Ryan Findley
Food Rules

Michael Pollan visits UWM

By - Nov 9th, 2010 04:00 am
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Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is, perhaps, the best-known food critic in the country. He is not a critic in the traditional sense in that he disguises himself to eat in restaurants that he will make or break  in the morning’s paper. Rather, Pollan is a critic of modern food culture : the culture of convenience, agribusiness and chemical and genetic food replacements.

He is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals which is (at least partially) responsible for bringing the slow food movement well into mainstream consciousness. He teaches at the University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and lectures widely on the subjects of food, agriculture, health , the environment and the intersection of these things.

Pollan will be at UWM on Wednesday as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series.

The essential thread running through most of his writing is the heavy and obscured cost that comes from all the ways that Americans have changed both agriculture and eating. From personal health and well-being to the health of the planet, the way we grow and eat comestibles is well, wreaking havoc.

One has only to look at the rash of food safety issues that have erupted in the last decade to understand that something must be done. From Mad Cow Disease to the rise of antibiotic-resistant e.coli to the recent massive egg recall, it is obvious that something is awry withing the business of food manufacturing.

Cows are not meant to eat the flesh of their own species; neither are they meant to digest corn. Pumping chickens full of antibiotics may keep more of them alive when they are crammed into dark, windowless buildings, but it also means that bacteria end up resistant to our antibiotics before they ever infect a human being. Watering produce crops with waste water that’s passed through animal feed lots only means that ceasing to eat animal products won’t protect you from these problems, as evidenced by the e.coli outbreak linked to spinach in 2008.

But beyond issues of safety and oversight in large agribusiness tracts are even more pressing health concerns. The rise of type 2 diabetes can be directly linked to the amount of high fructose corn syrup we consume. Where is high fructose corn syrup used? In a word, everywhere. Almost any processed or convenience product in grocery stores today contains it. Staying away from processed foods should be enough, except that certain brands have managed to sneak HFCS into seemingly healthy snacks — from hummus to whole wheat crackers. It’s even in some cold medicines.

Why is it so ubiquitous? Essentially, because the U.S. subsidizes corn production. Rather than allowing farmers to plant whatever they’d like, the U.S. government pays them to plant corn or soybeans. These subsidies cost hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes every year, and they create an artificially high supply of these crops. Food science and food chemistry — the process of taking soy protein and corn carbohydrate and turning it into the wide array of things with unpronounceable names that you can find on grocery shelves — is a direct result of this oversupply.

All of this has further ripple effects throughout the country and the world.

Because corn and soybeans are subsidized so heavily, the supply of other crops is artificially tamped down. This keeps the cost of other fresh produce high, comparatively speaking. A bag of Doritos costs less than a bunch of beets. A Twinkie costs less than bag of snap peas. As such, we are falsely led to believe that the Doritos and Twinkies are more economically viable, not realizing that we are paying for the cost of the Doritos indirectly, rather than in the check-out lane. And in choosing Doritos over produce, Americans are damaging their health, adding costs to an already over-burdened health care system.

In a Huffington Post article, Pollan describes this as a key factor at the foundation of his most recent book, Food Rules.

“Make no mistake: our health care crisis is in large part a crisis of the American diet — roughly three quarters of the two-trillion plus we spend on health care in this country goes to treat chronic diseases, most of which can be prevented by a change in lifestyle, especially diet.”

In Defense of Food was Pollan’s attempt to “navigate the treacherous landscape of modern food and the often-confusing science of nutrition,” in which he spent years searching for answers to the highly complex question “What should we eat?”

But after much research, he realized that the solution to all of these big, interrelated and seemingly unsolveable problems is really quite simple: “Eat real food, not too much of it, and more plants than meat.” It may sound didactic, but a quick sweep through Pollan’s Rules shows that taking meals at the dinner table, or cooking your own food makes a huge impact not only on the way we eat, but also helps us to reconnect with our most basic form of nourishment.

Here in Milwaukee, we’re lucky enough to have a robust (and still growing) slow, local food movement, led by organizations like Growing Power, the Urban Ecology Center and our farmer’s markets and co-op grocers. So many issues can be made manageable with one choice that we can all commit to: real, good food.

Michael Pollan will be speaking as part of UWM’s Distinguished Lecturer series on Wednesday, November 10 in the Wisconsin Room of the Union at 7 p.m. Tickets at the door are $8 for students with ID, $20 for staff faculty and alumni, and $25 for the general public. For more information, click here.

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