald’s is really corn. Chickens have become machines for converting two pounds of corn into one pound of chicken. The beef, too, is from cattle fed corn on feedlots. The main ingredient in the soda is corn — high-fructose corn syrup. Go down the list. Even the dressing on the new salads at McDonald’s is full of corn.

 

I recently spent some time on an Iowa corn farm. These cornfields are basically providing the building blocks for the fast-food nation. In my new book, I want to show people how this process works, and how this monoculture in the field leads to a different kind of monoculture on the plate.

 

What does this do to the land?

 

Corn is a greedy crop, as farmers will tell you. When you’re growing corn in that kind of intensive monoculture, it requires more pesticide and more fertilizer than any other crop. It’s very hard on the land. You need to put down immense amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, the run-off of which is a pollutant. The farmers I was visiting were putting down 200 pounds per acre, in the full knowledge that corn could only use maybe 100 or 125 pounds per acre; they considered it crop insurance to put on an extra 75 to 100 pounds.

 

Where does that extra nitrogen go?

 

It goes into the roadside ditches and, in the case of the farms I visited, drains into the Raccoon River, which empties into the Des Moines River. The city of Des Moines has a big problem with nitrogen pollution. In the spring, the city issues “blue baby alerts,” telling mothers not to let their children use the tap water because of the nitrates in it. The Des Moines River eventually finds its way to the Gulf of Mexico, where the excess nitrogen has created a dead zone the size of New Jersey.

 

What is a dead zone?

 

It’s a place where the nitrogen has stimulated such growth of algae and phytoplankton that it starves that area of oxygen, and fish cannot live in it. The dead zone hasn’t gotten much attention, compared to carbon pollution; but, in terms of the sheer scale of human interference in one of the crucial natural cycles, it’s arguably even more dramatic. Fully half of the terrestrial nitrogen in the world today is manmade, from fertilizers.

 

Our dependence on corn for a “cheap meal” is a fundamental absurdity. Seventy percent of the grain we grow in this country goes to feed livestock. Most of this livestock is cattle, which are uniquely suited to eating grass, not corn. To help them tolerate corn, we have to pump antibiotics into the cattle; and because the corn diet leads to pathogens, we then need to irradiate their meat to make it safe to eat. Feeding so much corn to cattle thus creates new and entirely preventable public health problems.

 

In addition to contributing to erosion, pollution, food poisoning, and the dead zone, corn requires huge amounts of fossil fuel–it takes a half gallon of fossil fuel to produce a bushel of corn. What that means is that one of the things we’re defending in the Persian Gulf is the cornfields and the Big Mac. Another cost is the subsidies: For corn alone, it’s four or five billion dollars a year in public money to support the corn farmers that make possible our cheap hamburger. Then you’ve got the problem of obesity because these cheap calories happen to be some of the most fattening.

 

We’re paying for a 99-cent burger in our health-care bills, in our environmental cleanup bills, in our military budget, and in the disappearance of the family farm. So it really isn’t cheap at all.

 

Does this leave you pessimistic?

 

No. I can’t write an article about industrial beef without pointing to an alternative, which is grass-fed beef; or about the industrialization of organic food without pointing to the reappearance of local food chains. Most of my articles offer some modicum of hope at the end.

 

Many people get upset when they look at these things.

 

Yes, but despair is not very useful. Anger, perhaps, but not despair. Jefferson said somewhere that no matter how bad things get, it’s just not acceptable to despair for the republic. You just can’t do that. And I believe the same is true for our food system.

 

 

[This article first appeared in the December 2004 issue of California Monthly, Berkeley's alumni magazine, and was posted on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]

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