Gluten, Organics, Psychedelics and More: Our 15-Minute Chat with Michael Pollan

michael pollan

Michael Pollan at the "Cooked" premiere.

Tobias Koch/Netflix

Michael Pollan is a busy guy. But between preparing lectures for his UC Berkeley course Edible Education, making the rounds on the food and farming lecture circuit, and attending promo events for the two recent documentaries he helped produce, he still found time to give Modern Farmer a call this week to update us on his latest endeavors.

Pollan gave us the backstory on Cooked, the just-released Netflix docu-series based on his latest book of the same name, and discussed his distaste for the term “foodie.” He also gave us the lowdown on his next book—which has nothing to do with food or farming.

* This interview has been edited and condensed from its original form.

Modern Farmer: In conceiving the Cooked series, was it a conscious goal of yours to use Netflix as a platform to bring your ideas to the primetime-watching masses?

Michael Pollan: The other [TV productions] I’ve done have been public television, and then there was Food Inc, which was theatrical, so I’ve worked in a couple different distribution systems. So when the opportunity to do it on Netflix came up, I jumped at it. I thought they were great partners. They had already demonstrated a commitment to doing a very different kind of food journalism, and they had proven to themselves that their audience was particularly interested in food.

I thought Chef’s Table was beautiful; it was chef-centered but it got the chefs out of the kitchen and looked at the contexts of food which seldom get looked at on television. And I knew that they could move more quickly than public television. I just did In Defense of Food on public television, and it took five or six years to fund. The process is just much more cumbersome. When Netflix wants to move, they can move very quickly. This whole thing—four hours of television—was done over just the course of last year.

MF: Cooked is such a beautiful film—and there is no hiding the political message and it—but that part doesn’t come across as much of the excitement and the beauty of the material.

MP: A lot of attention was paid to the cinematography, and the locations, and even the sound design. [But] yeah you’re right, there is a political message. Alex [Gibney, the filmmaker] is a very political animal, and I’m a very political animal. But I think that was kind of submerged in what is just a very sensual viewing experience. There is an argument to be found, but is not foregrounded. In the foreground is this exploration and a celebration of this activity that is universal and essential to our health and identity and our family life.

What’s happening to American food is in the process of happening all over the world right now.

And one of the great contributions that Alex brought to the material was making it international—it’s a much more of a global film than the book was. I think that’s really great, because this is not an American story. This is a world story. And what’s happening to American food is in the process of happening all over the world right now. To the extent people in other countries want to look at an American book for production about food is because we are their future, unless they can head it the off.

MF: Do you think that such a highly artistic cinematography approach helps get the message across to folks who are not already part of the local food movement?

MP: I hope so. The reason I do television is to reach people where they are and reach the people who don’t want to read a book about the food system, which is what I’ve written, but just want to be entertained. The first rule when you’re making film is to entertain people. And if you can instruct as well as delight, that is wonderful. But delight comes first.

MF: And then hopefully they get off the couch afterward and into their kitchen or their garden, right?

MP: I don’t know that it’s a subliminal politic, but I think the best way to get to people is by telling them stories that hold them, so that became our priority.

MF: The local food movement has garnered some criticism, perhaps justified, of being a gentrified way of looking at things. But cooking, as you point out in the book and in the film, doesn’t really cost much. It’s cheaper than going out, you can do a lot with a little.

MP: And also it’s available to everybody; it’s a very democratic activity. But it’s very interesting that it does get painted is this elitist activity. It is true that some people don’t have enough time to do it, but if you can find even a little bit of time, it’s very economical, you can save a lot of money. There have been a lot of studies showing that, if you like to eat McDonald’s style food, you can make that style of food yourself for a fraction of the price, and it’s going to be a lot better quality. So I do see cooking as a very democratic activity that for some bizarre reason we convince ourselves is the concern of elites. It needn’t be. And you notice there is not a lot of chefs, not a lot of fancy food in this show. It’s real basic—it’s slow cooked pork, it’s bread, it’s cheese, it’s really the most basic of transformations. They’re each wonderful, and they are each incredibly ordinary at the same time.

Michael Pollan in season one of "Cooked." Karen Ballard/Netflix

Michael Pollan in season one of CookedKaren Ballard/Netflix

MF: I have to ask you about the gluten segment in Cooked, because I know that raised a lot of people’s hackles. You insinuate that gluten sensitivity is actually a psychological phenomenon for many people. What is the evidence for that?

MP: A lot of people really do have this condition, and it’s important to make clear that celiac disease is a real phenomenon that affects between one and two percent of the population. And for those people eating any kind of gluten is going to cause serious problems. And then you have a much larger group of people who are gluten intolerant. That’s where things get squishy. These are people who have trouble have trouble digesting gluten, but it doesn’t lead to the same kind of medical problems as celiac disease does. Then you have people who are part of what I think is social contagion—people hearing about gluten as this great evil. We have this long history of looking for the evil nutrient to explain our unhappiness. That spotlight right now falls on gluten. It was on fat before, and for a long time it was on sugar.

So in the middle though of that Venn diagram, you do have a group of people who have a real serious problem tolerating gluten. And that can be explained several ways. I’m not sure which way is the most important; they don’t contradict one another though, so it may be that all of them are true or partly true.

One is that we make bread differently than we used to. We leaven bread very quickly and use yeast to do it, rather than long sourdough fermentation. There is very good research from Italy to suggest that long sourdough fermentation breaks down the two peptides that are implicated in gluten intolerance. And that the sourdough process, basically the microbes in the sourdough starter, are putting out enzymes that are breaking down complex proteins and that’s what gluten is. So maybe the problem is that the way we are making bread is changing.

Theory number two is we are getting a lot more gluten in our diet then we used to. We get it not just from bread, but gluten is used in a great many processed foods to give them a stretchy or chewy quality. It’s a filler. So maybe we are being overexposed to gluten because we’re getting it completely unprocessed by microbes in many, many other foods.

The third is that disorders in our microbiome—the fact that our guts are not optimally healthy because of our fast-food diet—are leading to a whole range of problems. Gluten intolerance perhaps needs to be looked at along with the high rates of allergies, asthma, and autoimmune diseases, which have stumped many health experts. They are all way up. Peanut allergies are a great example. So we may have just a kind of general digestive malaise where our bodies are confused about who his friend and who is foe among all these nutrients and is just fighting these big proteins that should be regarded as friends.

All these theories may have part of the answer, but I have yet to see any research that tells me, “aha,” this is what it’s about.

MF: How do you feel about the “foodie” label? Do you see it as divisive, that foodies and non-foodies are like liberals versus conservatives?

MP: It is a diminutive concept—any word with “ie” on it is implicitly trivializing, whatever it is attached to. So “foodies” are people you don’t take very seriously. But food is really important; it’s a really serious matter. And people who care about it are not trivial. So that’s what I don’t like about the label.

I came to my interest in food as someone who is interested in farming.

Also, I came to my interest in food as someone who is interested in farming. I began on the soil end of the food chain. I wasn’t particularly interested in food as something you consumed; I was really interested in the farm as a place where you need to engage with nature in ways that are very trying and complicated and interesting—you had to deal with pests, you had to deal with fertility, year after year, you had to deal with the weather, you had to deal with these other species. That’s what engaged me first.

Over time I got interested in what we were growing, and after I published Omnivore’s Dilemma, which is much more about agriculture than eating, my readers started saying, “well you told me all about how the animals live, and how the potatoes are grown and everything, but what I really want to know is: What should I eat if I am concerned about my health?” Then I wrote In Defense of Food, which was an effort to answer that question.

Then when I was doing that work, I realized that a key to dietary health wasn’t a good nutrient or bad nutrient, so much as the process by which the food was transformed—that food processing or cooking was really the key. So then I started looking at cooking. I was not someone who obsessed about food, who loved to eat out at fancy restaurants and followed the careers of chefs. That’s not where I am coming from. So I feel that the foodie label is meant to be somewhat dismissive.

MF: Yes, as labels tend to be.

MP: I don’t use it to describe myself. But I hear people introduce me as…I don’t know…

MF: America’s favorite foodie?

MP: I hate all that, it just makes me wince.

MF: Going back to the agriculture side of the equation, another critique that I know people have tried to throw at you is that organic production—or especially what you might call “beyond organic” farming practices—result in higher food prices for the consumer. It’s hard to deny that. There’s also the related argument that says it’s not possible to feed the population of the world using those practices; that economies of scale have a role to play in feeding people. What do you say to those kind of statements?

MP: First of all, that is asserted, not proven, that organic can’t feed the world. A few points I will make, in no particular order: One is that industrial agriculture is not feeding the world right now. We have between 800 million and 1 billion people hungry with this wildly productive food system—which, by the way, is growing 4,500 calories per person per day right now. It should be very easy to feed the world, but industrial food only accounts for about 25 percent of that. Three quarters of the food being grown in the world is being grown by subsistence farmers. So the assumptions need to be examined.

Organic food, it is true, is somewhat less productive on a food-per-acre basis than industrial food. The difference is about 10 or 20 percent depending on how you count. However, under certain conditions that difference disappears. In drought years, organic agriculture is actually more productive than conventional agriculture because organic soils hold water a lot better, so they withstand drought. There are many reasons to believe that organic agriculture will withstand climate change more successfully than industrial agriculture.

So we are growing these 4,500 calories per person per day, which means we must have a problem with how we are using them if we’re not feeding everybody. If you look at how industrial agriculture works, it grows a lot of things that really don’t deserve to be called food. Thirty percent of it is animal feed. We’re growing a lot of corn and soy that we are feeding the animals, which is a very inefficient way to feed the world. It takes 10 pounds of grain to get 1 pound of beef, or 7 pounds of grain to get 1 pound of pork, or 2 pounds of grain to get 1 pound of chicken.

I don’t know for sure we could feed the world organically—and I don’t know that we can feed the world of the future industrially. We are probably going to need a great many different kinds of food chains that are adapted to different places.

Then we have about 20 percent of all the grain we’re growing in industrial agriculture—because that’s mostly what industrial agriculture does—that is fed to cars and trucks in the form of ethanol. That’s not feeding anybody. And then you’ve got the estimated 40 percent of that that is being wasted, somewhere between the farm and the refrigerator and the plate. So that suggests there is a lot of slack in the system, and that if you wanted to feed the world organically, you could as long as you aren’t turning all that food into meat, as long as you aren’t wasting quite so much of it, and as long as you aren’t taking something as precious as food and putting it in your gas tank.

The 75 percent of food that is being grown by subsistence farmers: If those farmers achieved the productivity of modern organic farming, that would represent a doubling or tripling of their output. So there is a whole lot of room for improvement without going down the industrial path. I don’t know for sure we could feed the world organically—and I don’t know that we can feed the world of the future industrially. We are probably going to need a great many different kinds of food chains that are adapted to different places. Industrial farming makes a certain sense when you don’t have any farmers left, which is where we are. We only have one or two percent of Americans that are farming. But if you’re in Africa or Asia, where you still have most of the population on the land, why would you want to go to a farming system that would drive all those people off the land and into the cities? That doesn’t seem like smart planning.

So I don’t think we should project our experience with industrial agriculture over the rest of the world, because if the rest of the world goes down the same path and wants to eat meat the way we do, wants to waste food the way we do, wants to feed their cars as much as their bellies, we are going to be in really big trouble. We’re going to have to rethink this whole system if we’re going to feed a world of nine or 10 billion. Our thinking has to get a little more sophisticated than this idea of yield per acre as the only metric. As it turns out, yield per acre doesn’t really explain or solve a problem.

MF: Rumor has it that your next book is about the therapeutic value of psychedelics, but if you were to write another food book, what would it be? What do you think the next important food issue is for people to look at?

MP: If I were going to write another food book it would be a short, very pointed essay about the question you just asked me. This question, the framing of this question of how to feed the world…I think a really good, tight answer needs to be delivered to the conventional wisdom on that. But I’ve chosen to write another book right now and you are close on what it is about. It is about altered states of consciousness, and what psychedelics teach us about the mind, and about the various disorders they are being used to treat.


Gluten, Organics, Psychedelics and More: Our 15-Minute Chat with Michael Pollan