Why reimagining the way we live is the only way we’ll survive. Rachel Khong interviews Michael Pollan.
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For better and worse, the industrial food system has made food very cheap. The poor can eat a better diet than they once could. It used to be that only the rich could eat meat every day of the week. Now just about everyone can, three meals a day. Fast-food chains make it easy. It’s not very good meat, and most of it is brutally produced, but it is within reach.
But meat has a tremendous carbon footprint: beef in particular because it takes so much grain to get a pound of beef. It takes about 15 pounds of grain to get 1 one pound of beef, and that grain takes tremendous amounts of fossil fuel—in the form of fertilizer, pesticide, farm equipment, processing, and transportation. All told, it takes 55 calories of fossil-fuel energy to get one calorie of beef. The average for processed foods is 10 calories of fossil fuel per calorie of food.
Before World War II every calorie of fossil-fuel energy put into a farm—in the form of diesel energy for tractors, and in fertilizer—yielded 2.3 calories of food. That’s nature’s free lunch—the difference between that 1 calorie in and the 2.3 out, which is the result of solar energy. Now, it takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of food. It’s absurd that we’re now running an energy deficit with food, the production of which is theoretically based on photosynthesis. It should be the one area in our lives that is carbon neutral or even better, because plants are really the only way to take energy from the sun.
Our goal should be to eat from the solar food chain to the extent we can and not from the fossil-fuel chain, which is what we’re mainly doing now. The question becomes: how do you do that? We have some powerful models. Grass-fed beef is basically a system where the sun feeds the grass, the grass feeds the ruminants, and the ruminants feed us. You’re eating sunlight when you eat from that food chain. Re-solarizing the food chain should be our goal in every way—taking advantage of the everyday miracle that is photosynthesis.
We’re not doing that, because fossil fuel has been so cheap. Over time, farms have been substituting fossil fuel for human labor as well as the energy of the sun. Fertilizer made with natural gas or diesel was a huge step away from using the sun. It is only in the last few years that people are starting to realize the role food can play in fixing environmental problems, and the fact that we’re not going to tackle global warming without reforming the food system.
Take, for example, Assembly Bill 32 in California. The law is designed to gradually bring down the amount of carbon emitted by our fuel companies, power companies, and our cars, by capping carbon emissions. But the law doesn’t deal with agriculture. They didn’t know how to deal with agriculture, so they simply left it out. But by not capping agriculture, the state will be playing Whac-a-Mole. As all these other industries’ outputs go down, agriculture’s will continue to go up. We have to learn to deal with the effects of agricultural practices—especially cattle feedlots—or we’re never going to get a handle on carbon. We shouldn’t have as much dairy in California as we do—it’s that simple. It’s a desert, and cows need grass. Re-localizing food economies can—not necessarily, but can—help reduce our reliance on fossil fuel.
Up until the 19th century, the history of cooking was all in the direction of making food more nutritious. But in the late 19th century, we learned how to refine grain and make white flour. In the 1880s, in England, we came up with roller mills, which can cleanly separate the endosperm—the pure starch—from the germ and bran, which is where most of the nutrients are.
With that “advance,” we began taking cooking too far. (Around the same time, we learned how to do something similar with sugar—turning cane and beets into pure sugar.) Cooking essentially went overboard. It began contributing to public-health problems. We started to have problems with tooth decay; with obesity; with nutrient deficiencies, because people began to eat lots of empty calories.
We basically got too smart for our own good; we moved from cooking to “food processing.” When people talk about processed food as being unhealthy, what they’re really talking about is cooking as it is performed by corporations. Companies cook in a different way. They’re trying to make food that our bodies can absorb as quickly as possible. You could argue that this process is continuous with the history that I’ve been describing, which is to make food progressively easier to digest. But at that point, they’ve removed all the fiber and they’re satisfying only the most basic desire for glucose, for sugar.
We love sugar. We’re hardwired to like sweetness. It’s one of the few food instincts we have. We don’t like bitter, because it’s usually a sign of a plant toxin. Most of the toxins in nature are bitter; they’re alkaloids. We’re attracted to sugar because in nature, sugar is a sign of calories, of concentrated energy. In nature, sweetness is a pretty reliable guide to healthy food. It indicates the presence of ripe fruit, which comes with fiber and lots of important nutrients and phytochemicals. But once you’ve crossed over and you’re making processed sugar, it no longer comes with all those good things.
One of the main problems is that there are really two of us to feed: there’s our brain, which loves glucose, and then there’s our gut—the microbiome—which has very different dietary needs than “we” do. We really like sugar, but the gut really likes fiber and other parts of plants. We got really good at finding sugar, because the brain lives on glucose, but we neglect the fact that you have to feed the whole body, that we’re not just eating for one—we’re eating for the 10 trillion microbes living inside us. So in our cooking, we have to learn to cook for all 10 trillion. But it’s hard for us to listen to the desires of those 10 trillion—the brain is much easier to hear.
At the turn of the century, white flour became a huge part—something like 20 percent—of the diet. In the early years of the 20th century, people recognized that white flour was making us sick because of its lack of vitamins. But the beauty of white flour is that it meshes so well with our capitalist economy. It’s a commodity that is imperishable. It is largely indistinguishable: all white flour is white flour. White flour can be transported over great distances; it’s easier to cook with; it lends itself to industrialized baking; it’s a perfect capitalist commodity.
Capitalism is most concerned with food not being perishable, being shelf-stable. Whole grains make volatile, perishable flour, so big companies don’t want to rely on it. Instead, they figured out a techno-fix: supplementation. They said, OK, these are the vitamins we lost when we took away the bran and the germ, so we’ll just put them back in in chemical form. Various B vitamins, niacin, thiamine, all those things. And that took care of the problem. Sort of. It took care of the problem for us, but not for the 10 trillion. Your microbes didn’t care much about the vitamins; they wanted the bran.
In the history of food processing, you never turn back, you just come up with a technological fix for whatever problems you’ve created. Food gets more and more complex, more processed. The food industry has established a financial model where you take raw materials—corn, soy, wheat—and you “add value” by creating processed foods from those cheap building blocks. So instead of selling nutritious brown rice, we genetically engineered white rice that has vitamin A in it: “golden” rice. The more complex you can make a food product, the more profitable it is. But at the end of the day, all that processing and engineering is achieving is returning what we took out in the first place. Baby formula is the great example. Breast milk is the perfect food, formed by natural selection to have everything the developing child—and its microbiota—needs. We’ve spent almost two hundred years trying to simulate it, because food companies can’t make money when people are nursing their babies.
But we still can’t make formula as good as breast milk. There’s still that mystery X-factor because babies raised on formula simply don’t do as well. When we simulate formula, we try to design what the baby needs and once again we forget about the ten trillion. Only in the last ten years or so, did we discover that the oligosaccharides (a kind of sugar) in mother’s milk—a “nutrient” that the baby can’t digest—are vital to a baby’s gut microbes. They encourage the proliferation of bifida, a very important kind of bacteria. It’s human arrogance to think we can outwit nature.
I sometimes find myself wondering whether we can posit or imagine a food science that is actually improving food in the way that cooking for most of its history succeeded in doing. Theoretically we should be able to do this. We came up with fermentation; we came up with cooking with fire. We’ve had food science and food technology now for a hundred and fifty years, and so far, not so good. So far we haven’t done anything that useful. But we understand a lot more, and we should be able to improve on things, not just make money and entertain people.
I can think of some examples of potentially useful food processing innovations. Here’s one that some people are actually working on. For reasons having to do with both our health and the health of our environment, we need really good meat substitutes. So far meat substitutes are really unsatisfying. No one but a vegan can get excited about fake bacon. They seem to think it’s really good. But most people who’ve actually eaten bacon? They don’t really see the point. It’s probably because vegans have forgotten how real bacon tastes, but they have this deep memory of the experience that is stirred by the fake bacon. Mock-meat hamburgers are not very satisfying, either. They’re also much more expensive than real hamburgers, which is odd considering they’re made from vegetable matter.
Today there are people using the most sophisticated food science to simulate meat, and it seems to me that if this is done well, it has enormous potential to contribute to our welfare and to the environment. Cheese that is not made with cows’ milk might be something to work on because we’re consuming huge amounts of the stuff, and dairy cows, like beef cows, have an enormous environmental footprint. The whole California central valley—especially Tulare County—is wall-to-wall dairy cows producing low-quality milk for low-quality cheese that’s put on Domino’s pizzas all over the world. Synthesizing this type of cheese is really not a very high bar to hit: all that’s needed is something white and cheese-like that melts. It seems to me that a good nondairy cheese would be a positive contribution to humankind and something worth working on.
As a society this is a very important question we need to pose. How can we cook better—better for our health and better for the health of the planet? Now we have molecular gastronomy, which is using lots of new techniques. But what has it really contributed? More in the way of novel experiences and entertainment, I would say, and very little toward solving any kind of public-health problem. I haven’t seen anything in that world that says to me, If we popularize this technique, it would have really positive effects. But this is what we need to work on? I have little doubt that if Nathan Myhrvold set that as his goal, he could help solve some of our real nutritional and environmental problems linked to food. But I don’t see that happening right now.
Yet there are reasons to feel encouraged. People are much more conscious of food politics and agricultural politics than they were a few years ago. The farm bill used to just be passed without anyone outside of the farm belt noticing. Now we see front-page articles about agricultural policy. We’re making some progress toward politicizing things that were once happening behind closed doors, and that’s a good thing.
But we have a long way to go. I want to see the FDA ban antibiotics. I want to see a farm bill that subsidizes healthy food and not just junk food. All that hasn’t come yet. The food movement is still a young movement. I’m optimistic, and I don’t think we should be discouraged. We’re talking about some really entrenched and powerful interests that need to be dislodged. You look at other comparable movements—the environmental movement or civil rights—and you see that change didn’t happen in a decade; it took generations. And this will take generations, too.
The food movement needs strong leadership. There are too many writers and chefs and not enough smart politicians. We don’t yet have the skills we need to organize and force change in Washington. That said, I do think that chefs are playing a really constructive role. They have the cultural microphone right now, and they’re using it to promote good farming and careful thought about food. Part of what we need and what chefs are promoting is the cultural re-evaluation of food: recognizing that food is important both to your health and to your culture and that it’s worth spending a little money on it if you can.
What I’m trying to do in this new book is make a case for cooking as a valuable way to spend your time. I want to lure people into the kitchen with the promise of pleasure, and not because it’s an obligation or something you should do. I happen to believe cooking is as interesting as watching TV or being on the computer, which is what people seem to be doing with the time they “save” by not cooking. Cooking isn’t drudgery. It takes real mental engagement; it offers sensual pleasures; it’s very enriching to cook. My book has all these detours into microbiology and the science of flavor because truly amazing things are going on when you cook. As a cook, you are a chemist and you are a physicist and you are a cultural historian all at once. And what can seem boring to people is often just a failure to use their imaginations and intellect to understand what’s actually going on, what is at stake. It’s the same with gardening. Cooking and gardening to me are very similar activities on many levels; you could argue that pulling weeds is boring and you’d rather be looking at a screen. But I usually feel better after I’ve weeded my garden than after plowing through another hour’s worth of email. Ironically enough, I think there is actually more mental space for this kind of work now—our lives are so mediated by technology, so mediated by screens, that there’s a real hunger to recover the use of our hands and our senses.
We’re sensorially deprived right now, in modern life. Our eyes are engaged—sometimes our ears—but our bodies? Not so much. These aren’t just bags of bones we’re carrying around. When we cook, when we garden, when we make things with our hands, we’re engaging all of our senses and that has—in ways we don’t really know how to quantify—deeply positive effects on our mental and physical health. We’re hungry for the all the complex sensory information that cooking can provide when approached in the right spirit.
The following excerpt originally appeared in the Apocalypse Issue of Lucky Peach, a quarterly journal of food and writing. If you loved this — or even just strongly liked it — why not subscribe to the magazine? At least visit our website or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
Michael Pollan is the author of Food Rules, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and The Botany of Desire, all New York Times bestsellers. A longtime contributor to the New York Times, he is also the Knight Professor of Journalism at Berkeley. His new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, came out in Spring 2013.