Michael Pollan: Children Of The Corn

Michael Pollan is one of the foremost food and plant experts in America. He wrote The Botany of Desire a few years ago, he teaches about food, plants, and biodiversity at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Mar 1 2006, 10:00am

Photo courtesy of Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is one of the foremost food and plant experts in America. He wrote The Botany of Desire a few years ago, he teaches about food, plants, and biodiversity at the University of California, Berkeley, and he just finished a new book called The Omnivore's Dilemma. It's about eating in the same way that the Bible is about God.

Michael Pollan: I recently set out to make a meal where I used only things that I hunted, gathered, or grew all by myself.

Vice: What did you do? I shot a boar. Or maybe I should say I shot a pig. Here in California, there are a lot of feral pigs. They have some boar genes in them, but they are descended from pigs that were released by the Spanish in the colonial times. They're all over northern Sonoma County and Mendocino County. It's not like they're easy to find—they are nocturnal—but they kind of rip up the earth quite a bit, so you can locate signs of them and track them down.

Did you have any previous hunting experience? No. I had to learn how to hunt. It was very far from my experience. But after a couple attempts, I managed to get one. I used a rifle. This Sicilian guy who lives in San Francisco taught me how to hunt.

Were you gun-shy? Initially I was afraid of the gun itself. I blew my first chance because I was so hyperworried about safety that I was carrying my gun without a bullet in its chamber, thinking I would put it in when the time came. Then I found myself with a really good shot, but it was a pump-action rifle that I had. To put the bullet in the chamber would have lost me the shot—the animal would have heard me. So I had to give that shot to somebody else who was more prepared than I was.

What was it like when you finally did get your animal? It was interesting. I had wanted to do it and I worked really hard to do it. So when I fired the gun and the animal went down, it was thrilling. I did not have any misgivings at that moment. It was what I had wanted to happen, and it happened. Luckily it was a very clean shot and the animal went down and died quickly. I felt great about it at first. I expected to feel much more ambivalent about the whole thing.

And what, you felt guilty later? The moment did come when I started to feel different about it. Actually, the moment came twice. The first time was when we opened up the animal and started cleaning it. This pig was my size almost exactly. It was about 190 pounds. There was a weird moment of recognition because they look a lot like us inside. There's a reason why doctors practice on pigs.

Did you butcher it in the woods? Yes. We hung it from a tree. My guide is very skilled in all this stuff. In fact, we were going to make prosciutto from the rear legs. For that you have to leave the skin on and then shave it with a razor. That was weird. It was oddly intimate.

That's creepy is what that is. You've eaten prosciutto, right?

Sure. Joe's Busy Corner in Brooklyn has the best prosciutto. Well, all this stuff is going on to allow you to eat it. The food chain we're a part of needs to be more visible and legible to people. We're very disconnected from our food supply right now. I think anyone who's been to a confinement farm in Iowa or a feedlot in Kansas should feel differently about eating that meat and how cheap it is. The price was paid by the suffering of an animal.

When was the second time you felt guilty about the boar? My guide Angelo had taken some pictures. I posed over my pig and I did the classic hunter-porn shot with the gun across my chest and my hand on the beast. When I looked at the photo in my email that night, I was just disgusted with it. I was like, "Who is this asshole?" I had this shit-eating grin and there was this dead animal with this, like, delta of blood seeping out from under it. I felt terrible. I resolved to never show this picture to anybody.

Can I see it, please? No.

Please please please please please? No! Suffice it to say, hunting feels very different inside than it looks outside. I'm happy I did it, but I am not eager to do it again.

How about PETA videos? They purport to lay bare a part of the food chain, but it always feels like sensationalistic bullshit. I show PETA videos in a course on food I teach at Berkeley. It's always a very disturbing session, too. I show them a PETA video called Meet Your Meat. But I have real questions about the journalism. How routine is what we see in these videos? You never know, because they will never disclose where or how they got their tapes. So, yes, what we are seeing on the tape happened—but what are we to conclude from it? Is it an isolated abuse? Is it routine practice? They don't make it clear.

That cover story you did for The New York Times Magazine, "An Animal's Place," seemed to say that eating organic meat is actually better for the animal kingdom than being a vegetarian. Is that the deal? I've spent a lot of time looking at organic agriculture, which has itself become industrialized. I don't think a lot of people realize that there are organic factory farms. They may not be quite as big or quite as brutal, but when you buy your organic eggs and it says "free range" or "roaming hens," it's not quite what it's cracked up to be.

Ha ha. Cracked up. I get it. I've been to some of those places and, yeah, the chickens aren't in battery cages stacked to the ceiling. But on the other hand, the animals aren't really allowed to go outside. There might be a little door because they're required to have that under the organic rules, but they're still living indoors and there's too many of them.

So you no longer see organic farms as the good guys? You always walk a funny line when you're criticizing organic agriculture, but it needs to be held to a higher standard. It's better than the norm and it's to be applauded for that. But as a consumer, there's a kind of story being told. I call it "supermarket pastoral." You look at the packages and see these representations of happy cows and chickens, and we're all suckers for it.

So make it simple—is meat-eating ethical? Rarely. I struggled for a long time to see if I could justify it. There are farms where animals live in accordance with their creaturely character and are killed mercifully. And we are helping some species by eating them—they would vanish if we didn't eat them. So I've built a case for what I call the good farm. It's important to defend the 1 percent of the American meat supply that does come from the good farms. But all the work I have done looking at industrial meat has led me to not eat industrial meat anymore.

So what do you do? Fortunately I live in Berkeley. I can get grass-finished meat here. There's also a place that grows chickens under good conditions here. But even when I was in rural Connecticut, I would find farmers who grew good meat and I would buy a quarter of a steer or a bunch of chickens and put it all in the freezer.

But isn't that snobby? Poor people can't eat organic. It absolutely can be. The system we have now is rigged. To eat well, which is to say to eat both responsibly and healthily, takes more money and more leisure time than eating cheaply. And that's definitely a problem. But just because a movement, like the alternative-food movement, is elitist, doesn't mean that we should dismiss it out of hand. A lot of social movements have begun as elite movements and gradually filtered down.

Like what? Abolition, women's suffrage, and the environmental movement all began with the elite, so I don't think that's a devastating blow against it. But we also need to look at why cheap food is cheap.

OK. Why is cheap food cheap? Because the U.S. government subsidizes industrial agriculture. We pay enormous subsidies to people who grow corn and soybeans. That's why we have factory farms. Since you can buy corn for less money than it costs to grow it, it makes sense for farmers to gather together instead of raising their own cattle or pigs. And on the factory farms, the animals are fed all the subsidized corn and soybeans.

I never fully understood agricultural subsidies. It goes back to the Nixon administration. There was a period of hyperinflation and food costs got out of hand. You had housewives taking to the streets to protest the high cost of butter and horsemeat showing up in butcher shops. Nixon felt really threatened by this. The goal of agricultural policy since then has been to force down the price of food as much as possible. We began encouraging farmers to plant fencerow to fencerow and "get big or get out"—that's what Earl Butts, Nixon's agriculture secretary, said.

OK, but why corn? Corn is the keystone species in America. When corn is cheap, it all follows—beef is cheap, butter is cheap, eggs are cheap. It costs about $3 a bushel to grow corn and the price is about $1.50.

And why is this bad? Corn isn't unhealthy. First, to grow all that corn causes environmental devastation. Also, to eat so much highly processed food—because it isn't like we're eating fresh corn on the cob—causes lots of health problems. We're designed by evolution to eat a wide variety of different things. But if we're just eating rearrangements of corn we're not getting all our nutrients.

This is all tied in to the obesity epidemic too. The main ingredient in Coke, people don't often realize, is corn. High-fructose corn syrup. So, with all this corn, it makes sense that Cokes are getting bigger. When I was a kid, the average Coca-Cola was a six- or eight-ounce bottle. Now it's this 20-ounce jug.

Oh yeah, Coke is corn. That's fucked up. It's all corn, plus a few chemical sweeteners and a couple natural flavors.

What else is corn? I took a McDonald's meal to a scientist on campus here and he ran it through a mass spectrometer. You can actually trace the identity of the carbon in the meal. The carbon in corn has a very distinct signature. He ran the meal through and told me exactly what percentage of everything was corn. In the case of the soda, it was 100 percent. The cheeseburger was like 66 percent, and the Paul Newman salad dressing was about the same. Even the French fries were dripping with corn because they are fried in corn oil.

So corn is like gas, but for people. Or something like that. We are the people of corn.

INTERVIEWED BY JESSE PEARSON

Michael Pollan's new book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, comes out next month.

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