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(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Hey, hey good lookin'. Whatcha got cooking?

Unidentified Woman: Food contributes a third of the world's greenhouse gases.

Unidentified Man: What happens on your plate, is how we change the atmosphere.

Unidentified Woman: What can I do with my food choices?

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This week, in honor of Earth Day, we've been looking at the environmental footprint of food.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Award-winning writer Michael Pollan has covered the food industry for years and his most recent work, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," he offers practical advice for people who want to keep themselves, and the planet, healthy.

BRAND: And that involves some tricky choices, especially in today's world - where 17,000 new food products are introduced to shoppers every year. Day to Day's Alex Cohen has more.

ALEX COHEN: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. That's Michael Pollan's food philosophy in a nutshell, and as Pollan took me through the garden in front of his Berkeley home, he offered another piece of advice, grow your own food.

Professor MICHAEL POLLAN (Director, Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism; University of California, Berkeley): We've got peas, chard, beets, broccoli over there, some cabbage, there's some radicchio down there. And catnip, there's one crop for my cat.

COHEN: Gardening has a very low carbon footprint and the added benefit of helping you stay in shape, and Pollan says, it's cheap.

Prof. POLLAN: This is a tremendous bargain. A pack of seeds cost a buck or two, and can produce 30, 40 dollars worth of food. It is a free lunch. There still is a free lunch.

COHEN: For the items you can't grow in your garden, Pollan recommend shopping at the local farmer's market. That's where he picked up a dozen eggs from chickens raised on grassy pastures, instead of at a factory.

Prof. POLLAN: And you can tell the difference as soon as you crack them open. They're bright orange, they're full of beta carotene, and they stand up really tall on the pan. They have what farmers call "muscle tone." They're not cheap - I just spent seven dollars for a dozen eggs, which to some people will seem an outrage.

COHEN: Many people can't afford things like grass-fed beef and local produce, especially now with the weak economy and food cost on the rise. That's why, Michael Pollan says, we need to think about food as something more than just stuff we eat.

Prof. POLLAN: It's a vote. It's not just buying something that's going to taste good. It's a vote for a certain kind of landscape, a certain kind of agriculture, a certain kind of community. So that's how I justify to myself what is, you know, a lot of money to spend.

COHEN: Of course, casting that vote may be easier for Michael Pollan, living in a town that has three farmer's markets a week, year-round. Many Americans don't have that kind of access, and are left to shop at traditional grocery stores.

Prof. POLLAN: There's plenty of good food in a supermarket. There's a way to navigate the supermarket where you'll end up with some decent food.

COHEN: But it can be tricky to make healthy, earth-friendly choices in bigger stores. Best to shop on the fringes of the supermarket, Pollan says. Stay away from the middle aisles, where you'll find processed food in packages with labels like trans-fat free, low cholesterol, heart-healthy. Labels, Pollan says, that food companies have paid a lot of money to use.

Prof. POLLAN: You've got these vegetables, very, very healthy, sitting there silent as stroke victims, while two aisles over, the Cocoa Puffs are boasting about their whole-grain goodness and heart-healthiness. I mean, this is an absurd situation. The healthy food is quiet, so buy the quiet foods in the market.

COHEN: Michael Pollan has other rules. Don't buy products with more than five ingredients, or any ingredients you can't easily pronounce. Which is why I was slightly surprised when I peeked into his fridge, and I happen to notice there's a Best Foods real mayonnaise. There's a couple of things in here that maybe aren't straight from the farm.

Prof. POLLAN: Well, that's true.

COHEN: How do you make your choices?

Prof. POLLAN: I'm not a fanatic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. POLLAN: You will also find there is a, you know, packaged, you know, spray-whipped cream. See here? Sweetened, ultra-pasteurized and this is, you know, this breaks many of my rules. It has more than five ingredients, and this is something my son loves to have on waffles on the weekends.

COHEN: And this is perhaps the most important point about food choices that Pollan makes. "Don't freak out about it."

Mr. POLLAN: If you get this vote right, you know, a couple times a day. If you buy 20 bucks worth of local food a week, not all, you're making a huge contribution. But the idea that you're going to get it right every single meal, every single purchase, is just not realistic.

COHEN: When there's too much pressure to make only right choices, he says, consumers often get frustrated and end up not making any good choices, and that, he says, is the worst decision of all. Alex Cohen, NPR News.

BRAND: And for more on Michael Pollan's philosophy on food you can go to our website, npr.org.

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