Interview with Michael Pollan

From California Monthly, the alumni magazine of University of California, an interview with Michael Pollan, author of many good, systemically informed books and articles about food, plants, and people (e.g. an article about the US cattle industry). His book The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World is a great exploration of the co-evolution of plants and people focussing on four plants – apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes – that people have relate to in different ways.

From the interview:

Let’s talk about science journalism.

Science journalism is more dependent on official sanction than any other kind. This has to do with the question of authority. In general, science journalism concerns itself with what has been published in a handful of peer-reviewed journals–Nature, Cell, The New England Journal of Medicine–which set the agenda. This is fine when you’re covering scientific developments and new discoveries, but what happens when science itself is the story? We’re letting scientists set the agenda in much the way that we let politicians set the agenda.

Another problem is: How do you deal with dissident scientists? With, to take an example on this campus, [biotech critic] Ignacio Chapela. As a science journalist, I don’t know exactly where one stands to write the defense of Chapela in a mainstream newspaper after Nature and the scientific establishment have spoken against him. The journalist can’t do the experiments that would prove or disprove the contested science in this case. All we can do is quote other authoritative scientists; and the people who have the loudest voices tend to be the Nobel laureates and all those others who benefit most from the scientific consensus around biotechnology.

What is a dead zone?

It’s a place where the nitrogen has stimulated such growth of algae and phytoplankton that it starves that area of oxygen, and fish cannot live in it. The dead zone hasn’t gotten much attention, compared to carbon pollution; but, in terms of the sheer scale of human interference in one of the crucial natural cycles, it’s arguably even more dramatic. Fully half of the terrestrial nitrogen in the world today is manmade, from fertilizers.

Our dependence on corn for a “cheap meal” is a fundamental absurdity. Seventy percent of the grain we grow in this country goes to feed livestock. Most of this livestock is cattle, which are uniquely suited to eating grass, not corn. To help them tolerate corn, we have to pump antibiotics into the cattle; and because the corn diet leads to pathogens, we then need to irridiate their meat to make it safe to eat. Feeding so much corn to cattle thus creates new and entirely preventable public health problems.

In addition to contributing to erosion, pollution, food poisoning, and the dead zone, corn requires huge amounts of fossil fuel–it takes a half gallon of fossil fuel to produce a bushel of corn. What that means is that one of the things we’re defending in the Persian Gulf is the cornfields and the Big Mac. Another cost is the subsidies: For corn alone, it’s four or five billion dollars a year in public money to support the corn farmers that make possible our cheap hamburger. Then you’ve got the problem of obesity because these cheap calories happen to be some of the most fattening.

We’re paying for a 99-cent burger in our health-care bills, in our environmental cleanup bills, in our military budget, and in the disappearance of the family farm. So it really isn’t cheap at all.

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