Michael Pollan is a professor of journalism at U.C. Berkeley and a food writer for the New York Times Magazine. The author of five books on nutrition and agriculture for a popular audience, Pollan is perhaps the most prominent advocate of organic eating and critic of “Big Food.”
Pollan’s Scary “Big Food” Narrative
Pollan is the proponent of a strange hypothesis that America’s food system is to blame, in some way, for every major environmental and public health challenge the country faces. Propped up by subsidized corn and soy, Pollan argues, America’s food supply is a major cause of climate change, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Moreover, the system is vulnerable to major price shocks, terrorists attacks and negligence, though Pollan provides little evidence for this last assertion.
This unsustainable system is defended by corrupt food and agrochemical companies that buy off scientists and lobby the government to prevent changes to our food supply that could threaten these industries’ profits. Naturally, it’s up to Pollan and his friends in the “food movement” to beat back these forces of darkness that would sacrifice human health and the environment to preserve their bottom lines.
[The Times is] a very comfortable place for me to write right now, it’s just great. One of my best friends is the editor Gerry Marzorati, and many of the other editors used to work for me at Harpers…I don’t have a strong scientific background and it’s ironic that I write about science…”
Science vs. Michael Pollan
As with any radical conspiracy theory, the science does not back up Pollan’s silly claims. Climate change, though real and potentially very dangerous, is not the civilization-ending threat it’s been made out to be, as many in the mainstream science community will attest.
In the real world, poverty is the biggest threat to human health, thanks to the deadly gang of infectious diseases it enables to spread unabated. Increasing access to cheap energy, and all the benefits it unlocks, would do more to alleviate human suffering than the heavy handed proposal Pollan and his elite “food movement” allies have put forward–returning agriculture to the 19th century.
Pollan’s rather cliche narrative also leaves out key facts about the the “Big Food” bad guys he’s so quick to demonize. For example, nowhere does Pollan acknowledge that the companies he despises are fundamentally changing our food system by improving fertilizer efficiency, soil health and crop yields. The biotechnology Pollan writes 8,000-word screeds against has played a major role in these innovations.
Pollan: My Critics are “Front Groups”
Like other figures in the organic lobby, Pollan often refers to science groups who criticize him and his friends as “industry front groups,” regardless of the expertise they represent on biotechnology and agriculture. He labeled the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) a “chemical-industry front group” because the organization of doctors and scientists criticized Michelle Obama’s stance on organic agriculture.
When I wrote about food, I never had to give equal time to the other side. I could say whatever I thought and offer my own conclusions…these editors [at the New York Times] didn’t realize there is anyone who disagrees with [my] point of view.
Pollan has also targeted several reputable science journalists. Writers like Amy Harmon, who did nothing but honestly cover the science of biotechnology, were accused of parroting “industry talking pts” by Pollan on twitter. The science community, fortunately enough, was quick to rebut Pollan’s accusations, in the very same Twitter thread. They also highlighted some glaring mistakes in Pollan’s comments around the safety of crop biotechnology.
Pollan’s Contradictory and Misleading Statements about Biotechnology
On several occasions, Pollan has spoken accurately about genetic modification, suggesting that “the technology itself [isn’t] intrinsically evil.” In other settings, however, he has openly endorsed retracted studies and misleading statements about the scientific consensus on crop biotechnology, as science writer Jon Entine points out.
Why the contradictory and inaccurate statements? Simply put, Pollan is a manipulative activist with a political agenda and limited scientific background. And he writes for publications that won’t challenge his views. Those aren’t the criticisms of an industry front group; those are comments from Michael Pollan.