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Food - growing the real thing

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Long-time 'green food' campaigner Michael Pollan is here to talk about agribusiness and going back to basics, NICK O'MALLEY writes

Michael Pollan had his arcadian epiphany in the garden where he tried to murder a woodchuck with a tin of gasoline and a match.

This was 30 years or so ago and Pollan, who has since become the voice of a new green food movement, had dug his first serious plot at his Connecticut weekender.

As he tilled the soil he realised that the garden occupied the middle ground in America's imagination, between the romanticised wilderness of writers like Theroux and Emerson, and the reality of modern American life. It dawned on him that in writing about the garden he could investigate the delicate and complex relationship between people and nature, soil and food, food and health, industry and sustainability.

But first he had to kill the woodchuck.

''I didn't even put in a fence, that's how much I was soaked in this idea of the benign American wilderness,'' says Pollan, sitting at a wooden table at Chez Panisse Cafe in Berkeley, on the hilly fringe of San Francisco.

Of course, without a fence between his little plot and the American wilderness, his garden was annihilated as soon as it was planted. Though everything from deer to rabbits joined the slaughter, Pollan took a particular set against a woodchuck that had made a home in one of his defoliated garden beds.

A man of gentle sensibility, Pollan did not turn straight to immolation. First he tried to intimidate the rodent with the corpses of other woodchucks he found on the roadside. He escalated to chemical warfare when that failed, dumping creosote into the burrow. Finally he poured the fuel down the hole and tossed in the match.

This was, he wrote in Second Nature: A Gardener's Education, the book that germinated from his early garden essays, his ''destroy-the-village-in-order to-save-it phase''.

Pollan, who is tall and thin and bald with broad shoulders and precise motions - a bit Michael Stipe, a bit John Malkovich - splays his long fingers to demonstrate the geyser of flame that erupted from the earth into his face.

''I was an English major,'' he says to explain the clumsiness of the assault.

''It was your Bill Murray moment?'' I ask.

''Yes,'' he says. ''Caddyshack has been a great influence on my work.''

In fact, though often funny, Pollan's work is serious and complex. Since he found his subject he has gnawed at it obsessively, drawing heavily from gastronomy, history, sociology, biology, botany, chemistry and economics in a sprawling investigation of how we sustain ourselves from our environment and how we might do it better.

''Every writer, I believe, has a set of final questions that all their work gravitates towards and it could be money or power or love or nature, and I think if you look at most writers who have done several books if you dig down you will find that,'' he says.

It has made him a best-selling author, a sought-after public speaker and, according to Time magazine, one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010.

Our entrees arrive - mine is asparagus, steamed, iced and simply dressed; his is a locally grown heirloom lettuce. It is not American food as I knew it, but it is classic Chez Panisse. The restaurant, founded by Alice Waters in 1971, began to champion local organic food a generation ago, beginning a food movement that became known as Californian cuisine and eventually influencing much of the Western world.

Inevitably, when Pollan moved to Berkeley in 2003 to take up a journalism professorship at the University of California, the two became friends. Pollan met her after she attended one of his talks on the feedlot industry. He remembers her sitting quietly in the front row taking notes. By then Pollan was something of an identity, at least in literary circles. Journalism had led him away from a nascent academic career at Columbia University to Channels, an obscure magazine dedicated to covering the revolution in telecommunications, where he reviewed TV. ''I was kind of applying my literary criticism skills to television,'' says Pollan.

It didn't work.

''In general, people who watch television don't read and people who read don't watch television. It was a basic problem for a writer's career.''

From there he made the leap to Harper's Magazine, the politics and literature journal famed for its high brow and small print. The two sections Pollan was hired to create and edit - the Harpers Index and Readings - became institutions.

Pollan's assault on big corn made him famous and his horror-story chapters on it in his 2006 book The Omnivore's Dilemma are weirdly gripping. He traces the US staple from its indigenous history to its current omnipotence. Naturally enough, it is a history that started to turn dark under president Richard Nixon.

Nixon saw political danger in rising food prices and ordered his agriculture secretary, Earl Butz, to find a way to make food cheap. Butz began to subsidise corn. Farmers in the corn-belt ripped out all their other crops and shed their flocks. The monoculture Butz created now takes up an area twice the size of New York state.

A farm with animals as well as mixed crops has a biological logic about it, says Pollan. Animals eat plant waste and fertilise the land with their own. Animals on feedlots, however, dump waste, do not fertilise and need extra food provided. Agribusiness stepped in. It grew more corn to feed the cows and the chickens, dosed them with antibiotics when the unnatural diet made them sick, and fed the sea of corn with fertiliser made from petrochemicals imported from the Persian Gulf.

Rather than eating protein built by Iowan sunlight, Americans began eating Saudi oil. No matter, the food was cheap and a corn-fed oligopoly grew strong enough to sway Washington with its lobbyists.

But though Americans were eating more, they were not increasing their intake enough to maintain the growth demanded by shareholders of the new agribusinesses. Since the government kept subsidising corn, big corn needed to find new ways to sneak it into the food chain.

They began to break down corn into its component parts - fats, proteins and sugars - and adding it to everything they could think of.

In the supermarket Pollan finds corn everywhere, in almost all processed foods, in anything dyed, in anything sweetened, in the wax sprayed on the vegetables to make them look shiny and fresh, in labels and cardboard packaging, in the adhesive under tiles on the floor, in the joins in the ceiling joists. America is now truly corn-fed, and corn is making Americans - and those that eat like them - increasingly fat and sick, Pollan argues. It has damaged its land and condemned its livestock to imprisonment. It has pumped carbon into the air and shit into the sea.

Our main courses arrive, a simple fillet of halibut, seared and remaining somehow crisp in a light broth. Each of the flavours seems to stand out, though the lemongrass lingers longest.

Pollan thinks some of the solutions to the problems he raises in Dilemma lie in this earthenware dish. Americans must be persuaded to spend more money on less food of better quality.

''That is un-American,'' I say. He agrees. ''America is about more, it is about quantity not quality, it is about abundance,'' he says. He traces this back to the wonder of the hungry Europeans who first broke the post-glacial sod of the midwestern plains and found rich loam that grew anything they cared to stick into it.

Pollan followed Dilemma with In Defence of Food, a book that opens with a few words of such powerful simplicity as to almost render the 205 subsequent pages redundant. ''Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.''

In Defence Pollan explores how a nation as wealthy and educated as America came to develop a dangerous eating disorder while peasant nations seem to know how to eat well unconsciously.

He grapples with the notion of ''nutritionism'', and how a postwar nation became enamoured of its experts and began eating supplements and adopting weird diets and feeding its children formula rather than breast milk.

Outside we start walking up the hill towards his home. The sky is an Australian cobalt blue and people are lounging on a grassed median strip eating organic takeaway while a jazz quartet plays from a verandah. Hybrid cars mince past.

I ask Pollan what it is like to be a man of influence. ''Well, it's better to have your books noticed than not,'' he says, but he declines to take credit for the locavore movement that has adopted him as a spokesman.

Under a stand of giant redwoods he says, ''We are like a flea on an elephant. We're not hurting him yet, but he knows we are here.''

Later that night I'm in an Italian restaurant in downtown San Francisco with a local who wants to show me one of the city's famous restaurants. The head chef joins us after dinner. He has a knife, fork and spoon tattooed down his forearm and he delivers one of those Pythonesque spiels celebrity chefs are prone to.

He tells us about his 80-hour weeks and his obsession with perfection. And he lectures us on the primacy of good produce. ''Everything we use here is pasture fed,'' he says. ''You would not believe what the corn industry is doing to this country.''

Pollan will speak at the Sydney Opera House on July 10, and in Melbourne on July 8.

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