Friday, May 1, 2009

Eat your veggies! (Michael Pollan interview excerpts)

I just read an interview with Michael Pollan in last month's Mother Jones (better late than never!) and thought it was so great, sharing some of his insights here.

This is also BLOGGING AGAINST DISABLISM DAY, which I forgot all about. Then I thought, you know, this fits perfectly. People are getting sicker and sicker because our food is GROSS. Profits before people is always on topic regarding disability and health care.

Some excerpts:

Michael Pollan: [Our] food system is implicated in climate change. I don't think that has really been on people's radar until very recently. Al Gore didn't talk about it at all; 25 to 33 percent of climate change gases can be traced to the food system. I was also surprised that those diseases that we take for granted as what will kill us—heart disease, cancer, diabetes—were virtually unknown 150 years ago, before we began eating this way.
MJ: When you first wrote the mantra "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," did you have any idea what kind of reaction you'd get?

MP: Well, I studied my poetry in school, and I knew there was something about the way it sounded that made it easy to remember. After writing The Omnivore's Dilemma I wanted to write a book that got past the choir, that got to people who didn't care about how their food was grown, but who did care about their health. I wanted to make it almost billboard simple. It started out as just "Eat food." But then I realized, Eh, not quite good enough. You've got to deal with the quantity issue. And then plants; the more you looked, the more you realized that the shortage of plants in our diet could explain a lot. Not that I'm against meat eating. I think we're eating too much. That's why I said "mostly plants."
When Obama announced his pick for agriculture secretary I was disappointed, and I said so in some interviews. I got calls from very prominent activists saying, "You should really keep your powder dry because we want to have access to this guy." Who is this "we"? I felt like Tonto. And I realized that if you are an activist, you do respond tactically. But as a writer you have a pact with your readers that you'll be really straight with them.
MJ: So what do you think of Iowa governor Tom Vilsack heading Agriculture?

MP: There's reason to be very concerned. He oversaw a tremendous expansion of feedlot agriculture and confinement hog production, ruining the Iowa countryside, ruining the lives of many farmers. He helped gut local control over the siting decisions. He has also been very friendly toward Monsanto and genetically modified products and was named governor of the year by bio, the big biotech trade organization. But people I respect say that he will listen to food activists and is interested in helping Iowa to feed itself. It's a food desert, weirdly enough. All the raw material leaves the state and comes back in processed form. Putting the most positive spin I can on it: He's no longer governor of Iowa, and I'm hoping that as a politician, when he senses where the wind is moving, he'll move with it.

MJ: How much of our current agricultural policy can we lay at the feet of the Iowa caucuses?

MP: You can't be elected president without passing though Iowa and bowing down before corn-based ethanol, before agricultural subsidies. I mean, even McCain was a critic of ethanol, but when he got to Iowa he was singing a different tune. But this time around the candidates learned there is a progressive farm lobby. Iowa came close to electing a woman organic farmer as its agriculture secretary—until the Iowa Farm Bureau came after her. And Obama said he saw the importance of local control. That idea that there is a monolithic farm bloc—I wouldn't say it's starting to crumble, but there are interesting cracks. The challenge for the food reform movement is to make those cracks bigger.
MJ: The food activism community is criticized as being elitist, blind to the issues of cost. How do we democratize better quality?

MP: It is the important question. One of the problems is that the government supports unhealthy food and does very little to support healthy food. I mean, we subsidize high fructose corn syrup. We subsidize hydrogenated corn oil. We do not subsidize organic food. We subsidize four crops that are the building blocks of fast food. And you also have to work on access. We have food deserts in our cities. We know that the distance you live from a supplier of fresh produce is one of the best predictors of your health. And in the inner city, people don't have grocery stores. So we have to figure out a way of getting supermarkets and farmers markets into the inner cities.

MJ: By mandates?

MP: When we give people on the WIC [Women, Infants, and Children] program or food stamps farmers market vouchers, lo and behold, the farmers markets show up in those neighborhoods. That said, one of the best things that Obama could do would be build 12-month farmers markets, especially in inner cities, those beautiful glass buildings you see in Barcelona or Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. It would drive economic development and local agriculture.

The other way that you democratize the food movement is pay enough for the school lunch system to buy local food, fresh food, because right now it's all frozen and processed. You will improve the health of the students and the local economy. Supposedly it would take about a dollar per student per day.

MJ: Does WIC still specify that you buy dairy?

MP: Yes. We had a huge fight to get a little more produce in the WIC basket, which is heavy on cheese and milk because the dairy lobby is very powerful. So they fought and they fought and they fought, and they got a bunch of carrots in there. [Laughs.]

MJ: Specifically? Who knew: the carrot lobby?

MP: Specifically carrots. The next big lobby. But there is also money in this farm bill for fresh produce in school lunch. The price of getting the subsidies was getting the California delegation on board, and their price was $2 billion for what are called specialty crops—fresh fruit and produce grown largely in California.

MJ: Should we be trying to go as quickly as possible toward organic and local, or can the perfect be the enemy of the good?

MP: That's why I don't know if organic is the last word. It's sort of an all-or-nothing idea. People getting it partly right is very important. Getting your chickens out of those cages is important, even if you're not getting them organic feed. Those will not be organic eggs, but they will be so far superior. There are many varieties of sustainable agriculture we should support; it doesn't have to be a zero-sum game. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and let's see what works. The whole problem of industrial agriculture is putting all of your eggs in one basket. We need to diversify our food chains as well as our fields so that when some of them fail, we can still eat.


Mista Jaycee said...

COOOOOL article. Did you read the Kongo Sqaure Chat?

lilacsigil said...

While I agree with Mr Pollan's very sensible food philosophy, I have no idea why he thinks that diabetes, heart disease and cancer are modern diseases! Diabetes was known to the ancient Egyptians, heart disease and cancer to the Greeks and Romans. Being able to *treat* these diseases is a modern innovation, though.

Meowser said...

True, Lilacsgil, and it used to be that a LOT more people died of other things (like infectious diseases and tainted drinking water and, oh yeah, childbirth) well before they contracted diseases of aging, which all of those are. (Everyone dies of something, after all; if you reduce the incidence of one type of death the incidence of other types of deaths will go up.)

DaisyDeadhead said...

Lilacsigil, Mr Daisy agrees with you! :P

Diabetes, in particular, is skyrocketing in certain populations, though... I never knew CHILDREN with Type 2 diabetes when I was growing up. Also, asthma is skyrocketing; this could be our shitty air-quality OR depleted immune systems, due to bad diets and lack of exercise. Kids don't get the chance to expand their lungs, which in some areas probably isn't even a good idea.

Cancer is interesting... some cancers used to be far more common than now; and cancer seems to have "migrated" to other areas of the body. You never used to hear of anyone getting liver cancer, for instance, and uterine cancer was far more common--I have several female ancestors who died of it. (Genealogy teaches you such odd and morbid stuff!)

John Powers said...

I really like Pollan's "let 10,000 flowers bloom" approach. We really do need to change on so many fronts. It's pretty hard to get more local that what we do ourselves.

Grow something :-)

Meowser said...

Daisy, they never used to test children for type 2 diabetes. I don't recall having my blood sugar taken even once, and I was heavier than most kids. In fact, until about 20 years ago, you had to have symptoms -- like passing out, or gangrene -- before you were EVER tested, at any age. They didn't just take a random fasting blood sugar on everyone and base it on that.

Also, did you know that in 1997, the standards for diabetes were lowered from a fasting blood sugar of 140 to a FBS of 126, and now there's also the "prediabetes" category of 100 to 125 that didn't exist before? It's hard to get an apples to apples comparison of type 2 diabetes rates then to now, because they're not using the same standards. There's no hard data at all proving that people's fasting blood sugars have actually risen. More diagnosis =/= more incidence. (As someone finally diagnosed with Asperger's at age 44, boy do I know about that.)

Besides, type 2 diabetes has one of the strongest genetic links of all diseases. The other strong link is to aging; Paul Ernsberger once said nearly everyone will become diabetic if they live long enough, and that makes sense, because your pancreas can wear out just like all your other organs. People younger than 70 with no family history almost never get it. (Now, whether they actually know they had a family history of it is another story, since plenty of people probably had it by today's standards and never knew, because something else got them first. But it's not hard to get a good idea of whether you were born with insulin resistance or not.)

DaisyDeadhead said...

Meowser, me and Mr Daisy have "high cholesterol"--or what used to be regarded as normal cholesterol, and we are currently trying to figure out if doctors are correct in their attempts to medicate us. (they haven't succeeded yet!)

In the process, Mr Daisy is now reading Worried Sick: A Prescription for Health in an Overtreated America, which you also might enjoy reading. The author mentions some of what you have already said. (or didya read it already? In any event, GMTA!)

Meowser said...

Haven't read that, but it looks interesting. I'll keep an eye out for it.

And guess what? They've lowered the standards for "high cholesterol" too. As well as high blood pressure. But it seems that most women who are treated for heart disease don't have "high" cholesterol at all. High triglycerides, maybe? I don't know.

But here's a handy-dandy chart from the Seattle Times "Suddenly Sick" series, that shows how the standards for diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and overweight have been ratcheted down:

Meowser said...

Gack, the link got cut off.

Try this.

ZenDenizen said...

Cool DeadHead pic with 'shrooms :)