Food guru blames health woes on corporate food producers

By Diane Carman

Michael Pollen, one of the high priests of the trendy local, organic food movement, is brutally honest about its real impact on the American diet. As a percentage of food production, he said, its still in the single digits. Despite high-profile advocates from Chez Panisse celebrity chef Alice Waters to First Lady Michelle Obama, the industrial food production system still reigns supreme.

For those who do harvest lettuce or fresh eggs from backyard gardens, buy peaches from a farmers market and cook dinner at home instead of picking it up at a fast-food drive-through, the benefits go well beyond good nutrition, he said, at a presentation Wednesday evening at the Paramount Theatre.

Growing vegetables, buying food directly from farmers and preparing it yourself has great value in terms of health, but also in social cohesion, he said. Some interesting philosophical things happen when you get back in touch with nature. It has a whole spiritual dimension.

Most Americans abandoned gardening and cooking long ago, believing they dont have the time, but somehow in the last 10 years weve found two hours a day for the Internet, Pollen said. Clearly, you make time for what you value.

Pollen, author of The Omnivores Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, In Defense of Food: An Eaters Manifesto, Food Rules: An Eaters Manual and other books, said he has raised and butchered chickens and once hunted wild boar, something he recommends for meat-eaters like himself who might develop a higher level of appreciation for the protein on their plates. But while he sticks by the opening line of In Defense of Food Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants. hes not judgmental about personal food choices.

Instead he reserves his disdain for the corporate food industry and the government subsidies that have nurtured it, which he holds largely responsible for the epidemic of obesity and diabetes in the United States.

The federal government subsidizes the raw ingredients for processed foods, he said. Fruits and vegetables arent subsidized.

Corn and soy receive huge subsidies, making them cheap to produce and creating strong incentives for the food industry to develop more and more products from these basic commodities, he said. Its why high-fructose corn syrup has insinuated its way into our diet in everything from soft drinks and breakfast cereals to something as basic as bread.

The food industry knows, Pollen said, the more you process food, the more money you can make.

Thats why people interested in a healthy diet should shop the edges of the supermarket.

The real food is around the perimeter, because foods like vegetables, fruits, eggs, dairy products, meat and fish are perishable and its easier to restock them since they are closer to the loading docks. This stuff is alive and should die eventually, he said. The stuff in the middle is immortal.

As for the higher cost of real food, especially organics, Pollen suggests that the price we pay for cheap, processed food is much greater than we realize. While only 7 or 8 percent of our income is spent on food among the lowest rates in the world and in our history the cost to us in health care expenses, environmental impacts and the degradation of our culture from eating highly-processed, unethically raised foods is incalculable.

Industrial livestock production represents capitalism at its most brutal, Pollen said, and the system and its cruel treatment of cattle, pigs, chickens and other livestock is being exported to Eastern Europe, China and other countries. Many countries in Western Europe have higher standards for treatment of the animals, however, and have banned the use of hormones and antibiotics in animal feed.

Those policies have not threatened the food supply, he said, and he predicted that the U.S. will have to end the use of antibiotics in animal feed because of the increasing threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Two powerful industries agribusiness and the pharmaceutical industry have delayed action on this problem, he said, but the health threat presented by antibiotic resistance makes such a change inevitable.

He also expects to see a tax on sweetened soft drinks eventually because of the high cost to the health care system of obesity and diabetes. I dont know how that will work or if it will work, but high taxes worked with cigarettes. We need to try something.

While corporate food is not likely to disappear anytime soon, Pollen suggests that consumers can express our values in the marketplace, can improve their well-being by buying better food and eating less, and can take back control of food by buying it from farmers and cooking it themselves.

Food has always been about community, he said. That sense of community happens at farmers markets and around dining tables. Corporations are never going to give us that.