In the spring of 2006, Michael Pollan, a Berkeley professor and longtime journalist, published a magazine story about shooting and eating a wild pig. The piece was adapted from Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and became a kind of ur-text for a growing movement of food-obsessed urbanites. At once a gripping narrative of Pollan’s first hunt and a larger examination of how we eat and why, the piece was descriptive, evocative and very much in love with food. Unlike most critiques of the industrial food system—from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, through Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation—it didn’t just dwell on the mucky details of mass slaughter for meat. It also revelled in the social pleasures of eating great meals.
In the years since The Omnivore’s Dilemma was first published, Pollan has become a one-man evangelist for a new way of thinking about food. He has written three more books about eating and helped established “foodyism” as both a social marker and a political movement. As much as any other writer, he is responsible for embedding terms like “locavore” and “slow food” in the public consciousness and normalizing the idea that eating can be a political act, even if you aren’t a vegetarian.
Pollan continues that work in his new book, Cooked—a long, enjoyable (if sometimes padded and preachy) journey into the world of artisanal food preparation. Like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Cooked is divided into four parts. In “Fire,” Pollan learns how to smoke southern barbecue; in “Water” he learns to braise; in “Air” he learns to bake bread; and in “Earth” he learns how to brew beer. Each chapter comes with a lengthy rumination on the different ways humans prepare food, and how, in Pollan’s view, those age-old methods have been corrupted by the modern, corporate food chain.
Mostly, though, Cooked is a book about great food and how to make it at home. Pollan is no longer trying to convert skeptics. If you don’t already believe in the joys of local, small-batch, non-genetically modified, organic eating, nothing in Cooked will change your mind. Which might be too bad, because more and more these days, the foodie movement seems to be coming under attack.
Several skeptical researchers and authors have been hammering away at the foundations of the foodie cause, arguing that everything Pollan and his acolytes stand for—from the dangers of GMO foods to the benefits of local farming—is based on sketchy evidence at best, and at worst is just plain wrong. Among the most prolific of those critics is Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University. In his new book, The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto About the Politics of Your Plate, Lusk takes direct aim at Pollan, charging that he and other writers, like The New York Times’ Mark Bittman, are “food socialists” who are “slowly leading us down the road to serfdom.”
On some topics close to Pollan’s heart, Lusk is quite convincing. He argues that local food production, for example, is actually less efficient and less secure than the global system we have now. What’s more, local farming is likely no better and possibly worse for the environment than are big corporate farms that produce for the global market. “Just to take one example,” Lusk writes, “Londoners would use less energy and emit fewer emissions if they bought lamb raised half a world away, in New Zealand, rather than locally.” The better weather and physical geography means New Zealand farmers use less feed and fertilizer, more than offsetting the energy required to ship by sea to the U.K.
Biotechnology, too, gets a bad rap from foodies, Lusk believes. “After more than a decade of our eating biotech foods, there has not been a single scientifically confirmed case of human illness that can be attributed to food biotechnology,” he writes. Lusk isn’t the only one making that case. Mark Lynas, a veteran U.K. environmentalist recently apologized for his anti-GMO past and publicly declared genetically modified foods safe for all. Moreover, Lusk argues that farmers who use insect-resistant corn and soybean seeds use less insecticide than those who don’t. One study Lusk cites found that in rural India, the use of biotech cotton reduced insecticide use by 70% and increased yield by 80%. “So yes, where there are potential environmental risks, there are demonstrably real environmental benefits from using biotechnology,” Lusk writes.
And yet The Food Police is a strange beast. It begins as a hysterical screed—with Lusk name-checking the Gestapo, Hitler, Mao and Stalin—and ends up a nuanced critique marshalling convincing evidence that many totems of the foodie world are propped up with shaky supports. As an ardent free-market economist, Lusk is also against fat taxes and local-food quotas and any policy that aims to change eating habits by distorting the market. His point isn’t that you shouldn’t buy local or organic or non-GMO. He himself shops at a farmer’s market and drives a hybrid SUV. He just doesn’t want the government or food activists making that choice for him.
What Lusk ignores is the impact food activists like Pollan have had on the range of choices consumers can now make. Foodies aren’t shrinking the market. They’re expanding it. By creating a constituency willing to pay for better foods prepared in different ways, Pollan and his ilk have helped drive an entire new wave of food businesses, large and small. And if some of the tenets of the foodie cause, like being pro-organic or anti-GMO, are built on shaky evidence, others, like concern for animal welfare in large corporate farms or the impact of eating a diet heavy in processed foods, are not.
There are plenty of reasons to criticize Pollan. He can be snobbish. And a bit cheeseball. (Consider that the last line of Cooked references “the taste of love.”) But he isn’t a fascist. And nothing he advocates will lead anyone to serfdom. Lusk is right to be skeptical of large government food programs—whether that means fat taxes or subsidies for corn. But he goes too far in his attacks on foodies themselves. Cooked isn’t a socialist plot. The only thing it might lead you to is a decent meal.