The story behind the story of

by Allan Nation

SACRAMENTO, California: “Cheap corn is the root of all evil in the American food system,” writer Michael Pollan told the 100 attenders of the Stockman Grass Farmer’s California Grassfed Beef Production School.

“And cheap corn is incredibly expensive.”

Pollan who now teaches journalism at the University of California in Berkeley until recently worked as a Connecticut-based journalist for the New York Times Magazine.

He also wrote the best-selling book called The Botany of Desire which traced the social-political implications of certain plants and is currently writing another on industrial versus grassfed animal agriculture. His latest book is The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

He described his writing specialty as “food detective stories.”

“We are now so far removed from the source of our food supply that we have to pay journalists like me to track down their source,” he said.

Following the widespread outbreak of BSE (madcow disease) in Europe, the editors of the New York Times Magazine approached Pollan about taking a look at American beef production.

The result was a hugely controversial story called “Power Steer” that repulsed many readers but largely triggered American grassfed beef production’s explosive growth path.

Pollan said the story traced one steer’s life from its idyllic natural beginnings on the South Dakota range to its hellish life in an industrial feedyard.

“It was like you took this animal from the best of all possible worlds to the worst.”

Pollan said that the story depressed him so badly that he began to look for a more upbeat way to end it. That was when he discovered the embryonic grassfed beef industry in Virginia and the Hudson River Valley in New York.

He said this allowed for an upbeat end to his story.

“A lot of people took the story wrong. I was not saying not to eat beef. I was saying to eat grassfed beef.

“Grassfed animals have a great life and one bad day.”


Pollan said that when the story came out the steer had not yet been harvested and there rose a great hue and cry to “save the steer.”

He said a Hollywood producer offered a small fortune to buy the steer and have it live out its days grazing his front lawn. He said this producer did not see the incongruity in suggesting they meet and discuss the terms over a grainfed steak at a famous New York steakhouse.

“I told him if he really wanted to help animals have a better life, he needed to eat grassfed beef.”

Pollan said the article convinced him that food is not a rational subject. It is a very emotional subject.

“Grassfed speaks to people’s emotions. There is a growing concern about animal welfare. People will pay a premium for your story.”

However, he said the American consumer needs to be educated.

“What urban people need to realize is that eating is an engagement with the natural world. They need to be concerned about what the animal they eat eats.”


He said it currently requires 100 gallons of fossil fuel to finish one American steer.

“Twenty percent of our imported petroleum is used in agriculture. Corn feeding turns beef cattle into fossil fuel guzzlers. In contrast, grassfed beef runs almost entirely on solar energy.

“The logic of nature is in your favor. Industrial agriculture is very precarious right now.”

Pollan said the paradigm of industrial food production was “cheap at any cost.”

“Unfortunately, industrial foods have produced a consumer in its own image. A consumer who only cares about the price.

“We need to create a new kind of consumer who is a creator and supports one kind of a food chain and not another.”

Pollan said the current premium price of grassfed beef the industrial product did not concern him.


“Better food costs more,” he said.

“We don’t need all consumers (for grassfed meats) to be economically sustainable. We only need a small percentage.

“Most new things start at the top of the socio-economic chain and work their way down from there.

“Today, we pay less for food than any generation in history. We need to make food the same priority with people that cable television is today.

“No one begrudges paying $50 a month for television that used to be free.”

He said that while meat tenderness issues had to be addressed he didn’t want grassfed meat to have one flavor standard.

“We want to diversity in meat flavor into a virtue. We want it to be like fine wine where no two producers product tastes exactly the same.”

He said that cultivating top chefs should be a major marketing priority.


“Chefs are major agents of social change in America today.”

However, he said grassfed producers needed to realize industrial food wasn’t going to go away and that grassfed meats were unlikely to become ubiquitous in the near future.

“The answer is not to portray yourself as THE answer but to provide an alternative.”

He said all grassfed producers needed to take the current USDA comment period on the new grassfed label very seriously. He said it would be very easy to have a label that was so vague that the industry could be co-opted by industrial food companies as organic foods have.

“We are nearing the tipping point with grassfed meats. People now want to try it. However, unless it is a good eating experience people will drift back to the industrial product.

“If you blow today’s opportunity, it will be another generation before you will get the same opportunity again.

“My recommendation to you is, ‘Don’t blow it!’”

© by The Stockman Grass Farmer

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