Friday, October 31, 2014

Big food

Michael Pollan thinks Wall Street has way too much influence over what we eat

by Ezra Klein on April 23, 2014

story,interview

In 2008, food writer Michael Pollan published an open letter to President-Elect Barack Obama. He began with a warning. "It may surprise you to learn that among the issues that will occupy much of your time in the coming years is one you barely mentioned during the campaign: food."

Take climate change. "After cars," Pollan wrote, "the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy." As for health-care reform, the chronic diseases forcing spending ever upward are rooted in the way Americans eat. "You cannot expect to reform the health care system, much less expand coverage, without confronting the public-health catastrophe that is the modern American diet."

Five years later, Pollan is disappointed that Obama didn’t listen. "There’s been a timidity when it comes to looking at the food system," he says.

"You’re socially engineered every time you walk through the cereal aisle in the supermarket"

Consider the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent announcement that it would begin regulating emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. "The agricultural sector generates more methane than any other sector," Pollan says. "But for reasons I can’t fathom, when they announced the new rules governing methane in the energy sector, they called for voluntary measures in the agricultural sector."

In a wide-ranging interview, Pollan, the author of the recent  —  and excellent  —  Cooked: a Natural History of Transformation —  explained what studying the food system teaches you about capitalism, why he’s more excited about meat made from vegetables than meat made from clones, and whether it’s time to add anything to his famous triplet: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

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Michael Pollan. Photo by Kris Krüg

The White House is afraid of Big Ag

Pollan is clearly puzzled by Washington’s fear of food producers. "The energy sector is a powerful lobby," he says, "but the President seems willing to go after them. But not agriculture."

It’s not just the methane regulations. Pollan brings up the use of antibiotics in livestock. According to some estimates, 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are used in farms. Researchers worry that this is helping to create a new class of antibiotic-resistant "superbugs."

In December, the Food and Drug Administration decided to crack down on antibiotic use on farms. "But the choice was for voluntary guidelines," says Pollan. "I’m not exactly sure why that’s the case."

"If you challenge my right to have a cheeseburger, that’s getting a little intimate"

He does have a theory, though. "People’s eating choices are more fundamental and closely tied to their identity than their driving decisions or how they choose to heat their house or anything else," Pollan says. "If you challenge my right to have a cheeseburger, that’s getting a little intimate." And so politicians steer clear of anything that sounds critical of the American plate.

"It’s curious that we’re open to social engineering when it’s being done by corporations," Pollan muses. "You’re socially engineered every time you walk through the cereal aisle in the supermarket. The healthy stuff is down at your feet and the stuff with the most sugar and chocolate is at your eye level — or your child’s eye level. That doesn’t seem to bother us. But as soon as it’s done by elected officials on our behalf, it’s anathema."

Forget meat made in labs. Look at meat made from peas.

A theme running through much of Pollan’s work is that modern meat production is almost unthinkably cruel. So I wondered whether he was enthused by recent glimpses into a possible future for meat production: one that clones animal parts and grows them in labs for food rather than raising animals and slaughtering them in industrial production facilities.

"There are two kinds of lab meat," he replies. "There’s the high-tech, Sergey Brin-cloned animal protein, which I think is far away and I’m in no rush to see it arrive. But then there are a lot of interesting efforts to make much better mock meats out of vegetable matter." Pollan brought up Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo, a mayonnaise substitute made from peas.

Peas?

"It’s completely persuasive as mayo," Pollan insists, "and it doesn’t rely on egg production, which is one of the most brutal aspects of animal agriculture."

There’s a broader point here: the lab-grown meat is trying to compete with, well, meat. Scientists are trying to grow a steak that’s better than the one a cow grows. That’s incredibly difficult. What’s much easier — and much further along — is replacing the animal products that don’t end up as meat.

Perhaps, in the future, the meat in their tacos won’t be made from meat at all

"A lot of cheese goes into things like frozen pizza where you’re really just getting a gooey white substance," Pollan says. "A lot of eggs go into things like mayo where you’re really not seeing the egg. If you could replace that kind of production with something that doesn’t require actual animals you could make some huge strides in animal production."

The next step up the chain might be replacing the meat in things like fast food. In 2011, Taco Bell was sued for using beef that was less than 65 percent, well, beef  —  which meant it didn’t meet USDA’s definition for beef. The company responded by arguing that the meat they were using was actually 88 percent beef (their page answering frequently asked questions about their meat is, perhaps accidentally, hilarious). What no one on either side of the debate ever argued was that their beef was 100 percent beef. Perhaps, in the future, the meat in their tacos won’t be made from meat at all. Amidst the sauce and the fillings and the tortilla and all the rest of it, would any of us really know the difference?

Developing humane, environmentally friendly replacements for the eggs in processed mayonnaise and the cheese in frozen pizza and the (sorta, kinda) meat in Doritos Locos Tacos is a hell of a lot easier than cloning cow flesh so it’s a persuasive substitute for steak.

So why does cloned cow get all the press? Pollan has a theory.

"You learn an enormous amount about capitalism studying food"

Pollan has an interesting take on genetically modified foods. The promises behind GM foods  —  much less need for pesticides, much higher yields  —  haven’t come true save in isolated cases. But they have driven a massive change in food production. "What genetic modification of crops has given us is dramatic consolidation," he says. "Monsanto has used the huge profits from Roundup Ready seeds to buy up a sizable portion of the seed industry."

This is something, Pollan says, that you see again and again when you look at which food innovations get attention  —  and funding. A close look often shows that the problem being solved wasn’t a problem in how we grow food, but in how companies grow profits.

Wall Street wants these companies to grow by at least 5 percent each year. But America’s population only grows by about 1 percent each year

There’s a "key fact" you need to know to understand the food industry, Pollan says: Wall Street wants these companies to grow by at least 5 percent each year. But America’s population only grows by about 1 percent each year. That is  —  or at least was  —  a problem.

"For a long time people in the industry thought it was impossible to get people to eat more," Pollan says. "They called it ‘the fixed stomach’ and they lamented that, unlike in the shoe business where you could get people to keep buying more kinds of shoes, you couldn’t get people to eat more. Well, they’re to be congratulated. They solved that problem. Capitalism is very powerful. It solves problems. But it solves its own problems, not always our problems."

Take Golden Rice, Pollan says. That’s a genetically modified rice meant to address vitamin A deficiencies in the developing word. "That’ll be terrific if they ever get it into a field," Pollan says. "But it’s important to ask whether you spend $300 million on Gold or encourage them to plant squash or greens in pots around their houses or around the edges of t fields."

"Sometimes there’s a really boring way to achieve the same thing. But we tend to love solutions that have intellectual property attached to them that someone could profit from."

Can industrial food production survive climate change?

If you graph projected food production against projected global population, you get something very, very scary. It’s clear, if current trends continue, that we’re going to have more people than we can actually feed.

In recent centuries, however, current trends haven’t been accurate guides to the future of food production. There have been horrible famines, to be sure, but globally speaking, human beings have figured out how to produce enough food to feed everyone. The question I asked Pollan was whether we would manage to feed everyone in a humane and environmentally sustainable way.

"The question of whether you can feed the world sustainably needs to be flipped around. The real question is whether you can feed it industrially"

"The question of whether you can feed the world sustainably needs to be flipped around," he replies. "The real question is whether you can feed it industrially. What we’re learning about climate change is raising real questions about how long that agricultural model can survive."

He continues, "The power of industrial agriculture comes from this paradigm: you start with a very productive seed that under ideal circumstances can produce higher yields than those species ever could before. It’s really impressive. But for those seeds to do their thing and realize their full potential they need lots of water. They need lots of fertilizer. And they need to be defended against pests really vigilantly. Another way of saying that is: you need to protect the environment in which they grow, which farmers have been able to do. But that system depends on consistency. If all we can count on now is that the climate will be variable, that system becomes very brittle."

But won’t companies just invent new seeds that are better able to manage more volatile climates?

"Monsanto is working on a lot of drought-tolerant crops," Pollan agrees. "That sounds like a good idea. You’re engineering a crop that puts more resources into a deeper root structure — it’s wetter the deeper you go — and these crops will work probably when you have a reliable drought situation. But it’s only going to do well in a drought. It will underperform in years without droughts. So it’s a very brittle solution to the problem."

"Compare that to a system where you’re emphasizing soil health. When you look at organic and industrial yields in a normal year, industrial yields are about 20 percent higher. But in drought years organic crops outperform soil because healthy soil is an incredible buffer against climate problems. So sustainable agriculture may offer certain advantages that are very well tailored to practicing agriculture in an unstable climate. The question may really be not whether sustainable agriculture can feed the world but can anything except sustainable agriculture feed the world."

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. And make some of those vegetables fermented?

In 2007, Pollan wrote: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." The triplet became instantly famous — which left Pollan a bit disturbed.

"I don’t take it as a genius breakthrough," he says. "The point was commonsense. The fact that it was even noteworthy is what’s noteworthy about it. It’s a measure of how perplexed we’ve become about food as a result of what the food industry has done. You have to be pretty lost for that to come as news." In his most recent book Cooked, though, Pollan says he’s a convert to the benefits of fermented foods like kimchi or pickles, and tries to eat at least a few of them a day. So I asked whether it wasn’t time to update the advice.

"I don’t think I would have added ‘and make some of those vegetables fermented.’" Pollan laughs. "I’m a writer. That sounds horrible!"

Ezra Klein: In 2008, you wrote a New York Times article telling President Obama, "among the issues that will occupy much of your time in the coming years is one you barely mentioned during the campaign: food." Do you think the president has spent enough time on food policy?

Michael Pollan: No, I don’t think he has. I think he’s delegated the food issue to his wife and she’s done some really interesting things with it.

But look at what happened last week. The EPA announced they would look at methane emissions. Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas, much more intense than carbon. The agricultural sector generates more methane than any other sector. But for reasons I can’t fathom, when they announced the new rules governing methane in the energy sector, they called for voluntary measures in the agricultural sector.

It’s the same thing with regulating antibiotics in livestock. There’s clear regulatory authority. But the choice was for voluntary guidelines. I’m not exactly sure why that’s the case. The energy sector is a powerful lobby, but the president seems willing to go after them. But not agriculture. There’s been a timidity when it comes to looking at the food system.

Ezra Klein: My impression is that politicians get very nervous dragging the way Americans eat into political debates. There’s a willingness to say that it’s a choice, and maybe not a great one, to drive an SUV when you don’t do anything more outdoorsy than sit in traffic in Los Angeles. But how people eat is almost beyond criticism. It’s treated as a sphere that’s above policy, where the consequences simply need to be accepted.

Michael Pollan: I think you’re onto something. People’s eating choices are more fundamental and closely tied to their identity than their driving decisions or how they choose to heat their house or anything else. If you challenge my right to have a cheeseburger that’s getting a little intimate.

It’s curious that we’re open to social engineering when it’s being done by corporations. You’re socially engineered every time you walk through the cereal aisle in the supermarket. The healthy stuff is down at your feet and the stuff with the most sugar and chocolate is at your eye level — or your child’s eye level. That doesn’t seem to bother us. But as soon as it’s done by elected officials on our behalf it’s anathema.

Ezra Klein: What would you like to see done?

Michael Pollan: Agriculture is one of the only industries that can actually pull carbon out of the atmosphere. About a third of all carbon in the atmosphere now used to reside in the soil. It began escaping with tilling. And we know it’s possible to put some of that carbon — perhaps quite a bit of it — back by moving away from tillage, by using cover crops, by getting away from nitrous oxide fertilizer. We used to think it took eons to build an inch of soil. But now we know it can be done in a few years and it can hold a lot of carbon. So there are carrots rather than sticks. Why not reward farmers for their success in sequestering carbon?

Another way to tackle this is to take that authority being used to regulate coal-fired power plants and look at feedlots where tremendous amounts of methane are being released in a concentrated area. But the Republican Congress has made that very difficult. They subverted an effort to just list and locate all the feedlots in America. So we don’t even have the information and location of where they all are.

I think we have the image of agriculture as family farmers. That makes it a more difficult industry to tackle. But make no mistake: it is an industry. Feedlots are not family farms. They’re factories.

Ezra Klein: What’s your position on lab-grown meat?

Michael Pollan: There are two kinds of lab meat. There’s the high-tech, Sergey Brin-cloned animal protein, which I think is far away and I’m in no rush to see it arrive. But then there are a lot of interesting efforts to make much better mock meats out of vegetable matter. There’s a great mayonnaise made without eggs now by a company called Hampton Creek. It’s made from peas. It’s completely persuasive as mayo and doesn’t rely on egg production, which is one of the most brutal aspects of animal agriculture.

Then there are a couple of efforts to make cheese and meat simulating hamburger. I think these are interesting efforts. There’s a tremendous amount of cheese and egg consumption that isn’t about eating cheese and eggs. A lot of cheese goes into things like frozen pizza where you’re really just getting a gooey white substance. A lot of eggs go into things like mayo where you’re really not seeing the egg. If you could replace that kind of production with something that doesn’t require actual animals you could make some huge strides in animal production.

Ezra Klein: You say you’re not looking forward to the cloned lab meat becoming viable anytime soon. Why not?

Michael Pollan: I think cloning meat is an interesting thought experiment but I think it’s going to be more difficult to do than they think. It’s complex. It has fats and muscle structures you can taste. And I guess it’s a bit emotional.

Ezra Klein: There seems to be to be a bit of a tension among people who care about food where technology is sometimes the savior and sometimes the problem. So you’ll have people who don’t allow any processed food in their homes and won’t buy anything that isn’t locally grown lining up at molecular gastronomy restaurants where they make olives out of gel.

Michael Pollan: You could say it’s a contradiction but you could also say all technologies are not the same. We just made a distinction between making mayonnaise from peas and using genetic techniques to clone cattle muscle. Genetically modified foods are another technology lurking behind that question. There are people who have a fundamental aversion to it as unnatural and messing with nature and then there are other people who say whatever you think of the tech, what are we using it for?

Ezra Klein: Do you have rules or guidelines that help you assess new technologies?

Michael Pollan: I don’t think so. It’s not formalized. But let’s take genetic modification of foods. I look at what it has accomplished. I think it began around 1996. Has it achieved its goals or kept its promise? The promise was a reduction in pesticide use. We’ve not seen that. The promise was increasing yields. We haven’t seen that except in a few isolated cases.

I think that the problems with these technologies have been more in their application than in their tech per se. We have to ask what they’re good for, what we’re achieving, who wins, who loses. if you take the long view of history, what genetic modification of crops has given us is dramatic consolidation in the seed industry. Monsanto has used the huge profits from Round-Up Ready seeds to buy up a sizable portion of the seed industry.

I can imagine genetically modified crops that would solve an important problem. But we haven’t seen them. There are a few disease-resistant crops that are best cases. Golden Rice is the great poster child that’s supposed to solve vitamin A deficiency. That’ll be terrific if they ever get it into a field. But it’s important to ask whether you spend $300 million on Golden Rice or take that money and give people vitamin supplements or encourage them to plant squash or greens in pots around their houses or around the edges of their fields.

We’re really enamored of technological solutions and sometimes there’s a really boring way to achieve the same thing. But we tend to love solutions that have intellectual property attached to them that someone could profit from.

Ezra Klein: Golden Rice is a nice segue into global food production. If you just look at the projections, it does not seem like we’re on track to be able to feed nine billion people. It’s looked like that before, of course, and innovation has interceded. But are you optimistic we can feed nine billion people in an ethical and sustainable way?

Michael Pollan: No one knows if we’re going to be able to feed 9 billion people. Right now, we’re growing enough calories of food or potential food to feed a much larger population than we have right now. But we still have a billion people who’re hungry. This raises questions about whether this grow-as-many-calories-as-you-can paradigm is the right one.

So why aren’t we feeding everybody? One issue is it’s about who commands the food. We’ve had a lot of famines in countries where there was plenty of food. In Ireland, during the potato famine, the docks were full of sacks of wheat being sent to England. The peasants were only given access to potatoes.

Then there’s the reality that we’re not eating all the grain we’re growing. Approximately 40 percent of the corn harvest is going into our cars through ethanol. Then a lot of it is going to feed animals — which is a very wasteful way for us to consume grain. Then there’s the fact that about 40 percent of the food we grow never gets consumed. It rots in the field or gets thrown out at the supermarket or it rots in the crisper drawer. So when you look at animals, ethanol and waste you have an enormous amount of slack in the system. But no one ever talks about that because there’s no money to be made addressing those practices. So the question of how much more food we need to produce needs to be answered with reference to how we’re using the food we’re now producing.

But the question of whether you can feed the world sustainably needs to be flipped around. The real question is whether you can feed it industrially. What we’re learning about climate change is raising real questions about how long that agricultural model can survive.

The power of industrial agriculture comes from this paradigm: you start with a very productive seed that under ideal circumstances can produce higher yields than those species ever could before. It’s really impressive. But for those seeds to do their thing and realize their full potential they need lots of water. They need lots of fertilizer. And they need to be defended against pests really vigilantly. Another way of saying that is you need to protect the environment in which they grow, which farmers have been able to do. But that system depends on consistency. If all we can count on now is that the climate will be variable, that system becomes very brittle.

Look at how the industry is addressing it. Monsanto is working on a lot of drought tolerant crops. That sounds like a good idea. You’re engineering a crop that puts more resources into a deeper root structure — it’s wetter the deeper you go — and these crops will work probably when you have a reliable drought situation. But it’s only going to do well in a drought. It will underperform in years without droughts. So it’s a very brittle solution to the problem.

Compare that to a system where you’re emphasizing soil health. When you look at organic and industrial yields in a normal year, industrial yields are about 20 percent higher. But in drought years organic crops outperform soil because healthy soil is an incredible buffer against climate problems. So sustainable agriculture may offer certain advantages that are very well tailored to practicing agriculture in an unstable climate. The question may really be not whether sustainable agriculture can feed the world but can anything except sustainable agriculture feed the world.

Ezra Klein: Do you talk to many folks in industrial agriculture?

Michael Pollan: I talk to lots of people in industrial agriculture. usually not publicly. I think public debates tend to degenerate into rhetorical warfare pretty quickly. But I talk to people at large companies all the time.

Ezra Klein: What have you learned from those conversations?

Michael Pollan: I have a much greater appreciation for the importance of path dependence. These systems are very powerful and deeply ingrained. You talk to a big food service company feeding millions of people in colleges and companies and they want to have more local or sustainable food. But the procurement is really complicated. They can’t just sign one contract for carrots. Now they need 100 contracts with 100 different producers.

Distribution is one of the great unspoken challenges in reforming the food system. I definitely get an appreciation of the difficulties of driving change. Many people in these industries do want to see change. And they’re really nervous about their customers. They’ve seen the American food customer lurch from one extreme to another very quickly and they know they’re very distrustful of big food companies now.

Ezra Klein: Who is doing sustainable procurement well?

Michael Pollan: Chipotle is a happy example. They’ve wanted to change their sourcing and they’ve had some success, particularly in pork. But it was a long complicated journey. When Chipotle first went to Bill Niman and said we want to use your sustainable pork, he said how much do you need, and they said 15 train loads a week. He laughed and said there’s not that much sustainable pork in the country. But Chipotle began buying, the market began producing more, and so they now get all their pork sustainably.

Ezra Klein: So knowing what you know, would you eat Chipotle pork and feel good about it?

Michael Pollan: Yeah. I know the pork they use. They use Niman pork as a default and in a lot of stores they use local pork. I don’t think all their meats are there. I don’t think they’ve sorted out chicken. But their pork is a good product. It’s raised outdoors. It’s not in confinement systems. They’ve made remarkable progress and I think we’ll see more of that.

Ezra Klein: It’s been years since you wrote, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Would you change anything in that line now? Your latest book, for instance, mentions you try to eat some fermented vegetables every day.

Michael Pollan: I don’t think I would have added "and make some of those vegetables fermented." I’m a writer. That sounds horrible!

I think the line holds up pretty well. It’s not very controversial. I don’t take it as a genius breakthrough. The point was commonsense. The fact that it was even noteworthy is what’s noteworthy about it. It’s a measure of how perplexed we’ve become about food as a result of what the food industry has done. You have to be pretty lost for that to come as news.

Ezra Klein: I’m struck by how much of our conversation about food has really been a conversation about capitalism and what kinds of innovations it rewards. Do you see your work that way?

Michael Pollan: I think you learn an enormous amount about capitalism studying food. If you look at the food industry there are a couple of key facts. One is that Wall Street wants to see food companies grow by about 5 percent a year. But the American population is only growing by about 1 percent a year. So that’s a fundamental tension.

You can do one of two things to solve it. You can encourage people to eat more than they should or you can create other values in the food like novelty or convenience and process it more. For a long time people in the industry thought it was impossible to get people to eat more. They called it "the fixed stomach" and they lamented that, unlike in the shoe business where you could get people to keep buying more kinds of shoes, you couldn’t get people to eat more. Well, they’re to be congratulated. They solved that problem. Capitalism is very powerful. It solves problems. But it solves its own problems, not always our problems.

Ezra Klein: Last question. After all this work and research, if you were left with three foods to eat, what would they be?

Michael Pollan: I’m very fond of roast chicken. I am inordinately fond of bread. And since it’s spring I’ll have to say asparagus.

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