Michael Pollan Makes Food Political

Learn to vote with your fork

Sep 23, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Why are questions about where we get our food, how we eat it and the consequences for ourselves and our society so salient?

For author Michael Pollan, it’s because we are recognizing new and old options for how we behave and the fact that our choices make a difference.

“The food issue is actually one of the most pressing issues we face,” he said in a recent e-mail interview. “It generates an extraordinary level of passion.”

Pollan, a New York Times contributing writer and journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has helped frame “the food issue” with two best-selling books.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma explores the ecological and ethical dimensions of industrial, organic and hunter-gatherer food chains. In Defense of Food examines the question of what we should eat in the setting Pollan identifies as “nutritionism,” which focuses on specific nutrients like Omega-3s or anti-oxidants instead of whole foods. Pollan’s concise answer — “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”— can be a helpful guide if you know that “food” means whole, unprocessed real food, best if it’s fresh, local and produced for quality rather than quantity.

“The food issue shadows several other crucial issues, and it’s about time we connected the dots,” he says. “We’re not going to be able to address the health care crisis without addressing the food system that is driving it.”

Food system reform has not emerged in the national health care reform debate, but Pollan thinks it should. “The problem with health care is containing costs,” he says. “What’s driving those costs? It’s not just needless procedures and paperwork. It’s chronic diseases linked to diet: $147 billion for obesity, $190 billion for diabetes, at least as much for heart disease.”

But reforming the food system will be even more difficult than reforming the health care system, Pollan says. Cheap food will remain popular as long as its costs are charged to the future. In a recent New York Times editorial, Pollan points out that there is plenty of money to be made not only in selling fast food but also in treating the diseases those foods cause. For example, the market for prescription drugs and medical devices to manage Type 2 diabetes, which is estimated to afflict one in three Americans born after 2000, is seen as a bright spot in the American economy.

The government is poised to continue encouraging America’s fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet, Pollan notes.

Likewise, food production has a strategic relationship with climate change and the energy crisis.

“One-third of greenhouse gases are produced by farming and food processing, and 19 percent of fossil fuels go to feeding ourselves,” he says.

Pollan’s success as an author has made him a sought-after speaker, a fact he embraces yet finds symptomatic of our deep confusion about food: Why are we consulting a journalist about eating, a fundamental fact of human existence? Despite a foodscape of confusion and disinfor mation, Pollan maintains one simple fact is not in doubt: People who eat a highly processed Western diet are prone to a complex of chronic diseases that seldom strike people who eat more traditional diets.

The solution — moving away from a Western diet — might be a surprisingly far-reaching decision, but Pollan sees reason for optimism. Thanks to increased awareness and the growing availability of healthy, responsible food options, Pollan sees that, for the first time in a generation, it is possible to leave behind the Western diet without having to leave behind civilization.

“The food issue is finally getting the attention it deserves,” he says. “Why? Because people can do something about it right now, today, in their everyday lives by voting with their forks.”

MICHAEL POLLAN speaks at Xavier University’s Cintas Center at 1 p.m. Sunday. Co-sponsored by the Cincinnati Public Library, the lecture is free and open to the public. For more information, call 513-745-3279.