IRA FLATOW, host:
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
Before you sit down to your next meal, I want you to take a minute to consider what's on your plate. I mean, really consider. Where did the food come from? Don't say the grocery store. Do you really know anything about the origins of your meal? Yeah, sure, the steak comes from a cow, the potato comes from a field. But a cow raised on what? A potato field growing where? How many miles did it travel to get to you? And something I'll bet you haven't considered - how many barrels of oil did it take to make the meal you are about to eat?
Well, my next guest has pondered all of these questions about what we eat, where it comes from. He's gathered his findings in a new book called "The Omnivore's Dilemma." And I guarantee that after reading this book, you won't think of your food in the same way again. Especially the section on corn, where he says that just about everything around us, everything has corn connected to it - and not just your food we're talking about. Well, I'll let him talk about it.
My next guest is Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals." He is contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He's here in our New York studios. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Professor MICHAEL POLLAN (University of California, Berkeley): Thank you, Ira. Good to be back.
FLATOW: That's pretty damning talk, to talk about our obsession with food, and not in a good way. Why do you say that?
Prof. POLLAN: Well, I think we do have an eating disorder. You know, eating disorders don't just afflict teenage girls. A whole culture can have one when it falls into a deep anxiety and confusion about what to eat. Now, this is one of the basic things any animal does, is find dinner for itself. And most animals know exactly how to go about it. And we don't anymore.
I think we did for a long time...
FLATOW: When did we stop?
Prof. POLLAN: Well, the basic - the omnivore's dilemma, that idea, which is a term used by some anthropologists and psychologists to describe the predicament of any species that can eat a great many different things in nature and needs to eat a great many different things - we need about 50 different kinds of molecules and atoms basically to survive.
So if you have such broad needs, you need - you have a lot of anxiety about food to begin with, because is that mushroom safe? Is that dangerous? What about that berry? Can I eat that animal? Is it too old?
So a lot of kind of cognitive space and time must be applied to this eating problem, if you're a generalist. If you're a specialist eater, say you're a koala bear, if it looks and smells like a eucalyptus leaf, it's lunch. And if it doesn't, it's something else. It's the world. It's - and you know, cows are the same way with grass. But if you're a generalist, like us, the rats, the cockroaches - we have some kind of unsavory company in this kind of eater - you need a system to figure this out. You need to divide the world into what's okay to eat, what's not okay to eat.
We have prodigious powers of memory and recognition. We can remember that that mushroom made us sick last week, so don't eat it. But we have something even better, which is a culture. Culture's a fancy word for what your mom tells you it's okay to eat, basically. And so we put a name on that mushroom. We call it the deathcap, and that very helpfully tells us.
FLATOW: Tells us don't eat.
Prof. POLLAN: Yeah. Want to stay away. And we have developed a set of taboos, cuisines, manners at the table, you know, the order in which to eat things, how much to eat, and this is our culture of food, and it has held steady for thousands and thousands of years. But it's broken down. The breakdown really begins with the industrialization of our food supply. You know, if you think about what we eat, what we eat has changed more in the last 50 years, probably than in the last 5,000. We have all these new food products that your great grandmother would not recognize at food, and arguably they're not food, they're food products.
But you know, if you gave her Gogurt or a Pop-Tart, she wouldn't know what to do with it. So we've had this explosion of new products - 15,000 new ones every year. We've also had marketing to each member of the family, which tends to break down the mother's and father's authority over what the family eats. So you've got parents in competition with food marketers, essentially, to completely throw up in the air what is a good meal, what should you be eating, should you be eating fats or carbs?
And we have scientists. I think scientists are actually a big part of the problem when it comes to food. We get a lot of - we hear a lot of very conflicting advice. We get, you know, new discoveries every few years, whether we should worry about carbs or fats or trans-fats or Omega 3s. And I think that this kind of cacophony of dietary advice has really thrown us off our game. And add to that the fact that in America we've never had a very strong food culture the way the French or the Italians do that really steadies people's eating habits.
FLATOW: They look at our processed foods like we're nutty.
Prof. POLLAN: They do, and although gradually our way of eating, I'm sad to say, is making its way to the rest of the world. But the idea that, you know, overnight we would decide that bread was a toxic substance, as we did in 2002 with the low carb craze, I mean they looked at us and, like, you know, what's wrong with you people?
FLATOW: Interesting turning point you make in the book occurred after World War II.
Prof. POLLAN: Very interesting that the industrialization of our agriculture is really the product of World War II. The pesticides come out of work on poison gases for the war. And fertilizer, which I actually think is the bigger of the innovations, came from ammonium nitrate, which was the main bomb material, was - we had a lot of ammonium nitrate and we were kind of figuring how to convert this to domestic uses.
And there was a day in 1947 where the big munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama switched over from making bombs to making fertilizer. And that, I think, changes everything for the way we eat, and it was one of those very important events that's completely unnoticed at the time, but you can trace a lot of the changes in the way we eat to that day.
FLATOW: Because everything know depends on fertilizer.
Prof. POLLAN: Yes. Well, except for organic agriculture, of course. But industrial agriculture from that point on changed its reliance from soil bacteria to generate nutrients or composting of animal wastes and crop waste to this very simple - basically system - for taking fossil fuel, which is how we make synthetic fertilizer, natural gas, by and large, and creating fertility that way. And when you can buy fertility in a bag, you don't need to rotate your crops anymore, you don't need animals on your farm anymore, you could move to a complete monoculture, and it was a real boon for a plant like corn, which of course is a greedy plant. I mean loves to eat fertilizer.
FLATOW: Let's talk about corn, because that is an incredible story you tell about the rise of corn from a simple grass into the cobs that we have today, which it never started out, and how it was all made possible by this fertilizer.
Prof. POLLAN: Well, you know, one of the most astounding things I learned in doing this research and I was doing these kind of food detective stories about how we eat, was learning that all that fast food, all that supermarket food, if you trace it back to its origins - because all our food begins with a plant growing somewhere under the sun - I kept ending up back in the exact same place, which is to say a cornfield in Iowa. It's the corn that feeds the steer that turns into the hamburger. It's the corn that sweetens the drink that we, you know...
FLATOW: Let me just read from your book. You put it very succinctly in your book. You say corn is in the coffee whitener and the Cheese Whiz, the frozen yogurt, the TV dinner, the canned fruit, the ketchup, the candies, the soups, the snacks, the cake mixes, the frosting, the gravy, the frozen waffles, the syrup, the hot sauce, the mayonnaise, the mustard, the hot dogs, the bologna, the margarine, the shortening, the salad dressing, the relishes, even the vitamins. And then you go through all of this, and then at the end you say, indeed, the supermarket itself, the wallboard, the joint compound, the linoleum, the fiberglass, the adhesives, which the building itself has been built, is in no small measure a manifestation of corn.
Prof. POLLAN: Well, that was an astounding thing. I mean, we are the people of corn. You know, Mexicans talk about themselves as the corn people. They don't know the half of it. We are made bodily - the carbon that we are made of. You know, we are a carbon life form, as they used to say on Star Trek.
Prof. POLLAN: And most of the carbon that most of us are made from, unless you grow up perhaps on organic food, came from corn plants originally. And in fact, working with a biologist on campus, we did some experiments, and if you take a little clip of your hair or fingernail and run it through a mass spectrometer, corn has a very distinctive signature. It has more Carbon 13 than most plant carbons. And that identity, that signature is preserved all the way through the process, even in the soda, even in the burger you ate for lunch. And as it turns out, if you put a - if you look at us Americans under the machine and then you look at Mexicans, the supposed corn people, he said, we look like corn chips on legs.
And another experiment that I did was running a McDonald's meal through his machine, and I was astounded. I mean, the soda is 100 percent corn.
FLATOW: From the corn syrup?
Prof. POLLAN: It's all the corn syrup. It's a high fructose corn syrup. The burgers were about 56 percent corn-based carbon.
FLATOW: The burgers?
Prof. POLLAN: The burgers, because that's where the cow got its carbon, and also the rolls have high fructose corn syrup in it and the ketchup has high fructose corn syrup. The chicken nugget is corn upon corn upon corn. Even the salad dressing - the Paul Newman, supposedly healthy salad dressing - is a heavily corn-based product. So that's what we're eating. You know, we're a little bit like the Irish, you know, who had their potato thing, and they were eating - they based their whole economy and eating on one crop. It's a dangerous way to eat. You don't - in nature - one of the lessons we know from ecology is, you know, nature never puts all her eggs in one basket, and for any species to do that is not a wise thing.
You know, the corn crop could fail. There's that to worry about. It is a very precarious monoculture. But I think of more immediate concern to most people is that we are omnivores. We're generalists. We do need those 50 different nutrients, 20 or 30 of which are plant compounds. And if we're just getting all our food from this one crop, we're not getting the lycopene, we're not getting the beta carotene, we're not getting all those other very important chemicals, and that's one of the reasons that you have people on a heavy fast food diet who are actually overweight who are malnourished.
In Oakland near where I live there are kids, very well fed on fast food, who come into clinics with things like rickets.
Prof. POLLAN: That's unprecedented.
Prof. POLLAN: That we are suffering from these micronutrient deficiencies, because I think we're eating too much of one thing.
FLATOW: And not only that, but the energy it takes to grow the corn - the petroleum, right?
Prof. POLLAN: Yeah.
FLATOW: That's something else you talk about.
MR. POLLAN: That's another thing that I think was a tremendous surprise to me, and I don't think most people realize how much energy it takes to eat the way we eat. You know, all of life on earth is really this competition for energy, most of which comes from the sun, captured by plants, and then we fight over the plants with the animals or we eat the animals that ate the plants. And that's sort of how it works. Once we moved to chemical fertilizer, there was a new source of energy we introduced into our agriculture, and that was fossil fuel. To grow every bushel of corn takes about a third of a gallon of fossil fuel. And we're growing ten billion bushels of corn a year.
So that McDonald's - when you're having that McDonald's meal, you know, you are eating a couple of bushels of corn, which is to say a couple of gallons of oil. Twenty percent of our fossil fuel consumption today goes to feeding ourselves. That's more than we spend driving around in cars. So you know, to the extent you're worried about energy consumption, you know, you can buy your Prius and turn down the thermostat, but you really have to look at the way you're eating.
FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a break and come back and talk more with Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma." This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour with Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma." I think one of the biggest - one of the biggest buildings in Washington is the Department of Agriculture.
Prof. POLLAN: Yeah, it should be called the Department of Corn. Because basically corn has its own agency of the government. They have their own corporations too, ADM and Cargo, and their own state, Iowa. You know, there was a farmer - I spent a lot of time with a corn farmer and I said, who you growing all this corn for? You know, do you get a sense of your eaters on the other end? And he says, I'm growing it for the military industrial complex. And there is a sense in which he's right. This corn-based agriculture suits industry really well. It provides a cheap raw material for ADM, Cargo, Coca-Cola. They can tease this incredibly prodigious kernel into so many different products so cheaply that it's great business.
On the other hand, it doesn't work without the subsidy system. It's a set of political choices that has led to this overproduction of corn. And we could make other choices, and we do have this farm bill every seven years, and there's one coming up next year, and for the first time, at least in my memory, I think there's an opportunity for change. I think there really is this sense that we need a farm bill that thinks in terms of public health. Could we have a farm bill that instead of subsidizing high fructose corn syrup subsidized fruits and vegetables? Yeah, we could if we - you know, if people paid attention and didn't let the farm bill debate degenerate into a debate between, you know, the senator from Nebraska and the senator from Iowa. All of us have a dog in this fight.
FLATOW: What about another feed stock or grain like soybeans, things like that?
Prof. POLLAN: Well, soybean is very much part of the story, and you're absolutely right, because soy is the - basically corn and soy take turns in these fields, the legume and the grass. And soy is another food that can be tricked up into all sorts of products. Basically, a farmer growing corn and soybean is growing animal feed. That's where most of it's going, and the soy becomes the protein source for the animal and the corn becomes the energy source. So they're really in lockstep. You've got to deal with both commodities at the same time.
FLATOW: What would you suggest? Let's talk about solutions then.
Prof. POLLAN: Well, I think in a way the first and best solution is to put animals back on farms, get them off of feed lots. You know, we've industrial - we've urbanized all the livestock in this country, concentrating them on these - in these cities of filth, and like all primitive cities, they're subject to epidemics. So therefore we need antibiotics. How did the - why did the animals leave the farms to go to these cities? Well, basically because corn got so cheap that a farmer could not grow corn as cheaply as a feedlot operator could buy it on the market because it sold for much less than the cost of production.
So there was no economic incentive to keep the animals on the farm, and as soon as you move the animals into the feedlots, you have what - Wendell Barry's great phrase is we took a solution, which is having animals and crops on farms so that the animals provide fertility and the crops provide food for the animals; we took the solution and then neatly divided it into two problems, which is to say a pollution problem on the feedlot and a fertility problem on the farms that we have to remedy with all this fossil fuel fertilizer.
So I think we have to turn back the clock on that move, and if the price of corn were higher, and it could be that if we changed our agricultural policies, it would make sense to keep the animals around. And if you keep the animals around, you no longer have that monoculture of corn and soybeans, because then you need some pastures for your animals, and then you have a source of fertility on the farm and suddenly you have a system that is closer to the way an ecosystem works.
And I met farmers who are doing this, and I think the happiest thing I learned in the course of doing this book, which goes way beyond the food system to our whole understanding of the human relationship to nature, is I went to this farm called Polyphase Farm in Virginia - in Swope, Virginia - and it's a very subtle, complicated farm where six different animals are grown at a very careful rotation, such as the waste of one becomes the food of another and they keep taking turns in these pastures. And basically, to give you a very quick illustration of what he does, the cattle are intensively grazed, they're moved every day. Then he waits three days and he brings in something called the Chicken Mobile, which is a portable henhouse. And the chickens fan out and what they do is they eat the grubs, the larva in the manure, which is their favorite source of protein. And in the process of digging those grubs out, they spread the manure around the farm. And they also - the reason he waits three days to move them in is so the grubs can grow large and fat.
Prof. POLLAN: Really juicy. But if he waited five days, they'd hatch. See, he'd have a fly problem. So he's actually growing larva to feed his chickens. And because they eat the larva, there's no fly problem, so he doesn't need chemicals to keep the flies off of his cows. They also - the chickens copiously fertilize this pasture with their manure.
At the end of the year - and then the pigs come in and there's a whole kind of rotation of other animals - but at the end of the year, this pasture has more topsoil than it did at the beginning of the year, more fertility and more biodiversity in the soil. At the same time we have taken off this immense amount of food of chickens and eggs and pork and beef. You know, we usually think that for us to get what we want from nature, nature is diminished. It's a zero sum game, and we subtract.
Well, what this shows you is that there really is a free lunch in nature and - because if you're getting all this food and you're actually improving the land at the same time, that's a whole new paradigm to think about your relationship to nature, and it's the most hopeful thing I've seen in the whole environmental area for a long time. There is a way...
FLATOW: He can make a living at this.
Prof. POLLAN: And he makes a terrific living. He does a lot better than the corn farmers who are depending on government subsidies to survive or the job of their wives in town. This farm produces - it's on only 500 acres, just a hundred of which are open, the rest is forest - supports two white-collar salaries and the salaries of two helpers as well. He's one of the most successful farmers in the country.
FLATOW: I understand from the time you spent with this farmers who are on their truck as plowing fields of corn all day, that they're very happy about it either.
Prof. POLLAN: They're not.
FLATOW: They'd like something better.
Prof. POLLAN: They feel trapped in the system. They are looking for alternatives. They understand that growing all this corn and soybeans to feed all these animals on feedlots, it's not what they want to be doing. But they don't see an alternative. You know, I said to George Naylor, this farmer in Iowa, I said, well, why don't you grow something else? Here you are, you know, with this beautiful soil, and he looked at me and he said, what, I'm going to grow broccoli? Who's going to eat the broccoli? There are no people left in Iowa because the corn pushed them all out.
And he also - you know, he said that the elevator, the grain elevator is telling me all they want are corn and soybeans. So there's no - Iowa is a food desert. I mean they don't feed themselves. Eighty percent of their food is imported, even though it's the breadbasket of America.
FLATOW: And you said the farmers don't even feed them.
Prof. POLLAN: The farmers can no longer feed themselves because their farms are no longer diversified. They used to have some chickens. They used to have some apple trees. They used to have some other crops. They used to have 14 crops. Now they only have these two. And those corn and soybeans are not edible. That's feed corn. So they cannot - it's kind of a very sad thing that you have this food desert in the middle of Iowa.
FLATOW: Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma." Thank you very much for taking time to talk with us this hour.
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FLATOW: So where does all the food come from, and can we bring it closer to home? If you're like most Americans, chances are that a good portion of the food in your fridge has gone around the globe some times to get to you. Lettuce from California. You get bananas from South America. You get beef from Nebraska. By one estimate, an average pound of produce has traveled nearly 1,500 miles to get to your taste buds.
In the old days, we ate food that was in season, right? You had corn and tomatoes. They showed up in the local grocery in the summertime. You got broccoli in the cooler weather. But now, eating strawberries when there's snow on the ground isn't very unusual. Those and other fruits and veggies from far-flung lands are part of our weekly shopping list. We're willing to pay a bit extra for them, but what are the real costs?
Let me introduce my guest. Brian Halweil is the author of "Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket." He's senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute. He joins us here in our studios.
Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Mr. BRIAN HALWEIL (Worldwatch Institute): Thanks for having me.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
Jennifer Wilkins is a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow and a senior extension associate in the division of nutrition sciences at Cornell University up there in Ithaca. She's also a nutritionist and a dietician. And she joins us from the Cornell campus.
Thanks for talking with us today, Dr. Wilkins.
Dr. JENNIFER WILKINS (Cornell University): Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
Let me ask you, Brian. Give us a sense of where our food comes from. You outlined it in the book. I mentioned it a little bit differently. First, where did it come from and why does it come from all these place?
Mr. HALWEIL: Well, today all of us are eating food from farther and farther away. It's partly a result of the fact that we've become very good at shipping stuff all around the planet. And not just food but computers and sneakers and lumber and steel. We have excellent transportation technology that's evolved from steamships to railroads to now refrigerated 18 wheelers and...
Mr. HALWEIL: ...refrigerated cargo planes. And we're in search of food that is raised most cheapest wherever it is on the planet.
FLATOW: You show an interesting illustration of the state of Iowa, which we all know is a great agricultural state, but the people buying the food there - none of it's local except maybe the corn.
Mr. HALWEIL: Right. The irony of the whole sort of center of the country, the Corn Belt, is that most of that corn and soybeans goes elsewhere, and those very productive agricultural counties end up importing most of their food. The folks at Iowa State University at the Leopold Center looked at a typical meal consumed in Iowa - some beef, some string beans, some carrots, some potatoes, berries for a pie, wheat for bread - and what they found is that most of those ingredients came from between 1,000 and 2,000 miles away, from as far away as Chile and mostly from California, even though Iowa is perfectly capable of raising all of those ingredients for the vast majority of the year.
And most importantly, what they found is that long-distance meal consumed 17 times as much energy in transportation as that same meal raised within 50 miles of the university itself.
So not only is it gobbling up a tremendous amount of money, but it's actually taking dollars out of the state, dollars that could be going to Iowa farmers.
FLATOW: And why isn't it grown there then? If you can do it, why not do it?
Mr. HALWEIL: Well, it gets back to this sort of economic calculus that defines global trade, that defines trade anywhere at this point. And that is, if a store in Iowa can find a sack of potatoes grown slightly cheaper than it would cost them to grow it in Iowa, they get it from wherever they can. And because fuel is relatively inexpensive or a relatively small part of that cost, we're willing to ship those potatoes from as far away as China.
And we don't really attach a lot of value right now to the fact that those potatoes might have been grown locally, which might mean that they're fresher and tastier. It also means that we're not causing all this pollution and congestion as a result of the energy use. And also means that we're keeping money in our local economy.
FLATOW: Dr. Wilkins, you write about fossil fuel consuming a huge portion of our food costs.
Dr. WILKINS: Well, it certainly does. Our food system is very fossil fuel-dependent and very heavily uses of fossil fuels. It's estimated that about 20 percent of our fossil fuel use is used in the entire food system, from production to getting food on our table.
For every calorie that we consume, about 10 calories of fossil fuel has been used to produce that.
FLATOW: You wrote an article in the Times-Union, the local newspaper in Albany, New York, saying food policies fail to spur good health. And you talk about something that sort of flies below the radar screen of most Americans, most politicians. And that is the legislation that sets up the farm bill. What goes on in the farm bill affects just about all kinds of things that we eat. Talk about what your concerns are.
Dr. WILKINS: Well - and this gets back to our concentration of supporting very few commodities, as opposed to supporting diversity and variety, which we promote in the dietary guidelines. So our dietary guidelines are very sound in what they're promoting in terms of eating a variety of fruits and vegetables and eating whole grains and, you know, a variety of different kinds of foods.
Yet our production system that we support with policy is very narrow in what it supports. And the Economic Research Service of the USDA has estimated that we would need to put in six million acres more in crop production to supply the kinds of foods, if people shifted to the dietary guidelines, and produce far fewer acres of corn and far fewer acres, about 10 million fewer acres of soybeans.
So we're producing foods that are then converted to being available as commodities to the food industry that then finds multiple uses for them. We have, you know - walk into a supermarket today and see nearly 40,000 items in the supermarket. Gives a really great impression of a lot of choice. But when you start really looking at the ingredients in a lot of the packaged foods and the highly processed foods that we have in the supermarket, you'll start seeing the same ingredients all over the place.
And high fructose corn syrup, which didn't exist before 1970, is now pervasive throughout our food system...
Dr. WILKINS: ...as is a lot of added fat from soybeans.
FLATOW: Do you think that part of - speaking of that - do you think that part of the obesity epidemic with kids that we're seeing now comes because we're not eating more directly from the far? We're eating too many processed foods?
Mr. HALWEIL: The concern about obesity is the one of the things that's causing people to rebel against this food system. Eating local is probably the easiest way to cut out a lot of those highly processed junk foods. Because you are depending on more raw wholesome ingredients that you're cooking yourself. It's also a very good way to avoid all sorts of preservatives and fumigants that are used on foods that have to endure a long shelf life and long-distance transportation.
FLATOW: Let's go to Beth in Ottawa, Illinois. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Beth.
BETH (Caller): Hi, thanks. I just wanted to say that my husband and I are farmers. We do have one of those small local farms, that we also encourage people to eat locally. We have vegetables as well as chickens, beef and pig. And I wanted to let your listeners know about a great resource called LocalHarvest.org. And you can go to their Web site and search by your zip code and find local farms doing CSAs and farmers markets in any area of the country.
FLATOW: Are you able to make a good living doing this?
BETH: We're working on it. It's a challenge and it's a whole lot of work, but it's starting to come together. This is our fourth year in business and this will be the first year that we're doing it without a second farm income.
FLATOW: Brian, typical of a small farm?
Mr. HALWEIL: It's typical not just of a small farm but also of a lot of these sort of start-up businesses that are rising to meet this demand for local food, for organic food, for grass-fed meats and sort of alternative foods compared to what we typically get in the supermarket.
The supports aren't there in the same sense of the sorts of massive subsidies that go for large commodity farms. And the support isn't yet there from consumers like you and me. I mean a lot of us are beginning to shop at farmers markets, buy food directly from farms.
But the vast majority of places where we do our eating - in cafeterias, in restaurants and supermarkets - those are only beginning to come to the party now. They're only beginning to realize the benefits of eating local. And some big food corporations are wising up to it. And that's beginning to make a difference for small farmers like this couple in Iowa.
FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Beth. Good luck to you. Talking with Brian Halweil, author of "Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket," put out by the World Watch Institute. It's a World Watch book. Also with me is Jennifer Wilkins. She is a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow and senior extension associate in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. We need to take a short break. Stay with us.
This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about food this hour with Brian Halweil, author of "Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket"; Jennifer Wilkins, who is at Cornell University in Ithaca.
Let me ask Dr. Wilkins. Cafeterias - I mean can they make a difference if they decide what they're going to order?
Dr. WILKINS: Absolutely they can. I mean individual food choices is one major area to look at. And individuals, if you look at consumer research, recently local has surpassed organic in terms of an interest that consumers have that are driving food choices.
But you look at institutional food service - cafeterias in schools, colleges, hospitals, prisons - they're much bigger buyers. And so when they make a decision to buy local and buy direct from farmers, it makes a huge impact on the local economy. And there are several examples.
There are over 400 school districts, it's estimated, that are buying or have farm-to-school programs right now. And they are buying from local farmers either directly or through their suppliers. And Kaiser Permanente has been getting a lot of attention for their work in this area.
FLATOW: Brian, talk about this diner. The farmer's diner in Vermont, right?
Mr. HALWEIL: Yeah. This is another great example of sort of, you know, a typical food business, but instead of using typical ingredients, they're buying all their ingredients locally.
A few years back a farmer in Berry, Vermont named Todd Murphy decided he wanted to open a diner. In fact, there was a defunct diner in his town and he wanted to start a diner there. But he would serve all the typical diner foods. But instead of getting all of his ingredients from some big distributor that shows up once a week in an 18-wheeler truck and drops it all off, he wanted to get everything from within 50 miles.
So the beef for the burgers and the wheat for the hamburger buns and the berries and the fruit for the pancakes, and the milk for the milkshakes and the eggs from the omelets all come from farms and food makers within 50 miles. And the business is thriving, partly because people are intrigued by this idea.
It serves very good food. In the winter, you don't get a tomato on your burger, you get a slice of pickled beet on your burger, which some people, I guess, prefer. And there has been a plan to franchise the idea. Not only in Vermont, but into Boston. And the business is experiencing some growing pains like this farm in Illinois, because it's trying to redefine the model.
But it's a very good example of how eating local is beginning to grow beyond the culinary fringe. Supermarkets are beginning to do similar things. There's a supermarket chain in the Pacific Northwest called New Seasons Markets, based in Portland, Oregon. Typical supermarket.
But a large share of all the products that they sell come from the Pacific Northwest. And they bare a label that designates that. A lot of their seafood, a lot of their meat, a lot of their vegetables come from there. And they make a very big effort to educate their customers about that fact.
And what they found is it draws customers into stores. Sometimes people are willing to pay more for it. But it also helps educate people about what's in season in their area.
FLATOW: I've heard about some of these being food co-ops, where people put money in the front and they get the harvest later.
Mr. HALWEIL: Exactly. And there's also a movement to buy a sort of food subscription where you might become a member of a farm. It's referred to a CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, in the sense that you pay upfront at the beginning of the season to become a member and in exchange, every week or so you get a box of produce, which is able to feed your family. You share in the risk of this farmer who's trying to make a go at something new, and if the farmer has a very abundant crop of something, you also share in that.
But again, this is all - these are all just really good examples of Americans becoming fed up with anonymous food, wanting to know where their food is coming from, who is growing it, what impact it's having on their landscape, and having some direct control over that.
FLATOW: Talking about food this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News with Brian Halweil, author of "Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket"; and Jennifer Wilkins, a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow and senior extension associate in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca.
Jennifer, being a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow, how do the big food companies, the processed food companies, view these things? Do they view the movement back to local as a threat or something they want to get in on?
Dr. WILKINS: Well, I think that they maybe are starting to pay attention. It's still a fairly small part of the market. But I think that they are starting to look at this as maybe something that they can take advantage of and maybe build into their profile. And we're starting to learn that Wal-Mart, for example, might be wanting to buy more local. They have bought local in New York. They, in fact, have featured local apples and other New York State-grown products. And I think that this is a very good opportunity.
It is definitely an opportunity for local growers. I think that with this opportunity, of course, will come challenges. And it presents a chance for states, local areas to maybe develop an organized way of approaching that so that farmers can definitely reap some benefit in making sure that they get the cost of production in while they're doing business with a big entity like that.
FLATOW: Brian, if we all wanted to eat locally, buy locally, are there enough farmers and farms out there for us to find? And if there were to be a switch, could we make the switch?
Mr. HALWEIL: I think there's no doubt that we could make the switch. We've lost a lot of farms in this country. The number of farms has gone from close to around 10 million at the beginning of the - in 1900 - to under two million today. It's a little-known fact that there are now more people incarcerated in the United States than there are full-time farmers, and that's a good example of what's happened to our food system.
There will definitely be more people flocking back to the land to start up farms, to start up small-scale food businesses, as this movement grows and as there's more demand. But the reality is - as Wal-Mart gets interested, as big food distributors get interested, as big health-care companies like Kaiser Permanente get interested - it becomes easier for people to do this. It's not just sort of diehard parents who want to shop seasonally and can and store food year-round for their families. We'll be able to eat locally by going to our local restaurant or by going to our local supermarket.
FLATOW: But people are not going to give up the convenience of having their off-season fruits and vegetables in the wintertime, for example.
Mr. HALWEIL: They may not right now, but there are - that convenience also comes with some problems. I mean, 80 percent of the tomatoes in this country are ripened artificially after they're harvested. That is, they're harvested green so they can be shipped long distances, and when they get close to where they're going to be sold, they're exposed to ethylene gas to ripen them up. Now, that compromises flavor in a major way.
Mr. HALWEIL: Anyone who's raised their own tomatoes or shopped at a farm stand knows what a tomato's supposed to taste like. So that convenience of getting that tomato in the middle of the winter, or a strawberry, comes with a cost to flavor. It comes with a cost to your local farmer, who is dependant on selling those tomatoes and strawberries to you during tomato season. There's sort of an excitement involved in waiting for that season to come around.
FLATOW: And a great flavor. Dr. Wilkins, what about terrorism? You know, if having our food supply so concentrated in the hands of few companies - is that dangerous for us?
Dr. WILKINS: Well, any time you have one large target that if hit has a big consequence, that's probably more dangerous than having a more distributed system. And this would be true of the food system. So if you have many smaller entities, a more dispersed production and processing and distribution system, it's less of a target.
That just seems logical. So it would be more secure. And it's great - I have this poster on my office door at work. It was produced by the New York State Farm Bureau, and it has a big banner at the top. It has Homeland Security on it. And then slogan at the bottom is: Eat Local, It Matters. So that big farm-representative agency is really noticing this.
Mr. HALWEIL: I mean, this isn't just a theoretical concern. The Department of Homeland Security a few years ago ran a war game, a simulation to look at how the United States would respond to an act of agricultural terrorism; that is, if someone were to dump some corn fungus out of a plane flying over the Midwest or introduce foot and mouth disease onto a Western cattle ranch or dump E. coli into the batch at a large, centralized processing plant. And when all was said and done, the agricultural and military officials running this concluded that the long-distance nature and intense concentration of our food system are - they make us a sort of proverbial sitting duck, very vulnerable to spikes in oil prices, vulnerable to disruption in the transportation system, and vulnerable to any sort of large-scale food contamination, if its accidental or malicious. It could very easily begin to affect millions of people all around the country.
In contrast, and it's not to say that local farms are immune to these sorts of problems, but the problem is likely to be much more localized and able to be controlled, and a lot of food-safety problems are a result of how long food is kept after it's been harvested.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to San Diego. Fred, hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
FRED (Caller): Hi. We just, as part of a school project, my son - we switched from I guess you'd consider standard food-buying practices to local or organic, and while I have to say the quality certainly of the vegetables has improved, it has come at a significant cost. Our food bill for a family of four was running about 189 a week, and we're now at 329 a week for local and organic.
So I don't know how many families can afford that, but that's a significant - you know, that's a significant jump in costs.
FLATOW: Right, yeah.
FRED: And we're in San Diego, which I think is probably, given all the farms we have around here, I would think we're probably as good off in this regard as anybody, so you know...
Mr. HALWEIL: I think it's a real concern, and sometimes shopping that way will be more expensive. It's not always going to be. Shopping in season is often a lot cheaper than shopping out of season. When local tomatoes are in, they're going to be a lot cheaper than in the middle of the winter.
Part of that cost difference could be the organic food, as opposed to the local food. Right now, we're in a situation where the sort of mark-up or organic food in this country is still considerably higher than conventional foods. But I think it's also important to look at what we're spending our food dollars on, how we're eating.
Think about buying a bag of potato chips versus buying a few pounds of potatoes. We're willing to pay three bucks for a bag of potato chips, which has barely a potato in it, and three dollars will buy you a lot of raw potatoes. Of course that does come with the need to cook them and be creative in your kitchen. But I think there are ways to eat locally and to seek out organic food and still keep the budget in mind.
FLATOW: Dr. Wilkins?
Dr. WILKINS: Well, yes, and I think that this is a good place to talk about schools again, because we are now - school is starting and there's a lot of attention being paid on the food that is served in schools in terms of addressing childhood obesity. And if you look at the cost that food service directors have to work with to provide a lunch, it's about $2.33, and about half of that goes to labor and equipment and other expenses of the food service operation, so you're getting down to about $1.50 that might be available for food.
So in terms of our national policy and our state policy in terms of reimbursements for those meals, we need to start looking at how much we're really providing to the schools and what we're expecting them to be able to serve. If we want them to serve fresh fruits and vegetables, perhaps organic, perhaps locally grown, then we need to realize that that's more valuable, and it's worth spending more money on.
Mr. HALWEIL: And that cost that - the price that we pay for a given food item, whether it's local or organic, it doesn't necessarily give us a sense of all that goes into that food. I mean, think of buying a meal at McDonald's, which is inexpensive, but it's not particularly healthy. So buying something that's raised locally or buying something that's raised organically, even if it's more expensive, that's money that's staying in your local economy. It's money that's preserving farmland in your area. If it's an organic farm, that's money that's keeping pollutants out of the water supply, which someone does have to pay for eventually.
FLATOW: Do you think we're going to be see growing - I mean of more farms like these and these restaurants that can?
Mr. HALWEIL: Oh, we already are. The number of farmers markets in the United States has doubled just in the last five years. There's not a major school district in this country, as Jennifer indicated, that isn't trying some program to get more locally raised ingredients into the schools to make it fresher and healthier. And all the innovators in agrobusiness are realizing that this is going to be an important way for them to distinguish themselves from their competition but also to get ahead from their competition, and to get back to some sort of connection to their community. I mean, that's the reason why Wal-Mart's interested.
FLATOW: Yeah. Dr. Wilkins, your take, and the possible future of, politically, the farm bill?
Dr. WILKINS: Well, I definitely agree with Brian that if you look at what consumers are interested in today, they're interested in expressing their values in their purchases. They're interested in taste, nutrition and flavor, and eating locally is definitely the way to do that.
There are organizations all over the country right now that are weighing in and developing language for the Farm Bill, but there's other ways of expressing values and expressing your desires as consumers in policy, and one way to do that is just to communicate with your congressperson about the fact that you want more locally grown fruits and vegetables. You value fresh, and you want organic, and you want to have agricultural production that is good for the environment.
FLATOW: Could you just not - could you just say that also to your local food, you know, supplier? Your supermarket?
Dr. WILKINS: Absolutely, absolutely. It's been determined that it takes as few as three requests at a supermarket for the supermarket to carry an item. So I would encourage consumers to express their desires and tell their supermarkets that they'd like to have more locally grown available to them.
FLATOW: I want to thank both of you for taking time to be with us today. Jennifer Wilkins, who was a senior extension associate at Cornell University. She is the Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow at Cornell. Thank you, Dr. Wilkins, for taking time to be with us today.
Dr. WILKINS: Thank you.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Brian Halweil is author of "Eat Here." He is senior researcher at Worldwatch Institute. "Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket," it's an eye-opening book and I highly recommend it. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.
Mr. HALWEIL: Thank you. It was a pleasure, Ira.
FLATOW: That's all for this week. If you'd like to write us, send letters to SCIENCE FRIDAY, 4 West 43rd Street, Suite 306, New York, New York 10036. Or stop by our Web site and e-mail us from sciencefriday.com. You'll also find past editions of the show, our blogs and podcasts, and materials for teachers to use in the classroom, all at sciencefriday.com. Have a great weekend. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.
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