This event review is brought to you by Solange Francois, from our Fetch Community Ambassador Team in Sydney.
Michael Pollan spoke to a sold out Sydney crowd on Tuesday July 10 as part of the Sydney Opera House ‘Ideas at the House’.
The bestselling author and journalist was hosted by Rebecca Huntley to share with the audience his views on the Western diet, the food ecosystem and why we need to think more about how the food we eat is produced.
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” This is Michael Pollan’s simplified mantra on what our relationship with food should be.
It’s clear enough that the modern Western diet is very different to what it was 150 years ago. Our diet is now high in processed food, meat and refined carbohydrates and lower in vegetables and fruit than it once was. As result, large groups within predominantly Western populations are subject to a whole manner of chronic diseases that our great-grandparents would have thought peculiar. “Why,” Pollan asks, “do we continue to eat this way?” In short, he says, “Because it tastes really good!”
According to Pollan, our consumption of sugar is one of the starkest reminders for just how much the Western diet has changed over the past 150 years. Once valued as a rare and special treat that people would go to great lengths to find because of its scarcity and great source of energy, it is now consumed at record levels. In the old days, fruit – the primary natural source of sugar for many of our ancestors – was an expensive commodity.
The same goes for animal products, in particular, fat. For our ancestors, fat was a huge undertaking to come by. Humans had to essentially kill a large animal to retrieve a substantial amount. Now, we go down to local for a steak (with a large slice of fat down the side). In addition, the animals we farm in the modern age are a slow, lethargic and fatty beast in comparison to what would have been hunted by our forbears.
According to Pollan: “We need to change our views on meat. Once upon a time, meat was a special event food and it needs to go back to that.”
But is vegetarianism the answer? Not in Pollan’s opinion. He believes that “a truly sustainable food ecosystem will have animals in it.”
So how have we gone from eating sugar, fat and meat only on special occasions to eating them whenever we want to?
“Corn, soy and wheat are the building blocks of the fast food diet,” Pollan said. He added that what’s perhaps most disturbing is that while the production of corn, soy and wheat is subsidised by the US government, vegetable produce is not. “We’re essentially eating what legislature is telling us to eat.”
Perhaps one of the most alarming factoids to come out of the evening’s discussion was that, according to Pollan, 75% of USA’s healthcare funds are spent on chronic, diet-related and most notably, preventable disease. He added that, “chronic diseases that we suffer from now were not routine 100 years ago.”
Many of the products we consume in the West are made by the same large corporations wherever you are. Between the United States and Australia, the packages may be different but higher up the global food production food chain, most roads will lead to the same food conglomerates.
“You can’t outsource something as important as what we put in our bodies every day to a large corporation who doesn’t have our interest at heart” Pollan stated.
While he is highly critical of food production by major corporations, Pollan is also a firm believer in the possibility of sustainable food production and major global corporations working together.
Pollan spoke at length about different food movements can have negative, positive and unclear impacts on our health and the environment.
While locavorism (eating food that is locally produced) can be a positive contributor to the food ecosystem and our health, eating food that has travelled great distances is nothing new. “Food trading has been around for at least 800-900 years, starting with spices, sugar, rum….”
MasterChef and the great lie?
How is the surge of cooking shows and prevalence of celebrity chefs impacting our diets?
“Cooking shows don’t correlate to more cooking,” Pollan reckons. On the contrary – many people are discouraged because of complicated methods and hard-to-source or expensive ingredients. Cooking shows do what television does for everything….”hook you in and make you watch.”
However, one of Pollan’s viewpoints on the way we glorify cooking is that celebrity chefs and modern food movements are progressively attracting young men to learn about food again.
Today, there is no division between men and women when it comes to food education. In the West during 1950s, there was a change in food culture when a generation of women went to work.
“Culture is just a fancy word for your Mom,” said Pollan. When women entered the workforce en masse, the ability to share their culinary knowledge diminished.
“Could we potentially evolve to be able to effectively process what we’re eating?” asked a member of the audience. Pollan hesitated with his response, saying that yes, potentially humans could adapt and evolve to be capable of handling our current diet, but that’s only part of the picture. How we’re eating now is tough on us but it’s “even tougher on animals and the environment.” The problem with the food system isn’t just about what it’s doing to our health.
Animal and environmental ethics
Pollan spoke about permaculture using Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm as an example. Salatin is an American farmer who runs his farm sustainably, modelled off the natural ecosystem. At the farm, each animal contributes some ecosystem service to another animal and the environment, so there is a close and intricate relationship between ruminants, birds and nature. Cows will graze down the pasture in one paddock and then be moved to another. Three days later, chickens are placed in the grazed-down pasture and will eat the larvae in the cow patties. Any longer, and these larvae hatch into flies, so by understanding the life cycle of the fly Salatin provides the chickens with a source of protein and at the same time, avoids a fly problem.
The chickens spread out the manure and add their own, which fertilise the soil and allow the grass to flourish. In turn, the soil is built from the bottom up with the life living in the soil such as earthworms and fungi feasting on shedding roots and processing them. At the end of the year, there is more life, not less – a truly harmonious cycle.
My favourite quote of the evening was this: “A cuisine is a compromise between a species and a place.” We are the species, and the place is our environment. We have to make a compromise about how we use it.
Quick takeaways – diet according to Pollan
- Pollan eats vegetarian on the road because you don’t know what you’re getting or where it came from.
- Can you pronounce the ingredients in your food? Would your grandma recognise what it is? If not, then don’t eat it.
- “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.”
About our Ambassador // This article was contributed by Community Ambassador Solange Francois. She is a marketer and lover of travel with a passion for psychology and lifelong learning. You can connect with Solange through her blog or on Twitter @solangefrancois