Pollan dishes out views on nutrition

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Such is the tagline of author and ecological gastronome Michael Pollan.

Pollan shared his philosophy and discussed agribusiness, farm subsidies and his non-linear career with over 100 students at a Jonathan Edwards College Master’s Tea on Wednesday. His latest book, “In Defense of Food,” and previous best seller, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” both address the modern industrial diet and America’s need for real, unprocessed foods.

Food and nutrition author Michael Pollan criticized farm subsidies, among other nutritional topics, at a Master’s Tea on Wednesday.
Dounia Bredes
Food and nutrition author Michael Pollan criticized farm subsidies, among other nutritional topics, at a Master’s Tea on Wednesday.

Pollan began writing about food almost accidentally. After graduating from Bennington College and receiving a master’s degree in English from Columbia University, Pollan held a series of jobs with “dead-end magazines” before moving on to write for the Paris Review and Harper’s. Through a personal connection, The New York Times Magazine asked Pollan to write an article on horticulture similar to one he had recently published. He later expanded those essays into a series and then a book.

“Ever since, I’ve been very drawn to these messy areas where nature and culture have to come into contact, have to interact, have to change one another,” he said. “I’m a nature writer who doesn’t like to go camping.”

Pollan’s latest books and articles address ecology and responsible farming, and one of his favorite subjects is federal farm subsidies. The government provides money to farmers to grow corn and wheat, turning fast food loaded with cheap, corn-based high-fructose corn syrup into the low-cost staple of the American diet, Pollan said, which has led to a spike in obesity and diabetes in America.

“On the one hand we have the Surgeon General talking about a diabetes epidemic while the president is signing farm bills that underwrite and make cheap high-fructose corn syrup,” he said. “It’s a complete absurdity.”

Pollan does see hope, however, in increased public awareness of farm subsidies’ damaging effects. Farmers’ markets, school lunches, child-directed advertising, food labeling, an increased focus on animal rights and eliminating trans fats all comprise a growing grassroots effort aimed at restructuring America’s diet choices, he said.

“The hopeful thing is that there was more political activism around the farm bill this year,” he said. “Citizens got involved, and the public-health community finally realized that the way we subsidize agriculture is a public-health issue.”

Despite their skepticism, the farm-subsidy critics were bought off, Pollan said, by pet projects such as supplemental aid for California produce — with the result that the profound change so desperately needed isn’t forthcoming.

Hee-sun Kang ’11, said she was impressed by Pollan’s activism.

“This is an impetus for policy makers to make some change,” she said. “While we can’t necessarily come up with the solutions ourselves, if there is very much a public movement demanding reform, then the necessary people and policy will come out.”

Anna Gorovoy ’09 said she has read two of Pollan’s books and was heavily influenced by his accounts of industrial animal raising and meat production in the United States. Pollan even influenced her decision to become a vegetarian, she said.

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