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Food, Sustainability, and Michael Pollan

Alexander Baxevanis
Flickr Creative Commons

In late April,  Michael Pollan spoke at a public event at the University of Dayton. He is known for his research and writing about food, agriculture and sustainability.    UD  Professor and WYSO commentator Bob Brecha interviewed Pollan during his visit - and has this reflection.

I’ve been a big fan of Michael Pollan for many years now, so it was a great pleasure to help host him when he came to the University of Dayton recently. Pollan talked a bit during his visit about how he more or less accidentally came to write several books on food including Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, and his most recent work, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.  For me, the growing interest in local, organic and artisanal foods ties into a much broader set of issues: sustainability, climate change, energy and public health.  

My generation is the first one to grow up mainly eating processed foods, increasingly filled with unrecognizable and unpronounceable ingredients.  We (or our parents) decided to let others do our cooking for us, and now we’re the first generation to be overcome by a wave of illnesses that can be traced directly to our unhealthy diets.

Pollan keeps coming back to a few main themes.  One of them is certainly that we tend to obsess about food and diet, but ironically, on average spend more time watching television shows about cooking than we actually spend cooking.  And I like his focus on the big picture; Pollan ties the food system to climate change, water pollution, and to excessive use of fossil fuels. As a scientist, I understand very well the need to reduce complex problems down to their constituent parts so that we can understand the details of how things work.  We’ve done that with the food system, gaining ever more detailed information about nutrition and how our bodies function.  And each new discovery of a crucial dietary component seems to lead to a round of news stories, bestselling books and fad diets.  Meanwhile, as countries become wealthier and people take up the so-called western diet, a number of health problems start appearing that can mostly be traced back to the consumption of far too much highly processed food.

Here’s where the big-picture thinking of people like Pollan comes in.  While we worry about which kind of cholesterol is good or bad, do we get enough omega fatty acids and whether or not carbohydrates are good or bad this year, the corporate food industry gets rich off of every decision, because they can change their advertising or to manufacture a new product to meet our uncertainty.  But simply  put-  the problem is that we are consuming their manufactured food-like products in the first place, instead of using fresh and simple ingredients to cook our own meals. 

In spite of these myriad big issues brought up in Pollan's writing, one of the more important messages I take away is that we would be much better served by re-learning how to enjoy the pleasure of food and of cooking.  Sharing food is a social act, and as we consider how to address other challenges facing society, breaking bread with friends is surely a good way to start.

Bob Brecha is a professor of Physics and Renewable and Clean Energy at the University of Dayton, and Research Director at UD's Hanley Sustainability Institute.  Follow him on Twitter: @BobBrecha