The Food Gods Speak: Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser Dish About Walmart, National Security, and Chicken Nuggets

When Pollan last ate a chicken nugget, whether Schlosser thinks that Walmart's new healthy food initiatives are for real, and what you and I can do.

Last week, food movement legends Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) sat down together with Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW's Good Food, for a fascinating conversation that covered all of the major food stories of the past few months. For those of you who couldn't make it in person, but want to know when Pollan last ate a chicken nugget, whether Schlosser thinks that Walmart's new healthy food initiatives are for real, and what they think are the most important things you and I can do to make a difference right now, here's my recap of the highlights.


Evaluating the Food Safety Modernization Act: Raw Milk, Meat, and Glenn Beck

Last year saw some of the biggest recalls in America's history, followed by the "will they or won't they" drama of the Food Safety Modernization Act's passage. The bill revealed deep schisms in the food movement, with several advocates of organic farming joining with libertarians to argue that the bill would unfairly penalize small producers and encroach on individual states' food security. Last November, Pollan and Schlosser co-authored an op-ed in The New York Times calling on the Senate to pass the bill. Last week, Pollan seemed the more hesitant of the two, explaining that the bill was the merely best that could be hoped for, given our schizophrenic foodscape:

We have two food systems, one less accessible than the other. The bill had to negotiate the tensions between the regulation required to deal with the industrial food system and the small farmers that can't afford regulation.

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Pollan added that he disagrees with Food, Inc. co-star Joel Salatin's assertion that the right to purchase raw milk should be enshrined in the Constitution, but that without Senator Tester's amendment to protect small producers, he too would not have been able to support the bill.

Schlosser was much more emphatic in his support for the legislation, angrily criticizing industry groups and Glenn Beck for spreading misinformation about the act (Beck, in predictably ludicrous form, claimed the bill was the first step in a "grand experiment" that would end in "starvation"). Interestingly, Schlosser added that most of the funding to oppose the bill came from the meat-packing industry, despite the fact that the bill doesn't regulate meat safety at all—Tyson, JBS, Smithfield, and Cargill were presumably taking preemptive action, afraid that they would be next in the legislative firing line.

Walmart, or the Role of Corporations in the Food Movement

Both Pollan and Schlosser were both lukewarm on the subject of Walmart's recent Michelle Obama-endorsed announcement that it would provide healthier foods in store. Pollan pointed to Walmart's history of "crushing their growers" by encouraging them to scale up and then demanding cuts of up to 20 percent when it comes time to renegotiate contracts. He added that it's "a waste of energy" to focus on "making better cookies and crackers," and that he is more interested in Walmart's commitment to re-regionalize their supply chain—if they follow through on it.

With Walmart's groceries feeding 40 percent of America, according to Pollan, their impact can be enormous—but "the fact that a company can make a bigger difference than the government is sad."

Schlosser picked up Pollan's point and took it further, arguing that the real issue is that we live in a situation where one single company can be both the problem and the solution:

I'm not a socialist, but there shouldn't be any company in the country that is that powerful. This sort of unchecked corporate power is counter to democracy.

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Schlosser's argument, he was careful to explain, is not anti-corporate, but rather anti-corporate consolidation. He lamented Obama's failure to explain the financial crisis in terms of the concentration of power in the hands of fewer and fewer large companies, adding that "If you believe in capitalism, you need antitrust." In agreement, Pollan jumped in to explain that the United States' antitrust legislation was originally passed to protect the political system from the kinds of concentration of corporate power we currently see the in the food system, but it was completely rewritten by the Reagan administration to allow mergers as long as they did not affect consumer prices. The silver lining to this story, of course, is that our antitrust law could be utterly re-rewritten again without legislative approval—"any Department of Justice could do it at any time," explained Pollan. Let's hope Attorney General Eric Holder is reading this post.

(At this point, I was intrigued that neither of them mentioned last year's disastrous Supreme Court ruling that removed limits on corporate campaign financing, although Pollan did throw in an aside on the general, disturbing trend to extend full First Amendment rights to companies.)

Monsanto vs. Organic: How Will We Feed the World?

When Evan Kleiman asked whether a sustainable food system could feed the world, Pollan was quick to point out that "we're not feeding the world with the system we currently have." Schlosser added that the problem is not one of production, but rather distribution: "We live in a world where a billion people are hungry and another billion are obese, and only between 12 and 14 percent of the food we grow is actually eaten by people." (75 percent is fed to livestock, and of the remaining 25 percent, roughly half is wasted along the way, he elaborated.)

Pollan added that companies such as Monsanto have yet to demonstrate that their products can feed the world or increase yield, although he remains "open" to the idea that they could. Meanwhile, he noted that agro-ecological techniques have shown increases in yield of up to 40 or 50 percent, although their ability to feed the world is similarly unproven.

Both Schlosser and Pollan were clear that, whatever happens, we certainly can't feed the world on an American meat-centric diet. Pollan's clever recommendation was to ban sub-therapeutic antibiotic use in livestock: With one stroke, that would safeguard human health and force the United States to scale back the way we farm (and thus consume) animals.

What Can You Do?

Educate yourself, eat responsibly—and share what you know with others! At one point, Evan Kleiman asked Pollan and Schlosser why on earth people don't rise up and demand change when they see images of the pink slime that goes into most burgers and headlines about meat from spent hens being rejected by fast food companies but bought by the USDA for the federal school lunch program. Pollan and Schlosser answered simultaneously: Most people just don't know the first thing about the food system. Pollan added that there are even "a great many people in Congress who don't know," and for most political leaders, "cheap food is a blessing," although that equation is beginning to be upset by the rising costs associated with "the public health catastrophe called the American Diet."

The biggest impediment to change, according to Schlosser, is ignorance and apathy. There are 300 million Americans and only four meat-packing companies, so change should be possible—after all, "far more powerful and abusive regimes have been overturned in the past." Pollan was aware of the potential dangers of sweeping legislative changes—after all, "policy brought fast food into the cities in the first place, through well-intentioned Small Business Administration loans"—but also stressed its importance: "Without an active and engaged electorate demanding reform, we'll never get the radical change that we need."

In other words, you should find out which food companies fund your Senator and Congressperson, and which way they voted on, for example, last year's Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill—and then let them know how you feel. You should also pay attention to where your representative stands on the 2012 Farm Bill*—"it should be renamed the Food Bill," said Schlosser, because its subsidies go a long way toward determining what ends up on your plate. At the moment, it is decided by farm state senators, because urban legislators assume (with reason) that their constituents don't care. (*Expect to see a lot more coverage of the Farm Bill negotiations here at GOOD over the coming year.)

Cook! "Over the past decade, we've somehow found 2 extra hours each day to be online, but we say we don't have time to cook," said Pollan. "The food movement can only go so far without cooking." That said, Schlosser sheepishly admitted that he is "better at systems analysis and doing the dishes" than cooking, and is limited to oatmeal and grilled cheese if he's on his own in the kitchen. Pollan added that the McDonald's chicken nugget his daughter made him eat last year did taste good. Knowing the story behind the food on your plate is, he admitted, in some ways, "a burden" that puts fast-food and junk food off-limits, but in other ways "it is an enormous pleasure."

Midway through my processed food challenge, I couldn't agree more: Thinking about food is a pain, but it is also thought-provoking and rewarding enough to more than make up for the hassle. Indeed, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the evening for me was learning that Eric Schlosser arrived at food as part of his ongoing research into political and economic systems, while Michael Pollan came at it through an interest in nature, and a realization that humans exercise the greatest impact on the natural world through their food choices. It was a perfect example of the idea that motivates my own writing: that food offers one of, if not the, most powerful lens through which to examine almost every aspect of our physical and cultural environment.

For additional notes from the evening, check out these summaries at LA Weekly and LAist, and if you were there (or not!), please add your own thoughts in the comments.

Images: Evan Kleiman, Michael Pollan, and Eric Schlosser at USC's Bovard Auditorium, photo via LA Weekly; Food recall infographic designed by Vanessa Dennis via PBS NewsHour; Photo of Wal-Mart distribution center by Flickr user (cc) Mr. Wright; Soybeans growing in an automated greenhouse, photo by Monsanto, via Popular Science; Political NASCAR, a GOOD infographic by Serifcan Ozcan.

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