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The Michael Pollan interview by Joe Nick Patoski

August 30th, 2012 under Arts

An excerpt of an interview between Marfa’s Joe Nick Patoski and award-winning author, journalist and activist Michael Pollan.

JNP: You’ve been cited by many people as the single most influential person out there to  influence the way we look at food and our relationship to food. I know your focus has been the places that nature and culture intersect, is this a heavy burden for you to carry around with you?

MP: No! Because I don’t believe it. I’m sure there are other people exerting more influence on our thinking about food like the President of McDonalds, whoever that is, or various other food marketers who reach a lot more people than I do, god knows, and if I’ve had an influence, its been at the margins. It’s been interesting to watch this conversation unfold and I feel privileged to play a part of it. We are at the beginning of real debate over the food system, whether it is serving our needs and whether the problems we are struggling with in terms of public health and the environment aren’t, to some significant degree, the result of a dis-functional food system.

Michael Pollan. (photo by KEN LIGHT)

JNP: And what got you onto this path? Where did the idea come to dig deeper and look at the way we eat, what we eat and how we relate to food?

MP: It was a funny path because it wasn’t a path I set out on. My real passion was for gardening and growing a little bit of food. And, in fact, my first book was about gardening, it was called Second Nature and it was really trying to use the experiences I was having in the garden as a platform to examine our relationship to the natural world. That has always been my subject, how do humans fit into nature. Even that is a peculiar construction, you know, we are part of nature yet we feel we are not part of nature. We have this very complex relationship with the rest of nature and that’s been my fascination going back to college when I first read Thoreau, Walden, read Emerson and Whitman. Those guys had a huge influence on my thinking and I was very taken with the whole wilderness tradition in America. But when I started gardening which is an old passion of mine, I realized that kind of thinking about nature wouldn’t work very well if you were trying to get some food and there was a real conflict between the cultural baggage we brought to the garden in America and what you need to do, which is change nature and contend with some other critters and mix it up a little bit. Whereas we have this great tradition for standing back and worshiping nature as if it were divine. And so that is kind of the origin of my interest, and over time if you care about nature and the environment, you gradually realize the way we affect the natural world more than anything else we do is by feeding ourselves. Agriculture changes the landscape more than anything else we do. The composition of species on the planet is basically the result of our eating choices, there are plenty of the species we like to eat and very few of the species that prey on the species we like to eat are left. Even the climate we’re now hurting is strongly influenced by our food choices a third of greenhouse gases come from the food system. So I backed into food because I cared about nature. And then there was the timely advice of certain editors, saying “hey we want you write something about the meat industry or genetically modified food.” So we need to give the editors a little bit of credit too.

JNP: You really turned around the conversation with the book Botany of Desire and really looking at what humans wanted out of plants specifically, the apple, the tulip marijuana, the potato and how humans adapted but really how plants adapted to us.

MP: Yes, I give these species a lot of credit. We think that we’re in charge, we’ve got the big brains and locomotion, we seem to have a lot going for us. But of course, we are one species among many and other species manipulate us too. And so one of the things you learn in the garden is that you aren’t really quite as powerful or calling all the shots as you might think, you are being seduced by certain plants to do what they want. I have enormous respect for plants and their ingenuity. The fact that they don’t have consciousness and locomotion I don’t think a real handicap for them. They have other skills for getting what they want biochemistry being important among them, the ability to create seductive flavors, appearances, smells. We do a lot of work for other species. You’ve got ten thousand species in your gut right now and from their point of view you are just a locomotion device for them. They’re calling a lot of the shots actually.

JNP: So they are manipulating us just as much as we would like to think we are manipulating them.

MP: Oh yes, it’s a two way street. This is what we’ve learned from Darwin, co-evolution takes two. In every case, the subject versus the object, the idea that you have a thinking subject that’s in charge and you have these passive objects. Naw, they are all going about getting energy, going about doing what all creatures want to do: reproduce and spread their numbers and survive. Sometimes we help, sometimes we hurt. I see us as part of this really intricate fabric of life. We flatter ourselves by thinking we’ve got it all figured out, cause we don’t…

To listen to the rest of the interview, tune into 93.5 Marfa Public Radio on Friday, August 31, 2012 at 10:05 am.

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