Maintenance Phase

Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma"

April 05, 2022
Show Notes Transcript

Aubrey: Should we go?

Michael: Actually, let me hold my microphone. Do it. Give us the old tagline.

Aubrey: Welcome to Maintenance Phase, the podcast that thinks that you should eat food whatever you see fit. Oh fuck, I messed it up. God damn it.

Michael: Oh, you lost it. You lost it.

Aubrey: Hang on. I'm going to try it again. Hi, everybody and welcome to Maintenance Phase, the podcast that wants you to eat food as much as you want whatever you see fit. God damn it. Why do I keep messing it? 

Michael: What are you going for? Are you trying to remember Pollan? 

Aubrey: No, I'm doing our version of Pollan.

Michael: Okay.

Aubrey: His is, eat food, not too much mostly plants. 

Michael: Okay. So, you know his, but you're doing the Maintenance Phase one.

Aubrey: Right. Our version, I would propose would be "Eat food however much you need." How about that? Whatever you see fit.

Michael: And cyberbully, your local influencer.


Aubrey: I'm Aubrey Gordon. 

Michael: I'm Michael Hobbes.

Aubrey: If you would like to support the show, you can do that at or you can go to TeePublic, where we have masks, t-shirts, mugs, all kinds of things. Both of those are linked for you in the show notes. And today, Michael Hobbes, we're talking about a different Michael. 

Michael: Yeah, I'm really curious what you know about this. We are doing a diet book deep dive Into The Omnivore's Dilemma, which came out in 2006 and is by Michael Pollan, who is quite an influential person when it comes to food, and food policy, and how to eat.

Aubrey: My relationship to all of this is, I live in Portland, Oregon, and I have a white upper middle-class family, and that means I never stopped hearing about Michael Pollan.

Michael: Oh, yeah. [laughs] 

Aubrey: Never. 

Michael: You've got a garden in the backyard. 

Aubrey: I mean, I do. 

Michael: You're going to farmer's markets.

Aubrey: Here's the thing that is challenging for me about all of this is, I have not read Michael Pollan's work myself. I have a number of family members, and former colleagues, and such who have. And the things that people are quoting to me and telling me about Michael Pollan's work or not anti-fat things. But those people hold really deep anti-fat beliefs. There's a correlation happening there and I don't totally know what to do with that correlation.

Michael: It's actually an odd mirror version of Supersize Me.

Aubrey: Oh. Say more about that.

Michael: Supersize Me was an excuse to make fun of people, who eat at McDonald's. 

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: And The Omnivore's Dilemma and what Michael Pollan's whole career arc has been, it's basically selling thinness back to people as virtue. You're not shopping at a farmer's market, because you like shopping at a farmer's market. You're shopping at a farmer's market, because you're a good person, and you care about saving the Earth, and you're part of a food movement. This uprising of people, who are trying to change the industrial sources of our food. 

Aubrey: Oh, interesting. 

Michael: If you do this, like, if you eat these "healthy foods," you are performing a civic act. He's quite explicit about that. 

Aubrey: Oh, I have-- So, he's-- Whoa.

Michael: You're going to love this. You're already excited.

Aubrey: If we're going to get into the relationship between civic participation and what food you eat, then I am going to have things to say, Michael.

Michael: Luckily, you're sitting in front of a microphone and [crosstalk] recorded by a friend of yours, you make a show with. 

Aubrey: Oh, imagine that. I just had breakfast, I'm all tanked up, ready to roll.

Michael: You cut your carbs.

Aubrey: Let's yell about some shit, Michael.

Michael: You are loaded up. I'm excited. 

Aubrey: I am ready. 

Michael: I think it's important to talk about how influential Michael Pollan was in the mid-2000s. 

Aubrey: Yep. 

Michael: Michael Pollan showed up everywhere. He was on late night talk shows, he was on Oprah, eventually. He's like NPR royalty. The way that he framed food and the way that he framed the problem with the American food system and the solution to it, things can age badly and the vocabulary that they use has changed or there's a homophobic joke or something. But there's things that age badly, and just their ideology, and their underpinning assumptions, and so much about this book has just aged really badly as far as what we know now and what has happened with the ideas that Michael Pollan was essentially, incepting into the population. I don't think that's a word, but it's just very 2006.

Aubrey: It's so 2006 that it's wearing sandblasted bootcut jeans with those bejeweled flap pockets.

Michael: [laughs] It's showing up at a community meeting to fight against a skateboard park.

Aubrey: It's wearing a Von Dutch hat. [laughs] 

Michael: Yeah. [laughs] The full title of the book is The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which drives me fucking nuts, because there's only three meals describing the book. I don't know if I missed something really obvious, but the book is split into three parts. What we're going to do in this episode is we're going to walk through the book and debunk as we go. We're going to start with the introduction, which is called our National Eating Disorder. 

Aubrey: Oh.

Michael: Just, we're in good hands already.

Aubrey: Nope.

Michael: He starts with the question, "What should you have for dinner?" He says, "This book is a long and fairly involved answer to the seemingly simple question. Along the way, it also tries to figure out how such a simple question could ever have gotten so complicated." He uses the rise and fall of the Atkins diet as a jumping off point to talk about how America bounces from fad diet to fad diet. Eating is so fundamental to the human condition and yet we don't seem to know how we're supposed to eat and we're constantly getting these weird whiplash messages about what we should and shouldn't eat, and the science isn't all that helpful, and the marketing isn't all that helpful. It actually starts out sounding a lot like the show.

Aubrey: I was going to say, that sounds like a thing that you and I are also trying to navigate.

Michael: Exactly. He says, "We don't have a culture of food." He says, "A country with a stable culture of food would not shell out millions for the quackery or common sense of a new diet book every January. It would not be apt to confuse protein bars and food supplements with meals or breakfast cereals with medicines. It probably would not eat a fifth of its meals in cars or feed fully a third of its children at a fast-food outlet every day, and it surely would not be nearly so fat. 

Aubrey: Oh, I don't care for this. 

Michael: And then, he does some like, "French people are skinnier stuff like [mumbling].

Aubrey: Oh, we're just setting the stakes and I don't care for it. 

Michael: Yes.

Aubrey: Everyone's too fat, there need to be fewer fat people. Look at you feeding your kids in your car.

Michael: This is something I've learned making the show with you. I think people in most modern countries have a deeply ambivalent feeling about modernity and especially about urbanization. He does a lot of stuff about how there was this traditional way of life. These food rules later, they'll say like, "If your great grandmother wouldn't recognize it as food, you shouldn't eat it." 

Aubrey: Sure.

Michael: A lot of his message, even in the very, very intro of this book is about her like, "We used to have these traditional farming societies. People lived on farms. Ma and Pa, raising the goats, whatever," and we've lost that, and now, it's all fast food, and we're eating in our cars. There's really the sense of like a fallen society.

Aubrey: The other thing that follows from this point is, this is also when we get a big, weird wave of white people root stuff. We start to get Mumford & Sons after this, we start to get, do you know what I mean.

Michael: You're blaming him for Mumford & Sons?

Aubrey: No, I'm not blaming him for Mumford & Sons. I'm just saying like, there is this wave of white people interested in doing things, "how they used to be done" or certain harkening back to "simpler times," which is always fraught. 

Michael: Yeah. 

Aubrey: That's always a fraught thing for white people to do. 

Michael: Yeah, and also when is he talking about, where is he talking about. 

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: It complicates this so much in the show, because almost all of these nostalgia arguments break down the second you start to think about them. 

Aubrey: Yeah, that's right. 

Michael: Rachel Laudan is a historian who is a historian of food, like, how people used to eat. She wrote a really good book called Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History. She has written a number of responses to Michael Pollan over the years. In an article that she wrote right after this book came out, she says, "Michael Pollan's fable of disaster of a fall from grace smacks more of wishful thinking than of digging through archives." She basically goes through the idea that we were all eating these pure foods, living on farms, growing our own food, tending to the cattle, that just isn't true. First of all, life expectancies are now longer than they've ever been in human history. So, you have to recognize that. 

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: Food is the life of a person who ate food was not good for most of human history. She talks about if you lived on a farm, you have this harvest and there's all this abundance. But then, for three or four months of the year, typically, you're eating canned or jarred foods, because there're no crops growing in January, February, March. Literally, you're eating this gruel porridge for breakfast. Then, the other two meals of the day are like an ear of corn that you canned nine months ago.

Aubrey: Yum, yum. 

Michael: She has colleagues from Italy, who talk about super high rates of pellagra in Italy, because people were eating polenta three meals a day that it is like peasant farmers. 

Aubrey: Wait, what's pellagra? I don't even know.

Michael: It's a B vitamin deficiency. 

Aubrey: Oh, shit, okay. 

Michael: A lot of what we think of as traditional foods, traditional practices are actually the tiny percentage of the population that had servants, who could afford to make them food all day. She talks about how in Mexico in the 1800s, people who didn't have servants like women, it was always women who were doing this work would spend up to five hours a day grinding the maize for tortillas for dinner [crosstalk].

Aubrey: Yikes.

Michael: When you're talking about the golden age of farms, who was picking those crops. 

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: Sharecroppers, who owned that land. The minute you start doing this stuff about, like, we need to tell the story of our food, it's the actual history of this stuff gets pretty ugly, pretty fast. 

Aubrey: Well, and also, even if you were a white farmer, there's also still the fucking Dust Bowl and Potato Famine. 

Michael: Right.

Aubrey: Being a farmer in itself is also not a picnic.

Michael: It just isn't like a sophisticated analysis of what has gone wrong with the American food system to just be like, it used to be good and now it's bad. It's worse now than it used to be in some ways and it's better in some ways. 

Aubrey: Yeah. 

Michael: So, that was the intro. A lot of this false nostalgia and the problem with America is that, we don't have a culture of food. Part 1, the first meal that he's going to walk us through is the industrial meal. We're eventually going to work our way up to a McDonald's meal and he's going to walk us through the way that the industrial factory farm system in America works. This is by far the best part of the book. A lot of his diagnosis of what is wrong with the American food systems, especially large scale industrial farms is basically accurate. He basically starts out with this thing that corn isn't everything. You go into the grocery store, and there's high fructose corn syrup in bread, in tomato sauce. Pick up any product from the shelf and it will have some derivative of corn in it. Most of what we grow in America is corn and soybeans, because corn is the most efficient way to get carbohydrates and soy is the most efficient way to get protein. 

Aubrey: Oh.

Michael: These are two crops that you can grow in massive quantities and then, you can break them down into all these constituent parts, and then, you can use them, you can put them in everything. There're three reasons how corn took over the American food supply. The first is in the 1920s, they started developing seeds that are higher yields. Basically, you can now plant stalks of corn mere inches away from each other and it used to be two feet. Because they've been bred to have much stronger stalks. So, they grow straight up. They used to be that they would start to bend over in the sun, and they would flop over on each other, and pretty soon, they're tangled up and nobody gets the sunlight that they need. Whereas now, they just grow ramrod straight. You just plant them every couple inches and you can harvest them with a tractor. 

Aubrey: Sure. Significant change. 

Michael: Yeah. In 1920, you would get about 20 bushels of corn per acre and now, you get 180 bushels of corn per acre.

Aubrey: Whoa, that big?

Michael: Honestly, again, you don't want to discount this stuff. This is part of how we feed the world. This is why starvation is a much smaller problem at the world scale than it used to be. The second big turning point was synthetic fertilizers. This is nuts. After World War II, they were making a bunch of ammonium nitrate, which is an ingredient in explosives for the war. You know with crops you have to rotate crops to put nitrogen back in the soil? 

Aubrey: Yeah. 

Michael: Ammonium nitrate is a great source of nitrogen. This is why you put fertilizer into soil. There're all these munitions plants that are making ammonium nitrate. At the end of the war, the government is like, "Oh, why don't you guys just keep making it and we're just going to give it to all the farmers?" But the problem with these fertilizers is that they're essentially fossil fuel products. 

Aubrey: Oh, yikes.

Michael: Because the way to make them is you take hydrogen gas and nitrogen gas, and you crush them together under really high pressure, and under really high heat. The only way to do that is with fossil fuels. You just burn fucking coal, and you get these things really hot, and then, that's how you make the fertilizers. What Michael Pollan says in his book is that, "For every calorie of corn, you're burning nine calories of oil."

Aubrey: Gotcha. 

Michael: Then, the third thing that put corn into our entire food supply is, of course, subsidies, which is this story that everybody knows. The way that Michael Pollan describes it is that, "Agriculture has never operated on any basic capitalist principles of supply and demand, because farmers are responsible for feeding the country." So, in low yield years, you have a risk of your population not having enough food or you have to import food, it's an actual government project that needs to happen. But then, also, if they have a really good year and they grow too much or they have a ton of corn that's coming out of the fields, the price of it crashes. 

Aubrey: Whoa.

Michael: And then, farmers are basically destitute, because all of a sudden, they're not making as much from their harvest as they had expected, and then it fucks with the prices next year, and they can't pay off their seeds, blah, blah, blah. You can't just have the free market do agriculture. 

Aubrey: Yeah. 

Michael: Essentially, as early as we've had government agriculture policy, we've always been subsidizing to try to smooth these things out, to try to give people some expected return, so that they have a reason to grow crops and they're not just in this horrific cycle of poverty or they stopped growing crops altogether and we don't have enough food.

Aubrey: Yeah, and it is bone crushingly hard work. 

Michael: It's so hard work. I know.

Aubrey: I have a good friend, who's a farmer, and tells me about his day, and I get tired every time. He's a farmer, and he has three kids, and I'm like, "I don't have any of those things and I'm already tired. I don't understand."


Michael: This is also a version of this argument that I'm sure you've heard, too, that basically because we're growing so much corn in the 70s, 80s, we started putting corn in everything. This is when we started getting corn in Pop-Tarts, corn in bread. They developed high fructose corn syrup as the cheaper form sweetening. Now, we're sweetening everything with corn. Basically, we became like a mono crop country. Then, it's like, "Well, the corn has to go somewhere" and that's where we started getting this avalanche of processed foods. That's essentially the argument. 

Aubrey: Okay. Is that true?

Michael: It is actually true and quite easy to measure that we're producing more corn, because there's agricultural statistics.

Aubrey: Sure.

Michael: But then, 60% of America's corn is fed to livestock, which Michael Pollan describes in great detail. It's not necessarily that all of the corn went to human consumption. A lot of that corn went to like, we're now eating more meat than we used to, and we also export a ton of corn, and corn goes into biofuels and stuff that is not food. There's a really good talk by Julie Guzman, who's an academic, who has written various critiques of Michael Pollan. What she says is, "You can't say with any certainty that Americans are eating more now than they used to simply, because it's all based on this self-report data."

Aubrey: Yeah, totally. 

Michael: We've talked on the show before about how there's only really two ways to measure people's food consumption. You do these 24-hour diaries or you ask people what they're eating in general, and they're both fundamentally very flawed. It's really hard to figure out how many calories people are eating. Her thing is like, "Well, maybe, it sounds fairly plausible in a common-sense way that we're eating more like, I don't know. But you really can't actually say with any certainty that we're eating more than we used to." 

Aubrey: I would like to submit this as a new entry for that's what I call Maintenance Phase is, this assumes facts not in evidence narrative.

Michael: Ooh, I think that's the way to put it.

Aubrey: The way that you identify a moral panic is you look at what we don't need evidence to believe or that's at least part of it. You can just say, "We eat more now than we used to" and people will be like, "That seems right." Folks won't necessarily like fact check it and be like, "Wait, how are you measuring that?" Because it seems really pedantic and it seems nitpicky, but it really matters like if that's a foundational assumption of your work. 

Michael: Exactly. Julie Guzman points out other things that he often focuses on the domestic reasons why we're all eating more and corn has become the central thing. What she says is like, "The market of food is so global now." We're getting blueberries from Chile. The idea that America is over producing corn, therefore, Americans are eating more corn, it doesn't really take into account the fact that we're shipping that stuff overseas for then it to get processed, and then shipped back to us. We're also importing a ton of food or exporting a ton of food. The changes that have brought us to the problems with our food system are much more global than they are domestic. 

Another thing that Julie Guzman points out in her book, the fact that corn is subsidized is not actually the reason why it's cheaper in the stores like fruits and vegetables are more expensive. Julie Guzman points out that corn is very easy to dry and very easy to store and ship. Whereas if you're talking about peaches, you have to pick the peaches off of trees, you can't do it with any machine, and then, you have to get it to wherever it's going to be. I think they have to be refrigerated or some other crops have to be refrigerated. Many crops you have to wash before you sell them. It's just more expensive to produce a lot of fruits and vegetables. 

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: Pollan implies that, "If we can just get rid of the corn subsidies, all the fruits and vegetables will be cheaper or whatever." It's actually just a lot more complicated than that.

Aubrey: That makes a ton of sense to me. That's not a critique that I had heard and it totally makes sense to me. 

Michael: Also, another thing that has always bugged me about the subsidy thing is that, it's true that the corn subsidies-- I agree with Michael Pollan's diagnosed as a part of the problem. But then, if you started heavily subsidizing say, broccoli, they would just start growing broccoli in massive quantities and they do high fructose broccoli syrup.

Aubrey: [laughs] Yeah, I want to bookmark a thing. I'm going to predict a thing. 

Michael: Ooh, okay. 

Aubrey: I'm going to predict a response that I'm going to have to whatever his prescriptions are, my response is going to be, "That's an individual proposed solution to a systemic problem.

Michael: We found it. We're doing it. That's what I call Maintenance Phase.

Aubrey: Is it just, you just need to buy and eat the right kinds of foods not-

Michael: Look at there, Aubrey.

Aubrey: - we need to reorganize our food system.

Michael: You're spoiling the episode, already [crosstalk], you found it.

Aubrey: Cool, fun. 

Michael: Yes, I'm saving all the little sounds I want to make. 

Aubrey: [laughs]

Michael: [crosstalk] I'm not doing it. I'm not doing it. 

Aubrey: I'm very into this like I want to predict it thing. It's very satisfying. I find it very satisfying. 

Michael: You love ruining my episodes. It's like, "This is where Mike is taking me."

Aubrey: Comments rumination.


Michael: Okay. But before we get to the prescriptions, which we will obviously get to in great detail. We have to talk about his fast food safari to McDonald's. 

Aubrey: Oh, no.

Michael: I feel this was also a genre of journalism in early 2000s, where a wealthy writer from New York, or D.C., or wherever would go to some Iowa, McDonald's, and they would describe it in this zoo way. 

Aubrey: It's so gross. It's so gross. 

Michael: In his defense, Michael Pollan's McDonald's Safari is not as bad as others I have read. 

Aubrey: Sure.

Michael: The description is, he's all building this around like a meal. He and his family go into a McDonald's in the Midwest somewhere and his son gets an order of McNuggets. He describes all the weird ingredients in McNuggets, which is fine, fair enough. And then, he himself orders a cheeseburger. The problem with the cheeseburger for the argument that he's making is that, if you go on the McDonald's website, a McDonald's cheeseburger is 100% beef and he has-

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Michael: -begrudgingly in the text mentioned that a McDonald's cheeseburger only has six ingredients, if you don't count all the ingredients in the bun.

Aubrey: Right. So, he can't level the also very popular at this time argument that it's like a Frankenfood. 

Michael: Exactly. It's just a really straightforward food. It's like pickles, and onions, and cheese, and beef, and a bun. It's really basic, but then, he says, "In truth, my cheeseburgers relationship to beef seemed nearly as metaphorical as the nuggets relationship to a chicken."

Aubrey: Nope.

Michael: I'm like, "How?" It's a beef patty. 

Aubrey: It's ground beef. They took beef and then, they ground it up. 

Michael: It's identical to something that you would get at the grocery store. And frankly, it's identical to something you'd get. If you went to a fancy restaurant, they're getting their beef from the same place. 

Aubrey: Right. 

Michael: So, I'm going to send you a little excerpt from this part. 

Aubrey: Oh.

Michael: All right, here we go.

Aubrey: "What is it about fast food? Not only is it served in a flash, but more often than not, it's eaten that way, too. We finished our meal in under 10 minutes. Since, we were in the convertible and the Sun was shining, I can't blame the McDonald's ambience. Perhaps, the reason you eat this food quickly is because it doesn't bear savoring." Bookmark, disagree.

Michael: It tastes fucking good. Michael. It's fine. 

Aubrey: I didn't even like it. This is the food equivalent of like, "I don't even own a TV."

Michael: [laughs] 

Aubrey: I don't even McDonald's [crosstalk] is good to be. [laughs]  

Michael: What do you mean TV? 

Aubrey: Okay.


Aubrey: Okay, sorry, I'll get back to quote. "The more you concentrate on how it tastes, the less like anything it tastes. I said before that McDonald's serves a comfort food, but after a few bites, I'm more inclined to think that they're selling something more schematic than that. Something more like a signifier of comfort food. You eat more and more quickly, hoping somehow to catch up to the original idea of cheeseburger or French fry as it retreats over the horizon. And so, it goes bite after bite until you feel not satisfied exactly, but simply regrettably full."

Michael: You're just eating food, Michael. You're describing eating food.

Aubrey: But he's describing the ennui of eating industrialized food, Michael.

Michael: You're having a perfectly pleasant meal with your family and you're trying to pull something shitty out of it.

Aubrey: Well, and also, listen man, not every meal is a satisfying experience. There are times when you're just hungry, and you just need to eat some food, and that's also okay.

Michael: Yes. I've also had fancy meals that I've eaten quickly. 

Aubrey: Yeah. And that don't bear savoring. 

Michael: Exactly. I also had really good subs from Quiznos that I absolutely savored.

Aubrey: Are you going to talk about the honey mustard chicken, because that's what I was going to talk about that which is great. 

Michael: [laughs] 

Aubrey: I think it's so good.

Michael: Just this idea that it's fundamentally an industrial experience to eat at McDonald's, and you can't eat slowly, and you can't sit for an hour with your family at McDonald's, and have a nice talk as you're all eating your McDonald's food. It's that's just straight up bullshit.

Aubrey: Yeah. We were not a McDonald's family growing up. But when we did fast food, we would go to Dairy Queen and I will say, "I have a plenty of fond memories." 

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: Like good quality family time getting a dipped cone at Dairy Queen. It's fine.

Michael: It's fine. To be fair, my whole thing that I think it's really important to be fair to people. So far, this book is mostly fine. We're 200 pages into it, most of it has been about the history of corn and corn subsidies, which is actually really interesting and really cool, and maybe he didn't represent the full picture. There're quibbles to be had. But if the whole book was like this, there wouldn't be a whole lot of dunkfesting. But then, Part 2 is called pastoral grass and this is him having a grass-fed meal. 

Aubrey: Okay.

Michael: This is the section where we get to the first big twist of the book that Michael Pollan fucking hates organic farms-

Aubrey: What?

Michael: -and he hates Whole Foods.

Aubrey: Like the store Whole Foods.

Michael: He fucking hates it. 

Aubrey: Listen, okay, we've talked a lot so far about fuck McDonald's. For real, fuck Whole Foods.

Michael: Truly fuck Whole Foods. 

Aubrey: Go look up the views of that CEO, go look up their responses to employees speaking Spanish in their stores to customers who speak Spanish, go look up their labor laws, go look up their BMI bonus.

Michael: Gosh.

Aubrey: They're terrible. 

Michael: The next thing that I'm going to send you is an excerpt from this section.

Aubrey: Oh, I'm excited to rip into Whole Foods. 

Michael: [laughs] It's so much.

Aubrey: "With the growth of organics and mounting concerns about the wholesomeness of industrial food, storied food is showing up in supermarkets everywhere these days. But it is Whole Foods that consistently delivers the most cutting-edge grocery lit. On a recent visit, I filled my shopping cart with eggs "from cage free vegetarian hens," milk from cows that live "free from unnecessary fear and distress," wild salmon caught by native Americans in Yakutat, Alaska population 833, and heirloom tomatoes from Capay farm "one of the early pioneers of the organic movement." The organic broiler I picked up even had a name, Rosie, who turned out to be a sustainably farmed free range chicken from Petaluma Poultry, a company whose "farming methods strive to create harmonious relationships in nature" sustaining the health of all creatures and the natural world.

Michael: This is what bugs me about Whole Foods, too, is it everything has a little label on the back or it's a story. 

Aubrey: Sure. 

Michael: It is Stoney mansions farms was founded in 1802 and then you go to the front, it's a $9 thing of yogurt.

Aubrey: It's a place that I really try hard not to shop, because every time I get a glimpse into what their actual business model is, it's a horror show.

Michael: It's funny how we're going harder on Whole Foods than McDonald's on this show. [laughs] 

Aubrey: I feel harder about Whole Foods than I do about McDonald's. Absolutely, absolutely.

Michael: Basically, Michael Pollan feels about Whole Foods the same way that we do, which is very roasty.

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: This leads into his critique of the organic farming movement that organic farms are basically just another way of saying industrial farms. He then after his Whole Foods safari he goes to an actual working organic farm in California and he describes it with so much contempt. It's fascinating. Here, I'm going to send you another excerpt.

Aubrey: "In many respects, the same factory model is at work in both fields. But for every chemical input used in the farm's conventional methods, the more benign organic input has been substituted in the organic ones. So, in place of petrochemical fertilizers, greenways organic acres are nourished by compost made by the ton at a horse farm nearby, and by poultry manure. Instead of toxic pesticides, insects are controlled by spraying approved organic agents, most of them derived from plants, and by introducing beneficial insects like lacewings. Perhaps, the greatest challenge to farming organically on an industrial scale is controlling weeds without the use of chemical herbicides. Greenways tackles its weeds with frequent and carefully timed tilling. Even before the crops are planted, the fields are irrigated to germinate the weed seeds present in the soil, a tractor then tills the field to kill them, the first of several passes it will make over the course of the growing season. When the crops stand too high to drive a tractor over, farmworkers wielding propane torches will spot kill the biggest weeds by hand."

Michael: What do you think? 

Aubrey: I think he's describing a big farm. 

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: This doesn't feel a smoking gun to me at all.

Michael: Exactly. This whole section of the book, he is presenting exactly what you just read as a smoking gun. 

Aubrey: Weird. 

Michael: He wants us to marvel at like, "Oh, look how industrial it is?" But I'm like, "Dude, you just spent 150 pages complaining about all the fossil fuels that are going into corn production. You're now describing a farm that is using significantly less fossil fuels and is actually growing something in a way that sounds to me a lot more sustainable." But he describes all of this stuff as if we're supposed to be disgusted by it and it's like, "No, man, they're not using pesticides or chemical fertilizers." This whole section is like, "What do you want? Michael?" This sounds like they're doing the thing that you're asking them to do.

Aubrey: Yeah, I was going to say, it feels this is not out of line with the expectations that I would think that most organic shoppers would have. 

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: This is also a thing that rankles me about this era of food system critiques is that, all of them seem to be organized around this idea that you don't even know what you're putting in your body. 

Michael: I know. 

Aubrey: The worst thing that's happening here is, you're eating foods that you don't know what they are. Not the worst thing that's happening here is that, we're paying people less than minimum wage to pick the foods that you eat. 

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: My main concern about this stuff is less about what are the unknown chemicals that are coming into my body and who needs to be around those chemicals all day? 

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: There are real critiques to be had here that transcend just the idea of like, "There's a chemical on your food that you don’t know what it is." 

Michael: Right. This is the only place in the book where he mentions farmworkers.

Aubrey: What?

Michael: He says, it's the only mention-- Even in the industrial farm stuff, he barely mentions it, which is fascinating to me. 

Aubrey: Oh.

Michael: But this is where he's leading us to, because he's trying to make organic look as bad as possible. And then, he says, "The time for organic is over. We tried organic. It's become this industrial monster just like the other factory farms" and it is now time to, he says, "Move beyond organic." This is where he's leading us. Here's what farms should look like. A huge chunk of the book for the next 150 pages. He spends on Polyface Farm, which is in Virginia and it's run by a guy named Joel Salatin. A lot of this book is a profile of this single farmer guy, who's running a local sustainable artisanal farm like a farmer's market farm. 

Aubrey: Mm-hmm.

Michael: There's a lot of metaphorical stuff in this section. We meet Michael Pollan is he's standing in a meadow and looking at the cows, and it's like sunset. There's a lot of just weird aesthetic stuff going on where he's describing this small family farm.

Aubrey: Do you know what it is? 

Michael: Mm.

Aubrey: He's describing the Olestra ad about a farmer. [laughs] 

Michael: It's 100% the Olestra ad. 

Aubrey: Right. 

Michael: This is like a Republican campaign ad in Pennsylvania. 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Michael: Listen to this. This is insufferable. This is Joel Salatin's entrance. 

Aubrey: Tell me.

Michael: He talks about Joel Salatin walking toward him from across a meadow or something and he's wearing overalls and a hat or whatever. And then, Michael Pollan describes the hat. He says, "Salatin's broad brim straw hat did more than protect his neck and face from the Virginia Sun. It declared a political and aesthetic stance when descended from Virgil through Jefferson with a detour through the 60s counterculture. Whereas a feed company cap blazoned with the logo of an agribusiness giant would have said labor, would have implied in more ways than one, a debt to the industrial. Salitan's John T. Chapeau [crosstalk] grass rather than plastic, bespoke independence, sufficiency, even ease.

Aubrey: The cartoon version of me is named John T. Chapeau.

Michael: [laughs] 

Aubrey: I would just like to say that. Oh, God.

Michael: He's describing this guy like fucking Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.

Aubrey: Uh-huh.

Michael: He's man of the people, salt of the Earth. 

Aubrey: Sure. It's part of this romanticism.

Michael: And he loves the fact that this guy describes himself as a grass farmer. He doesn't grow crops. He grows grass and then, his cattle and his chickens graze on the grass. All he's doing is reproducing the conditions of the planet naturally. This is how cows and chickens are supposed to live. This produces a much more like an ecosystem approach rather than this horrific monoculture approach, where you're blasting the chemicals, and you're spraying it, and your tractoring it. This is just like a dude out in nature cows eaten grass. So, I'm going to send you another excerpt.

Aubrey: "He unleashes portable chicken yards known among small scale farmers as chicken tractors. On fields, after cows have finished grazing there, the chickens peck at the remaining grass, sterilize the cow manure of worms, and leave their own manure behind. All of this prepares the pasture for the next planting of grass without a bit of off farm fertilizer. Cows eating grasses that had themselves eaten the Sun. The food chain at work in this pasture could not be any shorter or simpler. The farm and the family comprised a remarkably self-contained world in the way I imagined all American farm life once did." I imagined doing some heavy lifting there. 

Michael: I know.

Aubrey: Oh. 


Aubrey: "But the agrarian self-sufficiency that Thomas Jefferson celebrated used to be a matter of course, and a product of necessity. Nowadays, that independence constitutes a way of life both deliberate, and hard won, and achievement." Were Jefferson to return today, he would no doubt be gratified to learn that there were still farmers down the road from Monticello as Jeffersonian as Joel Salatin. I hate this.

Michael: You see what he's doing here?

Aubrey: Boy oh, boy. Lifting up Thomas Jefferson as your example. 

Michael: I know.

Aubrey: It feels reminiscent to me of Jared being the weight loss success story of Supersize Me, where I'm like, "We are not lifting up Thomas Jefferson like a famed sexual assaulter." Salatin's like, "What?

Michael: Also, are we lionizing the farming practices of someone who owned slaves? 

Aubrey: Right. Every part of this.

Michael: You can't just evoke the farm of Thomas Jefferson without unpacking or at least acknowledging like, "Ooh, some stuff we probably wouldn't want to do today."

Aubrey: I mean, pick a different white dude.

Michael: There's a lot of farmers out there-- [crosstalk] 

Aubrey: Find one that didn't own people-

Michael: I know.

Aubrey: -and then, sexually assault those people.

Michael: Maybe, this is foreshadowing, but he spends a lot of time with this Joel Salatin guy, who describes himself as a Christian libertarian environmentalist. 

Aubrey: What?

Michael: Which is like, should give you a sense of the kinds of beliefs he has. Michael Pollan regularly just parrots this guy saying the most deranged antigovernment like people don't want to work anymore. The problem in America is that the government is tyranny. 

Aubrey: Good. That's true. 

Michael: Pollan presents it over and over again as this like quirk of his character. He'll be like, "Oh, he loves talking about antigovernment stuff at the breakfast table. Guess, I'm going to get one of his lectures."

Aubrey: He wants me to come to a meeting of the three percenters with them. That seems good.

Michael: We now understand this as like a huge red flag and I realize that political everything was different back then. But you do get the sense that he's soft peddling some of this guy's actual beliefs. What we later find out, so, Joel Salatin is still around, he became a celebrity after this book came out. He became like an influencer, because he owns his farm and he would give advice to people. In the least twisty twist ever, he's now like a COVID denier guy. He held a bunch of meetings during the pandemic, where he wouldn't let people wear masks and he made people turn off their cell phones, because COVID is caused by 5G. 

Aubrey: Oh, boy. 

Michael: He's written all these like how-to guides to being the farmer that he is. I guess one of them in 2005 had a long screed against abortion doctors. 

Aubrey: Okay. 

Michael: I don't know how you get this and a book about farming. But it's really obvious this guy has really ugly beliefs and not cute Robert Nozick nightwatchman state libertarian beliefs, but weird conspiratorial beliefs and Michael Pollan just doesn't touch it at all. 

Aubrey: It's very fun to me that you described libertarian as of this cute. 

Michael: [laughs] 

Aubrey: I'm like, "Oh, look at them. Look at those guys."

Michael: What drives me so nuts about this is that, even as he presents Joel Salatin's beliefs is kooky like another one of his antigovernment rants, he half endorses a lot of these completely bananas ideas that this guy has that end up in Michael Pollan's bestselling book. So, this is a section, where Joel Salatin lays out his theory of change.

Aubrey: "You can't regulate integrity," Joel is fond of saying. "The only genuine accountability comes from a producer's relationship with his or her customers and their freedom to "come out to the farm, poke around, sniff around." If after seeing how we do things, they want to buy food from us, that should be none of the government's business. Like fresh air and sunshine, Joel believes transparency is a more powerful disinfectant than any regulation or technology." Ooh, I bet he does. "It is a compelling idea." 

Michael: [laughs] 

Aubrey: "Imagine if the walls of every slaughterhouse and animal factory were as transparent as Polyfaces, so much of what happens behind those walls, the cruelty, the carelessness, the filth would simply have to stop. We don't need a law against McDonald's or a law against slaughterhouse abuse," Salatin says. "We asked for too much salvation by legislation. All we need to do is empower individuals with the right philosophy and the right information to opt out and mass."

Michael: What do you think?

Aubrey: Whoa. Listen, one of the things that I would sometimes do in my old line of work, which was organizing like, "I'm a white lady, I could cover up tattoos, my hair was long enough that I didn't breed as queer necessarily to folks. I'd be the person who would go to far right garbage meetings." This sounds really not different from what I would hear at those far right opposition meetings. 

Michael: Oh, really? 

Aubrey: Absolutely. We're just waiting on the government to save us, we just need to empower they're good people who want to do good work, we just need to empower them to do that work and it's wild to read to him be swayed by it.

Michael: That's what's so weird to me to present it without comment and like, "Well, it's an interesting idea. Transparency, we can all--" He has this long section about his techniques for slaughtering animals, and how the customers of his farm can come and see their chicken get slaughtered, and then, buy the chicken afterwards. That's the only way to ensure good hygiene or whatever. This farm is a three-hour drive from Washington DC, where most of his customers are. Am I supposed to spend a whole fucking day driving out to a farm and with my zero experience in inspections and my zero knowledge about what a farm is supposed to look like? This is not a solution. It's not that he even presents this like, "Imagine this." It's like, "Yeah, it fucking sucks."

Aubrey: Yeah, and also like, "Hey, you know what you need in order to go out and see a farm is a car or someone who can drive you."

Michael: Exactly.

Aubrey: You need time in the day when the farm is open, and accepting visitors, and staff is working, but you're not working.

Michael: Yes.

Aubrey: You need disposable income and so much time to do what he's describing here. 

Michael: Yes.

Aubrey: Like, "Oh, this might not be a thing that everyone can or even just wants to do."

Michael: I actually think that going out and visiting a farm would be really cool. 

Aubrey: It's fun.

Michael: And if I had kids and if that was available, I would absolutely take them on a farm weekend or whatever, and see what it's like, see what the conditions are like, meet the animals. 

Aubrey: True.

Michael: On the most surface level, I think the idea of understanding where our food comes from is like, "Yeah, great." 

Aubrey: Totally. 

Michael: But also, it's not a substitute for government inspectors, who know what they're doing. As I've mentioned in the shows many times, I worked in human rights for 11 years, I worked on-- Almost, all my career was dedicated to the human rights impacts of businesses. I know people who inspect factories. They have checklists of 140 items. They spent days doing this. They know how to spot a fake ID in Guatemala, because people will oftentimes get fake IDs, so they can work when they're not 18 yet. You need technical skills to inspect a farm or a workplace for hygiene violations. Okay, what temperature are they keeping the meat storage at? This is a really hard job and a technical skill to inspect things. I don't want to do that.

Aubrey: Yeah. It feels the advice that he's giving here is like, "When you have a lot of wealth, and time, and ability to dig into this, here's how you navigate a fucked-up food system.

Michael: Yeah. 

Aubrey: "Not. Here's how we fix the food system." That's not actually it seems what he's arguing here. It seems what he's arguing is like, "You just need to make better choices within the sea of garbage choices that I [crosstalk]." Do you know what I mean? God damn.

Michael: It's this weird fetishization of small farms, too. There's nothing constitutionally that says that a smaller farm would have better working practices. There's nothing that says, they actually might be worse because small farms are exempt from a lot of the labor laws that govern farm workers. Nobody follows the fucking labor laws for farm workers anyway. So, it's a moot point. There're different animal welfare rules. The idea that small farms just inherently have better production is like why? No. This is what I just don't get about Michael Pollan's thing. He explicitly says that he hates organic certification. He hates the sticker. But at least, the sticker has an actual set of clearly defined rules.

Aubrey: Right.

Michael: He says that what Joel Salatin is doing is beyond organic and it's so much more sophisticated than organic. Okay, maybe that's true in Joel Salatin's case, but considering you can charge two to three times more for meat and produce that is produced under conditions like this, why wouldn't people just fucking lie about it. Without a mechanism of accountability, this is not a real alternative to factory farming. It just producing the same problems potentially.

Aubrey: I do think that there's value in smaller farmers. It gives us more diversity. You know what I mean? I do think that there's a thing here about balance of power between major farming entities and smaller farmers. 

Michael: Sure.

Aubrey: Totally agreed smaller farmers can still lie about their conditions and that stuff. I think there are benefits to that. It doesn't sound those are the benefits that he's talking about. It seems part of what he's arguing here is that smaller farmers are producing better food. I would believe you've told me that was true and I believe you've told me that it wasn't. My guess is that it's somewhere in between.

Michael: What's frustrating is, he keeps mixing up the potential to make better food and they are producing better food. Because again without any certification system or any system of inspections, well, how do I know that the local farmer isn't using pesticides and synthetic fertilizers? 

Aubrey: Sure. Sure, sure, sure. 

Michael: The worst boss I've ever had was a mom-and-pop video store owner, who are just like a total fucking dirtbag. 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Michael: The worst landlord I've ever had was like a mom-and-pop landlord. I don't actually think that small is worse than big. I think that it's really silly to make that argument that like, "Oh, we should have more big corporations in America that would fix our problem." That fucking deranged. But also, there's nothing inherent about small businesses that makes them better. You do in a large country with millions of people. You need to have like control mechanisms, especially when there's huge economic incentives involved.

Aubrey: Yeah, again, this all feels one step above an individual solution to a systemic problem. 

Michael: Yes. 

Aubrey: If you want to establish a floor for a set of practices or if you want to raise that floor, the mechanism that we have for that is regulation. 

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: Feel however you want to feel about that, but that's the pathway that we have currently. I don't know what to tell you. I'm not going out to a farm. 

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: I'm not going to visit Joel Salatin in here and telling me about people really misunderstand those keepers. I don't need that. 

Michael: But then, what's also what's so interesting to me, too, is that this vision of overregulation, Joseph Allen complains about overregulation and the tyranny of government control constantly and Michael Pollan parrots this. But then, actual smallholder farmers have written quite a bit in the ensuing years since this book came out about how overregulation is not really the problem. It is actually true that a lot of rules for the USDA are geared towards large slaughterhouses. It can be a little bit too stringent for smaller producers. That's an actual problem and the regulations need to be better on that. 

Aubrey: Sure. 

Michael: The real issue is that, Joel Salatin is selling people this vision of like, if the regulator's would get out of the way, all of these small farms would flourish. It's just not true, partially, because Joel Salatin inherited his farm from his father. Plenty of other people have written about like, "Yeah, this stuff works and is profitable if you don't have like any land mortgage rents to pay." And he also uses free labor on his farm. Michael Pollan talks about his interns.

Aubrey: What?

Michael: Yes. He has interns doing chores. Okay, that's sounds like free labor to me.

Aubrey: It does to me, too, and I will say, hot take. I feel that way about every single unpaid internship [crosstalk] in the world.

Michael: Yeah, it's not. Yes. 

Aubrey: Farm work internship is, that is dark.

Michael: I know. And there're websites where former interns have posted about bad living conditions and getting weird food poisoning and stuff.

Aubrey: Sure.

Michael: People have actually come forward about this stuff. But then, there's been some really interesting pushback to this. There's a guy named Chris Newman, who is a person of color, who did this. He left the rat race, and bought a farm, and tried to make it work. He has a medium, it's really good, and he's pushed back on this like all of Joel Salatin weird, right wing libertarian bullshit about getting government regulators out of the way. So, I'm going to send you an excerpt from a blog post by Chris Newman.

Aubrey: "I recently found myself with the free time to do some simple math. One of the larger farmer's markets I participate in has about hundred vendors. I'm one of the mid-sized operations that sells there and I'm paying about $1,000 a year in fees to participate. I'm also devoting about 250 hours a year in staffing and prep time and about $650 in fuel getting to and from the market. Altogether, then, I'm paying roughly $5,000 to participate in a large farmer's market. It's pretty safe to assume that the costs of the other 99 vendors are similar. We're shelling out a combined $500,000 to participate in just one market. Most of us participate in at least two markets. So, let's double the figure to a million. 

A million dollars annual operating budget could comfortably lease service and staff a large urban brick-and-mortar market that's open 12 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round. Instead, we spend it on a pop-up market that's open just half the year for two days a week, four hours at a time, and it's probably outdoors where rain, excessive heat or cold snap will effectively ruin the day." Yeah, this is a thing that I have talked to farmer friend about that farmer's markets are so deeply not worth it.

Michael: This whole vision of local farms is the way out of factory farming. They're the way to break America's addiction to corn and fossil fuels, blah, blah, blah. It doesn't really make sense for consumers and it doesn't really make sense for farmers either. You don't really make a lot of money doing this. It's wildly inefficient and no one's really benefiting from this. What you actually need is, government subsidies for these people to get their produce into supermarkets.

Aubrey: Or, restaurants or whatever. 

Michael: and Aubrey: Yeah.

Aubrey: Yes.

Michael: Agree that community supports and something Chris Newman has written a lot about is that we have this idea of the family farm, and it's based on this idea of the nuclear family, and that you'd own your own land. It's all wrapped up in this weird white 1950s picket fence bullshit. If that's not your model, then, there isn't really any help for you and you're not part of the national conversation about farmers. 

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael:  It's not that government regulation is choking farmers. It's that there aren't enough government supports to incentivize people to do this. There are ways to just get the outcomes that we want without these weird workarounds.

Aubrey: Yeah, I think like the hard thing here, the thing that I'm struggling with, the tension that I'm struggling with in response to all of this is, it feels what we need is a wholesale audit of the food system and then re-configuring of how a bunch of things work. But the challenge is, if and when we do that, we have to be able to do it in a way that centers the needs and experiences of poor people, and disabled people, and people who are working multiple jobs, and people who are on food stamps, and others are like assistance programs. Make sure that it actually works for more than like me and Michael Pollan. 

Michael: Yeah, exactly. 

Aubrey: It is aimed squarely at us. What it feels like none of these critiques particularly from this era really tangled with is just like, "What does that mean for anybody else?"

Michael: There's nothing in Michael Pollan's book for those people at all. There's no message to poor people at all. 

Aubrey: There's no message to anyone, who's not also basically Michael Pollan. 

Michael: Exactly, yes. Also, a little epilogue to his story. This guy, Chris Newman, after he writes his blog post being like, "Oh, I'm doing all this local farming stuff and it's really not working for me," in which he doesn't mention Joel Salatin at all. Joel Salatin then writes a blog post where he's like, "I disagree with Chris, but I can't even talk about that, because then you'd call me racist."

Aubrey: What? 

Michael: I don't know why you're saying that. Then, there's a whole back and forth ensues and this culminates with him saying, "I would suggest the black indigenous and people of color, who feel America offers them no opportunity should give up all modern conveniences and return to their tribal locations in domicile."

Aubrey: Fully, go back to Africa.

Michael: And then, he also said that, "75% of black boys grew up without a father," which is not true. 

Aubrey: Oh, God.

Michael: I was like, "That sounds fucked up." And then, I looked it up and it's like, "I guess this is a thing that goes around right-wing internet?'

Aubrey: Oh, yeah, it absolutely does. Yeah. 

Michael: I mean, that's obviously where all this stuff was going to go, right?

Aubrey: It feels unsurprising.

Michael: Yeah. It's never like this libertarian COVID denier 5G guy also has really good racial politics.

Aubrey: You know what? He's really thoughtful on immigration. You'd be surprised [crosstalk] no. 

Michael: Actually, nuanced stuff. Yeah. Okay, that was meal two. He didn't have a grass-fed meal, but ah, it's not that interesting. Just he eats grass-fed beef and it's good. And then, we get to part three, the forest. The whole conceit of this section is he wants to make a meal where everything is huntered or gathered by Michael Pollan. 

Aubrey: Uh-huh.

Michael: There's nothing much to say here. This section is fine. It's him learning how to hunt, and he kills a wild boar, and there's this pretty cool sounding dude, who shows him how to forage, and he looks around, he finds weird mushrooms, and he has them analyzed before he eats them, and it's all fine. It doesn't really say anything about the American food system and it doesn't really try to. 

Aubrey: Mm-hmm.

Michael: I'm going to send you the final paragraph. 

Aubrey: Whoa, of the entire book?

Michael: Of the entire book, where he lays out his theory of change.

Aubrey: Right on. 

Michael: He's sitting there at the end of this beautiful, wonderful meal that he spent months preparing, basically and he's sitting there and contemplating.

Aubrey: "This is not the way I want to eat every day. I like to be able to open a can of stock and I like to talk about politics or the movies at the dinner table, sometimes, instead of food. But imagine for a moment, if we once again knew what it is we're eating, where it came from, how it found its way to our table, and what in a true accounting it really cost, we could then talk about some other things at dinner. For we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry. What we're eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world." Whoa.

Michael: He's doing metaphorical stuff, again.

Aubrey: This feels like an imagined reality. I mean, it is. He's saying it, "If we knew where our food came from, we would never talk about it." My experience is, as soon as I know where food comes from, it's all I want to talk about.

Michael: Yeah, I don't know how much time you spent in Seattle or Portland, but the idea that people stop talking about food once they know where it's from, it does not match my experience.

Aubrey: Truly, truly. It's LinkedIn to the set of ideas about social change that is just like, people just need to know and then things will be different. If you talk to people, who work in social change movements, if you talk to people who work in policy, or public health, or any of the folks, who are tasked with creating and managing that change, knowledge doesn't actually do it. 

Michael: No.

Aubrey: People knowing things doesn't necessarily change their behavior, because there are other constraints in our lives, and because not everybody has the same priorities, my guy.

Michael: What's frustrating to me about the book is that, he applies all this stuff to food that it's our connection to our natural world. He makes all these metaphorical connections, but then, you can make all the same connection to our clothing. It's like we would die without clothing in the winter and what can be more important than the cloth we put on our backs, right? Most of us know the conditions that our clothing is produced under are not good.

Aubrey: Right. We don't know the particulars, but we know it's real bad. 

Michael: Yeah, and it's not changing. This theory of change, if we knew we would behave differently. I've actually read up on public information campaigns for various podcasts over the years and there's a really narrow range of issues on which just delivering people information is going to actually change things. It's mostly things, where people have the power to do something, they just lack the information and it's something that benefits them. The idea that we all just have to buy food, that's way more expensive by choice, because it's better for the planet or whatever. That's never going to work, because people want to spend their money on other things.

Aubrey: Well, and in that way, it makes sense that he's foregrounding Joel Salatin for all of this because what he's proposing is a deeply libertarian solution, right? 

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: He's not proposing big overhauls of the food system. He's not proposing anything actually that would lead to meaningful accountability for agribusiness, if that's his wheelhouse and if that's the bee in his bonnet. None of this, a bunch of people electing to go out to smaller farms and buying from those smaller farms. Let's say you scale that and it gets huge. Even if it gets huge, that's taking a tiny bite out of the markets of these massive, massive farms. It would be great for those small farms to get more business and all that stuff like great, absolutely. But in terms of a transformational force in the food system, no.

Michael: No.

Aubrey: No, no. 

Michael: His whole program is ways to opt out of our shitty system. 

Aubrey: It's charter schools, but for food. 

Michael: Exactly. And it's not even just that they're opting out. He's literally telling them that like, "This is a political act." Shopping at the farmer's market is a political act. 

Aubrey: God damn it. 

Michael: And he keeps describing what he's proposing as a food movement. But he never defines what this movement should actually want. 

Aubrey: Uh-huh. 

Michael: What I kept shouting at this book is like, "Europe."

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Michael: He just completely gives up on the idea of regulating large farms. But the minute you start digging into this, there're 72 pesticides that are illegal in America and illegal in the EU. It's one quarter of America's pesticide use is pesticides that you can't use in the EU. He describes all of these factory farms, 150 pages and then he's just like, "Well, all we can do is go to the farmer's market." There's actually lots of models for countries that regulate factory farms and have far better factory farm conditions than America does. 

Aubrey: Yeah, totally. 

Michael: I read a really interesting article by Heidi Zimmerman called Caring for the Middle Class Soul: Ambivalence, Ethical Eating and the Michael Pollan Phenomenon. 

Aubrey: Whoa.

Michael: She talks about this book and the rest of his work as like, what it really is lifestyle instruction. It's masquerading as social and political analysis, but it's telling you how to live.

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: This article actually gave me a lot more sympathy for Michael Pollan. These arguments in that, it is really upsetting to be confronted with the fact that, we live in a world where we're complicit with a lot of really awful shit. 

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: You read about this stuff and you're like, "Oh, my God, everything I'm eating was picked by somebody, who's working under terrible conditions. Everything I'm wearing, the car that I drive is polluting the environment." It's not clear what we should do with that or what we should do about that. And a lot of us just carry around a lot of anxiety, because we're powerless. You have your one vote that you do every four years or whatever. But other than that, even a local political action or something, it's very hard to see change from that. It's very difficult. You've got this massive population, especially of upper class, white, fairly privileged people, who are aware of their own, our own complicit in all of these systems, because we're the people that are doing most of the consuming in America. So, there's this constant need for exoneration.

Aubrey: Yeah. 

Michael: Tell me that I'm not as bad as I feel about all this. 

Aubrey: Yep. 

Michael: And a lot of the instruction that Michael Pollan is offering people and I don't think that he's doing this deliberately. I don't think he's an evil guy, I don't think that any of this is deliberate. But I think what he's offering people is some absolution, and some way of opting out, and being like, "Well, factory farms are terrible. But you know what? I get most of my stuff at the farmer's market. I'm actually not part of the problem." He's offering you this way of feeling okay with not only opting out of these factory farm systems, but also of paying a lot of money to do so. 

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: So much of this is like, it's basically a luxury product. 

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: Michael Pollan also talks a lot about how the food on Joel Salatin's farm like, "It tastes better. And the yolks of the eggs are yellower, and the chicken tastes chickenier, and it's just so much better." It's like, "Yeah, man, you're just describing a rich people product." 

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: Rich people are willing to pay more for fucking manuka honey and these high-end goods. So, you're selling these choices back to them as like, "No, no, this is your civic duty. You're voting with your fork."

Aubrey: Yeah, and it also feels like, I don't know. That phenomenon that you're talking about, we're broadly aware, but tried to remain specifically unaware of the impacts of our consumer behaviors, and what that leads to, and what we're supporting, and all that stuff. I'm with you, like, I don't think Michael Pollan is doing this intentionally. It doesn't seem that way to me. But it is quietly a very, very troubling approach to just be like, the critiques of the food system just give rich people away out of feeling they're part of something that's morally conflicted, and then everybody else is just on their own. Good luck, bye. 

Michael: Yeah, I fucking love the farmer's market. [laughs] 

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: I'd love getting my shit at the farmer's market, but there's no civic duty. That's not me engaging as a political actor.

Aubrey: That's not systems change in a meaningful way. 

Michael: Exactly. 

Aubrey: That's not large-scale systems change. Yes, I agree. 

Michael: Yeah. 

Aubrey: It's tough. This seems tough talk time, but also it's true. 

Michael: Yeah. 

Aubrey: If you really want to look at this stuff and what it would take to fix it, it gets really big and really explicitly political, really fast. If you want to fix the food system, hello, that requires you to align yourself with an advocate for immigrants and migrant workers.

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: There's a bunch of like worker stuff that gets really quickly into Union Territory and what labor laws ought to look like, right? If you want to do this stuff, you have to think really globally. You have to think outside of the US and you have to think outside of individual behaviors.

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: I'm tired.

Michael: I know. 

Aubrey: I'm tired.

Michael: Slight epilogue.

Aubrey: Ooh, tell me.

Michael: This really clicked in my brain when I read Heidi Zimmerman's article about this being lifestyle instruction. Because effectively, what Michael Pollan has done since this book came out is, he became a diet guru. He then publishes three books about how to eat. It's very telling to me that this book that is ostensibly about politics. It's like corn subsidies, and the creation of fertilizer, and stuff. People read this book and he says, the question he gets the most is, how should I eat, how should I eat? People want these individual lifestyle choices from this book. That's what he's given them, which, fair enough, whatever. But I think that reveals the nature of the project all along or at least, the nature of what it was always going to be used for. Is that, people just wanting to know like, "Should I eat this or that?" By the time he shows up on Oprah in 2010, he's basically just like any other diet influencer that she has on.

Aubrey: This is part of the wave of food system criticisms that also ushered in an era of "clean eating." This is an era that really supercharged moralizing around specific foods like, "What's the source of your food, what's the nutrient profile of your food, who grew it, what did-- blah, blah, blah" all that stuff.

Michael: Yeah. 

Aubrey: And that's also what led us to heightened cultural conversation about orthorexia, which is this emerging framework for talking about a disordered eating that is about eating particular foods or not eating particular foods often based on this idea of like, "Is it good for you or is it bad for you, is it clean or is it dirty?" This feels a real story of like, here's what happens when you write something that's personally meaningful for you and then, just don't really think about how it plays out more broadly or don't want to think about how it plays out more broadly.

Michael: Yeah. To his credit, Michael Pollan now speaks much more openly about the need for politics. I found, I think it was 2018 interview with him, where he basically admits that the food movement such as it has been a total failure. No one really tried to direct all of this energy. I think there was actually an opportunity for change there and there are a lot of people, who were really fired up about the food system being terrible. But then instead of going into anything, we've just created a pretty robust alternative economy for food, a high-end economy for food.

Aubrey: I feel sad now in a way that I sometimes feel sad at the end of our episodes. I feel a little despondent. 

Michael: Glad I did this to you, again. 

Aubrey: But you know, I know what I got to do and that's go visit a right-wing farm. Bye.

Michael: [laughs]