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Analyzing what we eat: a conversation with author and food activist Michael Pollan

Author and self described "food advocate" Michael Pollan.
(Ken Light)
Author and self described "food advocate" Michael Pollan.

Michael Pollan thinks of himself as a writer, professor…and eater.  But many people would call him a food activist. The author of controversial books like The Ominvore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, Pollan is known for his vivid critiques of industrial agriculture and the modern American diet.

Pollan is in St. Louis today for the St. Louis Speakers Series presented by Maryville University. He recently spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Véronique LaCapra about his views on food and agriculture – starting with what he sees as a healthy diet.

POLLAN: It’s actually pretty simple. Real food. Food that has been processed as little as possible. But, you know, whole foods. The kinds of things that your great-grandmother would recognize as food if you showed them to her.

LACAPRA: So are you talking about organic food?

POLLAN: If we can afford to, and if we’re concerned about the environment, we should eat organic. Organic is more expensive in most cases, and it’s important to underscore that you can eat a very healthy diet without eating organic. You know if you simply get off processed foods and eat more real food, particularly food you cook yourself, whether it’s organic or not, you’re going to be a lot better off, and you’re going to be a lot healthier.

I think organic is really important if you have young children, or if you’re nursing, or if you’re pregnant. I think that’s the time where reaching deep into your pocket to buy organic food is probably a good idea.

LACAPRA: As you probably know, the agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto is based here in St. Louis.

POLLAN: I’ve been there to visit them, sure.

LACAPRA: All right. And what are your views on genetically modified corn, soybeans, and other crops, or just food in general?

POLLAN: I think so far, the promise of biotech has not been realized.

When I was in St. Louis back in 1996 – ‘97 or ‘98, and I had wonderful access to Monsanto and met their scientists and their executives, and went and visited quite a few farms that were using their stuff, there was a very exciting picture of what biotech promised in terms of crops that would actually be enhanced nutritionally, crops that would need less inputs of various kinds, and so far we’re still stuck with Bt crops and Roundup Ready crops, the same thing we had back then.

So I think so far it’s been a lot of overpromising.

LACAPRA: Let me ask that question a different way. Do you think genetically modified foods are unhealthy? Do you think that we shouldn’t be eating them, or that they’re bad for the environment?

POLLAN: I’m not afraid of eating genetically modified crops. I avoid them only in the sense that I avoid processed food, and that’s where most of them show up.

So, you know, I don’t think that they’re evil, I don’t think that they’re dangerous, at least we don’t know they are, but that said, you know Monsanto has not been very open about sharing – allowing scientists to study the crops: to really do the long-term feeding studies, and long-term environmental impact.

And I don’t think a lot of consumers realize, but that if you grow Monsanto seeds you have to sign a contract that makes it impossible to do truly independent research that they don’t review on those crops.

So I think we need to know more about them, but my biggest objection I think so far to genetically modified crops is that they are a band-aid on a very broken industrial system of agriculture. They are a way to keep monocultures alive. And monocultures really are the problem in so much of our agriculture.

LACAPRA: How would you answer critics who say your writing has crossed the line into advocacy? Or maybe put a different way, do you consider yourself a journalist or an activist?

POLLAN: I’m a journalist, and an advocate. I think you can do those two things.

And I think that it was a difficult line to deal with, but I don’t believe there is any conflict between being a journalist, and writing as accurately and as fairly as you can do, and advancing an agenda.

I mean at this point it would be coy for me to say I wasn’t a critic of industrial agriculture. But anyone who’s read my work knows that that criticism is not a pre-existing position, it’s something I arrived at through all the time I spent with farmers, all the time I spent with companies like Monsanto.

But I feel that I can still write real journalism that’s fair, that is accurate, and is ethical in every way, even though without question I have a point of view, and I disclose that point of view in my work.