Berkeleyan

Pollan's public-interest prediction

Will a clash of economic interests between two monolithic industries – healthcare and agriculture – ultimately bring about lasting improvements in the American diet?

| 10 September 2009

Michael Pollan now has the "Omnivore's Solution" (Ken Light photo)

The passage of federal healthcare reform might, just might, have the unintended side effect of turning the healthcare industry into an ally of the movement seeking profound changes in America's food systems.

So says Michael Pollan, the Berkeley journalism professor whose best-selling book The Omnivore's Dilemma (The Penguin Press, 2006) has raised the nation's consciousness about the health, environmental, and energy problems caused by the industrialization of food production, while helping to fan West Coast sparks of food activism into a national uprising.

The book, which he calls "very much a product of UC Berkeley," is the subject of the College of Letters and Science's fourth annual On the Same Page program, which each year selects a work or works by a leading thinker or artist for incoming freshmen to read and reflect on, and for L&S faculty to teach to in seminars as well as their regular courses. (See sidebar this page.)

Pollan wrote much of Omnivore after arriving in the Graduate School of Journalism in January 2003. By then he'd already met Berkeley researchers whose work proved important to its themes, including soil scientist Garry Esposito and biologists Todd Dawson and Ignacio Chapela.

"I've benefited a lot from these cross-pollinations," he says.

The book has also turned Pollan into a de facto leader of the burgeoning food-reform movement, and since it came out he's seen its ideas gain popularity in some unexpected places, including the farm states of the Midwest whose industrial-farming practices come under fire in his book and within the health-insurance industry.

This is why Pollan is currently feeling a bit optimistic about the prospects of real food reform. "I think if we do get health reform, even weak healthcare reform," he says, "it will create a powerful ally in the fight to change food systems."

A sudden interest in prevention?

Public highlights of On the Same Page

"The Global Food Crisis." Panelists include Berkeley professors Miguel Altieri and David Zilberman and Stuffed and Starved author Raj Patel. In the Maud Fife Room, 315 Wheeler, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 3:30-5 p.m.

Food, Inc. The hit documentary is screening in Wheeler Auditorium, Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 7 p.m.

"The Omnivore's Solution: Fixing Food from Farm to Fork." Michael Pollan speaks at Zellerbach Hall, Wednesday, Sept. 30 at 8 p.m. The event is co-sponsored by L&S and Cal Performances.

"Eat, learn, live." A sustainable-food fair, also featuring Pollan, along with campus groups involved with the issue. Krutch Theater, Clark Kerr Campus, Thursday, Oct. 1, 4-6 p.m.

Ticket information and full details are online.

Among the positive signs: In June, Pollan was invited to address America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the coalition of heath insurers that helped kill healthcare reform during the Clinton administration.

"I think if they can't pick and choose who they cover, and they have to take all comers on the same terms, they will develop a powerful interest in prevention because they'll try to prevent every case of type 2 diabetes they can," Pollan says.

That could put the insurance industry on the same side as food reformers when it comes to cutting federal crop subsidies and imposing soda taxes, which are seen as ways to fight obesity and diabetes by reducing consumption of soft drinks sweetened with cheap, subsidized high-fructose corn syrup.

"I could be wrong," Pollan says, admitting that his view "comes out of a certain cynicism [that] the public interest really doesn't get an hearing in Congress anymore; what you need is a powerful interest to go up against the powerful interest that's the problem.

But he adds, "If you can get an interest as powerful as the healthcare industry, or the health insurers, they might be a match for the food industry and agriculture. I'm hoping that's how it will play out."

The reform movement, and what needs to be done to fix the system, is one topic Pollan says he may explore in his On the Same Page appearances, which culminate with his presentation "The Omnivore's Solution: Fixing Food From Farm to Fork," Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 8 p.m. in Zellerbach Hall; the event is co-sponsored by L&S and Cal Performances.

He'll also appear on a panel after a showing of the new documentary film Food, Inc. The film, released in June, is still playing in some 100 theaters and already is the 20th-highest-grossing documentary in U.S. history, according to Pollan. Its popularity, in fact, has stimulated pushback from what Pollan calls the "organized anti-food-movement" another sign that the movement for food reform is gaining traction.

Passionate engagement

Pollan says he might also use his Zellerbach appearance as an opportunity to speak to students about questions of how to eat, given the issues raised in Omnivore, as "both a personal and political matter."

Students at Berkeley, and on campuses around the country, are passionately engaged in food reform, Pollan says.

"This is their issue," he contends. "College students are always taken with issues that connect the personal and the political. They're constructing their identities. They want to make their identities consistent with their political views, and they want to act on it. They think it's hypocritical to do anything less."

You only have to look around campus to see the degree of interest aroused by food, he says: the vegetable garden that's sprouted at the top of Memorial Glade, the weekly farmers market on Sproul Plaza, several student groups organized around sustainable food, and Pollan's own graduate courses on writing about food systems.

"I get a lot of young people, undergrads and graduate students, who say I want to devote my life to this battle. What do I do? Should I be a writer?" Pollan says. "I usually say no. I say you should become a lawyer or a policy maker. I can read the Farm Bill but we need people who can actually understand it and know how to rewrite it."

Exploring food issues with freshmen is a rare opportunity for Pollan, since he teaches in the graduate school. "Food is so tied up with identity and class, so I just think it's a very interesting touchstone for students away from home for the first time to be talking about," he says.

Public highlights of this fall's On the Same Page program

"The Global Food Crisis." Panelists include Berkeley professors Miguel Altieri and David Zilberman and Stuffed and Starved author Raj Patel. In the Maude Fife Room, 315 Wheeler, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 3:30-5 p.m.

Food, Inc. The hit documentary is screening in Wheeler Auditorium, Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 7 p.m.

"The Omnivore's Solution: Fixing Food from Farm to Fork." Michael Pollan speaks at Zellerbach Hall, Wednesday, Sept. 30 at 8 p.m.

"Eat, learn, live." A sustainable-food fair, also featuring Pollan, along with campus groups involved with the issue. Krutch Theater, Clark Kerr Campus, Thursday, Oct. 1, 4 to 6 p.m.

Ticket information and details can be found at On the Same Page

'We are corn walking': Why Berkeley faculty are flocking to talk about Omnivore's Dilemma

Take one book in this case Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Give Berkeley's faculty free rein to run with its ideas. And the result is 22 one-time discussion groups on an astonishingly broad range of provocative topics, presented as part of On the Same Page. Here's what a few faculty have to say about their takes on Pollan's book:

Kenneth Ribet, Professor of mathematics

I'm very interested in food, possibly because I lived and worked in France for much of the time between 1975 and 1990, or so. These days I tend to shop pretty much exclusively at the Monterey Market, farmers' markets, and the two Berkeley Bowls. I stay out of supermarkets including Whole Foods. I'm a big fan of local producers.

Nonetheless, or perhaps because of this, I learned quite a lot from the Pollan book. I now am especially keen to avoid organic foods that are shipped long distances (e.g., organic beef from South America). I've come to understand that even locally sourced organic eggs and poultry are "manufactured" in facilities that are not much different from their traditional analogues. I hope to tell all this to the students.

Linda Rugg, Associate professor of Scandinavian studies

I grew up in Nebraska, where the corn and soybeans of industrial farming have taken over much of the landscape, and I detasseled corn and hoed soybeans as a kid. . . a little cog in the corporate farming machine.

Today, my father, once a salesman of heavy-duty chemical fertilizers and pesticides, is an organic community farmer. Hearts and minds are slowly starting to change.

So Pollan's books have spoken to me, and when I heard that we were adopting The Omnivore's Dilemma for the On the Same Page program, I wanted in.

As a scholar of literature and film, I felt that one of the best ways for me to help people examine the basic premises of Pollan's work would be to look at how a work of art relates questions of aesthetics, belief, love, and deep cultural identity to the preparation and consumption of food. I wanted to choose a film from a culture I know well, and so I chose the beautiful Babette's Feast.

Carla Hesse, L&S Dean of Social Sciences, Peder Sather Professor of History

I chose the provocative theme of cannibalism to encourage students to attend to the rhetorical aspects of writing about nature. One of the magical effects of Michael Pollan's writing is that he invites readers to think of plants and animals as having attributes and qualities of human-like agency, with respect to other life forms. He suggests that corn is "eating" us (i.e., consuming our energies and exploiting our weakness for sugar).

I used the word "cannibalism" to evoke the problem of what happens to the boundary between human life and other life forms if we attribute evolutionary agency to non-human forms of life. If the human/nature boundary dissolves, does that not make us all (humans, animals, and plants) into cannibals? The rhetorical effect of analogizing between humans and plants can lead to some interesting philosophical quandaries, both conceptual and moral.

Todd Dawson, Professor of integrative biology

What inspired me to get involved was my respect for what Michael accomplished with his book, the importance of raising public (student) awareness about the foods they eat, and the fact that I provided some of the book's scientific evidence about corn in our diet, what corn is among all the plants we eat, and why we might care.

As we consume and assimilate the foods we require, the stable C (carbon) and N (nitrogen) isotope composition of these foods can leave distinct "fingerprints" on the C and N that composes us. With respect to C and N, we are literally what we eat.

Stable isotope analysis of human hair reveals that corn has increased by some 10,000% in modern North American diets in just 50 years. We are corn walking. This discussion will focus on the science underlying how we determine what we eat, why we might care and what it could mean.