Author Michael Pollan: 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' In his new book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, journalist and writer Michael Pollan argues that many Americans suffer from a national eating disorder based on super-sized, corn-fed diets.

Author Michael Pollan: 'The Omnivore's Dilemma'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The rest of the hour, we're gonna be taking a look at what my next guest calls our national eating disorder. 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 and 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 has 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, let him talk about it.

My next guest is Michael Pollan, author of THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA: A NATURAL HISTORY OF FOUR MEALS. He's contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, night professor of journalism at the University of California Berkeley. He's here in our New York studios. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN (University of California Berkeley): Thank you, Ira. Good to be back.

FLATOW: That's pretty, pretty damning talk to talk about our obsession with food. And, not in a good way. Why, why do you say that?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, I think we do have an eating disorder. You know, eating disorders don't just afflict teenaged girls. A whole culture can have one when it falls into a deep anxiety and confusion about what to eat. You know, this is one of the most basic things any animal does, is find dinner for itself. And most animals know exactly how to go about it. And we don't any more. I think we did for a long time.

FLATOW: When did we stop?

Mr. 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 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 one 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 are a generalist.

If you are a specialist eater, say you are 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. 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 is a fancy word for what your mom tells you it's ok to eat, basically. And so we put a name on that mushroom. We call it the death cap. And that very helpfully tells us --

FLATOW: Tells us, don't eat. Just stay away.

Mr. POLLAN: 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. And I think I would date it to about 50 years ago.

FLATOW: All right, we'll come back and tease it out here. Where it has broken down. Why you say about 50 years ago.

Talking with Michael Pollan, the author of THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA: A NATURAL HISTORY OF FOUR MEALS. We'll take your calls: 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us, we'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow, this is TALK OF THE NATION's Science Friday, from NPR News.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION's Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. Talking with Michael Pollan, author of THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA: A NATURAL HISTORY OF FOUR MEALS.

And you were talking about when our things broke down in how we eat. You said it was about 50 years ago. What happened?

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, I guess I would say the breakdown really begins with the industrialization of our food supply. You, 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 as food. And arguably, they are 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 into the air what is a good meal? What should be you 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 transfats 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: Right. They would never, they look at our processed food like we're nutty.

Mr. POLLAN: They do, and, although gradually our way of eating, I'm sad to say --

FLATOW: Is making its way --

Mr. POLLAN: 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 at the low-carb craze. I mean, they look at us in like, what's wrong with you people?

FLATOW: Right. Interesting turning point you make in the book occurred after World War II, and it had to do with munitions productions. Tell us about it.

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. Well it is very interesting. 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. We had a lot of ammonium nitrate and we were kind of figuring out 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 completely unnoticed at the time. But you can trace a lot of the changes in the way we eat to that day.

FLATOW: Of course, everything now depends on fertilizer.

Mr. 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 wastes, 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 any more. You don't need animals on your farm any more. You can 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: Now let's, let's talk about corn. Because I, that is an incredible story you tell about the rise of corn from a simple grass into the cobs that we had today, which it never started out, and how it was only possible by this fertilizer.

Mr. POLLAN: Well, you know, one of the most astounding things I learned in doing this research and in 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 same place, which is to say, a corn field 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, wine or in the Cheese Whiz, the frozen yogurt, the TV dinner, the canned fruit, the ketchup, the candy, the soups, the snacks, the cake mixes, the frosting, the gravy, the frozen waffle, the syrup, the hot sauce, the mayonnaise, the mustard, the hot dog, the bologna, the margarine, the shortening, the salad dressing, the relishes, even the vitamins.”

And then it goes, you go through all this, and then at the end you say, “Indeed the supermarket itself, the wallboard, the joint compound, the linoleum, the fiberglass, the adhesives, of which the building itself has been built, is in no small matter a manifestation of corn.”

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. This is the --

FLATOW: And you said if you took clippings of our finger nails --

Mr. POLLAN: Well that was, that was the 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, 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, as he put it, 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.


Mr. POLLAN: And I, another experiment that I did was running a McDonald's meal through the, his machine, and I was astounded. I mean, the soda is 100% corn.

FLATOW: From the corn syrup?

Mr. POLLAN: It's all the corn syrup we see. High fructose corn syrup. The burgers were about 56 percent corn-based carbon.

FLATOW: The burgers?

Mr. 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 is 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 in to clinics with things like rickets.

FLATOW: Really?

Mr. POLLAN: That's unprecedented. That we are suffering from these micronutrient deficiencies, because, I think, we're eating too much of one thing.

FLATOW: And not only that, by the energy it takes to grow the corn. The petroleum, right? That's something else you talked about.

Mr. POLLAN: Well, 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 10 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 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: Does it concern you that we're now talking about using corn to make ethanol?

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. I mean, ethanol is, don't get me started on ethanol. But --

FLATOW: Go ahead. Get started.

Mr. POLLAN: Ethanol is another corn disposal strategy. We have too much corn. We overproduce it, so we thought --

FLATOW: Do we pay farmers not to grow it?

Mr. POLLAN: No, no, no, we pay farmers to grow it, it's just the absurdity. We cut them a check for every bushel they grow. About 50 cents a bushel. A bushel, by the way, is 56 pounds of corn kernels. It's a hell of a lot of corn. So we're paying for the overproduction of corn. And then we spend a lot of money to get rid of it, either by feeding it to animals, or now we're trying to feed it to our cars.

And so there's a real push on to subsidize the production of ethanol. The problem with ethanol that people don't notice, ethanol made from corn, is that it takes a lot of fossil fuel to distil the corn into the ethanol. Some estimates are it's a wash. It takes as many gallons of oil to make a gallon of ethanol. Some more happier estimates are .9 gallons, right? So, you're not actually getting that much additional energy. There are much better things to make it from, switch grass being one of them. Make it from a perennial that doesn't cost a lot of energy to grow.

FLATOW: What Brazilians do with sugar cane.

Mr. POLLAN: Sugar cane. Sugar cane, too. I don't know that much about the energetics of sugar cane. But making it from corn is a joke. And the corn farmers are very excited about it. Cargo's very excited about it because they're just looking for new markets for their corn.

But, you know, it comes back to the fact, you know, the tail wagging the dog in America is this 10 billion bushel pile that's piling up every fall. And we are, we have distorted our whole society to get rid of it. And that includes ourselves. We eat way too much of it. We're growing about five to 700 more calories per person per day on America's farms. And we have to get rid of those calories.

And we're eating 200 of them. And that's the obesity epidemic right there.

FLATOW: You point out that down river of some of these farms there are so many nitrates in the water that it's becoming dangerous to drink the water.

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, well, you know, growing corn with all this fossil fuel fertilizer, farmers use way too much of it, more than their fields can absorb because it's fairly cheap. It's a cheap energy problem. And it washes off the fields. It goes into the rivers. It goes, in the case of farm I was on, it ends up on the Des Moines River where people in Des Moines eat, drink their water.

During the spring, during the heavy runoff, there are blue baby alerts. You're not supposed to give your kids the water. And then it keeps going down the Mississippi and it becomes a dead zone in the Gulf because, you know, we hear a lot about the carbon cycle, but in fact we've messed more with the nitrogen cycle on this planet. Half of the nitrogen now in circulation was fixed by this new technology.

And so we're fertilizing some species, corn being one, algae being another, and all that nitrogen runs into the Gulf and you get these algae blooms that starves the water of oxygen and you end up with, you know, what is essentially a Bermuda triangle within the Gulf of Mexico where fish cannot live anymore, a dead zone the size of New Jersey.

FLATOW: Talking with Michael Pollan, author of THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA: A NATURAL HISTORY OF FOUR MEALS. Number, 1-800-989-8255.

Vivian in Long Island, hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

VIVIAN (Caller): Oh, it's great to listen to your program. It's wonderful. I'm a legislator in Suffolk County, New York. And we've been working with the farmers here on lowering the pesticides and fertilizers. And as I'm listening to you speaking I wondered how far have we come since Frances Moore Lappe wrote DIET FOR A SMALL PLANET? Have we gotten much, much worse? Has anybody adjusted their eating habits thinking of the way we were eating a couple of decades ago?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, I think that's a very good question. I mean, she, Frances Moore Lappe was saying, look, we're eating too high on the food chain. We're eating all this corn-fed beef. We still are. There are some better alternatives out there than there were back when she wrote that book in the ‘70s. And that is, you know, there's some real good news here, too, and that is that there's a very lively grass-finished beef industry starting up.

There are farmers trying to put their farms back on the basis of solar energy, getting it off fossil fuel. Organic farmers do this to some extent and grass-fed farmers do this quite a bit, because when you think about it, there is no more sustainable food chain than having the sun feed the grass and having the grass feed the ruminants and having the ruminants feed us. That is a very sustainable food chain. And so there people moving back in that direction.

FLATOW: Thank you for calling, Vivian.

VIVIAN: There's a great farmer here on Long Island who has, grows potatoes, uses biodiesel from some of his crop and makes the cake, the potato chips he makes he uses for biodiesel to run the machinery for his farm.

Mr. POLLAN: There are a lot of farmers really trying to close the loop here. And one of the things I tried to do in this book was find what I think is the most sustainable farmer in America. And there are people doing some incredibly greater work in getting us off of fossil fuel food.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Vivian. Good luck to you out there in Long Island.

VIVIAN: Oh, thank you for the great work. Bye.

FLATOW: Take care. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking about food this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: Science Friday from NPR News with Michael Pollan, author of THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA: A NATURAL HISTORY OF FOUR MEALS.

But can you overcome that, the inertia, the lobbying, the money, that's all wrapped up, you know? I think one of the biggest buildings in Washington is the Department of Agriculture.

Mr. POLLAN: Yes. 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.

But it's hard to overcome. There is, you know, there was a farmer I spent a lot of time with, a corn farmer, and I said, who are you growing all this corn for, you know? Do you have a sense of your eaters on the other end?

And he says, I'm growing it for the military industrial complex. And there's 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 over-production 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.

You know, right now we're subsidizing high fructose corn syrup and we have an epidemic of obesity. Like, duh, doesn't that tell you that you've got to put these two things together, that one hand doesn't know what the other's doing?

So could we have a farm bill that instead of subsidizing high fructose corn syrup, subsidize 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?

Mr. 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 lock step. You've got to deal with both commodities at the same time.

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. Take more of your phone calls. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

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: A NATURAL HISTORY OF FOUR MEALS. Our number 1-800-989-8255.

Let's go to James in Portland, Oregon. Hi, James.

JAMES (Caller): Good afternoon. I haven't read the new book but I love THE BOTANY OF DESIRE. Anyway, out here in Portland we've got a really rapidly growing interest and marketplace in locally grown, organic, sustainable, and occasionally even biodynamically raised foods. So there's some positive light there. But it's pretty small percentage in the larger picture. And I'm also an advocate of switching from corn to things like hemp and other fibers and fuels and things like that, as well. So just wanted to throw in the comment and say good work and keep it going.

FLATOW: Thank you.

Mr. POLLAN: Thank you very much. You know, I think that there is a lot, I think you're absolutely right. There's a lot going on in the northwest. And there's a lot going on all over the country. I mean, there really is a new market forming. And I think that people are looking for solutions. They really want to feel better about what they're buying, for their health, for the health of the environment.

And, you know, that explains a lot of the success of Whole Foods. But at the same time that's going on, there is a very vital local foods movement taking part. You know, the number of farmer's markets has doubled in the last decade. And there is an effort to eat off of a shorter food chain that will consume less energy, the food will be fresher, and it usually tastes a lot better, too.

What's great about what's going on in the northwest is there's a lot of grass there. I mean, they have green grass almost 12 months of the year. So the idea that you would feed cattle, who are not evolved to ear corn, corn is absurd. And they're getting off of that, which I think is a very healthy development.

FLATOW: And, you know, we've seen the instances where, because we talk about diseases that are spreading, you know, because you feed cattle meat, there are --

Mr. POLLAN: Yes. There are --

FLATOW: Are they getting that? Are they going to be getting away from that because of, you know, they're afraid of consumer? Or are they just --

Mr. POLLAN: No. They're not going to change that.

FLATOW: -- it's a 10-day memory and we're just going to --

Mr. POLLAN: I mean E. coli 0157:H7 is a feedlot disease caused by the feeding of corn to cattle. It did not exist before we started doing that. And it has to do with the way corn changes the rumen and created an environment in which this new microbe that's so lethal to us could evolve. And, in fact, they learned at the time that simply by putting the animals back on grass for five days before slaughter, just five days, you could eliminate the E. coli 0157 from their systems. But it was too cumbersome and too expensive. What would they rather do? Irradiate the meat.

FLATOW: Right.

You know, it's a classic example of create a problem and then making money solving the problem with another technology. It's a band-aid. And instead of going back to what nature suggests we do with cows, which is feed them grass, and it will be very healthy meat for us and very healthy for the environment, it's just not fast or profitable enough.

FLATOW: Or you create a genetically modified pig, right?

Mr. POLLAN: Exactly. I mean, there's a classic example. Jon Stewart had it right. It's like, okay, whoa, let's see. We could eat pork in moderation or we could rearrange the cellular structure of the mammal. And we'd prefer to do the latter.

So, you know, we're enamored of fancy solutions.

FLATOW: Well, what are some good, what would you suggest? Let's talk about solutions then?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, I think in a way the first and best solution is to put animals back on farms, get them off of feedlots. You know, 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 feed lot 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 feed lots, you have what, in 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 neatly divided it into two problems, which is to say a pollution problem on the feed lots 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.


Mr. POLLAN: 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 Polyphus Farm in Virginia, in Swope, Virginia. And it's a very subtle, complicated farm were six different animals were grown in a very careful rotation, such that 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 and 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 larvae 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 is so that the grubs can grow large and fat --

FLATOW: Juicy.

Mr. POLLAN: Really juicy. But if he waited five days they'd hatch, you see, and he'd have a fly problem. So he's actually growing larvae to feed his chickens. And because they eat the larvae, there's no fly problem, so he doesn't need chemicals to keep the flies off his cows. They also, the chickens copiously fertilize this pasture with their manure.

At the end of a year, and then the pigs come in, and there's a whole, kind of rotation of other animals, but at the end of a 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 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?

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, 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 100 of which are open, the rest is forest. It 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: Because I guess, I understand from the time that you spent with these farmers who were on their tractors plowing fields of corn all day that they're not very happy about it either.

Mr. POLLAN: They're not.

FLATOW: They'd like something better.

Mr. POLLAN: They feel trapped in the system. They're all looking for alternatives. They understand that growing all this corn and soybeans to feed all these animals on feedlots is, 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 said, what am I 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's 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 themselves.

Mr. 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: You said that you're, changing topics just a bit, that you're disappointed with science journalism these days.

Mr. POLLAN: I think on the subject of nutrition. I think that they've, and it's completely well intentioned, but, you know, every new study that comes out, at least the way it gets covered by us journalists, and I count myself as one of these science journalists because that's what I do, has left the public very confused about what to eat.

The, you know, there was recently this women's health initiative that suggested that, oh, low-fat diets may not help with cancer and cardiovascular disease, and suddenly, certain people saw that headline, and I have to say it was really overplayed, the headlines and the studies didn't actually go together that well, and suddenly people were like, oh, it doesn't even matter. I might as well go back to my high-fat diet. You know, if you looked more closely, you realize the women in that study were actually not telling the truth about what they were eating, because they claimed to be eating 1500 calories a day, and to weigh 180 pounds, and I have to tell you, if they were really eating that little, they would not be weighing 180 pounds. So a lot of these nutrition studies are just faulty to begin with.

And there is an underlying cultural wisdom about food that should remain undisturbed by all the science, until the science is really good, and that is to eat a great many different things, and not too many of them. It's really simple.

FLATOW: So there's really no, forget the fad diets, forget all that stuff. Just eat a little bit of what?

Mr. POLLAN: Eat less.

FLATOW: Eat less.

Mr. POLLAN: It's the one message that is forbidden in our culture.

FLATOW: Eat less.

Mr. POLLAN: There is no money in the message eat less. But if you want to see a certifiable, scientifically verifiable finding about food, it's that the less you eat, the healthier you are, up to a point. And there is a real connection there. But, you know, eat the way, I tell people, look, if you could, you know, would your great grandmother eat this? How would she, would she recognize this as food? You're probably better off with that than any number of scientific studies.

FLATOW: Right. Should we trust organic food labeling? I mean --

Mr. POLLAN: Yes and no. Yes in that we haven't found cases of fraud, and in fact this food is grown without pesticides and in a more sustainable way than other foods. In that sense, it's a very reliable label. In this sense it's not: the image of organic food, of animals happily, you know, dairy cows grazing on grass and chickens free-ranging around the barnyard, I'm sorry to say, having visited these places, is often not the case. It's not all its cracked up to be.

Organic has gotten very industrialized too. Organic food is also soaked in fossil fuel. We are moving organic produce across the country. We're moving, you know, I spent some time in Whole Foods, and there was, you know, asparagus from Argentina on the east, in California. On the east coast here there was lettuce from the central valley of California. It takes 56 calories of fossil fuel to move one calorie of lettuce across the country to a plate in New York City.

You know, lettuce is great, salads are wonderful, but you're really paying a lot of money to ship water across the country. And, you know, that is not sustainable eating, even if it's organic.

FLATOW: Talking with Michael Pollan, author of THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA on TALK OF THE NATION: Science Friday on NPR News.

So this is all, this is because we want foods out of season? We want South American vegetables in the wintertime, right?

Mr. POLLAN: You're absolutely right. I mean, we are implicated in this problem. At the end of the industrial food chain has emerged a species called an industrial eater. An industrial eater is somebody who wants strawberries all year round, wants tomatoes all year round, who wants their food to be very convenient, microwavable, who wants to eat what he wants, what she wants, anytime. And that's part of the problem. He also wants to eat in the car. I mean 19 percent of our meals are eaten in the car.

FLATOW: I was going to say, there's no more sit-down meal with the family or with friends.

Mr. POLLAN: No, the family dinner is on the verge of extinction. And, I think that that's a social as well as environmental tragedy, because around the table is where we socialize our children. It's one of the most important institutions of a civilized society, is the dinner table. And, but we have food marketers convincing children that they need to eat this and that and basically, going over the head of mom and marketing to each segment of the family.

And the result is that a family dinner today, and this is a portrait I'm not painting, this is how General Mills painted it to me because they've studied this. They put cameras up in people's homes to see how they really eat. Even if they say they're eating a family dinner, well this is what it turns out they really do. Each member of the family has their single portion microwave entrée that they're eating, you know. One kid is into pizza, another kid's into, is a vegetarian. And dad's doing the, you know, Atkins thing. And they zap their food, and the food has been designed so an eight-year-old can safely cook it.

And then they bring it to the table where poor mom is there, because she's actually cooked something because has this sense of, that's what a mom should do, I guess. And they kind of pass in the night. And they spend a few minutes overlapping, but they're not all there at the same time, and they're not eating the same thing. And why is that? Well, because when we eat something separate, we end up eating more. And when you market to that child, you're going to get more calories into that child than you would if you market to the mom and she decides this is what we should eat.

So I think the food companies, even though this may not have been their intention, deserve some of the blame for destroying the family dinner. Not to mention the fast food companies. As I said, you know, if we're eating a fifth of our meals in cars, that's an industrial eater.

So we're going to have to change our own habits before we can change this food chain. If you buy locally, if you start going to farmer's markets, you know, you're not going to find microwavable products there. You're going to have to relearn the arts of cooking. You're going to have to start sitting down to dinner again. And, all of which would be wonderful. These are very simple things we can do, and we, you know, we're told we're too busy. We're told we don't have enough money. And perhaps that's true for some people. But by and large, it's a matter of priorities. And we've been convinced that we don't have time to cook. It really doesn't take that long to make a good meal. It doesn't take three hours.

When they first started coming out with convenience foods in mixes, the industry, this was in the ‘50s, the industry really had to fight the American housewife, who said, wait a minute, this isn't drudgery. I love to cook. I get great satisfaction out of feeding my, this is one of the great satisfactions in my life. And it took years of propaganda, years of marketing, to persuade them that cooking is drudgery. It's not. It's one of the great pleasures of life.

FLATOW: The Norman Rockwell painting, right?

Mr. POLLAN: It is the Norman Rockwell painting.

FLATOW: Family around the dinner table.

Mr. POLLAN: Exactly. Around the dinner table, yeah. It's a, you know, it's a wonderful institution and it's a shame to see it in trouble. But there are very optimistic signs that it's coming back. I mean, people are rediscovering cooking. It's very interesting that we should be obsessed with chefs. Chefs are celebrities now.

FLATOW: Right. That's right.

Mr. POLLAN: And we watch the food channel and it's an odd disconnect that we're elevating cooking as a very important art form at a moment where we're doing less of it than ever before. I haven't figured that out yet.

FLATOW: Well when you do you'll come back and tell us more about it.

Mr. POLLAN: I'd be happy to.

FLATOW: Or there will be another book, I'm sure.

My guest is Michael Pollan, author of THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA: A NATURAL HISTORY OF FOUR MEALS. A great book, I highly recommend it to you. You know Michael Pollan's work, you know that you'll like this book.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.