in defense of food

Michael Pollan, the author of the brilliant book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” has a new book out on processed food called “In Defense of Food.” The following is a clip from a new interview with Pollan conducted by Onnesha Roychoudhuri for AlterNet:

OR: You talk about how corn, soy, wheat and rice account for over two-thirds of the calories we eat and how these crops have taken the place of more diverse crops. What’s ironic is that while we’re seeing a shift to nutritionism — as we try to supplement foods with the supplements naturally found in foods — supplements in natural foods are declining.

MP: Over time the nutritional quality of many of our foodstuffs has gone down for a couple different reasons. One is we have been breeding for qualities other than nutrition. We’ve been breeding for yield, looks and ship-ability. Also, over time, our soils have been simplified by the use of chemical fertilizers. For plants to create all these interesting phytochemicals that nourish us, they need a complex soil. So crops that get lots of nitrogen fertilizer and little else tend to be less complex and less nutritious. In a way, this gives the advantage to the food scientists because they can add as much nutrients as they want to their processed foods. But on the other hand, there is this trend towards organic foods, which restore a lot of those nutrients partly by nourishing the soil with organic matter and party by using older varieties that are often more nutritious.

OR: You explain that weeds are actually some of the most nutritious plants because they haven’t been cultivated and that the natural pesticides they develop can be converted into positive qualities once consumed.

MP: They don’t even have to be converted. The defensive compounds that plants produce to deal with diseases and pests turn out to be some of the most nourishing things in them. That’s what a lot of those phytochemicals are. They’re plant pesticides, in effect. They happen to be very useful to us and our bodies. One theory is that since organic plants have to defend themselves, they produce more of those compounds. Whereas, if a plant is pampered and gets lots of pesticides, and the farmer takes care of the pests and the disease, the plant doesn’t produce all these chemicals that are good for us. There is a theory that stressed vegetables in various ways are more tasty. If you stress a tomato and don’t give it enough water and make it fend for itself, it will taste better, and those compounds that make plants taste good are also the same ones that we’re talking about here. A certain level of stress in the plant kingdom is good for us…

OR: In some ways, this book seemed to make the case for the “shock doctrine” of the food industry. There’s this notion that what’s bad for us is good for the industry.

MP: There is a disconnect between the economic imperatives of the food industry and the biological imperatives of the human eater. You make money in the food industry by processing food as much as possible. It’s very hard to make money selling whole foods as they grow. They’re too cheap and common; farmers are too productive. The price of commodities is always falling.

But if you process food, you then have a way to add value to it. For example, it’s very hard to make money selling oats. Very simple grain, really good for you. I can buy organic oats for .79 cents a pound. That’s a big bag of oats. But there’s little money in it for anyone. If you turn those oats into Cheerios, there’s a lot more money in it. Suddenly, you have your intellectual property, your little design, donut-shaped cereal, you have a convenience food, you just have to add milk, you don’t have to cook it anymore and you can charge about four or five dollars for much less than a pound of oats. So that’s a good business.

But in fact, over time, those Cheerios will turn into a commodity, too, and all the supermarkets will have their store brand and it will be hard to expand your market and grow. So what do you do? You go up the next level of processing, and you make honey nut Cheerios cereal bars. These new bars that have a layer of synthetic milk through the middle and the idea is that it’s a bowl of cereal that you could eat dry in the school bus or in the car…

I’m sure it would cost something to get him here, but it occurs to me that Pollan would make a great keynote speaker for a Growing Hope event. Is it too ambitious to think that we could get 250 people to pay $25 bucks a piece to hear him speak, with the proceeds going toward the new Growing Hope Center?

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7 Comments

  1. Rex
    Posted February 20, 2008 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    I love Michael Pollan and I’d love to see him speak. Though, I’m pretty well versed on his ideas, and I don’t know how entertaining he might be.

  2. Posted February 21, 2008 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    I’d contribute. He’s been my favorite author since I read “Botany of Desire,” years ago. I loved that book so much (especially its perspective that plants exploit human desires to increase their reproductive success) that I read everything prior at that time and everything since. I can’t wait to get my hands on Defense of Food. Tho, in truth, Omnivore’s Dilemma was so disturbing that I’ve struggled to get through the lengthy first part about corn…

    There’s a great video of MP speaking at the TED conference here: http://www.groovygreen.com/groove/?p=2666 if you wanna decide if he’s an entertaining speaker. I think he’s great at conveying complex ideas and following a difficult train of thought to its conclusion. I really understood the labyrinthine Farm Bill after reading his wonderful NYTimes article.

  3. soundman234
    Posted February 22, 2008 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    $25? no

  4. Posted February 22, 2008 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    It’s a benefit! Sheesh!

  5. soundman234
    Posted February 22, 2008 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    hey, you can be as optimistic as you want but do you honestly think 250 people in ypsi would pay $25 each? i have a really hard time believing that 250 would even show up for free. that’s not a slight against mr. pollen. just the way it is.

  6. mark
    Posted February 25, 2008 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    I wasn’t thinking that all 250 people would be from Ypsi. I was thinking that people would come from as far as Detroit. And I was thinking that some companies might even buy blocks of tickets, seeing as how it would be for a good cause. Basically, I just started this thread as a way to generate conversation on what it would take to get a big number of people interested in the future availability of food to come out and meet face to face. Pollan seemed like he might be a good person to accomplish that.

  7. mark
    Posted March 8, 2008 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    In an interview with Amy Goodman, Michael Pollan says, “Don’t eat anything that doesn’t rot.”

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