Oil: It's what's for dinner


A conversation with author Michael Pollan

Each year, lexicographers at the New Oxford American Dictionary select a “Word of the Year.” The 2007 winner was locavore, defined as someone whose preference is for locally-grown or -produced food.

Writers helped feed the popularity of this neologism. Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle (2007) details a year of eating locally. Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon spent a year eating only locally-grown foods they could obtain within a 100-mile radius of their home in Vancouver, B.C., and wrote about it in Plenty: One Man, One Woman and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally (2007). Self-proclaimed “Renegade Lunch Lady” Chef Ann Cooper co-authored Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children (2006) with Lisa M. Homes. They encourage the use of locally-sourced fresh foods and promote the Edible Schoolyard Project established by Cooper’s patron Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse fame.

Perhaps most responsible for the recent hunger for all foods local is Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, a best-seller named one of the 10 best books of 2006 by the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Pollan will be in Indianapolis Monday, Feb. 25 to talk about The Omnivore’s Dilemma as well as his latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, at 7:30 p.m. in the Atherton Union Reilly Room on the campus of Butler University, one of the J. James Woods Lectures in the Sciences & Mathematics.

Part of Pollan’s appeal is his easy-to-digest writing style, which presents him as a hapless, well-intentioned, neighborly kind of guy rather than a strident, nagging, more-politically-correct-than-thou whiner. “I’m not an expert so I don’t preach or lecture,” he said recently by phone from his office at the University of California-Berkeley, where he is director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism.

“Readers are much more interested in reading something that doesn’t lecture them,” he said. “I’m investigating subjects that interest me and sharing the results with my readers. I’m learning as I go along so it doesn’t do any good to shout.”

Many readers have been drawn to the part of Pollan’s narrative in which he describes the transformation of the nation’s food system over the past three decades and the important role played by one Hoosier: the late Earl Butz. Pollan said Butz, the former dean of Purdue University’s School of Agriculture who served as U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1971 to 1976, was crucial in creating the farm system as we now know it.

“He revolutionized American agriculture by pushing farmers into embracing a monoculture of commodity crops — soy, corn and wheat,” Pollan said. ”He told farmers to plant fencerow to fencerow — even to take the fencerows and hedges out.”

Pollan said Butz’s policies also took the animals off farms and put them into feedlots because it became cheaper to buy feed than to grow it for animals. These operations have morphed into the large-scale factory farms that now pollute rural areas.

Inexpensive food from factory farms makes eating easy, but Pollan sees a downside. “We made the wrong things cheap — the commodity crops and the processed foods and meats made from them. Cheap food is what has made ‘super-sizing’ possible,” he noted.

Pollan maintains this change has had a disastrous effect on public health. “One of the unintended consequences of cheap food has been an epidemic of obesity and diabetes in this country,” he said. “We’re subsidizing precisely the wrong kind of calories — added sugar from corn, added fat from soy.”

When Butz shifted government involvement in agriculture from a series of loans and grants to direct payments to farmers, Pollan said it had the effect of squeezing out the little guy and increasing the growth of the ag industry. ”The way agribusiness is currently structured, these direct payments are in effect subsidies to large corporate entities,” he said.

Such subsidies led to the development and widespread use of Genetically Modified Organism crops as pressure to maximize yields increased. “We don’t even know the long-term effects of introducing GMOs into the food system,” Pollan said.

Europe restricts the use of GMO crops while the United States encourages it. “But if you ask Americans,” Pollan said, “they say they don’t want them in their foods.”

Nevertheless, the ag industry fights labeling as a burdensome regulation or claims that information about which fields are planted in GMO crops is proprietary — a position Pollan finds indefensible. “If GMO crops are so safe, why don’t the companies label their products? If there’s nothing to worry about, why not say which fields are planted with GMO crops?”

Another aspect of overproduction has nothing to do with food and everything to do with energy. Pollan is skeptical about the energy benefits of using food crops for fuel.

“The industrialization of agriculture has been so successful that we have a surplus of corn, and ethanol is another way to dispose of it,” Pollan said. But the problem is that it takes a lot of fossil fuel to grow the corn as well as to distill it into ethanol.

“We have a very high-energy diet,” Pollan added. “People don’t realize how the energy problem is tied to the way we’re growing food and feeding ourselves. We’re eating much more oil than we realize.”

Pollan is also concerned about the connection between diet and global climate change. A 2006 study by Gidon Eschel and Pamela Martin at the University of Chicago found that 10 calories of fossil fuel are expended to produce every calorie of food in an average American diet. “By cutting industrial meat out of your diet, you could reduce your carbon footprint by a quarter,” Pollan says, noting that’s as much carbon as you would save switching from a big SUV to a sedan.

Pollan’s new book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, has been called the “Omnivore’s Solution.” “People told me after they read Omnivore’s Dilemma that they didn’t know what to do next,” he said. “This book is my way of discussing some options for making good food choices.”

Who: Author Michael Pollan

When: Monday, Feb. 25, 7:30 P.M.

Where:  Butler University, Atherton Union Reilly Room

Cost: Admission is free and open to the public 


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