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Michael Pollan answers your questions Add to ...

I've read your books and they have changed the way I eat. (Your three rules are going up on my kitchen wall in three-inch lettering - I just sent off the order!) I have young children and want to impart this common-sense approach to food in them as well. It'll be a while before my oldest, who is five years old, will be able (and willing) to sit down and read your books. What advice do you have for parents wanting to educate their kids on where their food comes from and how to decide what to eat?

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- Ben Cox, Vancouver

That's a very good question. I got into all this because my son was such a bad eater and it really was the source of my curiosity about how strange our relationship to food is. But one of the few things that I've learned - and he's 16 now - is that having a garden is a fantastic way to introduce kids to foods. They will eat things from a garden they would never eat off a plate. It's a mystery. It has to do with, I think, the satisfaction of growing and picking something themselves and that they are never going to be sweeter.

Similarly, cooking is a good way to get children interested in food. They will eat things they cooked that they would never eat if someone else cooked it. So my advice would be to get your kids into the kitchen as soon as you can and plant a little vegetable garden - it doesn't have to be ambitious.

I found your arguments in The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food compelling. However, it is much easier to eat produce locally when one is living in California. I can manage to put up some fruits and vegetables in the summer, but not nearly enough to make it through the long Ontario winter. Perhaps if I did not work full-time things would be different. So what do you suggest for those of us in cold climates - are we really supposed to eat only root vegetables for seven to eight months of the year?

-Elizabeth Caucutt, London, Ont.

It's true it's really easy to eat this way in California - and Vancouver, too, I imagine. I'm not a locavore zealot and there's nothing wrong with frozen vegetables - they're really cheap and they are often picked at the height of nutritional quality and freezing does not ruin their nutritional composition. I think it's a very good way to get through the winter months.

I also do think, though, that the idea that you have to have a lettuce salad 12 months of the year has taken hold where there are many other vegetables suitable for salad - root vegetables, cabbage. There are all sorts of ways you can eat fresh vegetables in the winter, shredded with vinaigrette, whatever, that are more nutritious than lettuce salads. There is actually very little food value in lettuce - as much as we all love it, it's overrated.

There's no question it's challenging in the winter and I don't see lots of people putting up hoards of vegetables, but don't overlook freezing or canning. Putting up tomato sauce and preserves for the winter,

if you have the inclination,

is great - it's a wonderful burst of summer in the depths of winter.

How do you see the current recession affecting the local food movement? And what does it mean for smaller-scale farmers?

- Mark Hall, Grenfell, Ont.

It's a mixed bag and there are some contradictory trends going on. On the one hand, McDonald's is doing very well - so certain people are trading down to cheaper restaurants. But then you've got a lot of people who are cooking who weren't cooking before. I've spoken to people who track sales, and ingredient sales are up, so people are cooking more. They have more time because they are working less - so that's a very positive thing.

Farmers' markets are doing extremely well, and organics sales are very good - someone just e-mailed me stats that show that organics sales in the United States are up 15 per cent [in 2008] Whole Foods is apparently going back to its roots and going back to more bulk foods and less packaged goods, so I'm hopeful, as has happened in hard economic times before, that people rediscover the kitchen and the garden.

Historically depressions have led to better health because people were eating less, but we didn't have McDonald's during the last one.

I live in Ontario and have very limited access to local markets. In the supermarket, I am often faced with making a choice between local produce or organic produce. Is it better to buy organic apples from Chile, or non-organic produce from Ontario? I want to do the right thing, and price isn't really an issue (or at least I won't let it be), but I really don't know which is the best for the planet. I suspect organic is more important for me and my health, directly, but in the broader social context? What's best for the planet?

- Joan Burton, Newmarket, Ont.

That's a hard question. In general, faced with that question, I usually buy local. If [you're]defining local as all of Ontario, local may mean a lot of very industrialized food, but if local is really from [your]food shed - 100 miles or so - then it's probably coming from diversified farms that aren't using a lot of pesticides, in which case [you are]really getting both values at once. To me, local is a more important value, but you can't tell people what to do, as there are so many values involved.

Are you concerned about pesticides? Are you concerned about farm workers? You have to decide what values you want to vote for with your food dollars and they are not always the same.

For me, preserving agricultural land near the city is really, really important. Buying organic food from a thousand miles away doesn't seem to me so organic - because it takes so much energy to get it here. But I can understand a nursing mother, for example, saying, 'It's got to be organic because I'm really concerned about those pesticides.'

Your manifesto suits me fine and I hope it inspires others. However, in a world where a significant population faces hunger or malnutrition, how can we justifiably limit the potential for food science to feed people? We don't all have the blessed life to choose bountiful farmers' markets and locavore options. Processing, preserving and shipping may be the only way for huge populations to be fed. Are you suggesting we simply starve out those who cannot access the luxury of good food?

- Rein Taul, Toronto

Look, it's not an all or nothing proposition. I don't know if it's even possible for us to feed ourselves locally - we've lost so much farmland near big cities. But there are certain myths about industrial food. It is more productive - not necessarily true. Diversified farms produce more food per acre than the most industrialized food. The difference is they take more labour and that's where we're short.

Is there a role for agricultural science? Without question.

We automatically assume that technology is a genetically modified seed or a new chemical, but smart rotation is just as ingenious a technology.

In Argentina right now, on 5,000-acre farms, they are using an eight-year rotation - five years of cattle raised on grass, moving them around the fields, then they plow it all up and plant grain. And because of all the fertility that the cattle have left in the soil, they can grow three years of grain without an ounce of nitrogen fertilizer. Then they go back to cattle - and they are growing some of the best beef in the world.

So why can't we think of a

rotation like that in Western Canada or the high plains of America? It takes research.

The problem is there's no money in inventing brilliant processes - there's much more money in inventing technologies you can sell.

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