By Kay Steiger
I was excited when I saw that Mother Jones’ Clara Jeffrey interviewed Michael Pollan in the latest issue. After all, who wouldn’t be? Pollan is one of the most forward-thinking writers on food policy. But what does Jeffrey do? She seems to have made a long list of inane questions about food policy and fired them, one after another, at Pollan. The interview is so bad that this passage that makes me wonder if this interview were conducted by a freshman undergraduate journalism student.
MJ: Your books were once very personal and interior. Has the transition to being the public face of food activism been difficult?
MP: Very hard. You still have to draw lines between being a journalist and an activist. When Obama announced his pick for agriculture secretary I was disappointed, and I said so in some interviews. I got calls from very prominent activists saying, “You should really keep your powder dry because we want to have access to this guy.” Who is this “we”? I felt like Tonto. And I realized that if you are an activist, you do respond tactically. But as a writer you have a pact with your readers that you’ll be really straight with them.
MJ: So what do you think of Iowa governor Tom Vilsack heading Agriculture?
MP: There’s reason to be very concerned. He oversaw a tremendous expansion of feedlot agriculture and confinement hog production, ruining the Iowa countryside, ruining the lives of many farmers. He helped gut local control over the siting decisions. He has also been very friendly toward Monsanto and genetically modified products and was named governor of the year by bio, the big biotech trade organization. But people I respect say that he will listen to food activists and is interested in helping Iowa to feed itself. It’s a food desert, weirdly enough. All the raw material leaves the state and comes back in processed form. Putting the most positive spin I can on it: He’s no longer governor of Iowa, and I’m hoping that as a politician, when he senses where the wind is moving, he’ll move with it.
Wait, he just said he was disappointed at the Vilsack pick and then you ask him what he thought about it? Were you even paying attention to what Pollan was saying? But Jeffrey isn’t a freshman journalism student; she’s the co-editor of a widely-circulated bi-monthly magazine that touts its mission as investigative. Maybe she was looking for more than just “disappointed” but I’d say the follow up on that question didn’t add much.
I then saw Jeffery follow up the last set of questions with this doozy.
MJ: How much of our current agricultural policy can we lay at the feet of the Iowa caucuses?
MP: You can’t be elected president without passing though Iowa and bowing down before corn-based ethanol, before agricultural subsidies. I mean, even McCain was a critic of ethanol, but when he got to Iowa he was singing a different tune. But this time around the candidates learned there is a progressive farm lobby. Iowa came close to electing a woman organic farmer as its agriculture secretary—until the Iowa Farm Bureau came after her. And Obama said he saw the importance of local control. That idea that there is a monolithic farm bloc—I wouldn’t say it’s starting to crumble, but there are interesting cracks. The challenge for the food reform movement is to make those cracks bigger.
Everyone knows the reason subsidies on corn are so heavy is to curry favor with the state that hosts the first caucus. This is an obvious point, to say the least. The entire interview is like this; it’s basically a series of questions like, “I heard our food policy is problematic. What do you think about that?” Maybe I’m going overboard a little on the wonky expectations, especially for a publication that’s has a wider audience, but it seems that this interview was problematic. If I had gotten this in from a writer I’d have said, the interview is a little dull, how about we find something interesting to say about it and use the stuff from the interview as quotes? Don’t run the transcript of a tedious interview.