Michael Pollan on the Future of Food and Wood-Pulp Parmesan

Michael Pollan.
Michael Pollan. Photo: Karen Ballard/Netflix

Michael Pollan and Alex Gibney’s new docuseries Cooked, adapted from the author’s 2013 book, is now streaming on Netflix. Following the format of the original book, it is broken into four parts, each of which has the influential activist and thinker closely explore an element of cooking (fire, water, air, and earth), prepare foods like whole-hog barbecue with Rodney Scott, bake bread, and visit a Nestlé kitchen in India where the cooks strive to create ever-better instant noodles. Grub gave Pollan a call and talked with him about advancements in food beyond the natural elements the series covers, his continued skepticism of GMOs, and recent scandals in the culinary world.

Why did you want to bring Cooked to the screen?
Well, a couple of reasons. One because Alex Gibney was interested in doing it and he is a fantastic filmmaker. The other reason is, you know, I’ve done a lot of films out of my books — I am trying to persuade people to take an interest in where their food comes from and really take back control of their diets, and not everybody reads books. So I try to reach people wherever they are, and you can reach a lot more people on television.

It’s interesting to see a show explore the natural elements of cooking at a time when we’re seeing the advent of 3-D printers in cooking, food replacements like Soylent, the race to create lab-meat and fake-meat, and so on.
Yeah, and we didn’t talk about them. The reason is that I don’t think those “foods,” and I used the word with quotation marks around it because I don’t think all those things are food, are going to profoundly change the story of food. I think that it is kind of effervescent in the media right now. We do need a good substitute for meat I think, for fast-food hamburgers, and there is a virtue in shrinking the meat industry. Which is what those products are designed to do and I hope they succeed. But they’re not going to change people’s everyday lives any time soon, and we didn’t get distracted by that.

Soylent! Soylent is not new. We had Nutrament; you can go to the diet aisle of your supermarket and find all sorts of equally disgusting food substitutes. The genius of Soylent is that it comes out of Silicon Valley, and anything that comes out of there is assumed to be new and technologically advanced and wonderful. But it’s nothing of the type.

Bloomberg recently released a report about cheap Parmesan being cut with excessive amounts of cellulose when the manufacturers claimed there was none at all. Have you been paying attention to this?
A little bit. I’ve been following it. You did something about it, right?

Yeah. This has come up a few times over the last few years. Do you think it has to do with Americans’ desire for luxury foods — I mean, like, caviar but normal food like cheeseburgers — on the cheap, and this is just what you get?
Well, it’s a way to cut corners. There’s a long history of food being adulterated. The FDA started making what are called standards of identity for food because people were selling bone meal and talcum powder as flour. When you have a long food chain where there is no accountability between the maker of the food and the consumer, certain people are going to cut corners. Especially when the customer has said his or her highest priority is price. That’s bound to happen. So we need to root those things out without question.
The final months of Chipotle’s 2015 were plagued by food-safety issues. Some took this as an indictment of its ethics and proof that the local food system either isn’t there yet or can’t work in today’s world. Do you think there’s truth to this?
I don’t think we have enough information. Oddly enough, the mystery hasn’t been solved. Normally these food-safety mysteries are solved by now and you realize that it was cantaloupe from a farm in California or meat from a feedlot in North Dakota or whatever. Here we haven’t learned. It could be that their insistence on fresh food has created a certain vulnerability in their system. I gather it’s not tied to the meat. I think we should be prepared to draw conclusions about their food chain, but we don’t have enough information to do it yet. It was weird that it was several different microbes at the same time. It’s too early to say, but, yeah, there may be reasons to raise questions about local food or food that’s not more highly processed. [Laughs.] I just think we don’t know.

Right now the so-called DARK Act, which would prevent states from requiring GMO labels, passed the Senate Agriculture Committee. You came out for labeling in 2012, writing for The New York Times Magazine that it’s “a fight against Big Food,” and have been unpersuaded by GMOs, telling The New Yorker in 2014 that you felt “pretty lonely among my science-writing colleagues in being critical of this technology.” Has your perspective changed at all in the past few years?
Well, I still think this is an industry and technology that needs some scrutiny. GMOs have been, I think, a tremendous disappointment. They haven’t done what Monsanto promised they would do, which is make American agriculture more sustainable. I think that they have done a brilliant job of getting everybody to focus on the narrow question of “is this stuff going to kill you if you eat it?” And they’ve won that argument, and congratulations to them! [Laughs.] They’ve created a food that doesn’t kill you when you eat it.

However, there are a lot of other issues with this. Scientific writers in particular haven’t been sensitive, I don’t think, to all of the content: What does it do to agriculture? Well, it encourages farms to get bigger. What does it do to the kind of food that is grown? Well, they’re basically doing more soy and corn. What does it do to pesticides? It increased them dramatically. I think the primary question around GMOs is not food safety, although it is true that there hasn’t been the kind of testing the public assumes there was. The FDA doesn’t demand it.

I think that the industry has succeeded in painting itself brilliantly. This is their great achievement. It is not an agronomic achievement. It is not a breeding achievement. It is a PR achievement, and that is to make any criticism of their products akin to climate denial. That was just a great meme and it took off. It was particularly effective among science writers. You’re either pro-science or against science. Well, the issues aren’t all scientific. There are political issues, economic issues, agronomic issues, and those have gotten ignored and it’s a shame.

So you think it’s a narrowing of the conversation as decoy?
Yeah. It was a brilliant strategy, and it’s worked with a great many journalists. I think the point of view of the media has shifted quite a bit. But the labeling issue? The public has made it known that they would like to have labels so they can decide for whatever reason, good or bad, well-informed or poorly informed, that they don’t or want to eat this. Without a label you don’t know what we’re eating. I think we should have a lot more transparency about food, not less. I think we should label food if it contains pesticides, but nobody is talking about that. It’s really peculiar that if you’re not using pesticides, if you’re organic, you have to pay to put a label on declaring you aren’t using pesticides. It should be the other way around.

Do you think, in the future, there could be a place for GMOs to be used responsibly and ways in which they help “the little guy”?
I have a very open mind about that, yes. I can imagine the application that would actually be a contribution to the welfare of farmers and eaters. But I don’t think we have those products yet, and they’ve been promised and they’re also retreating. Golden rice is a great example. It’s always about to revolutionize world agriculture and help cure vitamin A deficiency, and for some reason it doesn’t come. There’s a lot of hype, and the industry has also been very good at getting us to focus on the promise in the future rather than the actual existing GMOs that we have.

Michael Pollan on the Future of Food