Pollan Examines Environmental Effects of Food Systems

michael pollan

Author Michael Pollan had a conversation with Boston College sociology professor Juliet Schor about food, agriculture, and their effects on American society on Thursday evening. Pollan is a journalist who has written The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Botany of Desire, and Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.

After a brief introduction by sociology professor Brian Gareau, Schor opened the discussion by asking Pollan about what has made the food movement more successful in changing consumer behavior compared to similar movements, such as fashion and energy. Pollan acknowledged that it was “interesting that we don’t have an Omnivore’s Dilemma for clothing.”

He pointed to our inherent, intimate relationship to food; whereas we wear clothes on top of our body, we put food into our body. Pollan argued that due to this close relationship between food and the human condition, people are more sensitive, therefore, more open to changing their consumer behavior with food.

“I think there is something special about food,” Pollan said. “There’s a lot of emotional energy… that goes into what an omnivore decides to put into the body or reject from the body; it’s a fundamental characteristic of our species. We can eat so many different things and so we have an emotional connection with our food that’s deeper than our … relationships [with clothing, energy, etc.]

Pollan also added that food has more power to change consumer behavior because of its ability to create community. When discussing industrial companies co-opting organic methods—for example, General Mills’s acquisition and co-option of Cascadian Farms’s organic model—Pollan didn’t believe it was entirely a good or bad thing. While the entrance of sustainable food systems into the mainstream is a positive thing, industrial co-option also breaks down the community built around organic food systems.

“I always ask people, ‘How would you feel if McDonald’s announced tomorrow that they’re going organic?’ and everyone’s like ‘Oh… that’s not what I want to see.’” Pollan said. “I think it points to the fact that people involved in [the food movement] aren’t just interested in pesticides and welfare. They’re interested in the community… in building an alternative to the industrial system.”

Despite the lost sense of community, Pollan encouraged the audience to look back on the food movement’s achievements and how it has made significant improvements in the sustainability and access to food in mainstream food systems.

“You’re building this alternative food system, mostly at the grassroots, and that’s really exciting,” Pollan said. “The fact that the market for the products is made of small, diversified farms is also really exciting. The [Community-Supported Agriculture] and grass-fed beef movements are on the rise; they were nowhere 20 years ago.”

That being said, Pollan does not believe that there is one, umbrella strategy that will propel sustainable food systems into the mainstream; the fight must be fought on all fronts, whether they are pressuring the mainstream system to sell food that is healthy, good working conditions, or improving access to healthy food. Such efforts have paid off, Pollan said, pointing to Danone as an example.

“[Danone is] doing some really interesting things in terms of dairy: the feed they’re developing for their cows, diversifying corn fields, etc.,” Pollan noted. “The upside of having monopoly capitalism is that one company moves a … lot of the food system by itself, and can drive a lot of change.”

However, Pollan expressed worry over Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods and what that would mean for the food movement, especially with the movement’s goal of making the price of food reflect its real cost “from the soil to the workers to public health to everybody; cheap food is not as cheap as it looks.” Pollan was most concerned about Amazon’s strategy of lowering prices at all costs—even incurring losses to gain market shares—and blamed low food prices in America for subsidizing declining wages. Instead of making all food accessible, Pollan stressed the need for making healthy food accessible to everyone, not unhealthy fast food.

Pollan’s solution was to encourage cooking our own food and buying local. Although it is comparably more expensive, he emphasized that getting everyone involved in the food-making process makes us all more cognizant of what we put in our bodies, resulting in better choices.

“When we shorten the food chain, people learn more about how food is produced,” Pollan said. “There are a lot of reasons to buy local, but I think they’re not always the reasons people buy local. My decision to shop local has to do with farmers more than anything else; I learn a lot from them about producing food, cooking, etc. I think it has an important pedagogical function.”

Much of Pollan’s recent work has been to get people, especially men, more interested in making their own food at home. His idea for the Cooked Netflix series rose from a decline of cooks in America and a concern for public health.

“People who cook tend to eat healthier diets without even thinking about it,” Pollan noted. “They don’t have to count calories, and the kinds of food they make tend to be very simple and healthy. You’re not going to make French Fries three times a day; a lot of Americans eat French Fries three times a day, only because they don’t know how much of a pain it is to make French fries three times a day… and the same goes with all unhealthy foods: they’re hard to make. Cooking just magically enforces a strict diet.”

Pollan noted that several fast food chains—such as Sweetgreen and Clover—and meal kit companies like Blue Apron were making efforts to shorten the food chain and provide a sustainable food system through careful sourcing and portion control.

“It’s encouraging to see that the situation isn’t so black and white where the only options are 1) cook at home and eat healthily, or 2) eat outside and eat crap,” Pollan said. “I really hope they make it … And even if these companies get bought up by Bezos in the next 10 minutes, they will change the system.”

Featured Image by Jake Catania / Heights Staff