A Conversation with Michael Pollan

The author of The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore's Dilemma talks about gardening, nature, and (gasp!) why organic isn't what it's cracked up to be.

By Therese Ciesinski

|||||

I hear Michael Pollan's garden before I see it. The hum comes from the front yard, behind the fence separating his house from the others that ladder the hills of Berkeley, California. When I enter, Pollan is chatting nonchalantly while a startling number of honeybees zoom around him like a buzzing electron cloud. Just back from a trip, he found a hive swarming in his yard. A beekeeper removed them; these are the stragglers, confused and purposeless without their queen. The man who has made a career writing about "those messy places where the human and the natural come together" has a yard swarming with orphan honeybees.

In The Garden
Pollan's small garden packs a lot of growing and living into a relatively small area. It's dominated by three large raised cedar beds filled with vegetables and herbs, which grow more than enough for Pollan, his wife, Judith Belzer, and 17-year-old son, Isaac. Taking up considerable space is a huge fire pit, where the family often cooks. The August afternoon is cool and overcast, but dry—typical Bay Area weather. We sit outdoors on a patio made of basalt that forms a black grid against the pale gravel paths. The garden is new, completed 3 months earlier.

His book The Botany of Desire has just been made into a PBS documentary that premeired October 28 2009, and we talk about how gardening requires us to have an agenda, but that sometimes what we grow has one, too. Certain plants succeed in getting humans to help them evolve and establish in places they couldn't get to without us, and they do it by appealing to human desires.

"The Botany of Desire is very much about getting in the gardener's head. I think gardeners instinctively understand this idea that they're manipulated by their plants—that it is a two-way street; you can't call all the shots. You have to let go."

Pollan discovered he was holding on too tightly when, as a novice gardener, he was driven to firestorm the burrow of a woodchuck that was raiding his vegetables, almost immolating his garden in the process. He realized that Americans have a split personality when it comes to the natural world: We simultaneously revere it and try to control it. But nature always has the last word. "I'm interested in the tension between the practical and the theoretical, and the garden's the place where we work it out. We read books to learn how to garden; then the reality turns out to be more complicated. It doesn't come out the way it's supposed to in the book, and there are always surprises."

The Kitchen
The Omnivore's Dilemma (Penguin, 2006) and In Defense of Food (2008) took Pollan literally into the field—first to industrial and organic farms, then to the feedlot, and finally to the laboratory, where food starts out not as a seed, but as chemicals in a test tube. The end product resembles food, but leaves us lacking true nourishment or the satisfaction that we've eaten something real. The scary part is that many of us prefer it.

Pollan asserts that fewer Americans cook anymore, eating highly processed, ready-made food instead. He writes that this food—nutritionless, abundant, and less expensive than food has ever been—destroys our health, cripples the environment, and ultimately costs us a lot of money.

About 27 million households participated in vegetable gardening in 2008, and 7 million more planned to start this year. So I ask who he thinks is cooking all those vegetables.

"The people who are vegetable gardening are cooking," he answers. "I don't think you garden unless you're going to cook. Fifty-eight percent of Americans are still cooking, but the numbers are trending downward. The trends are away from home cooking and towards convenience food. Yet, if people garden, they will cook, and vice versa." His voice slows.

"The longer I'm at it, the more I'm convinced that gardening and cooking are really important activities, both at a practical level and at a spiritual or philosophical level. Both are ways to reconnect with the earth, with all the processes that keep us alive. And then there are all the practical benefits. A lot of people say, 'Oh, I can't afford high-quality organic produce.' Well, if you have space for a garden, you can afford it. Anyone can afford it. You can grow better stuff than you can find anywhere. And you don't need a lot of space to do it."

To (Super) Market, to (Farmers') Market
But Pollan's not so convinced about certified-organic agriculture anymore. He's made waves by saying that many certified-organic farms and feedlots aren't improvements over industrial agriculture, just imitations; to get a piece of the financial premium that organic foods command, farmers simply substitute organic fertilizers and pesticides for synthetic ones. They use as much fossil fuel to produce and ship the food, and certified-organic animals on big farms and feedlots live and die under the same inhumane conditions conventionally raised animals do. The only difference is that their feed is organic.

Up to now, Pollan has been genial, his tone easygoing, but when the subject of "what's truly organic" comes up, he gets serious.

"Organic is in danger of being co-opted. I've been on organic factory farms, and if most organic consumers went to those places, they would feel they were getting ripped off . I think organic risks a real crisis of perception if the values that they're selling don't accurately reflect the practices they're engaging in. They're organic by the letter, not organic in spirit."

Lately, Pollan has been vocal in his support of local agriculture, so I am surprised by his response when I ask whether he prefers local foods to organic ones.

"No, I don't," he replies. "I support local, because in my experience here in California, local is organic. I know very good farmers who are not certified organic, but are organic, and I don't stand on ceremony about certification.

"But if I were a supermarket shopper I would, because you can't meet farmers face to face and you don't really know what they're doing, so to the extent people depend on the supermarket and are not interested in the farmers' market, we need organic. If people are willing to put in more time and like the farmers' market experience—because it is more than food that's on offer there—[then] local, definitely."

He speaks slowly and deliberately. "The big problem is monoculture, right? Well, there's monoculture in the field, there's monoculture in the diet, and there's monoculture in the head. And to say it's got to be all organic, or all local or all grass-fed, is monoculture thinking. The answer is not to replace this sick food chain with one other food chain, because you could have a problem with that food chain. Organic doesn't solve all of our problems.

"We need to try many different food systems, many different food chains, because we don't know what's going to work and we don't want to be dependent on one. What's missing from our food system is resiliency. We have efficiency, but resiliency is a different value, and you get resiliency through redundancy. So we need organic, we need local, we need pasture-based, and we probably need industrial as well."

What else is in the future? I ask him. What does he see beyond organic, beyond local?

"I think we're going to see a lot of growth in alternative food chains," he answers, "all of them, local and organic. I think pastured meat production is going to get a lot bigger. The importance of grass as a way to both provide healthy meat that people want and to sequester carbon in the soil [will become better recognized]. I can imagine in 5 years that there will be grass-fed beef in every supermarket.

"The future is [people] really making the connections between food and energy and climate change, and food and health care. Watch what Michelle Obama is doing. That's really important stuff : her emphasis on fresh food. She talks about organic, but she [also] talks about fresh. Basically, getting away from processed food is the key. And if you're eating produce, even if it's not organic, it's a big step up from eating processed food. All these partial steps are very important."

An Organic Planet?
Switching our addiction from fast-food burgers and high-fructose corn syrup to sun-ripened tomatoes and pesticide-free apples means fundamentally changing how we grow our food. It's a cliche, but I have to ask: Can organic feed the world? Should it even try?

"There are smart people who say that the invention of synthetic fertilizer allowed for such a growth in world population; one expert says that 2 billion people owe their lives to synthetic nitrogen, and that you can't go back. That a population of 8 billion can only survive in a world with synthetic nitrogen.

"I don't know that that's true, but I think it's a powerful argument. But that doesn't mean you give up. Even if you can't feed the world organically, and I don't know that you can't—there are very good arguments that you can—even if you just feed half the world organically, you'd be doing so much for the land, so much for our health, so much for the atmosphere, that it's well worth doing. So the fact that you might not be able to get all the way does not damn the effort to try. And so I don't think people should be discouraged by that.

"But 'can organic feed the world?' is a question really up for grabs." He pauses. "The honest answer is, we don't know. I've seen research that suggests with really smart rotations and cover cropping, there is enough nitrogen to do it. I also think that if we changed our relationship to meat, we probably could. Half of all the grain that we're growing now is fed to livestock. If we were eating more food directly as plants, then we could feed the world organically. It really is the world's appetite for meat that forces us down that fossil-fuel path."

Back To Nature
What, then, does organic mean to you, here, in this garden? I ask.

"It means modeling your agriculture or your horticulture on natural systems," he says, "and imitating to the extent you can how things work in nature. Organic to me is modeling a human system on natural systems.

"It's also a more reciprocal relationship with nature rather than imposing a human scheme on the natural world, which is very much the theme of The Botany of Desire. We have reciprocal relations with these plants: We're working for them, they're working for us. And in nature nobody's in charge; everybody's acting on everybody else at the same time."

For a moment, it's quiet. It's late afternoon; the light has left the garden, and with it, the hum. I realize that the bees have left, and I wonder where they've gone.

ADVERTISMENT