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Michael Pollan

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Ian Brown sits down with Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and god of the food movement

IAN BROWN: Why is there a backlash against foodies, in favor of Big Agriculture?

MICHAEL POLLAN: You know how journalists work. They like to set up that kind of tension. But I think it's not that simple."

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IB: The Economist declares war between Big Agriculture on the one hand and small-scale sustainable farming on the other. The magazines claims the latter can never feed the world, not with 9 billion people by 2050.

MP: There are people in the food movement who aim to replace Big Ag with Small Ag. But I think there are many more people in the food movement who seek to reform Big Ag. And to cast it as a choice between the small, diversified, sustainable farm and the highly productive massified farm is a false choice. Where does Wal Mart fit in that? Wal Mart is interested in localizing its production right now, and they're doing a lot of things to do that. They are going to big farmers and trying to get them to change the way they behave. There's a lot of movement to get antibiotics out of production in animal farming. And that's not about breaking those farms up into tiny little units. That's about reforming the way they do business. So if you cast it as an either/or--if Big Ag is the only way you can feed the world, and I'm not willing to concede that, I don't think it's proven, though it is asserted--then that frees Big Ag to do whatever it feels it needs to do to continue to be big and productive. I think it's a way to take the focus off them and off the fact that many of their ways of doing business are completely unsustainable and brutal and unjust. It's an interesting formulation, but I just don't accept it.

It's also an interesting formulation because we just don't have the choice of continuing down the path of this highly industrialized, highly fossil fuel-dependent food industry, even if we wanted to. Even if we decided that's what we liked best, we're going to find we don't have the fossil fuel to support it. We would find that having a globalized food economy is fraught with risks, as we're seeing with the current price spikes. And that food security, whether you're talking about countries or smaller units, is endangered by having the food system we have. A lot of the political instability we're seeing now is tied to problems with the globalized food system. So the idea that's it's working and that we could continue on this path is just not a choice available to us. We have to figure out another way to do it. And to say the only alternative is the tiny artisinal farm is false. There are many ways to do it. All of them involve changing industrial agricultural, however.

IB: What do you make of the complaints of B.R. Myers, who has aesthetic and moral objections to foodies in the latest Atlantic Monthly?

MP: His aesthetic problem is an ethical problem, and that's that he's a vegan. And if you look at the way he writes about these issues...everything he dismisses as gluttony always involves eating an animal. So there's a few agendas mixed up in that, and he's not completely open about what they are.

One of the things that strikes me about foodie-ism, to use a term that I really despise, is that it is ethically inflected in a way that other forms of past interest in food have not been. And I'm sure you noticed this amongst the chefs you were with. What's very striking about the current interest in food is that it's not purely aesthetic. It is not purely about pleasure--people are very interested in the system that they're eating from. And they're very interested in the way the food was produced and the story behind it. People are mixing up aesthetics and ethics in a very new way, that some people are uncomfortable with, frankly. The idea that you could take any pleasure from politics, that you could mix those two terms, is a very un-American idea. We see it as you're either indulging yourself, or you're doing the world good. The fact is, slow food and other elements of the food movement are proposing that the best choice, the most beautiful choice, is often the most sustainable choice. It might be more expensive, and that's a problem that we need to work on. But I think the industry is feeling very threatened right now by the fact that so many people are asking hard questions about their food. And so there's an effort underway to discredit the food movement.

If the industrial food system were working so well, you would not have so many consumers abandoning it in droves. And this is an organized PR campaign to defend industrial agriculture. In America there's a consortium of various groups that have put together about $30 million to defend industrial Ag. The Farm Bureau is kind of leading the charge in America. The farm Bureau has always fronted for agribusiness.

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IB: I have spoken to people who think the current focus on cooking, and especially high-end TV cooking, has actually alienated us even more from what we eat.

MP: It's interesting that the media would celebrate this shallow foodie-ism [on TV]and then attack the food movement for shallow foodie-ism. But you know how the runs of the media go. Once you celebrate something, what can you do then? You attack it. I think the media has gone overboard on the food issue. I don't even think food politics are quite as vibrant as the media would have you believe. But having built it up so much, what is left but to take it down? Still, it's fraught. There is a real restiveness around food in this country, and a sense that the western diet is at the heart of the problems."

IB: The food movement is also attacked for producing expensive food.

MP: There is beautiful food being served today that is expensive that only the affluent can afford, that's absolutely true. But the food movement has many pieces. And there are also many efforts to democratize it--to bring farmers' markets into the city and offer vouchers to the poor so they can buy food at the farmers' market. To teach cooking classes in the inner city where the culture of cooking has been particularly undermined. So there are many elements. The Slow Food organization is a great example. It celebrates beautiful and expensive food but is also involved in getting gardens into schools, to make it possible for more people to benefit from the food.

A great many social movements in this country have begun with elites, with people who have the time and the resources to devote to them. You go back to abolition, women's suffrage, the environmental movement. That's not unusual. And to damn a political and social movement because the people who started it are well-to-do seems to me not all that damning. If the food movement is still dominated by the elite in 20 years, I think that will be damning. It would need to be more democratized. The reason that good food is more expensive than cheap food is part of the issue we're trying to confront. And has to do with subsidies, and the way we organize our society and our economy. Those are big systemic problems.

IB: One of the reasons people want to eat in a more engaged way seems to be a longing for community, as an antidote to our technological isolation. Food is community--and a very physical form of community, at that.

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MP: Shared meals, breaking bread, making food, with one another, with nature, across generations--there is a longing for that. One of the earmarks of industrial eating is eating alone. Our eating has become very isolated and anti-social. And the industry has atomized us in our eating. The industry would rather we didn't eat our meals at the table with other people. You can sell more food to people if you break them up into demographic target groups, and they've understood this for a long time. If you go to the frozen food aisle at your store, you will see frozen entrees, designed for adult men, entrees designed for teenaged girls, entrees for women dieting, entrees designed for young boys. So if you can break people up into those pieces and sell a different entree to each one, you've sold a lot more food that you would have if you'd just targeted Mom and let her decide what everyone's going to eat. So industrial eating or corporate eating has undermined the social dimension of eating. And people miss that. And I think that is one of the drivers that brings people to this movement."

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