Americans should make more visits to the garden and fewer to the supermarket, says food and environmental writer Michael Pollan (GSAS '81), who spoke Monday to a capacity audience in the Low Library rotunda.
"We eat by the grace of nature, not of industry," said Pollan, the author of such bestselling books as The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, which advise a move away from what he calls "edible food-like substances" created by large industrial farms to locally raised vegetables and meat from farmers' markets or gardens. Yet many Americans have lost sight of this, he says, living on diets of highly processed food products that waste money and make us sick.
|Michael Pollan lectures on food as a means of understanding the human relationship with nature.
Image credit: David Wentworth / Columbia University
Assistant history professor Sarah Phillips introduced Pollan as "today's Rachel Carson," referring to the American marine biologist whose influential 1962 book, Silent Spring, helped jump start the environmental movement by documenting the effects of pesticides. Pollan's work, she said, brings similar attention to the environmental and public health risks of industrial agriculture, which relies on the massive use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers to produce only a few staple crops (primarily corn, wheat and soy).
Pollan spoke of these risks over the course of an hour-long lecture sponsored by the American Studies program, entitled "From the Garden Onto the Plate: One Writer's Path," and explained how his interest in nature emerged during his master's degree studies at Columbia. "Studying humanities is a leap of faith," said Pollan, a longtime contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a former executive editor at Harper's magazine, "but it's one worth taking."
Pollan, whose books explore the intersection of nature and American culture, never expected to pursue a career in journalism. He described Philosophy Hall, home of the University's English department, as "one of the wellsprings of my work." The themes of his books, he said, grew from a conflict between his understanding of Thoreau and Emerson and his initially hapless experience as a self-taught gardener.
Pollan designed his first garden "as only a student of Thoreau and Emerson would"—without a fence. Refusing to isolate his home from the surrounding wilderness, Pollan struggled for control of his crops with a woodchuck, which led to an incident involving gasoline and an explosion that nearly destroyed his garden. (The woodchuck was unscathed.)
A garden can “recapitulate all kinds of themes about our relationship to the natural world,” he said. That led to his third book, The Botany of Desire, where he explored the power of nature to manipulate human behavior by focusing on how four highly-desired plant species (apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes) affected the course of history.
For research Pollan went to a vast potato farm in Idaho where the pesticides and fertilizers used were so toxic, no human could set foot in the fields for days after planting."This was a kind of wake up call," he said. "I didn't know how my food was grown."
So Pollan embarked on another book to find out. The Omnivore's Dilemma: The Natural History of Four Meals, a New York Times Book of the Year in 2006, tells the story of how different foods—a McDonald's lunch, groceries from an organic supermarket or produce from a small local farm—get onto our plates.
Pollan concluded his lecture with a passage about his perfect meal, a feast composed entirely of ingredients that Pollan hunted, gathered and grew: wild boar from the hills near his home in Berkeley, California, fava beans from his garden and wild yeast for the bread. That endeavor, he said, taught him, "how meals can be ceremonies of understanding about our relationship to nature."