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'What Should Americans Eat?' Michael Pollan and the Politics of Food


Journalist and activist asks environmental, economic and moral questions. His popular books have helped redefine the debate in the United States. Transcript of radio broadcast:

VOICE ONE:

I'm Steve Ember.

VOICE TWO:

And I'm Barbara Klein with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Today we tell about the reporter and food expert Michael Pollan. Mister Pollan is a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He also writes for the New York Times Magazine. But Mister Pollan is best known for his two books about the environmental, industrial, scientific, and moral questions about food.

The main question he asks in his writing is "What should Americans eat?" His research shows that this question is more complex than it seems. Mister Pollan's studies about American food production, farming, health and diet have helped redefine the food debate in the United States.

VOICE ONE:

In his two thousand six book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma", Michael Pollan explores what he calls America's national eating disorder. He looks at how food is grown in the United States and the ways American eat.

The writer begins by investigating the American industrial food chain. He starts in the cornfields of the mid-western United States because most food Americans eat is linked to this plant.

MICHAEL POLLAN: "Corn as a food is wonderful. Corn as an industrial raw material, or as a food product is another matter. One plant by virtue of its genius and its ability to manipulate us has conquered our land, our food system, all our animals, and it's even conquered our bodies."

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Americans eat corn directly as a vegetable and in cereals and other foods. But they also eat it in greater quantities indirectly through corn-fed farm animals and the many starches, alcohols, and sugars made from industrial corn. American farmers grow huge amounts of this corn. To do this, they use dangerous fertilizers and pesticides.

VOICE ONE:


Mister Pollan shows other ways that the modern farming of corn has harmed the natural environment. In the past, farmers grew many kinds of products. Today, most farmers use all of their land to grow only one crop, such as corn. This has done great harm to the biodiversity of farmlands. The writer shows that industrial farming is unsustainable because it destroys the resources it depends on.

Michael Pollan also explains how federal policies have damaged the American farming system. He explains how huge supply has reduced the price of corn so much that farmers often cannot stay in business growing corn without government payments.

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Corn-fed cows on industrial feed lots are another part of this dangerous food chain. The cows are fed corn so that they grow fat more quickly. But cows' bodies were built for eating grass, not corn.

Over time, cows develop health problems because of their living conditions, including their corn diet. So, the cows receive daily amounts of antibiotic medicines. People end up eating these chemicals when they eat beef. And, the corn-fed beef they eat contains a less healthy kind of fat than the fat in cows that eat grass.

Petroleum is a big part of this food chain. It takes huge amounts of oil to grow, fertilize and harvest corn and transport it from farm, to production center, to buyer, to eater. Mister Pollan says about one hundred ninety liters of oil is needed to grow every four-tenths of a hectare of industrial corn.

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VOICE ONE:

The next food system Michael Pollan explores begins with vegetables and a farm bird he buys from a health food store. Food that is organic is grown or raised without chemical insecticides or fertilizers. Historically, the organic food movement began on small farms as a way of rejecting industrial agriculture's increasing dependence on chemicals.

Today, the organic food market is one of the fastest growing areas of the food industry. To be called organic, producers are required to follow guidelines established by the United States Department of Agriculture.

VOICE TWO:

Mister Pollan shows that there are different levels of organically produced food. Some big farms grow organic food with methods similar to industrial farms. They follow the rules necessary to be called organic producers. But many of their methods are still not very healthful or sustainable.

Many large organic farms ship their crops all over the world. One could argue that the benefit of organically farmed products is cancelled out by the high amounts of fuel required to transport them to buyers.

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This leads Mister Pollan to explore small-scale, local organic farming. He visits Polyface farm in the state of Virginia. The owner of this farm, Joel Salatin, has interesting ideas about farming. He describes himself as a grass farmer because grass is the base of the food chain of his farm animals.

Joel Salatin is not interested in having "organic" as a label describing his farm. He and his family have built a farm system of rotational grazing that is based on the biological patterns found in nature. Because they practice sustainable farming, they do not need chemicals for any of the chickens, cows, pigs, and rabbits they raise.

These methods produce healthy animals that are good to eat. And, Polyface refuses to ship food anywhere, so the farm depends only on local buyers. The farm has become an important example of how sustainable farming can remain local, environmentally friendly and productive.

VOICE TWO:

Michael Pollan ends his book by discussing an extremely local meal, one he produced himself. He hunted a wild pig, grew vegetables in his garden and searched for wild mushrooms. He says this method of eating is not possible to do everyday. But he shows that the experience is important because it reminds us about the source of the food we eat and its direct relationship to the natural world.

Mister Pollan's food investigations ask readers to think more carefully about the kind of food they eat and the way it is produced. "The Omnivore's Dilemma" also points out the ways in which America's food system should be reformed.

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VOICE ONE:

Michael Pollan's two thousand eight book, "In Defense of Food," continues the subject of eating by discussing diet and health.

He notes that the more Americans worry about nutrition, the more unhealthy they become. Conflicting reports from scientists and advertisements about what foods make people healthy make eating choices even more difficult.

So, Mister Pollan suggests three simple rules: Eat Food. Not too Much. Mostly Plants.

He defines "food" as whole, fresh foods that come from nature. He rejects processed food products containing unrecognizable substances.

MICHAEL POLLAN: "The basic idea is to take back control over our eating from the corporations we have allowed to cook for us, because that is really what has happened in the last fifty years. You know, fifty percent of our food dollars go to food prepared outside the home. In the interest of convenience, in the interest of the seductions of food science, we are letting large corporations cook food for us. And we have learned and we see it reflected in the state of our public health, that they don't cook very well."

Mister Pollan shows that Americans could start to reverse many health problems and begin to build a richer food culture by replacing processed foods with a diet of natural food.

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In October of two thousand eight, Michael Pollan wrote a letter to president-elect Barack Obama which was published in the New York Times Magazine. In the letter, he told Mister Obama that food would play an important part in his administration.

Mister Pollan said food policy was not discussed during Mister Obama's campaign. But he says the new president will have to face it because of its links to health care problems, energy independence and climate change.

VOICE ONE:

Michael Pollan makes several suggestions to the president. He describes the importance of reforming agricultural policies. These policies would support farms to grow diverse crops for local communities. This plan would reduce pollution and America's dependency on oil.

He suggests several ways that the government can change the food system from its centralized organization to a local one. He says such changes would protect America's food sources from possible attack, reduce the spread of food poisoning and improve the economies of rural areas.

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Mister Pollan also suggests starting programs to educate children about the importance of eating natural foods.

And, he says that one major way President Obama could show his support for food system reform would be to plant an organic vegetable garden at the White House. This garden could produce healthful food for the president's family and nearby food banks that serve hungry people. Michael Pollan says a White House garden would set a revolutionary example of healthful eating and local farming for the whole country.

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VOICE ONE:

This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Steve Ember.

VOICE TWO:

And I'm Barbara Klein. Join us again next week for Explorations in VOA Special English.

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