Notes from Michael Pollan’s 92nd St Y talk

Last Monday I went to a lecture at the 92nd St Y, Michael Pollan with Ruth Reichl: The Omnivore's Dilemma. It was an interesting discussion though as someone who's already familiar with a lot of the issues around various farming methods (and someone's who's currently reading Pollan's new book The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals) I didn't learn a tremendous amount. Still it was enjoyable, and somewhat depessing, to hear them talk about topics so close to my heart.

Here's a rough replay of the talk, reconstructed from my poor notes, which seem to totally lack the questions Reichl asked Pollan to get him to talk about all this great stuff:

Reichl and Pollan began by discussing how basically in the course of ten years organic has gone from something that was seen as a bad message to share with the consumer to something that's very popular. Pollan mentioned companies in the early nineties that grew organic and chose not to reveal this fact on their labels. Apparently a lot of wine is grown organic but not labeled as such. The rise in the popularity of organic food is being driven by a sense that the current conventional system of farming is unsustainable.

Pollan said, "We have these teachable moments, you could call them panic…" when people have realized some of the things that are wrong with the current food system, such as the mad cow disease scare. He spoke for a bit about mad cow in more detail, discussing how the current system the government uses to test for mad cow is actually designed not to find mad cow because it depends on cow owners reporting sick cows to the government. Of course, owners have no incentive to make any such report because they risk losing their entire herd. Makes it hard to find the mad cow. He said he is certain there's mad cow in the US and that we will have outbreaks here. Only after that happens will there be a change in the system. He pointed out how Britain transformed their meat industry after the mad cow outbreaks there a few years ago.

The discussion moved to ignorance and Pollan stated that the current f ood production system in the United States depends on ignorance. If people actual saw how their food was produced, there would be an outcry. Stores like Whole Foods (and the organic movement in general) use stories to combat ignorance and educate people on where the food comes from and how it's produced. (My thought: it's a great way to make you feel better paying all that extra money too..) He called Whole Foods "a great literary experience."

With regards to the news that Wal-Mart will begin to sell organic food, he says this will make it impossible for organic food to be considered elitist, which is good. But they also say they will charge only 10% more for organic food. How will it be possible to charge 10% more than prices that are artificially low and irresponsible? First of all, they'll use only big organic farmers. Then they'll squeeze them on price once they've become dependent upon Wal-Mart's business. And Wal-Mart will also go over seas, we'll see a globalization of organic farming, with products coming from countries with cheap labor and less regulation.

He pointed out that organic is simply a government standard, a word whose definition is at the mercy of Washington, and the standards it represents can be changed. He said people already lobby Washington and that attempts have been made to reduce the efficacy of the organic label. An example he gave: A provision was put into a bill a few years ago that would allow organic chicken farmers to give their birds conventional feed when the price of organic feed rose above a certain level. An outcry from producers got it repealed.

As more organic food comes from abroad, less food will be produced here at home. What's wrong with that? It's uncomfortable for a country not to produce its own food. Also we risk losing what many people like: an agricultural landscape. He said that by the end of the century, California's Central Valley will no longer produce food. We will import its former products from abroad and the Valley will fill with housing. Once that happens, that land cannot be returned to food production without tearing down homes, something that will never happen.

He said our food system depends on cheap energy. When there's government pressure to clean up factory farms, they'll move overseas to a place where there's no pressure and there will be no change. He also pointed out that organic farming is nearly as productive as conventional farming now, especially in drought years. He talked about how the US supply of cheap corn is flooding the corn markets of the world — 1.5 million Mexican farmers have gone out of business since NAFTA because of it.

The discussion turned to small producers and he talked about the slaughterhouse chokepoint. For small producers there's nowhere to get their meat processed. Often they have to go very far to do so, and that adds $1/lb to the cost of meat. He talked about a man who tried to build his own slaughterhouse and went out of business doing so because of the difficulties with the FDA inspectors.

He called New York City's Union Square the center of the food movement saying, "the choice we face is crystallized in Union Square, which side of the street will you shop on?" (This is in reference to Whole Foods being across the street from the famous farmer's market.) He says local is more important than organic, and that you should ask producers if they use pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. He talked about how Whole Foods sells some unsustainable products, like farmed Atlantic Salmon, and how salmon are being re-engineered to eat corn. (Aside: What the fuck?! Are we crazy? What are we doing to our food, and why is it being driven by the insane over-production of corn?)

Best line: he told a story about talking to a meat producer on the phone and his hopes of getting some "review steaks." I'd like to get some review steaks! He said we need to rediscover the art of the kitchen, of preserving. We're complicit in the system and we need to reinvent ourselves as eaters. We need to get more local. We need to cook more. People do have time to cook, it doesn't take three hours to put a meal on the table.

He wrapped up by saying blue states need to pay attention to the Farm Bill (reauthorized every five years in the US, new one coming up in 2007) because it dictates public health and land use. We need to work towards food sovereignty for regions and nations, and we should not sell food below the cost of production. He suggests we follow a more European model by paying farmers to maintain land and to be sustainable (rather than grow monocrops and saturate the land with chemicals), and to grow food we want to eat.