Michael Pollan on What’s Wrong with Environmentalism

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, best-selling author Michael
Pollan talks about biofuels and the food crisis, the glories of
grass-fed beef, and why environmentalists must look beyond wilderness
to sustainability.

It’s easy to think of Michael Pollan as a food writer. After all, his most successful books — including his most recent, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto — focus on food and the implications of the choices we make about what we eat. But Pollan’s work also delves deeply into the environmental effects of those choices — from the impact of America’s corn-based agriculture on its ecosystems to the carbon impact of industrial-scale farming. And Pollan, who serves as Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, has emerged as a staunch advocate of buying local food, growing one’s own produce, and generally making the kind of individual lifestyle choices that could lead to society-wide change in consumption habits.

San Francisco-based journalist Kate Cheney Davidson recently interviewed Pollan for Yale Environment 360 at his home in Berkeley, California. In a wide-ranging discussion, Pollan talked about the need to cut back U.S. ethanol subsidies, why victory gardens worked, and why environmentalism needs to shift its focus from preserving wilderness to creating sustainability.

Yale Environment 360: In your book An Omnivore’s Dilemma, you explore the environmental, ethical, and political implications of our food system. Increasingly you hear people talk about the environmental or “carbon” impact of food. Do you think the footprint of our food has gotten any smaller since that book came out a couple of years ago?

Michael Pollan: I don’t think there’s been any significant change. There are basically two food chains that we have in this country, one a lot bigger than the other. First is a heavily fossil fuel-based food chain, the industrial food chain. The other is a more solar-based food chain, and in that I include things like organic agriculture, pastured meat production. To me, that’s kind of the key distinction. The fossil fuel-based food chain takes about ten calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy. So it’s highly reliant on petroleum, and as a result is largely responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production.

The other food chain is not innocent of an impact on the atmosphere, but it’s a whole lot smaller. It’s still essentially relying on photosynthesis, on solar collection by grasses, on sequestering carbon in the soil through feeding it with compost and things like that so its impact on the climate is much smaller. That solar-based food chain is growing, and this is where a lot of interest in agriculture is today, but it’s still tiny. Organic represents less than two percent of the food economy. Local is probably well under one percent. So I don’t think we’ve made a huge dent yet. But the models are there, and the models are becoming more popular.

e360: What sorts of models?

Pollan: You can compare conventional beef production to a grass-based system of beef production, which is how we used to produce beef. Cattle are evolved to eat grass — they have rumens so they can digest it. So when they [cows] are getting grass, you have a really exquisite and sustainable food chain — where the sun feeds the grass, and the grass feeds the ruminant, and the ruminant feeds us. They are not competing with us for food, and it doesn’t take vast amounts of fossil-fuel fertilizer to produce that food. It takes none, until you start trucking the animal off of the ranch.

The problem with that system for the marketplace was that it’s a slower way to produce beef, and it takes more skill. It’s a lot easier just to put them on a feedlot, give them lots of corn, give them antibiotics so they can survive the corn, give them hormones to speed up their growth. Suddenly you take a two-year process and get it down to 13-14 months. Time is money, so we moved that way.

But now the economics are changing because fuel is so expensive, and fertilizer is so expensive that the economics of grass-finished beef are starting to look a lot better. Certainly from a sustainability point of view it’s a thousand times better. Grass is the original solar technology. Every blade of grass is a little solar collector. That’s the free lunch — sun growing grass, and feeding grass to animals you can eat.

Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan, in his kitchen in Berkeley, California. JERRY BAUER

e360: Climate change is already disproportionately impacting the people who can least tolerate it: the poor. One of those manifestations, it’s feared, will be massive food shortages due to things like changing weather patterns and the demand for biofuels. We may have already begun to see this, as prices of staples like corn and rice skyrocket and people begin to riot over food they can no longer afford. What do you think can be done on a global scale to alleviate what may be the beginning of a food crisis on a level we’ve never seen before?

Pollan: From one level, it’s very simple. Grain is the basis of the diet for most of the people in the world, and grain prices have suffered this surge in prices over the last year that’s unprecedented. That’s because we began making this huge investment in ethanol and subsidizing ethanol production. That led to a spike in corn prices because we were making corn-based ethanol. But when you have a spike in one grain’s prices, all the farmers rush to produce more of that grain. So you had wheat and soybean farmers getting into corn and out of soy and wheat, so that reduced the supply of wheat and soy and the prices there went crazy too. So that’s the big cause.

SUVs in America are competing with eaters around the rest of the world for good food and arable land. You can imagine who’s going to win.

What do we do? Well, it’s pretty simple. There are three things we need to do. One is fairly easy and the other two get harder. One is back off on this commitment to ethanol, reduce the subsidies we’re giving — it’s about 51 cents a gallon now — and cut out the tariffs on importing ethanol from Brazil. They can produce it more efficiently, and basically we’re protecting our market by keeping that ethanol out.

The next thing we have to do is a little more complicated. The other reason for this increase in food prices, and it’s related, is the high price of oil. If the food economy is as dependent on oil as I’m suggesting, we need to get the food economy off of fossil fuel and back onto the sun. We have to in effect “re-solarize” our food chain by getting animals off of feedlots, where they are eating grain and competing with people for grain. We need to develop organic agriculture, which helps sequester carbon and reduces the need for fossil fuel in the form of synthetic fertilizers. We need to move towards a more sustainable, more solar-based agriculture. That will take a lot of price pressure off, because so much of the underlying, expensive input in agriculture is oil. So you have a situation today where SUVs in America are competing with eaters around the rest of the world for good food and arable land. You can imagine who’s going to win.

So getting agriculture off of oil — that’s a long-term process. In the short-term, it’s not like you’re going to see a price difference. Organic produce isn’t going to be cheaper because the two food economies kind of track each other in price. But if you could remove that ingredient, the fossil fuel ingredient, from much of our food, I think that would help.

Most of this grain we’re talking about is being fed to animals. So meat-eating is a tremendous part of this problem too, and specifically the meat eating increase that we see in places like China and India. They want to eat meat the way we do. Well, here in America, we’re eating over 200 pounds of meat per person per year. When you factor in people not eating meat, that’s an obscene amount of meat. That’s meat at three meals a day, just about. So one way to take pressure off these grain stocks is to start eating the grain and not feeding it to animals and not feeding it to cars. We have to remember that the arable land in this world is a precious and finite resource, and we should be using it to grow food for people, not for cars and animals.

e360: In a recent article for The New York Times Magazine, you suggest starting our own gardens as a means to combat climate change. How do you see this as making a difference to such a global problem?

Pollan: I don’t know exactly what percentage of greenhouse gas we would reduce if everybody planted a garden, but it would be a percentage and it would be a help. If you go back to the victory garden moment in American history during World War II when the government strongly encouraged us all to plant gardens because we were reserving the output of our agricultural system for the troops and for starving Europeans — within a year or two, we actually got up to producing forty percent of our produce from home gardens. No food is more local, no food requires less fossil fuel, and no food is more tasty or nutritious than food you grow yourself. So it’s not a trivial contribution.

The process of growing your own food also teaches you things that are very, very important to combating this problem. One source of our sense of powerlessness and frustration around climate change is that we are so accustomed to outsourcing so much of our lives to specialists of one kind or another, that the idea that we could reinvent the way we live, change our lifestyles, is absolutely daunting to people. We don’t know how to do it. We’ve lost the skills to do it. One of the things gardening teaches is that you can actually feed yourself. How amazing, you’re not dependent on a huge, global system to feed yourself. I think where climate change is taking us is to a point where many of us will need to take care of ourselves a little better than we do now. We will be less able to depend on distant experts and distant markets. We will need to re-localize economies all over the world because we won’t be able to waste fossil fuel, like having our salmon filleted in China before we bring it to the United States from Alaska. These long supply chains are going to have to get shorter.

The writer Wendell Berry was right a long time ago when he said the environmental crisis is a crisis of character. It’s really about how we live. The thought that we can swap out the fuel we’re putting in our cars to ethanol, and swap out the electricity to nuclear and everything else can stay the same, I think, is really a pipe dream. We’re going to have to change, and the beginning of knowing how to change is learning how to provide for yourself a little bit more.

I’m not dismissing the need for public action at all. It’s important in that individual action is not going to be enough to solve the problem.

My larger, deeper proposal [in the article] was find one thing in your life that doesn’t involve spending money that you could do, one change that would make a contribution both to the fact of global warming and your sense of helplessness about global warming. I think what people are looking for, and why people respond to these kinds of suggestions, is that they do feel powerless. These issues are so big and so daunting and so complex that either you throw up your hands in despair, or you say, “let the experts work it out.” I think what people want is a greater sense of their own power to change something now. We’re really impatient. We’ve been waiting for our leaders to do something about this issue for a really long time, and people like the idea that there is something they can do now, and that that something will matter — both for their own outlook and for the facts on the ground that we face.

I’m not dismissing the need for public action at all. It’s important in that individual action is not going to be enough to solve the problem, especially when people in China are going to be happy to emit every bit of carbon I manage not to emit. So we need both, but the two will work hand in hand. Bill McKibben puts it that doing things privately — changing our light bulbs, putting in gardens — this is like calisthenics. This is getting ready for the big changes we’re all going to have to make. I think that’s a healthy way to look at it.

e360: You’ve often mentioned that many of your ideas are not new, and in fact, many of them hearken back to the era of our grandparents and great-grandparents. Why, then, do you think your ideas and writing about food have hit such a chord with audiences now?

Pollan: It is interesting. We were having this conversation in the 1970s. It was kind of just when I was coming of age, and coming to consciousness about the political world when I was in college. We had Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America, I think in 1977. Francis Moore Lappe’s book Diet for a Small Planet came out a couple years later. And we had a president [Jimmy Carter] talking about the energy crisis, putting on a sweater, and lowering the thermostat, and putting solar panels up on the roof of the White House. There was an energy crisis and it was driven then by a spike in the price of energy such as we’re having today.

But it was a simpler time. We didn’t around food have an obesity crisis, and we didn’t around energy have climate change. We would give a lot for their crises right now. They look pretty easy to solve compared to what we face. But we dropped the thread of that conversation. It happened when Reagan was elected and gas prices came back down. In the 80s, Reagan took the solar panels off the roof of the White House. Carter was belittled for his concern. It was a shrinking of the American horizon. The whole idea of limits was discredited by “morning in America” and the promise of unlimited growth once again.

So we had a kind of interruption in this conversation. And lo and behold, 30 years go by, 35 years, and we find ourselves with another oil shock, another food shock. So we’re resuming that conversation that was aborted. And none too soon.

e360: You’ve been called a writer of food, of agriculture, and of the environment. How would you categorize what you write, and where does your latest book, In Defense of Food, fit within your larger body of work?

Pollan: I don’t see myself as a writer of food and the environment. I see myself as a kind of nature writer who likes writing about the messy places where the human world and the natural world intersect. I’m much less interested in wilderness, where most American writers interested in nature writing go to think about nature, than I am in gardens and houses and diets. All these places where we can’t just look at nature and admire it, or deplore what’s happening to it, but we really have to engage, we have to change.

My writing all starts in the garden. My experience was entering the garden with a head full of Thoreau and Emerson, and finding those ideas, as beautiful as they are, do not prepare you for when the woodchuck comes and mows down your little crop of seedlings. That approach to nature counsels passive spectatorship, and argues implicitly that the woodchuck has as much right to your broccoli as you do, because it’s wild. So I, perforce, had to learn how to think about nature in a way that was a little different.

We’ve had in this country what I call a wilderness ethic that’s been very good at telling us what to preserve. You know, eight percent of the American landmass we’ve kind of locked up and thrown away the key. That’s a wonderful achievement and has given us things like the wilderness park.

This is one of our great contributions to world culture, this idea of wilderness. On the other hand, it’s had nothing to say of any value for the ninety-two percent of the landscape that we cannot help but change because this is where we live. This is where we grow our food, this is where we work. Essentially the tendency of the wilderness ethic is to write that all off. Land is either virgin or raped. It’s an all or nothing ethic. It’s either in the realm of pristine, preserved wilderness, or it’s development — parking lot, lawn.

e360: So how does this latest book, In Defense of Food, fit within your genre of nature writing?

Pollan: After An Omnivore’s Dilemma a lot of people said, “Well, aren’t you preaching to the choir?” I hated hearing that. I wanted to write a book that didn’t preach to the choir, which brought in a whole other circle of readers. I set out to write as popular and accessible and short a book as I can write. The subtitle is “An Eater’s Manifesto,” and it is a political book. Its motto: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” isn’t exactly “Workers of the World Unite,” but in its own quiet way the goal is to invite people to this movement who might not think they have a stake in it.

In general people are motivated by their sense of personal health. This is why people began buying organic food. It wasn’t to change the world, most of them. It was really because they thought they would be safer eating this food than industrial food. So health is a very important way in with people.

But my message in this book is that your health is inseparable from the health of whole food chain that you’re a part of. That was the sort of stunning thing I learned writing both books — that there’s a direct connection between the health of the soil, the health of the plants, the health of the animals, and you as eater. We’re not just eating piles of chemicals that we can get from anywhere. All carrots are not created equal. Some of them are actually more nutritious than others. How the animals were raised has not just a bearing on their health, but on your health.

So that, I think, is the kind of the covert politics of the book: that your health is not bordered by your own skin, and that you must take a broader view of it if you’re really concerned. We have science now to back this up: that the healthfulness and the nutritiousness of the food you eat really depend on how it’s grown, not what it is.

e360: Do you think people sometimes don’t recognize the food they eat as an environmental topic?

Pollan: Oh yeah. I think for a long time we haven’t. It’s only been in recent years that there’s been some recognition that sustainable farming offers a very important model of not just how to grow food, but how to engage with the natural world. That there might actually be ways where you could change the landscape and actually improve it from objective criteria — biological diversity, or biomass. Or that there might actually be sustainable ways to grow food that in the process actually sequester carbon, or improve fertility. It need not be a zero-sum relationship.

I think most environmentalists have in their minds a belief, and it’s vindicated by a lot of what we’ve seen, that the human relationship with nature is zero-sum — for us to get what we want from the natural world, the natural world must be diminished. But go to a really well run pastured animal farm where they’re rotating crops, rotating species, and you will find a place where a lot of food comes off the land, and the land is improved as a result. That completely flies in the face of our tragic understanding of nature. I think it’s one of the great sources of hope. It suggests that there might be ways that we can figure out how to get what we need and not diminish nature.

So I think we’re undergoing a sea change. I think that environmentalists are recognizing that as important as wilderness is as a standard, as a baseline, sustainability is a very different baseline. I think our focus is moving from wilderness to sustainability. That’s not to say we have to destroy the wilderness to have sustainability. It’s just that, okay, we did that. That was the project that engaged us for 150 years. The project now is very much more the gardener’s project, or the farmer’s project, which is how to use nature without ruining it.