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Michael Pollan: From GMOs to NYC’s Soda Ban, Local Efforts Challenge Agri-Giants’ National Control

StoryOctober 24, 2012
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From California’s Proposition 37 initiative to New York City’s soda ban, journalist and best-selling author Michael Pollan argues that local efforts hold the key to challenging the agricultural industry’s stranglehold over national food policy. With companies like Monsanto influencing Congress and state legislatures, Pollan warns the United States risks falling into a “two-class food system,” where only those who can afford to live outside the industrial food system can access healthy ways to eat. Among the nation’s leading writers and thinkers on food and food policy, Pollan is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism and author of several best-selling books, including “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryFeb 13, 2008In Defense of Food: Author, Journalist Michael Pollan on Nutrition, Food Science and the American Diet
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Food Day, and we are speaking with Michael Pollan. In late 2010, Democracy Now! spoke to Jeffrey Smith, the executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology. I asked him about the U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks that revealed that the Bush administration drew up ways to retaliate against Europe for refusing to use genetically modified seeds.

JEFFREY SMITH: Well, we’ve been saying for years that the United States government has joined at—is joined at the hip with Monsanto and pushing GMOs as part of Monsanto’s agenda on the rest of the world. This lays bare the mechanics of that effort. We have Craig Stapleton, the former ambassador to France, specifically asking the U.S. government to retaliate and cause some harm throughout the European Union. And then, two years later, in 2009, we have a cable from the ambassador to Spain from the United States asking for intervention there, asking the government to help formulate a biotech strategy and support the government—members of the government in Spain that want to promote GMOs, as well. And here, they specifically indicate that they sat with the director of Monsanto for the region and got briefed by him about the politics of the region and created strategies with him to promote the GMO agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jeffrey Smith. Michael Pollan, your response?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, you know, our government has been promoting Monsanto’s products and the technology of genetic engineering. Both parties, as I said earlier, have supported this—the Democrats very early on. Remember the era of industrial policy—I’m sure you do, Amy—where the Democrats would pick out certain industries to promote to bring back the economy during the first Bush administration. Well, biotech was one of the ones they chose. The biotech industry and Monsanto was very close to Bill Clinton, in particular. And so, you’ve had—this is an American product that we’re promoting overseas. There’s nothing unusual about that. And it just happens to be a product a lot of people around the world don’t want. And, you know, it’s important to remember that other countries have had their debate, and they’ve decided they want to label this.

We can’t have that debate in Washington, because Monsanto has closed off all the avenues of debate. We can’t have it in state legislatures—same reason: lobbying money has closed off the avenues. In Congress, Dennis Kucinich has—you know, has introduced bills to label GM for every year since they were introduced. He’s never gotten more than a handful of co-sponsors. This bubbling up of the issue in California, through our crazy initiative process, is the only—the only way that it has managed to come before the public. And it’s a politics that’s very hard to stamp out, though God knows they’re trying, and they may succeed. And I think that, in itself, is a—is a pretty worrisome phenomenon.

And we’re seeing it on soda taxes, too, where the food industry, when challenged by people, fights back with deceptive advertising, tons of money, and so far has held the—held the ground on soda taxes nationally, spending hundreds of millions of dollars. They have pretty much held the ground on labeling GM also, by spending tens of millions of dollars. You know, we’re in this era where corporate speech is—has First Amendment rights, and they are using it very, very effectively.

And watching the difficulty of the pro-campaign response, since they don’t have airtime—and the media has done just a terrible job of calling out the deceptions in this advertising—is discouraging. But we still need to keep at it. You know, there are a lot of people in the food movement who are just like turned off on national politics, and they want to go to their farmers’ markets and work on local issues. And all that is very, very important. But the risk there is we build a two-class food system, where people who can afford to check out on the industrial food system do, and everyone else is left eating industrial stuff. That’s why we do need to deal with these issues at the ballot box, deal with them in Washington, deal with them in the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: What about what happened in New York, the ban on large soda drinks that Mayor Bloomberg pushed through? Your thoughts on this, Michael Pollan?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, you know, Mayor Bloomberg has been fighting courageously against big soda for a very long time. And when he sought to tax soda in New York, Pepsi threatened to leave the state. And that pretty much nixed it. So, he went looking for some other tools, and he discovered, lo and behold, that the mayor has this odd power that he can regulate the size of cups and—under the Health Department laws—not everywhere, but in movie theaters and in restaurants. And so, he decided to go after that.

And, you know, I don’t think it’s a bad idea. I think it’s something we have to try. It’s been mocked, you know, to an incredible extent, and it sounds like paternalism, but, you know, no one’s—no one’s preventing people from getting a big soda or getting two sodas; they’re just saying that it can’t come in more than a 16-ounce serving. That’s important, because we have something called a unit bias. We basically eat the or drink the amount that we’re given. And if a normal soda comes in 20 ounces, we drink 20 ounces of soda. If a normal soda is in eight or 16 ounces, that’s what we drink. So, by that slight nudge of changing the size of the container—that’s it—not taxing it, not forbidding any more, we can affect people’s choices. This is, you know, creating a default, and the default is a smaller soda. I don’t know if it will work, but I think we have to try these things.

You know, the reason that Mayor Bloomberg is so obsessed about soda is that New York City has a big public hospital system, and it costs a fortune for the city to run it. And when they looked at why it’s so expensive, they discovered type 2 diabetes as one of the big costs of our healthcare system. Every new case—


MICHAEL POLLAN: —costs the city of New York something like $400,000. So if you can drive down rates of type 2 diabetes, you can cut healthcare costs. And what is the chief cause of type 2 diabetes in New York City? Excess consumption of sugar in the form of soda. So, this is a pretty—this is about saving money, saving money for the taxpayer. And the soda industry is dead set against it.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2009, Michael, President Obama appointed to Michael Taylor senior adviser to the FDA. Consumer groups protested because Taylor had formerly served as vice president of Monsanto. How has this affected policy?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, Michael Taylor is often cited as the poster child for the revolving door in regulation. He was a lawyer representing Monsanto before the rules for genetically modified food were developed in 1992. He then left this firm, went to work for the FDA, co-drafted the rules by which GM is regulated—and I use that word advisedly, because the rules are essentially that it need not be regulated, it need not be labeled. That was the FDA decisions. And then he returned to Monsanto. And subsequently, he moved to the FDA. He’s kind of gone back and forth between Monsanto and the FDA for quite a long time. He’s working on food safety now, and I think he’s number two at the FDA. Some people are alarmed that he’ll be appointed head of the FDA in a second administration. So, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: In a second Obama administration.

MICHAEL POLLAN: In the second Obama administration, although, you know, I don’t think that Romney would have much trouble with him as head of FDA either. So, you know, we—the public’s voice is not being heard in these deliberations. When you go back to the way that the FDA set up the rules for GM, you know, you discover that they ruled that these products were substantially equivalent—that’s the technical term—to conventional products, and therefore did not need to be labeled. But you look a little deeply, and you find that the—

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Pollan, we have five seconds.

MICHAEL POLLAN: The FDA scientists were overruled in that determination. So it was an assertion, not a political finding, that these foods are substantially equivalent. This is just the kind of debate we need to have and we’re starting to have here in California.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Pollan, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at University of California, Berkeley, author of a number of books, including The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, and Food Rules.

That does it for our show. Tonight, I will be in San Francisco at Marines Memorial Club & Hotel at 7:00 p.m. at the World Affairs Council; Thursday in Portland, Oregon.

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In Defense of Food: Author, Journalist Michael Pollan on Nutrition, Food Science and the American Diet

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