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 Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," in his office at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. (BAP photos)

Journalism professor Michael Pollan's new book on the U.S. food chain provides few soundbites — but much to chew on

– Thanks to recent investigative works such as "Fast Food Nation" and "Supersize Me," a growing number of Americans are scrutinizing ingredient labels and asking, What is this stuff? Michael Pollan, Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley, can tell you. In a just-released new book, he takes readers to the feedlot, to the farm, and into the woods in search of the origins of our dinner. Will we have the nerve to follow?

On April 17, Pollan will discuss "The Omnivore's Dilemma" with Davia Nelson, host of NPR's "The Kitchen Sisters." The free lecture starts at 7 p.m. in Andersen Auditorium at the Haas School of Business; a webcast will be posted two days later.

"Imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we're eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost," writes Pollan in "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals."

By the time readers reach this passage, which comes at the very end of the book, they will be able to answer at length. They will have tagged along as Pollan traces the path from earth to plate taken by four meals — from McDonald's, Whole Foods, a small Virginia farm, and a "first person" dinner that he killed, foraged, and grew himself. Pollan is a genial tour guide through a variety of disciplines. Along the way to his main destinations — the feedlot where "his" steer is being fattened, the vast facility where organic baby lettuces are being washed and bagged, the pasture in which chickens joyfully root through cow manure, or the forest where he is helping to disembowel a wild boar he has just shot — he delivers fascinating mini-lectures on agricultural history, plant biology, food chemistry, nutrition, and the animal-rights debate.

Readers of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" will learn that the bulk of the American diet comes from one plant: corn. Grown on massive farms, oceans' worth of the golden kernels and green stalks are then processed, deconstructed, and reassembled in factories into everything from a Chicken McNugget to salad dressing. We eat so much corn that, biologically speaking, most Americans are corn on two legs.

Berkeley residents and other health-conscious readers who are right now comforting themselves with the thought, "But I don't eat that stuff; I shop at Whole Foods," will learn some things about the label "organic" that will forever affect, for example, how they look at Rosie the Organic Chicken. And no reader, meanwhile, will be able to ignore any longer the fact that America's seemingly endless supply of cheap food, whether grown industrially or organically, "is floating on a sinking sea of petroleum."

Do Americans really want to know what we're eating? That's the central gamble of Pollan's book. Are we disturbed enough by mad-cow disease, E. coli outbreaks, mercury levels, and reports like last week's New York Times story on arsenic levels in chicken to look, as the old saying goes, at how the sausage is made?

 Book jacket of Omnivore's Dilemma Or do we just desperately want someone trustworthy to answer the question that kicks off "The Omnivore's Dilemma": "What should we have for dinner?" To tell us, once and for all, fats or carbs, McDonald's or Whole Foods, steak or tofu, sugar or high fructose corn syrup or aspartame? Such are the decisions underpinning the "omnivore's dilemma" of Pollan's title.

If you're hoping that Pollan will put an end to our food anxiety by just telling us what to eat, forget it. "I don't think it's a journalist's job to issue shopping lists or policy descriptions," Pollan explains over lunch. "We're supposed to show people how the world is, to give them the tools they need to make good decisions as citizens or consumers. Depending on what your values are — the environment, your health, animal welfare — the answers are going to be different for every person."

Defying the bread fatwa

Here's yet another tough question: Where should one take Michael Pollan for lunch? He agrees to meet at Phoenix Next Door, a few blocks from his office at the Graduate School of Journalism, which he had not yet tried since moving to Berkeley from Connecticut in 2003. For the curious, we both had the spaghetti, housemade with organic, local ingredients and topped with a spicy ragú of "naturally raised" beef, lamb, and pork. However, when ordering, neither of us asked what "naturally raised" entailed, although we both admitted later that we usually would have.

 Michael Pollan
'You hear plenty of explanations for humanity's expanding waistline, all of them plausible. … But it pays to go a little further, to search for the cause behind the causes. Which, very simply, is this: When food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat.'
-Michael Pollan, writing in "The Omnivore's Dilemma"

"I'm not an ayatollah about this stuff, I'm really not. I don't hector people," insists Pollan, who doesn't seem like a food fascist either in the book or in person. Tall and lanky, with a bald promontory of a forehead and a meter-wide grin, he manages to seem simultaneously bookish and outdoorsy. In a sense, he's the journalistic heir to English agronomist and organic agriculture pioneer Sir Albert Howard, who died in 1947: Howard, quotes Pollan, believes we should treat the "whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man as one great subject."

"The Omnivore's Dilemma" grew out of the final section of Pollan's best-selling last book, "The Botany of Desire," which looked at apples, tulips, cannabis, and genetically modified potatoes from the evolutionary point of view of the plants. The potato chapter "was the first time I really learned how we grow food in this country," he explains. "I'd been to little hobby farms, but I hadn't seen a 10,000-acre, monoculture potato field, where the soil has been absolutely sterilized, so doused with pesticides that people can't even go into it for four days."

The other catalyst was the moment in the fall of 2002 when Americans en masse foreswore bread for bacon and embraced the Atkins diet. "All of a sudden we completely flopped the identity of good and evil in the diet we'd been eating since 1977. Carbohydrates, not fat, became the enemy," marvels Pollan. "That said to me that this is a nation with an eating disorder."

Children of the corn

The four meals in "Omnivore" — call them Industrial, Big Organic, Pastoral, and Hunter-Gatherer — seem very different, but they can be plotted on a continuum between two ways of looking at the food chain: as a machine, or as a living organism.

In Industrial, the most mechanical of the four, inputs of patented seeds and fossil energy are converted into outputs of carbohydrates and protein. This machine became truly turbocharged in 1947, Pollan writes, when the U.S. government had a huge postwar surplus of ammonium nitrate (the main ingredient in making explosives). Ammonium, it had been known for some time, is an excellent source of nitrogen for plants, which helps them convert sunlight into carbohydrates. So the government instructed an Alabama munitions plant to make chemical fertilizer from its bomb material, and modern-day fertilizer was born. (Similarly, modern pesticides were derived from poison gases first developed for wartime use.)

What a dollar buys in the average U.S. supermarket:
1,200 calories of potato chips and cookies, vs. 250 calories of carrots; 875 calories of soda, vs. 170 calories of fruit juice from concentrate.

To simplify Pollan's intricate, mesmerizing history drastically, the boom in synthetic fertilizer enabled farmers to grow vast quantities of corn without bankrupting their soil. Corn pushed out pasture-raised cattle and pigs and chickens, as it became more economical to warehouse them together in "Confined Animal Feeding Operations," or CAFOs, and stuff them full of corn. One hitch: the stomachs of cows, one of the few mammals evolutionarily designed to be able to eat grass, can't digest corn. It turns their stomachs acidic and makes them sick. No problem, says the machine: Just pump the cows full of antibiotics, which has the added benefit of making them grow bigger and fatter faster, so they can be slaughtered younger. At least most cattle still live outdoors, Pollan writes, albeit standing ankle-deep in their own excrement. Pigs and chickens, which can digest corn, suffer even more squalid existences, as he describes in the lone section of the book in which outrage can be detected beneath his even-handed tone.

The Industrial machine has been fine-tuned to produce vast quantities of processed cheap food. But its cheapness is deceptive.  Corn, a farmer tells Pollan disdainfully, is the "welfare queen of crops." Every bushel of corn currently enjoys a 50-cent subsidy from the U.S. government, the result of a spike in food prices in the early 1970s that caused the Nixon administration to switch free-market tactics. "We've been supporting agriculture since the Depression, but we've changed the way you do it — from essentially supporting the farmers to supporting the crop," says Pollan.

Supporting the crop means supporting agribusiness, which leverages cheap ingredients into high profits. Corn is cheaper than sugar, so high fructose corn syrup replaced it as sweetener in sodas in the 1980s, and in just about everything else ever since. Corn stripped to its building blocks and reassembled is now the source for most food additives, from sweeteners to stabilizers to artificial colors and preservatives. In one of the book's most jaw-dropping statistics, Pollan writes that more than a quarter of the 45,000 items in an average American supermarket contain corn.

Amount of corn-derived carbon present in Pollan's McDonald's family meal, as measured by a mass spectrometer:
Soda, 100%; milk shake, 78%; salad dressing, 65%; chicken nuggets, 56%; cheeseburger, 52%; and French fries, 23%.

"Corn is in the coffee whitener and Cheez Whiz, the frozen yogurt and TV dinner, the canned fruit and ketchup and candies, the soups and snacks and cake mixes…everything from the toothpaste and cosmetics to the disposable diapers, trash bags, cleansers, charcoal briquettes, matches, and batteries, right down to the shine of the magazine that catches your eye by the checkout: corn," he writes. "Indeed, even the supermarket itself — the wallboard and joint compound, the petroleum and fiberglass and adhesives out of which the building itself has been built — is in no small measure a manifestation of corn. And us?"

Yup — we're corn chips in clothes. Pollan confirmed this using a mass spectrometer operated by UC Berkeley colleague Todd Dawson. (Carbon derived from corn has a special marker that can be tracked and measured.) The McDonald's meal that the Pollan family consumed in the car for Omnivore Meal No. 1 might have looked like a hamburger, chicken nuggets, and a salad, but it was engineered overwhelmingly from corn…representing enough bushels to overflow the trunk, he calculates.

Getting out of the maize

OK. Americans are as corny as they come. So what?

"To start, it's a problem from a health point of view," says Pollan, explaining cheerfully that as omnivores, humans need about 50 different molecules and atoms — amino acids, minerals, phytochemicals, fat, sugar, etc. "A lot of people eating a fast-food diet — not just the drive-through kind, but also microwaveable and other prepackaged meals – are malnourished." Another UC Berkeley colleague, biochemistry professor Bruce Ames, is studying obese California children who have rickets, a deficiency traditionally associated with starvation. "By eating from one very narrow cut of nature's bounty, you're not going to get all the nutrients you need. We need to eat at least 10 plants to get those 50 nutrients."

Other, bigger hidden costs are also associated with corn-based cheap food. "We pay with our taxes, because it takes heavy, heavy government subsidies to produce food that cheaply," he says. "We pay with the public health system, with failing antibiotics [whose overuse in cattle has given rise to new antibiotic-resistant strains of 'super-bugs']. We pay with the miles-wide dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico [caused by nitrate-dense agricultural runoff carried out by the Mississippi River]. We pay by having to defend our high-energy food system by fighting wars in the Middle East."

Fossil-fuel consumption by agriculture: 20%

Distance average item of food travels to your plate:
1,500 miles

You see, the American corn diet is really an oil diet. Corn, as Pollan puts it, "is the SUV of plants. Growing it the way we do requires it to guzzle fuel in the form of fertilizer, about a quarter to a third of a gallon of petroleum for each bushel." Processing the corn requires even more energy, as does moving those corn-derived products around the country. A diet based on cheap fossil fuel is rather vulnerable right now, Pollan points out: "If oil gets dramatically more expensive, that will change our food system as much as food policy or consumer choice."

"Once upon a time there was a happy cow…"

If industrial agriculture has turned nature into an oil-slurping machine, then surely organic agriculture, which treats the food chain more like a living organism, is better, right?

Well…as with many things in "The Omnivore's Dilemma," the answer is a little more complicated than those cartoon labels of "happy cows" frolicking on pesticide-free grass, or stories about "free-range vegetarian" chickens on egg cartons, would have us believe. Pollan calls these labels and similar conscience-appeal marketing "Supermarket Pastoral." He might as well call them fairy tales. Under his scrutiny, they hold up "about as well as you would expect anything genuinely pastoral to hold up in the belly of an $11 billion industry, which is to say not very well at all."

Food energy in a 1-pound box of prewashed organic lettuce: 80 calories

Fossil-fuel energy spent growing, chilling, washing, packaging, and transporting box of lettuce from California to East Coast:
More than 4,600 calories

Long before it became a USDA label — and a permission slip to charge more at the cash register —  "organic" was a philosophy. The word "organic," Pollan writes, was chosen in 1942 by J.I. Rodale, the founding editor of "Organic Gardening and Farming" magazine, to emphasize that nature, not a machine, is the proper model for agriculture.

Several decades and several food scares after "Silent Spring" and "Diet for a Small Planet" gave birth to the '60s organic movement, "organic" is now a very big tent. Under this tent are some very strange beasts, such as organic feedlots and organic high fructose corn syrup. Big Organic, represented by the companies able to supply Whole Foods and Fresh Fields outlets all around the country, has more in common with Industrial than with the quaint red barns pictured on their labels, says Pollan. (Those barns can only be honestly claimed by Pastoral, the small local farms that may or may not be organically certified, but do a much better job of mimicking nature's way of producing food.)

Grimmway and Cal-Organic, two of California's biggest organic vegetable suppliers, were started by conventional growers looking for a more profitable niche and concerned that their preferred pesticides were about to be banned by California. Horizon, the top supplier of organic milk, is owned by Dean Foods, the largest conventional milk bottler in the country; Horizon's "happy cows" rarely encounter a blade of grass, writes Pollan. Instead of gamboling in the pastures, most of them stand around in a dry lot "tethered to milking machines three times a day."

And Rosie the Organic Chicken? She lives in one of several low, football-field-sized sheds in Petaluma, Cal., with 20,000 other chickens, sipping water from tubes and eating organic corn and other feed from elevated trays. Pollan made two separate visits, wearing a special HazMat-type suit to prevent spreading infection in the crowded quarters (the birds cannot be treated with antibiotics then sold as organic). Not a single chicken ventured out one of the shed's two doors to the outside while he was there. "I think the 'free range' concept is for our benefit," he concludes.

Right about now, many readers are probably despairing. (I was.) Pollan sympathizes: "People say, 'Now you're telling me organic is not what I thought?' There is this feeling that's it's too complicated, it's too hard. But ethical choices are hard. We like it when Whole Foods comes along and says, 'It's OK. Just shop here; we've checked everything out for you.' But have they really? You can buy farmed Atlantic salmon at the Whole Foods right here in Berkeley — one of the least sustainable foods out there."

Out to pasture

Machine vs. Organism: Two ways of looking at the food chain

• Industrial vs. pastoral
• Annual species vs. perennial species
• Monoculture vs. polyculture
• Fossil energy vs. solar energy
• Global market vs. local market
• Specialized vs. diversified
• Mechanical vs. biological
• Imported fertility vs. local fertility
• Myriad inputs vs. chicken feed

—"The Omnivore's Dilemma"

In the second half of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," Pollan leaves the supermarket behind and goes back to the land: to a small farm in Virginia, and to the California hills to hunt wild pigs and mushrooms. On Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm, he learns how intensively grazing cattle on grass — moving them daily and following them with chickens, then pigs — can actually end up producing more topsoil and more fertility than was there before. In effect, "there can be a free lunch in nature," Pollan marvels, one powered by free solar energy captured by grass.

Compared to Industrial and Big Organic, this poster child for Pastoral food is extremely labor intensive. Intentionally, it would never scale to an industrial level. Which means farms like it are few and far between; Pollan knows of no California counterpart. Since Salatin is not willing to ship his food out of state, as that would violate the principles of sustainability, most readers will never taste a meal raised quite as sustainably and ethically. Nor is the average reader likely to be able to enjoy a meal like Pollan's fourth, which he hunted (wild boar), foraged (wild mushrooms, Bing cherries, and yeast for the bread), or grew (lettuce, herbs) almost entirely himself.

So in the end, we've come full circle. What should we have for dinner, darn it? Knowing what we know, how do we navigate the sea of choices, all of which seem to be ethically compromised in some way?

"I hope the answer is not 'Ugh, this is just too complicated, I give up,'" says Pollan mock-wearily. "The answer is to figure out what your values are. You care about the environment? There's a certain way to eat. If you care about our dependence on oil, there's a certain way to eat. If you care about pesticides and your health, then going to Whole Foods will pretty much take care of you. If you care about the animals, there's another set of labels to look for."

Pollan's section on animal rights and vegetarianism, by the way, makes for very thought-provoking reading. He concludes that it's not the principle of eating animals that's wrong, but the practice: the manner in which most cows, pigs, and chickens are raised for food in this country is truly abhorrent. Healthier and more humane options do exist that are better for the animal, for our health, and for the planet. (Pollan is pretty persuasive on the ecological havoc that would be wreaked if we all became vegetarian.) "You can buy grass-fed beef right here at Berkeley Bowl. And I still buy Rosie's. I saw it, and I still eat it," offers Pollan. "Rosie chickens are not leading idyllic chicken lives, but I don’t think they're suffering" — they're not debeaked or as overcrowded as conventional birds, nor are they eating rendered chicken parts or reconstituted manure.

Ultimately, it's about incremental improvements. "I'm a half-a-loaf guy. You take it as far as you can, and inevitably you make compromises," he says. "We get three votes a day, actually more, when we eat. If we cast some of those votes with full consciousness of what's involved, and try to make better choices — which might entail spending more money or going out of our way — then that will help create the food chain we want."

He shrugs: "I'm sorry it's not easier, but it's also not that hard." And with that, Michael Pollan picks up a piece of bread and polishes off the last tasty bits of sauce from his lunch. "Mmm. This was really good."


Further reading:


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