Michael Pollan: Eating Is a Political Act
By Mark Eisen, The Progressive
Posted on November 8, 2008
Mark Eisen: You argue that consumer ignorance is essential for
maintaining the industrial agriculture system.
Michael Pollan: If people could see how their food is produced, they
would change how they eat. My interest in the topic traces to two
moments, in 2000, when I learned how our food is produced.
One was driving down Route 5 in California and passing the Harris
ranch, which is a huge feedlot right on the highway. It's a stunning
landscape. I had never seen anything quite like that.
Miles of manure-encrusted land teeming with thousands of animals and
a giant mountain of corn and a giant mountain of manure. And a
stench you can smell two miles before you get there.
Most feedlots are hidden away on the High Plains. This one happens
to be very accessible. Then I visited an industrialized potato farm
in Idaho and saw how freely pesticides were used. The farmers had
little patches of potatoes by their houses that were organic. They
couldn't eat their field potatoes out of the ground because they had
so many systemic pesticides. They had to be stored for six months to
off-gas the toxins.
These two things changed the way I ate. I don't buy industrial
potatoes, and I don't eat feedlot meat.
It's only our ignorance of how our food is grown that permits this
to go on. Most people, if they went to the feedlot or to the
slaughterhouse and saw how the animals are raised and killed, would
lose their appetite for that food.
The industry knows this. It works so hard not to label where the
food comes from, how it's made, and whether or not there are GMOs
[genetically modified organisms] in it, because they know very well
from their own research that people don't want food grown that way.
ME: You seemed to struggle with the concept of vegetarianism and
arguments against meat eating.
MP: I'm a pretty harsh critic of 99 percent of America's meat
system, but there is that 1 percent I think is important to defend,
because first there are good environmental reasons to eat meat in a
If you believe strongly in building up local food economies, there
are places where meat is the best way to get protein off of the
land. It's too hilly, too dry. Having animals is very important for
sustainable agriculture. If you're going to have animals on the
farm, they're going to die eventually, and you're going to eat them.
But I have enormous respect for vegetarians. They're further ahead
than most of us. They've gone through the thought process in making
their eating choices. They've just come out in a different place
than I have.
I think we're going to focus on meat-eaters the way we have on SUV
drivers. There will be a lot of pressure and education to show that
a heavy meat diet is a big contributor to climate change, and that
there are many good reasons to eat less meat.
ME: How is meat consumption tied to climate change?
MP: In several ways. First, it's fossil-fuel intensive. If you are
feeding animals grain on feedlots you are growing that grain with
fossil-fuel fertilizers and pesticides. You are moving that grain
around the country to feedlots. You're moving the meat around the
It's a very inefficient way to feed ourselves. It takes ten pounds
of grain to get one pound of beef, seven pounds of grain to get one
pound of pork, and two pounds of grain to get one pound of chicken.
There is an equity issue, too. If we really have a limited amount of
grain to feed the world, and we're feeding 60 percent of it to
animals, and another 10 percent to our cars, that's going to be hard
to defend in the future.
ME: How is climate change a crisis of lifestyle and character?
MP: Look, 70 percent of economic activity in this country is
consumer -- it's our purchasing decisions. That is the economy. We
are implicated in these problems, and we have to recognize that.
It's our lifestyles; it's how we've organized our cities and the
countryside. It's the size of our houses and how we heat our houses.
It's all these things. This is global warming.
We can look at supranational institutions to create a new set of
rules for this economy. But I don't think that will happen in the
absence of people discovering that they can change their lives.
I really believe in what Wendell Berry said in the '70s -- that the
environmental crisis is a crisis of character. It's really about how
ME: Are people getting it?
MP: On food I have a lot of optimism. I see evidence that people are
changing the way they consume. I don't foresee the industrial food
system going away. I see it shrinking.
One of the powerful things about the food issue is that people feel
empowered by it. There are so many areas of our life where we feel
powerless to change things, but your eating issues are really
primal. You decide every day what you're going to put in your body --
and what you refuse to put in your body. That's politics at its
Mark Eisen writes about food, political, and business topics from
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