The best-selling author and super food-and-ag champion opens up about the fate of the Farm Bill, GMOs and why big business and politics can taint the soil of modern agriculture. Plus: A rare glimpse at what really fueled the advocate’s career path.
Every five years, Congress revamps the Farm Bill, which is the major food and agricultural tool that sets policy for a variety of significant matters affecting agriculture, rural development and nutrition programs for low-income individuals. The 2008 Farm Bill expired at the end of September and Congress has yet to give it a green light, mostly due to a bundle of controversies that revolve around tweaks to nutritional programs. Money seems to be the bottom line. Republicans want to make cuts. Democrats object.
And so goes yet another contentious round of political roulette.
Congress is now adjourned until after the November elections and the level of uncertainty surrounding the passing of the bill has skyrocketed, particularly among Food Movement and healthy-ag advocates. It is a topic that Michael Pollan cannot seem to avoid these days. Not that he minds. The celebrated activist and author of such bestselling tomes as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” has been vocal for years about all matters pertaining to healthy food and shady agriculture practices in America. The Farm Bill is just one of many issues currently on his mental docket. And it will provide fodder for discussion when he hits Santa Cruz later this month in an event dubbed “Every Body Eats,” co-sponsored by Bookshop Santa Cruz, Grassrootzcafe.com and SlowCoast. The event, which will be held at Santa Cruz High School, features local titan John Robbins (as moderator) and other Food Movement/food luminaries including eco patriot Wallace J. Nichols and the Homeless Garden Project’s Darrie Ganzhorn, among others. (See sidebar.)
“I don’t think anything is going to happen until after the election. But [the Farm Bill] is a pretty bad one,” Pollan admits. “The new racket is to take what had been direct payments and subsidies and crop insurance, but the crop insurance is designed in such a way to put a lot of money in the hands of the biggest growers of monoculture crops possible. It’s enormously risky to the taxpayer because we are protecting farmers who are being encouraged to do very foolish things.”
Some of those things find some of today’s farmers making decisions that their forefathers would never imagine ever considering.
“So, if you had crop insurance … why not try growing on that hillside, or in that desert, and you know, if it doesn’t work out, the government will bail you out,” Pollan notes of some of the provisions. “I think, once again, we’re creating precisely the wrong kind of agriculture. I’m discouraged about it. But there are some gems [in the Farm Bill]—some little things to help local farms and markets.”
He specifically sites Chellie Pingrie, the Maine congresswoman and organic farmer whose vigilant efforts managed to get several permissions in the Farm Bill. But Pollan quickly points out that, although those permissions are good—mainly the push for small-scale agriculture rather than just federal support for industrial farming—overall, despite Pingrie’s efforts, items in the bill “are crumbs compared to the big payment.”
If Congress is truly unable to pass the bill, many programs will expire. Because the Farm Bill covers a wide variety of today’s current food system—from drought policies, government subsidies and even food stamp allotments—the biggest fear is that if the bill isn’t passed, some policies could revert back to laws passed in the late ’30s and ’40s.
Milk prices would skyrocket ($7 for a gallon of milk, some online reports noted), among other items.
This wouldn’t be the first time Washington and The Farm Bill duked it out. The Farm Bill was met with a bumpy ride back in 1996 and 2007. Should the bill be left unresolved, either a short-term extension could be passed, or The Farm Bill may be reopened in 2013.
Either way, it’s a hot topic and one whose intensity won’t be fizzling any time soon. All of this places Pollan in the forefront of issues and discussions as the country heads deeper into a new decade amidst economic mood swings and a corporate-political dog-eat-dog warfare that is unparalleled by any other time in history. In spite of all this, those stoking the fires of the Food Movement, Pollan among them, venture forth, determined as ever to raise the level of awareness about how foods are grown and how they arrive on your plate. It’s a delicious topic and one that Pollan speaks on so eloquently. But considering the name in its moniker, the author is quick to note that the movement itself is still not making much headway in Washington.
“It’s making a lot more progress in the marketplace,” Pollan says. “And the growth, even in a bad economy, of things like organic food and grass-fed beef and pastured chickens and eggs … it’s remarkable to behold, given that the food is more expensive. There was a moment during the crash in 2008, that there was good reason to believe that that would have taken the wind out of the sails out of any kind of food movement. But if you talk to farmers in your community and my community, and at the farmers’ markets, the market is still there and quite strong.”
A good thing? Sure. And with the rise of such things as farm-to-table restaurants and farmers’ markets across the nation, overall, the movement could eventually penetrate Washington. So, while the nation’s top decisionmakers trip over budget matters, elsewhere, at least from Pollan’s point of view, the Food Movement hasn’t just made a mad dash into the collective consciousness of consumers, it seems to have staked a sit-in with plans of permanently taking up camp there.
“The interest in local foods is a national phenomenon,” Pollan says, noting that there are about 8,000 farmers’ markets in the country now. “It’s easier to do here in California—you can do it 12 months of the year here, and we have certain advantages, and in many cases, the produce is better here, but not always. So, it is a national movement. In some ways it is further along on the West Coast and probably local food occupies a larger percentage of the shopping cart here, but it’s taking off everywhere. The last effort to that measure of the local food economy … I think it was up to $7 billion, according to the USDA. That’s starting to get people’s attention.”
But so is Pollan, who, with his current celebrity, remains one of the nation’s more prolific food advocates.
Planting The Seed
Looking back, it’s easy to spot signs of how Pollan’s life and career would take shape. The eldest of four children—he has three younger sisters—Pollan, who grew up on Long Island’s North Shore, says that his mother was a wonderful cook and that his entire family sat down to dinner together almost every night of the week.
“It was clockwork—on Tuesday we would have pasta; Monday was a London broil, so food was a big part of our home,” he muses. “I also was a big gardener—from the age of 8.”
He grew things like strawberries, peppers, eggplant, carrots, cucumbers, and squash.
“That was another minor part of my diet—and an important part—but I also ate tons of junk food,” he admits. “I ate at McDonalds. My afternoon snack was a box of Yodels. So, I grew up on a typical American diet. There wasn’t anything unusual about it except for the fact that they let me grow food.”
And although there weren’t many chefs to idolize at the time—in the 1960s and ’70s—he sometimes caught Julia Childs’ show, which his mother often watched.
“Those were the days when you had one TV and Julia was a big influence on my mom, who would make us beef bourguignonne, coq au vin. We had some amazing French dinners,” he recalls. “She was pretty serious about cooking. She was in a cooking club and would sometimes practice on us. I also had an aunt who loved to cook. She had dinner parties on Saturdays and she would actually practice a dinner party meal and call me to come over and taste it on Friday or Thursday beforehand, and sign off on the meal.”
So, looking back, it is apparent that the seed for Pollan’s current passion for food, gardening and agriculture was planted in his formative years. In addition to his mother and aunt, his grandfather on his mother’s side also had a big garden in the small hamlet of Babylon on the South Shore of Long Island. He admits that he “used to love harvesting his garden and helping him out.”
Pollan says the vegetables his grandfather grew was enough for an entire farm. “He would hand out the food to anyone he met,” he says with a chuckle. “He came up in the produce business from New York, as a 17-year-old refugee from Russia, and began selling potatoes on the street. They sold baked potatoes the way they now sell pretzels on the street. And then he started selling produce, connecting with farmers, and he had a produce distributorship.”
Pollan pauses before adding, “We didn’t get along that well. He was sort of a reactionary guy, and he thought I was sort of a hippie. But we did get along in the garden and I loved his appreciation of produce and a ripe tomato.”
The memory; that image of Pollan and his grandfather not quite agreeing on everything yet somehow bonding on what mattered most—food, the garden—is a wonderful metaphor. Imagine what could happen if the current crop of politicos employed a similar technique with today’s food-and-ag advocates. Imagine what soils could be tilled if there was a similar meeting on common (and fertile) ground.
Pollan’s interest with the Earth—and with nature particularly—extended throughout college. He was an English major at Bennington College—he later attended Oxford and Columbia universities—and admits to finding enjoyment reading the scribes who wrote about nature—Thoreau, Emerson, Melville. He found their works—writing about the American attitude toward nature—both “peculiar and interesting,” because the works often held what he saw as a “religious view of the landscape.” He eventually took those kind of ideals with him into his own gardens when he was in his late twenties.
“I realized that there was a conflict there between a critical worship of wilderness and the need to protect your plants from woodchucks, deer and moles,” he says. “That conflict was the beginning of my writing, really. I had told this story before … where I got into this serious war with a woodchuck, which I did things I am not proud of, but it was that recognition.”
Pollan is referring to his 1988 New York Times article in which he details his fierce battle with a garden woodchuck.
“I was very interested in our behavior in nature and how we might deal with nature if we couldn’t simply lock it up and throw away the key,” he adds, “which is essentially what Thoreau is telling us we need to do—take nature on her own terms and not change it.
“Of course, we can’t do that, except in national parks,” he points out. “We need to change nature in order to survive.’
But how do you do that in a way that is not destructive in the long term?
“A lot of my work has been looking for those ways,” he explains. “Farmers, I think, are the people in our society who understand that better than anyone else—how you can actually get what you need from the land and improve the land in the process. It’s a radical idea. It completely flies in the face of our narrow understanding of the human relationship to nature; that nature is diminished in order for us to get what we need. Well, certain sustainable farmers are showing that that is not necessarily the case.”
Like most writers, the path to finding one’s true voice was filled with curious markers. He had a stint as a TV critic for some time and never really imagined that he would ever be writing about his current topics.
“I was writing about TV and nobody was paying attention,” he says. “As a writer, you hit certain topics, and every piece is a certain pebble drop in a pond, and sometimes there are ripples, and sometimes there are big ripples. As I started writing about food, there was a lot of information coming back at me from readers. They had questions. They wanted to know where their food was coming from. They wanted to know what it was doing to them; what it was doing to the environment and the animals. So, you kind of follow that. It’s an interesting relationship with readers—you are both leading and following. So, I have been very gratified by the fact that this is the area that people pay close attention to and really respond.”
And respond well.
After many published magazine articles, Pollan first caught the attention of the book-publishing industry with the release of 1991’s “Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education,” a collection of essays on gardening framed around each season. In the late ’90s, along came “A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder” (later redubbed “A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams”), which revolved around how he erected his own writer’s portal.
But after the release of “A Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World” (2001), something shifted dramatically. At least in the public’s eyes. The ripple effects Pollan spoke of were suddenly spreading farther outward, reaching more people. So much so that when his next outing, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals,” was released in the mid-2000s, Pollan became more than just a best-selling author. The book, which chronicled the ways that human societies obtained food—from the current industrial system to the self-sufficient farm and beyond—and the man were suddenly basking under the glow of a brighter spotlight. In addition to the New York Times heralding the read as one of the top five best-selling nonfiction books of 2006, other kudos followed, most notably, perhaps, the honor of Best Food Writing from the James Beard Foundation.
It didn’t hurt that Pollan criticized some of modern ag’s business practices. It only stoked interest. Still, he wasn’t immune to criticism.
“I’m a fan of Michael Pollan’s work, but he does have a tendency to hurtle himself into the stratosphere like an errant missile, then plummet back to earth and casually pick up where he left off,” noted slate.com’s Laura Shapiro back in 2007. “One minute he’s carefully explaining the difference between “free-range” and “pastured” eggs, the next minute he’s perched on his own private planet brandishing a grocery list that might as well be headed “carrots, magic.”
Meanwhile, a few years ago, Blake Hurst of The American, wrote: “Pollan damns agriculture’s dependence on fossil fuels, and urges the president to encourage agriculture to move away from expensive and declining supplies of natural gas toward the unlimited sunshine that supported life, and agriculture, as recently as the 1940s. Now, why didn’t I think of that?
Well, I did. I’ve raised clover and alfalfa for the nitrogen they produce, and half the time my land is planted to soybeans, another nitrogen-producing legume. Pollan writes as if all of his ideas are new, but my father tells of agriculture extension meetings in the late 1950s entitled ‘Clover and Corn, the Road to Profitability.’”
Still, the late-2000s were good to Pollan. He released two additional best-sellers, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” and “Food Rule: An Eater’s Manual.”
A bevy of television appearances and published interviews later and Pollan seems to have deeply rooted himself in the thriving enterprise that is, well, Michael Pollan.
Asked what major influences or direction might have contributed to his current creative flight, and Pollan reflects that he has drawn a great deal of advice from the work of Wendell Berry, the prolific author and economic critic, from whom he gleaned an “importance of connecting your theories to practical experience.”
Basically, “walking the talk but also testing your ideas, whether they are about nature or community. I think that’s been really important to me. In most of my journalism, I try to do something that is outside of my comfort zone, whether it’s hunting, cooking, sequencing my micro files. I really like to figure a place that will allow me to write in the first person, because I think individuals talking to individuals is really the kind of nonfiction people want to read.
“I try to find a place where I can actually tell people what I did rather than rationalize on my expertise,” he goes on. “Wendell Berry is responsible for that; George Plimpton too, who I worked with briefly in college as an intern.”
Pollan is currently a journalism instructor at UC Berkeley and juggles his classes with speaking engagements, television and radio guest appearances and more. Beyond the home he shares with his wife , landscape painter Judith Belzer—they cook meals almost every night—he’s currently in the throes of experimenting with fermentation. And, of course, he’s publishing another book, this one on cooking.
“Like gardening, it’s one of those places where you translate nature into culture and it’s full of possibilities,” he says of cooking. “It’s a very special way to situate yourself in the world; looking at these things that come out of the Earth and figuring out ways to use them to create community. Cooking is definitely a passion of mine.”
Still, one question lingers: Where do we all go from here? With the Farm Bill in limbo, and Prop 37 on the November ballot—it’s the controversial prop that, if passed, would require the labeling of Genetically Modified Foods (GMOs)—individuals want to know what to do.
Pollan steps up, especially in light of current political ramblings. If there is a bright hope, he says he spots it in the younger generation.
“This generation is very interested in agriculture, very interested in aligning their food choices—all of their consumer choices—with their values and their ethics,” he says. “The fervor of people in their twenties over these issues is enormously gratifying and fills me with hope. And I’m sure you see it in Santa Cruz, too. The most popular internship, the year before last, was working on an organic farm. That’s stunning.”
While it may be true that many of today’s graduates wind up on Wall Street, many of them, Pollan says—the ones you hear less about in the national discussion—are also ending up in sustainable agriculture.
“We have a new generation of farmers—really motivated, really intelligent people that are, I think, going to bring changes that we can only imagine to the food system in the next decade or two,” he says.
That posse may also have the Farm Bill on their minds—again—in the coming weeks. How could they not? The long-term project encourages an agriculture dedicated to health and, as Pollan is quick to point out, The Food Movement is beginning to find its voice—“just beginning.”
“But I don’t think change comes from Congress, it doesn’t come from Washington,” he says. “It comes from the grassroots. I think they will be the last people to get that message, and California may be part of sending that message.”
And the message of Prop 37, perhaps.
“If Prop 37 passes, it will get the attention of everybody in Washington,” Pollan assures. “There was an effort to negotiate an agreement between organic agriculture and conventional agriculture that wanted to use genetically modified food, and there was a big sit-down at the USDA. The guy from Monsanto was across the table from the guy from Stoneybrook Farms and Whole Foods, and the issue was whether there should be some protection for organic farms—a set of rules essentially that would protect organic agriculture from genetically modified agriculture—and the Monsanto guy was silent. He didn’t say anything because he knew he had the whole process wired. And in the end, the USDA gave the industry everything they wanted.”
He’s quick to add that President Barack Obama promised to get on board with labeling genetically modified food in his 2008 campaign.
“If California passes this rule, either the industry has to make different food for California, or label it all with a label they think is deadly,” he says. “Or, they need to negotiate a national deal about it, which would pre-empt the California rule. Either way, suddenly the people representing agriculture and the Food Movement will have a powerful card to play and will be able to show that there is an army behind them—the citizens of California.”
But Prop 37 may not pass.
“Thanks to the biotech’s deep-rooted myths and now spreading its $34 million against Prop 37 on Californians’ TV screens, airwaves and mailboxes, there are so many misconceptions of GMOs and Prop 37,” notes Tarah Locke, the founder of GMO-Free Santa Cruz (see sidebar). “We need labels to make it easier to protect our families’ health. Biotech will continue to produce and push new GMO varieties on us with stronger chemicals and different crops, and will continue to threaten genetic diversity of non-GMO crops.”
“I hear the industry is spending millions to defeat it, but the polls are very positive,” Pollan adds. “I am not saying it’s a great piece of legislation—there are things in Prop 37 that are going to be very hard to report—but even if it makes a mess of things, it will require a change from Washington on that issue. So I think change will come from the fringes … where it always does.”
Every Body Eats
Tickets for the Sustainable Santa Cruz.org and SLOWCOAST presentation of “Every Body Eats” (7-9 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 25, Santa Cruz High School) are sold out. But … that doesn’t mean you can’t join the creative feast. In addition to Michael Pollan, take note of the local advocates involved in the big event here and log onto their websites to learn more about them, their causes and how to keep moving the Food Movement forward.
John Robbins: The local best-selling author, whose latest book, “No Happy Cows” was spotlighted in GT in April, is also a revered animal/environmental activist. He moderates the event. Log onto johnrobbins.info or foodrevolution.org for updates.
Jim Cochran: Swanton Berry Farms president and co-founder has been turning heads with the dynamic local enterprise for more than 30 years. Learn more at swantonberryfarm.com.
Darrie Ganzhorn: The executive director of the Homeless Garden Project (HGP) since 1991, Ganzhorn’s valiant efforts overseeing the enterprise has garnered much praise. Learn more about HGP, which provides job training, transitional employment and support services to people who are homeless, among other things, at homelessgardenproject.org.
Randall Grahm: The spirited and selective Randall Grahm is the well known author, biodynamic vintner and founder of Bonny Doon Vineyard. Catch up on his current state of affairs at beendoonsolong.com.
Dr. Wallace J. Nichols: The celebrated marine biologist, who most recently landed on the cover of Outside Magazine, was featured prominently on the cover of GT back in May 2007. Find out what he is currently working on, and why raising the level of attention on matters pertaining to the ocean is more vital now than ever before, at wallacejnichols.org.
Jamie Smith: Chef, foodie and senior manager for food services and nutrition for Santa Cruz City Schools, Smith has spearheaded a campaign to revitalize the school lunch—and then some. Catch up with him on his Facebook page.
Learn more about Prop 37 at carighttoknow.org.
Check out the Farm Bill at farmbillfacts.org.
Dive into the kaleidoscope that is Michael Pollan at michaelpollan.com.
The lowdown on GMO-Free Santa Cruz
Tarah Locke, founder of GMO-Free Santa Cruz is on a mission to get Proposition 37 passed—no matter what it takes. The 26-year-old Santa Cruzan mom, who, by her own admission says she never ever dived into any type of activism in the past, suddenly found her fate changing when, more than a year ago, she began noticing that her youngest son had developed an allergic reaction to some dairy products. She soon found herself researching genetically modified foods and quickly connecting with Pamm Larry, the initial instigator of Prop 37. Larry got in touch with Locke in May of 2011 and the duo organized the first “seed meeting” in Santa Cruz. Locke credits Larry’s “passion and courage to go up against these huge corporations and the government.”
“I jumped head first into this movement,” Locke admits, adding that her mother, Vickie Bergquist, agreed to help her and co-lead wherever she could. Not long after, local Mary Graydon-Fontan also volunteered and became a co-leader. The group is, and has been, focused on community outreach for Prop 37. GT recently caught up with Locke to learn more about how the entity was launched and what’s at stake if Prop 37 doesn’t pass.
Good Times:What prompted you to launch GMO-Free Santa Cruz?
Tarah Locke: I’ve never done any activism or paid any attention to political and environmental issues before this, so when I started looking into possible reasons why my youngest son had a dairy allergy I ran into the issue of GMOs. I had only first heard of GMOs in a sociology class a couple years prior, but it wasn’t until my son had a dairy allergy that the issues and risks of genetically engineered food started to sink in. The thought that these big corporations are unleashing unpredictable new organisms into our food system (the food I feed to my children) without independent long-term studies, uncertain long-term effects, and the majority of our nation unaware of it made every fiber of my being enraged. And yet I felt helpless. After embarking into the change of my family’s food, away from Safeway and fast food to Whole Foods/New Leaf and organic, homemade food, I found the journey challenging, uncomfortable. And I also found myself slightly depressed from being different than my social circles that were still unaware of this issue. All these deep feelings and research led me to some websites that gave me the idea to start a group in my community, GMO-Free Santa Cruz. This happened in May 2011.
What is the biggest misconception of Prop 37?
Thanks to biotech’s deep-rooted myths and now spreading its $34 million in lies on Californian’s TV screens, airwaves and mailboxes, there are so many misconceptions of GMOs and Prop 37. GMO crops are specifically engineered to produce genetic traits to be either herbicide resistant—so it can be doused with Roundup, or to contain its own pesticide, therefore killing pests when they eat the crop. I hope all California voters will listen to the truths and take a stand that we have a right to know what is in our food, just like the more than 40 other countries around the world that already require labeling, including most European countries, Japan, India, and even China.
You note that one of the opposition’s tactics is to confuse California voters about the exemptions.
The proposition includes exceptions for legal and enforceable reasons. To be accepted as a proposition, and have a chance of passing, the bill must be about only one subject, any crops or animals that are genetically engineered. Dairy and meat are not genetically engineered themselves, however there is GMO salmon that would be required to be labeled if this [bill] passes.
When the opposition’s ad say that soy milk would have to be labeled, but regular milk not, it is because 90 percent of the soy crops are genetically engineered, cows are not. Same with their ad of dog food—that dog food would be labeled and the meat that humans eat would not. Again, dog food contains GMO soy/corn/canola and sugar beets, and meat is meat. Then there is the issue of alcohol. Alcohol is not even required to have a label for any ingredients. Alcohol requires different labeling regulations, and so it couldn’t be included in this initiative. The restaurant exemption is similar to the alcohol issue; restaurants do not have to label the ingredients of the food that they are serving.
Focusing on the exemptions is a distraction—another unsophisticated argument of the opposition. This is directly from the playbook of the PR agencies that delayed getting a label on a pack of cigarettes for 25 years—that says smoking is not good for your health.
You note that the opposition also states that this will increase our food costs because of a study that they themselves conducted.
It is factual that when all of the other 50 countries enacted labeling for GMOs, they did not see an increase to their food costs. Food companies change their labels on average every six to 12 months. Prop 37 provides up to 18 months to become compliant. Some people, like the recent editorial boards, including our Santa Cruz Sentinel, say that Prop 37 doesn’t go far enough, that it needs to include labeling antibiotics and pesticides, but again, the bill must be about one subject and this initiative is the first step to the transparency in our food system.
So, there’s a lot at stake?
It is vital that we label now. This is a new technology with no long-term testing, and some physicians and scientists say GMOs are potentially linked with allergies, auto-immune diseases, cancer and other significant health risks. We need labels to make it easier to protect our family’s health. Biotech will continue to produce and push new GMO varieties on us with stronger chemicals and different crops, and will continue to threaten genetic diversity of non-GMO crops.
What happens if it passes, or doesn’t pass?
There are people throughout the United States watching our Prop 37, hoping “as California goes, so goes the nation.” I randomly got a call from an out-of-state volunteer phonebanking from Ohio that profusely thanked me and our other volunteers, and shared with me that people across the country are hoping and praying for us. It gave me chills and made me realize just how big this issue is.
Organizations like Food Democracy Now, center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch, and activists like John Robbins, Frances Moore Lappe and many other ordinary citizens and concerned mothers like me have been fighting so hard to get GMO labeling on the California ballot and to get it passed because we understand this is our last chance to make it a reality. We have recently seen celebrities become involved. If this proposition doesn’t pass, we will never see labeling for GMOs (the big biotech corporations will win and become more wealthy) and the U.S. food supply will continue to become more genetically engineered as the people of the United States are kept in the dark!
If this Proposition does pass, the people of California will finally have the right to know what is in their food, just like all of the people that live in the over 50 countries that already provide labeling. It will provide us with the right to choose. We will purchase the foods that we want to, instead of being lied to and deceived with labeling that does not disclose the truth.
This proposition is simple, really. People need to become wise and not just listen to the lies and deception of the very companies that are making the genetically engineered seeds and reaping its profit, which are the major funders of the opposition. They are afraid of losing their money. If they have nothing to hide, and their food is safe, why not put a label on it. | Greg Archer