Last night before I went to the Wheeler Centre to hear Michael Pollan speak about food politics I had a Berocca. In the talk Pollan used a bag of groceries from Woolworths to illustrate the points he was making, and at one point he pulled Berocca out of it.

Pollan is a Professor of Science Journalism and the author of several food politics books. The talk drew on the ideas contained in his books. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2007) Pollan visits Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm[1], (a self-regulating, small-scale farm that doesn’t use chemicals or antibiotics), and traces the industrialisation of the food supply to Earl Butz, Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, who encouraged large-scale farming. Before Butz America had a New Deal farm policy that limited crop surplus and maintained a good price for farmers. Butz dismantled the New Deal farm and installed a new system to subsidise farmers. The policies were “rewritten to encourage farmers to plant crops like corn, soy, and wheat fencerow to fencerow.”

In 1977 the Select Senate Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs advised Americans to consume less meat and dairy products. When cattle ranchers objected the Senate responded by changing the recommendation from “reduce consumption of meat” to “choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.”

Pollan writes about ingredients that are added by food marketers to promote their products. On stage he builds a pyramid out of these products.  One of his examples is porridge oats enriched with omega 3. He writes, “The uncomfortable fact is that the entire field of nutritional science rests on a foundation of ignorance and lies about the most basic question of nutrition: What are people eating? “

In Defense of Food (2009) is about the industrialisation of the food. Pollan blames the food industry for what he calls ‘diseases of civilisation”: obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Pollan investigates the links between food and the pharmaceutical industry and hones in on the American diet – white flour, white rice, soy and corn oil, high fructose corn syrup and corn fed animal fats. He writes, “Per capita fructose consumption has increased 25 percent in the past thirty years” and adds that “[a]n American born in 2000 has a 1 in 3 chance of developing diabetes in his lifetime.” The American statistics aren’t too different from the Australian ones.[2] Pollan writes about the rise of ‘nutritionism’ and how in America the fear of fat corresponded with a sharp rise in obesity.

My favorite part of the talk is when Pollan describes the experiment he writes about in In Defense of Food conducted by an Australian nutritionist. In 1982 she took ten diabetic indigenous Australians into the bush to see if a return to a traditional diet and lifestyle would reverse the process of westernisation. The results from the study were incredible: after 7 weeks “all of the metabolic abnormalities of type II diabetes were either greatly improved…or completely normalized…by [their] relatively short… reversion to traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle.”

The main tenet of the talk is summed up in seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Pollan points at the pile of supermarket products and says, ‘I wouldn’t dignify this with the name food. I would call these edible food-like substances.’ Pollan holds up a yogurt and explains that it contains more sugar than coke.

Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2010) was born out of Pollan’s clear idea culture has much wisdom to offer in terms of advice on how to eat. He put out a call for people’s rules for eating. Some of what he got back is funny: ‘One meat per pizza’ and ‘Don’t eat anything bigger than your head’ but most of it is common sense. He ended up with 64 principles, my favourites being:

Rule 36: Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the colour of your milk

Rule 64: Break the rules once in a while

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This morning a box of organic food was delivered to my door. I sat in the backyard watching the bee flightpath relishing the organic butter and thinking about Pollan’s talk. The part of the talk that I agreed with most is that you shouldn’t be able to pass highschool without knowing how to cook. I also appreciated Pollan’s insistence that we are at a crossroads and that change must occur. During question time somebody asked him what he thinks about organics and he recognised that they are unaffordable for most people and that buying a conventional apple is still a good start. He also mentioned that in America 80% of the population are in favour of the labelling of genetically modified ingredients. A kid stood up and said that ‘Farmers are the future,’ everyone clapped that one.

There is so much wrong with the food system here in Australia one can freak out at where to start change. I think I will start by ditching Berocca.

Best comment on this article wins a copy of Food Rules. Mum excluded.


[1] It is worth noting that there is a local version of this farm in Woodend Victoria called Taranaki Farm and Joel Salatin will be giving a tour of it in October

[2] According to Diabetes Australia 275 Australians develop diabetes every day and it is estimated that by 2031 3.3 million Australians will have type 2 diabetes.

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