Talked with Pollan, not too much, mostly about plants.

posted in: Food | 5

Anastasia was on the ball the other night with publishing her review of our evening with Michael Pollan. Mine comes a little late but not too little. We had all weekend to prepare our thoughts for what we wanted to talk about (And what we wanted to eat), and I daresay we did well on both accounts.

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Golden Gate from Aquatic Park

We coordinated our flights from Wisconsin and Iowa to meet up at about Noon on Saturday the 23rd, giving us ample time to hang out and zoom around the Bay Area before the big dinner. We stayed at my folks’ place in Petaluma, so it was very convenient that Michael happens to live near to where I grew up! They were happy to host, and to use us as an excuse to go eat Thai food!

First of all, it was great to spend the weekend hanging out with Anastasia (and Frank). Over the last couple of years, while joining forces to write about plant genetics, we have not only become good friends but also research collaborators. It makes me wonder if science blogging should join the list of suggested activities for professional development at graduate school? I’m serious.

Whether we were sitting in a restaurant by Aquatic Park, checking out the Japanese tea gardens and botanical gardens at Golden Gate Park, or driving all around we discussed a million and a half issues related to what we talk about on the blog. And we realized things that we didn’t think of before, all of which should hopefully make it into some blog posts soon. For example, why is there no mention of the afore-mentioned Greenpeace-funded study on Greenpeace’s website? Very odd.

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PZ talking about biological complexity

And thanks to prodding from my sister and from Frank, we zoomed down to Cupertino to meet up with PZ Myers who was a big driving force behind the contest victory that got us here. It was a busy weekend yet relaxing as well. My one regret is that we missed being able to meet up with James on Monday to have a blogging powwow. It was really weird as the time seemed to go faster and faster as it got closer to the 6 pm dinnertime. The next three hours, though, seemed to last a long time – which was perfect.

Michael helped us decide what to order, and his familiarity with the restaurant’s fare really helped. Chez Panisse sources its food from the surrounding area, from huckleberries to citrus, mushrooms and lamb from Sacramento to Petaluma and in-between. To ‘cap’ the experience Anastasia had with her fungiferous pizzetta, mushroom hunter Anthony Tassinello (from The Omnivore’s Dilemma) happened to stop by and say hi.

It has been three days and I am still struggling to recall everything that was discussed. It would take hours to write (and read) everything that we can recall, so a summary of highlights will have to do. We began with thanking him for being willing to meet with both of us, and he started asking us questions. Lots of them.

He asked us about our research, backgrounds, and future goals. I had just rehearsed my ‘career update’ speech earlier with my parents so that was easy enough. Anastasia talked about how her plant genetics and sustainable ag curriculum allows her to bridge some gaps. Michael talked about his beginnings in journalism before he turned to writing about food. Then the conversation turned to some of the things that gave us unique perspectives on food. Although we needed to have some things on the dinner menu defined, I think we got food cred for pointing out that we are both CSA members – myself trading honeybee pollination services for veggies.

We had an opportunity to tell him about the contest and the little bit of hilarity that ensued on the day that our votes shot up astronomically, and how we were the independent site and our anti-GE opponents were the industry-controlled organization. He said that was a good story.

We also talked a lot about Monsanto, how many companies there are that work on GE crops, and issues with patent law and the antitrust stuff that has been going on. Michael asked us if we had the resources of Monsanto, what kinds of things would we work on? Anastasia talked about solving specific problems, like flood tolerance in rice was addressed, and I waxed on about the genetic basis of the nutritional value of crops and how we could breed and engineer vegetables that taste good – that maybe we could get more out of. He seemed interested in hearing about the effect of Oxalate on Calcium bioavailability.

Biofortification was also discussed. We talked about how Golden Rice is getting closer to success, following a nutritional study published in 2009. I made sure to point out that the rice endosperm turned out to be a better place to absorb beta-carotene than it was assumed. Although we didn’t ask what his opinion of the Great Yellow Hope might be today, he did talk about Monsanto’s Omega-3 biofortified soybean oil. He said that these traits that benefit the consumer directly will change the debate and drive genetic engineering toward acceptance. Whether it changes his opinion, he didn’t reveal.

This we agreed with. Last semester, for my communications class I read just about every paper on genetic engineering communication there was, and came to the same conclusion that he then expressed – that the biotech companies over-estimate opposition to genetic engineering. I added that the anti-GE groups similarly over-estimate the support they have for their positions. Most people don’t care because it does not directly affect them, but when it does there will be a cultural collision. I remember imitating someone in a Whole Foods physically weighing their opposition to GE against their desire to consume Omega-3-containing fats.

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The SF Botanical Gardens at wintertime

There was one piece of news that I knew he would want to hear about, and that was that recent research in Illinois that found that people would rather have a local genetically-engineered apple than a conventional apple from 2,000 miles away. As he advocates enhancing local ‘foodsheds’, the idea that genetic engineering could allow for fungus-resistant local apples for the Midwest and that people might prefer them to ‘gallon of gas’ apples from Washington state certainly ought to be intrigue him. I think it confirmed the complexity of the issue.

He also asked about our take on the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report, Failure to Yield, and we made sure to mention that for a report by a group critical of GE, it did estimate an increase in yield for Bt corn. It also left out information about tests of intrinsic yield-enhanced soybeans developed at Mendel Biotechnology, half an hour south of where we were eating.

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A big tree given the Bonzai treatment at the Japanese Tea Gardens

We also asked him about whether he feels his fame and the attention he gets keeps him from being able to do new research, and if people avoid disagreeing with him (except for the crazies). He said that he has to send others to find things out for him, and that he does get the chance to debate people.

I also asked him a question for my wife Ariela, who is studying to become a dietitian. In his recent writings on food, he tells people to ignore the ‘experts’, yet, she is studying to become an expert herself. His response was that there’s room for nutrition to focus on recommending foods rather than nutrients. But if you read his books, he often supports the healthful qualities of those foods on the presence of those nutrients… a contradiction that we did not explore that night. Perhaps another time.

Michael asked a lot more questions of us than we of him, and I’m glad that it was that way and not the other way around. It was his chance to learn about us, our blog, and how we want to affect the debate over genetic engineering. We made sure to talk about our mascot, Frank N. Foode™, and how he helps us connect everything together with a story. As for whether Michael would be willing to do something with us for the blog, such as a Q/A or other thing in the future, there may come a time when that will be possible. Indeed, not to reveal too much about his future plans, he might be talking more about this stuff before too long!

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Neat shrubs at the Tea Gardens

After getting together for a group picture at Chez Panisse, I handed Michael Pollan a jar of honey from my CSA-fed bees, and we said goodbye. He said to keep in touch, and asked for the feed URLs for this blog, the blogs of our authors, and even PZ Myers’ blog that supported us. We hope we made a good impression, and that he finds Biofortified useful for following the discussion about GE crops in the years to come.

Anastasia and I returned to my parent’s house to be summarily debriefed by them and we recorded a video discussion of the evening. It will be posted fairly soon. It was a great dinner and discussion and we both noted that it seemed longer than three hours, and even though we paid more attention to talking than eating, we didn’t feel stuffed. All in all, satiating on multiple levels. Then it was early the next morning to fly back to our Midwest locations.

I know I have missed a few things, but I tried to cover what stuck out and hopefully Anastasia will help me remember the important things I may have missed. But there is one thing I have not forgotten but I have not yet told you. Michael took to Frank very well, and made him an offer he simply could not refuse. I’m still blown away, three days later. I’ve been freaking out people in my building since I got back telling them about this, but I’m afraid what happened at the close of the meal only Frank can tell you. Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion!

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Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.