You may not know it, but Michael Pollan has been fighting for your right to eat good food for more than 25 years. The acclaimed author, lecturer, and freshly minted TV star works tirelessly to expose the difference between real food and the processed junk sold by the Don Drapers of the world. His bestselling books — The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Cooked being the most well-known — tell vivid stories about the intersection between nature and humanity, an especially potent topic these days.
Meeting Pollan in person is a relaxed affair. He comes off like the coolest dad of all your friends’ dads. He’ll hand you a beer before you know you need one. He listens. His bullshit meter is well-honed. We met at the Berlinale this year, at an intimate event called “Tea Time with Michael Pollan.” It was held after the world premiere of Alex Gibney’s new Netflix docu-series, Cooked, based on Pollan’s book of the same name.
At “Tea Time,” a handful of journalists gathered with Pollan in a pop-up restaurant made from a tent to sip tea, drink coffee and crack a few beers. Anyone could ask questions and did, which led to a fun, wide-ranging conversation. We talked food, advertising, feminism, the 2016 election, GMOs, and the farm bill. A few highlights [with questions from various journalists] below:
Why should we cook? Why do we need to cook?
We don’t need to cook anymore and that’s kind of the problem, it’s optional. There’s so many temptations and reasons not to cook. The industry is very happy to cook for you, in fact, they want to cook for you because they make more money processing food than selling you simple foods. The money in the food industry, ask any farmer is not in growing it, it’s in processing it as many times as possible. It’s taking 5 cents worth of grain and turning it into $5 worth of breakfast cereal. They’ve been working very hard for very long time to relieve us of what they regard as a burden. There are so many reasons to cook, but now that it’s optional, we have to find a good reason for us. One of them, one of the ones I find most exciting, is — as you hear me kind of mention repeatedly — that it’s a way we get with nature.
My whole career has really been about writing about the human relationship to the natural world. Generally, when writers want to think about nature, they go to the wild, they go to the forest; they go to the wilderness or they go to sea. At certain point I realized that we engage with nature most profoundly when we sit down to eat the meal and that food represents our most powerful engagement with the natural world. Think about it, the compositional species of the planet has completely been revolutionized by agriculture. It’s the reason why in America we have 110 million head of cattle and only 50,000 wolves left because wolves eat our cattle and we don’t like that, and we like to eat meat.
Agriculture is a bigger contributor to climate change than the transportation sector although we don’t think of it that way. The atmosphere is strongly affected by the way we eat, whether we’re eating meat or other things. The landscape, of course, has been revolutionized by human eating, by agriculture, deforestation. The land looks the way it is because of the way we eat. For me, it’s easy to forget that. When you go to a fast-food restaurant, it’s just a hamburger or you go to the supermarket and it’s a shrink-wrapped pile of protein. The fact is there’s an animal behind that and behind that it’s a certain kind of a feedstock and certain kind of landscape.
Cooking allows us to reconnect with our food. It allows you first to choose it when you go to the market. You can decide you want to buy organic or local or grass-fed or pastured, or humanely raised. Whatever it is, you take back control over that transaction. Then as a dietary matter, you take back control over your diet. It’s very hard if you’re relying on industry to be healthy.
Cooking is a way to reconnect with our food, but it also is a way to reconnect with people. With people, we love, with strangers and even with enemies. That amazing things happen over the table when people share food when people eat from the same pot and we’re losing that. Being around the cook fire civilized us. It’s where civilization begins because you’re waiting for that food to cook, you need a set of rules. Otherwise, the biggest, strongest man would grab the food. You need various inhibitions on greed and hunger and you need to learn patience because the food isn’t really ready right away. The beginning of civilization is around that fire and then around the table. Cooking gives us the institution of the meal. With the declining in cooking that’s going on, there is a decline in meals. Family meals happen much less than they used to. I can go on about this for a long time; there are a lot of very good reasons to cook. We can talk more about the sheer pleasure of it, too.
The industry cooks very differently than human beings do. They cook with the cheapest possible raw ingredients and the most salt, fat and sugar they can reasonably get into a product and make those cheap ingredients more palatable. Then, lots of chemicals to keep the food looking like it was made yesterday rather than six months ago, 1,000 miles away.
[From a female journalist] You make it sound very attractive and very romantic to cook. But as a woman, I must say, we’ve been told for ages, “Go back to the kitchen to cook and stay there.” It’s a political thing for a woman to not necessarily comply and not cook.
According to some people when men argue for the importance of home cooking, what people automatically hear is that women should go back to the kitchen. It’s very explicitly not my message. My message is we all need to go back to the kitchen. We all have a lot to gain by doing so because we’re not obligated to go back to the kitchen. We can go buy, and that hasn’t been the case historically. The work did fall un-proportionately on women, separated. The one male contribution to home cooking is grilling, which is admittedly pretty lame because it is so simple and so over-encrusted with pretension and complexity. One of the problems with cooking and one of the reasons that many women gave it up is because it wasn’t fair. Women were assumed to take care of the work in the kitchen and that work as we moved to the nuclear family became very isolated. Women were not just in the kitchen, but alone in the kitchen. There was another phase where people cooked more collectively; several generations would be in the kitchen together.
We got to a point in the 1950s or early ’60s where women were stuck in the kitchen and they had other things they wanted to do. It is important to note, the relationship of the rise of feminism and the decline of cooking is complicated and can be dangerously oversimplified. That message can sound like you’re blaming feminism or blaming women for the decline of cooking; it’s more complicated than that. As I mentioned earlier, the industry has been very eager to get into our kitchens for a long time because they knew there was a lot of money to be made there. They tried for 100 years and actually they were resisted, women resisted it. Women distrusted prepared foods, cake mixes all these kinds of stuff.
When the feminists revolution comes, there was this very tense moment were men and women, partners in marriages began to renegotiate the division of labor in the home because it’s simply wasn’t sustainable for women to be working and also cooking and doing the cleaning and taking care of the children. This just wasn’t going to last. There was this very tense conversation with men around kitchen tables all over the world about what to do about this. Men really resisted changing their roles. They stepped up a little bit, but really not significantly.
Before that process could be played out, the food industry recognized this amazing opportunity and they said, “Stop arguing, let us do it. We will cook for you.” In fact, there was a campaign in the ’70s that KFC ran all across America with billboards that had a bucket of fried chicken in the red and white cardboard bucket and just a two-word headline, Women’s Liberation. The industry identified their products with women’s aspirations very successfully, very smartly. That’s what advertising does, it relieves tensions. Sometimes, it creates tensions then releases them. It created insecurities or problems and then offers the solution. This let men off the hook as much as women and aborted that conversation. We went down that path, and for some women it was liberating to have that option. That liberation bred a new dependence on the food industry that also had a lot of consequences for our health and the health of the environment that we simply need to address.
Are you cooking more than before now, after writing and touring to support the book?
Without question, yeah. I’m very fortunate in that my wife and I like to cook together and it’s something that we really enjoy at the end of the day. We have a kind of nice division of labor that she likes to do the vegetables and I do the protein usually. We catch up. We have an island in the middle of the kitchen and it’s a very comfortable place. Two or three people can stand and chop and talk about what happened during the day. We have our own division of labor for doing the dishes, too.
Yeah, I cook with a lot more confidence. I was just not confident in the kitchen. I’m much more confident now. I should say that what we’re making on our Tuesday night is not homemade loaf of bread or a whole pig. We make very simple foods. When we hear the word cooking now there is this culture of fetishized food, this restaurant culture. A lot of people go this place where you got put like a three-course meal out and has to have a sauce and be really like complicated. That’s not mid-week cooking. Mid-week cooking is really simple and it’s like a half-hour meal.
There’s a German saying, which translates to, “eating and drinking keeps body and soul together.” It is a medieval saying, so we’ve lived by that for a while. How can we achieve that cooking not only feeds our bodies, but also our minds and souls?
It’s a good question. I think when you’re doing yourself it does. I think that there’s something incredibly restorative about doing it. I like to garden. There are cheaper ways to get a tomato than to grow it yourself. I like getting my hands in the dirt and I have an incredible feeling of satisfaction when I bring in something that I’ve grown myself. I like to go fishing, too, for the same reason. This aren’t necessarily the most practical ways to spend my time; but why do we do that? Why do we want to reconnect with the processes that put food on our table? It’s something really profound and it is something spiritual. There is something spiritual in growing your own food and then preparing it and taking your meal all the way back to the earth and knowing how it got to you. It feels really good and you feel also very competent and capable.
We live in a world where there is such a intricate division of labor. There’s somebody or some business eager to do everything for you except reach down your throat and digest your food. They would do that if they could figure out a profitable way to do it. This gives us a lot of freedom. I have the freedom to work as a journalist while someone else makes my clothing and takes care of other things in my life. I don’t have to chop wood to heat myself. All these things I can pay other people to do. There’s something about that dependence on this intricate fossil fuel economy that doesn’t feel good to me and that I feel better about myself when I’m producing things than when I’m consuming things. That I think is really what’s soul building. It’s that joining the producers of the world even in a ritual way. Even if I’m not going to make a living as a fisherman, I do [catch one] every now and then you appreciate the people that do it for a living.
We see in the Fire episode of “Cooked” where we came from as a species. That’s powerful. We’re cooking apes.
We’re the ape that learned how to cook. It’s an incredible achievement. That first ape who figured out that food was better over a fire, put us on the march to becoming civilized and growing a much bigger brain. Cooking made us who we are; it is at the core of human identity as a species.
This was actually one to the revelations that I got from “Cooked.” That had we continued eating raw food; we wouldn’t have been able to develop our brain. We wouldn’t have evolved.
Yeah. Our brains are energy guzzlers. Your brain is 2% your body weight, but it consumes 20% of your energy. Unless you have a very high energy diet, you can’t keep this thing going. When you eat raw food, you have to work so hard to chew that food and digest that food that you can’t get enough energy. That’s really the difference between other primates our size and us. Is that we figured out that essentially the work of digestion and chewing we can externalize and the fire will take care of it. It will soften the food and that’s why our jaws got smaller, our brains got bigger and our guts got smaller too. We didn’t need this really long and intricate intestine to digest all this food. It made us look better. We think so; the apes probably think we look weird. It was really important for our species. Which is now when you think about it that means that we think that raw and nature are the same and cooked and culture are the same. In fact, for us now it’s natural to eat cooked food. In fact, we can’t survive on raw food very long. I know maybe there are some raw foodists in the room, but you can’t do it without a blender or a Cuisinart to break up that food. Otherwise, you would do what the apes do which is spend half of your waking ours in the act of chewing. We won’t get much else done. We won’t make movies. We won’t write books.
We cook for our brains, so we love our brains. We feed them. The brain comes into the equation in another way because our brains are sometimes also in the way when it comes to eating. We’re being told what we should eat, what we shouldn’t eat, and that changes. Every year or so, another food or nutrient is being demonized. We have bread and gluten at the moment that have the “bad yeast.” How do we free ourselves from that kind of patronizing influence of whoever wants to tell us what to not eat?
I thought a lot about this and I wrote another book about nutrition called In Defense of Food. In fact, there’s a film made from that too. That’s really a film about nutrition and what do we know about the links between diet and health. To give you the short version, nutrition science hasn’t figured this out yet. We know that the so-called “western diet” (which is to say a diet of lots of process foods, lots of meat, lots of refined carbohydrates and very little fruit, vegetables and whole grains) populations who eat that diet fairly reliably get chronic diseases linked to it. Obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart diseases, certain kinds of cancer. All the conversation in nutrition is figuring out is what is about that diet that’s leading to those problems? In various times, we thought it was the fat and then we thought it is the refined carbohydrates and there are people who would think it is the meat or the lack of fiber in that diet. The honest answer is that we don’t know. All we know is that pattern of eating leads to that pattern of disease.
For the scientist, that’s frustrating and they’re on that hunt for that evil nutrient that’s going to explain it all. For us, that’s all what we need to know. Get off that diet, eat as little like those people as you can. Which is to say eat lots of plants, eat more whole grains than refined carbohydrates, don’t eat too much meat. As I reduce this whole book to several words, which is not a good way to sell a book, eat food which is a real food not too much, mostly plants. Not all plants, but mostly plants. I think there is a place for meat in a healthy diet and I think there is a place for meat in the ecosystem, but it is a much smaller place than it occupies right now.
Our diet is in a need of reform. We can reform, transforming it and industrial food production, too. The food movement has been on the case for more than a decade now to little result. Do you think it is really possible to change that? Is it realistic?
I’m hopeful that it is. When you say we’ve been on the case for ten years in political time, that’s nothing. Most reform movements take a couple of generation and so I think it is too soon to draw conclusions. We’re up against an incredibly powerful industry that is working very hard to defend itself and owns a large sector of the government and has intimidated even the president on this issue in America. I also see encouraging signs of change. My long book about the whole food system called The Omnivore’s Dilemma came out in 2006 and that was my first real food book. I recently was asked to write an introduction or a new afterward for tenth-anniversary edition which would come out this summer. I looked at this question, what’s changed since then? I was amazed how much had changed. How many more people paid attention to where their food came from? How many changes even the industry was either paying lip services or really changing itself. Organic food has grown dramatically since then. It’s gone from a $10 billion to a $40 billion industry in America in those ten years.
Grass-fed meat, which no one had heard of and it was impossible to find or even to keep statistics on, is becoming a market category you can find in the supermarket. You have corporations making promises to remove antibiotics from their livestock. Now, we’ll see if they keep them; but, they’re making them. You have the first lady of the United States talking about the importance of food and health and elevating the profile of the issue. You have a handful of congress people who are real friends of the food movement and working very hard to get changes in the farm bill that will benefit small diversified farmers. You see a lot of farm act and I see a lot of hope for change.
Permutation is presently very important.
Permutation is the right metaphor for this and it’s started. Even while we work on reforming big food, we are at the same time building an alternative food economy. I was just talking to a young butcher here who’s written this really beautiful looking book about the rise of artisanal butchers all over the world. You might think this is some kind of a foody trend, but what it really is is a way for farmers to sell sustainable raised meat directly without having to go through Big Food, without having to sell to the only four meat packers in America now. Getting a fair price for that meat and putting it in front of consumers in a very short food chain. There’s an alternative food economy that’s now worth probably about $50 billion consisting of organic and local and CSAs and artisanal food like that. While we work on regulating the industry and getting rid of the worst abuses, we’re meanwhile building an alternative. That’s growing really quickly and nothing will stop that.
Michelle Obama really brought the public’s attention to the issue and brought it to schools. But she won’t be the first lady for much longer. What happens when she’s gone? Is Hillary Clinton going to carry on the fight?
I have to tell you frankly I don’t have a lot of confidence in Hilary Clinton on this issue. The Clintons’ first backer was Tyson Foods, which is one of the worst meat companies in the world and one of the biggest. She’s on the board of Walmart. I think her ties to Big Food are quite strong. We may have to work outside the White House for awhile, assuming she gets elected.
Are there any good Republicans on this issue?
Oddly enough Rand Paul was good on some food issues because he is a Libertarian, and this new food economy needs a certain freedom from regulators for it to thrive.
We need more politics, but it’s definitely coming. We’re having a big battle over labeling GMOs in America which is already happened in most of Europe. There’s a tremendous amount of money swashing among congress to stop the states from labeling. Several states, including Vermont, have voted to have labeling which drives the industry crazy because they’ll have to do a different label for every state. They’ve poured tens of millions of dollars into congress to preempt this effort and they’ve not succeeded because there is a population that is weighing in on this question. That’s a very interesting case study to watch, see who wins on that battle and you’ll get a reading on where the food battle is right now.
What’s the biggest issue you have with GMOs?
My biggest objections to GMOs is not on food safety grounds, but it’s on the corporate control of the seeds supplies that Monsanto is gaining. Genetically Modified Food or Organisms…What has it given us? We’ve had it for 15 years, has it increased yield of crops? No, it hasn’t. Has it made food any tastier, more nutritious? No, it hasn’t done that. What really has it done? It’s led to the spraying of vast amounts of pesticides and herbicides that weren’t being sprayed before. All one kind, glyphosate which we’re now learning is a carcinogen. There’s more glyphosate in our food — in fact, Monsanto had to go to the government and get them to raise permissible levels of glyphosate. This is Round Up in our food. All the money made from selling glyphosate is really what GMOs is about. It was a good way to sell the herbicide. Basically, the crops are bread to tolerate the weed killer so that’s very convenient for farmers. All the money that they made from glyphosate, they used to buy up seed companies around the world and now control our vegetable seeds: most of our vegetables seeds, something like 40% of the seed industry. That’s really what’s concerning.
I own small organic shop. There are more and more foods organically produced today. Many times in my shop I’m asked if it’s possible to feed the whole world in an organic way. And I don’t know the answer and maybe you do.
I don’t have the answer, either, but I think it’s more complicated than the people usually asking that question believe. The answer they’re assuming is “no” and the reason they’re assuming that is that organic agriculture yields between 10% and 20% less right now than conventional agriculture. This feed the world question really needs to be examined in a vigorous way. I’ll just tell you some facts that may surprise you.
Right now, we’re growing 4,500 calories per person per day in the world. It’s twice as much as we need if people could eat those calories, yet we still have a billion hungry people. The system we have is not feeding the world and the population we now have even though it’s growing plenty of food to do it, so why not? First of all, you can only have this food if you can afford it, that’s the way it works and we have to address that issue. Second of all, about 30% of that food, those calories, we’re feeding to animals. A very inefficient way to feed the world. It takes ten pounds of grain to yield one pound of beef, seven pounds of grain to yield one pound of pork, four pounds of grain to yield one pound of chicken.
If we were eating less meat and eating that grain more directly or whatever we’re growing, you could feed a lot more people. That’s 30%. Then we take 10% of all that food we’re growing and do you know who we feed it to, or what we feed it to? Our cars and our trucks. Okay, we’re turning food into fuel in a way that it makes no contribution to the environment at all. It’s a complete racket. We waste about 40% of the food we grow according to people who’ve studied this question. There’s a lot of slack in the system. Another fact: 75% of the world’s food is being produced right now by peasant farmers. Very low productivity, very inefficient. The industrial food system that supposedly we need to feed the world is only 25% of the food. What that suggests is that if you could bring that peasant agriculture’s productivity up say to the level of organic, you would vastly increase the amount of food available to the people and it would be sustainable.
Now, why would you want to do that since you could also then expand industrial agriculture and have tons of food and tons of grains to grow, give everybody hamburgers? The industrial system is good for certain things. It’s good for growing corn and soy, animal feed and fuel for cars, but it has limitations. It’s a very brittle system. Monocultures in an era of uncertain climate are exactly the wrong kind of farming you want. Basically, the genius of industrial agriculture is you breed a terrific seed that’s very productive. This is what the green revolution was about. A wheat seed that had the biggest kernels, a corn plant that had the biggest cobs. To make that kind of pampered prince of a seed work, you needed lots of fertility in the form of chemical fertilizer; you needed lots of water in the form of irrigation and you needed a reliable temperature. All of which we no longer have or will have. We need an agriculture that will be resilient; that will deal with in an uncertain, changeable climate.
You find when you have a bad climate, let’s say you have drought. Low and behold under drought conditions; organic is more productive than in conventional. Why? The soil is healthy and it holds water because the farms are more diversified. If one crop does badly, other crops are there to fill in. We have many studies of farms in central America that have been hit by hurricanes and the industrial farms were wrecked and the sustainable ones which had 20 different crops were the ones that survived. I think if we’re to feed the world at all; we’re going to need sustainable agriculture. Something really resilient, something that is much based on soil health as it is on powerful seeds and we’re going to need to help the peasant farmers who want help to feed themselves by taking care of their soil and having improved agronomic methods. I think there’s a lot of potential for organic to feed a lot more people than it does right now.
Sorry. Long answer, dude, but it’s a hard question. Can you have an easy one now?
I study Comparative Food Laws in Heidelberg. I’m really interested in the big election this year. If you could, elaborate on this new food economy that is growing up around farmer’s markets. In particular, what freedom from regulation we might be able to pick from candidates’ speeches. How can we hear those messages and say, “Okay, that’s maybe a person with the platform that is aligned with the principles that we see here.”?
Yeah, it’s a good question. I have to say that food law is an area growing dramatically. I’m in Harvard this year and there’s a big food law meeting I think next week or the week after. There are so many law students interested in food law which is very exciting because the food movement has enough writers and chefs and what it needs now are lawyers and policy makers, innovative businessmen, and people to write the laws that fix the policies that we have.
When I was making that point about regulation one of the challenges is that it is very hard if you’re a farmer, say, and you want to reap some of the benefits of value added. Let’s say you’re growing pork and you want to smoke a ham, the standards you have to meet in terms of food safety law make it impossible basically. It is such a big investment. In that small artisanal producers are held to a similar standard that giant slaughterhouses that are very specific risks are not. This one size fits all approach to regulation doesn’t work. And I support food safety regulation, we need it.
When you’re slaughtering 400 heads of cattle an hour, you need some very strong food safety laws. You also need to carve out a space in which small producers who are not necessarily selling in interstate commerce have some freedom to innovate. Is there some risk with that? Yeah, there is some risk with that, but I think it is a risk we need to tolerate. We’ve had this raw milk cheese that FDA was very close to essentially banning all raw milk cheeses and they backed off because of a lot of political pressure from the dairy industry in Vermont where there’s a lot of artisanal cheeses. One whole food law issue is helping farmers confront regulators. Whether you’re changing your regulation or you’re just helping them to deal with them, it’s really, really important.
There’s no free marketing in food; there hasn’t been for a long time. Since the Great Depression in America the government is in it with food subsidies for certain types of producers and not others, and lots of rules. It’s all enshrined in something called the Farm Bill. The giant piece of legislation we’ve passed every 75 years and the EU has its own set of subsidy rules. Really, we need people to understand the Farm Bill. I’ve been working on it for ten years and I have to tell you I don’t really understand the Farm Bill. That’s on purpose; they don’t want us understanding the Farm Bill. We need smart lawyers who can get in there and say, “If you tweak this a little bit, you’re going to create incentives that are going to push the system a little bit this way.” That’s why I think lawyers and policy makers need to take their place in the food movement. It’s a really encouraging development.
Very briefly, in Cooked we talk to, Sister Noella [Marcellino], one of the characters in the fermentation section, the Earth section. She’s a nun in a Benedictine Urbane in Connecticut who makes a raw milk cheese, Saint-Nectaire. She was taught the traditional way of doing it and she makes this cheese in a wooden barrel. That is so illegal. You have to use stainless steel. The government says you have to use stainless steel. She was convinced that the wooden barrel was actually safer than the stainless steel. She went to school and got a Ph.D. in microbiology so she could prove this. And she did.
It was this remarkable test that she did for the public health inspector where she took batches of raw milk, put one in the barrel, one in the sterile stainless steel vat. Inoculated both with E Coli from cattle and waited six hours. At the end of six hours, the milk in the steel vat had so much E Coli that it had to be condemned; nobody could touch it.
The milk in the wooden barrel had astonishingly small amounts. It was safe. It met all the standards. The reason was that there were Lactobacillus, lactic eating bacteria in the wooden barrel that lived in the cracks–the part that she never cleaned. They acidified the milk as they ate the lactose, their favorite food. It brought up the acidity level that killed the E Coli. In effect vaccinating the milk against bad bacteria.
These people in the Auvergne in France, who were making cheese this way, were practicing some kind of folk microbiology. They didn’t know what they were doing, but they were keeping themselves safe. Food safety needs to have that level of sophistication.
I’m wondering, how do you address this economic inequality, especially nowadays, in organic foods? More big food chain stores such as Walmart, Target are also pushing out more organic product. Do you think they’re gimmicks, or is it somewhat positive trend?
Yes. Walmart is now the biggest seller of organic produce in the world. I think that’s, on balance, a good thing. Their idea of organic and your idea of organic may not be quite the same thing because you’re interested in perhaps food that’s more fresher and local. I think that farmer’s market food is better than that kind of organic in many ways just because it’s fresher and it’s been grown with more care. Still, it’s a great thing that organic food is being made available and they’re making organic food cheaper. One of the problems with organic food is that it’s always been expensive. I should say conventional food is always been too cheap, but that’s not a popular way to put it. The reasons that organic food is more expensive, partly has to do with the extra labor it takes to produce it. It is also partly through the demand exceeding the supply, and that’s driven up the cost.
In underserved neighborhoods, there’s a lot that we can do and I’ll just throw one idea that has been tried in some neighborhoods. That is to give people who are on food stamps vouchers redeemable at the farmer’s markets on top of your regular food stamps. The USDA has done this on a trial basis and there are several non-profit groups including the Wholesome Wave Foundation in Connecticut, and the Fair Food Campaign in Michigan. Where they raise private money and gives vouchers to poor people. They’re incredibly popular and are redeemable at the farmer’s market. As soon as the community has a certain amount of these vouchers in circulation, the farmer’s market come in.
You see that in fact, there’s an enormous demand for farmer’s market produce in these inner city communities and there’s a very good way to lure farmers to these places. You also find to that the pricing ends up being a little bit different and a little bit cheaper. I think that that’s an example of the kind of thing that you can do to drive some change. The food movement has gotten a whole lot more sensitive to this issue of income and equality. That’s why you see this focus now in America on wages. A lot of the people struggling to buy good food are working in the food industry as waiters, but can’t afford this good food.
I was wondering, what’s coming up next for you?
Actually, I’m working on a book that is not about food. It’s a book about psychedelic drugs actually. There are mushrooms involved. I said earlier that my real passion as a writer is our engagement with the natural world and that’s what led me into food. Before I was in food, I started with gardening and as a gardener, I was curious about our relationship to plants. One of the very important things we use plants for is to change our consciousness. Whether it’s the cup of coffee you’re drinking right now, or the chocolate you’re eating, or the drugs you’re taking. That’s very interesting. Why should plants have evolved to change the contents of our minds? What is in it for them and what is in it for us? This is a deep human desire. I’ve written about this before in Botany of Desire. There was a long chapter about cannabis. There’s a revival of scientific research into psychedelics going on right now and it’s teaching us very interesting things about the human mind that we didn’t know before. It’s also turning us on to some therapeutic values. If you want to read about this, I wrote a long article on The New Yorker called “The Trip Treatment” that is online and is also on my website, michaelpollan.com.
In America, there are two trials and they’re doing this in London, as well. They’re giving psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, to people actually with terminal cancer diagnosis to help them confront their death or the risk of recurrence. When you’re properly guided it often leads to a mystical experience that resets your thinking about the end of your life. I tell the story of someone who went to this process before his death. Anyway, that’s what I’m working on. It’s quite a departure. I know. But, to me, it’s all connected.
Cooked is currently streaming on Netflix.
In Defense of Food is currently streaming on PBS. This two-hour documentary delves deep into what we are eating in the Western Diet and where to find the good stuff.