Michael Pollan on the Links Between Biodiversity and Health
By Jack Hitt
It was an odd paradox that led author Michael Pollan to write a book about cooking. How was it, he wondered, that in an era when Americans were buying more and more pre-packaged, ready-to-eat food, they were spending more time watching programs about cooking on television?
That question led to his new book, Cooked, which like his previous books, delves into issues relating to the connections between the environment and what we eat, and, more broadly, to humanity’s relationship to the natural world. Pollan argues that taking control of cooking may be the single most important step an individual can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Jack Hitt, Pollan talked about how his research led him on a journey that ranged from the monoculture fields of U.S. commodity agriculture to the bacterial world inside the human body. And he noted the fundamental importance of biodiversity—in the landscape and the farm field, as well as in people’s diets.
“This may prove to be the key legacy of ecology—what it teaches us about health,” Pollan said. “Who would have thought?”
Hitt: In your new book, Cooked, you head to the stove, where previously you had been in the garden or the feed lot or a cornfield. Has taking your observations indoors changed the way you think about the big outdoors?
Pollan: I would say it has. Like most journalists, I tended to gravitate toward exotic places, places my reader hadn’t been—like the feedlot or the laboratory. That’s one of the things we do—we’re kind of these designated inquirers. And it was my experience on the feedlot and other sites of industrialized agriculture that sent me into the kitchen. Because I came to realize that the way we cook, or whether we cook or not, or who’s doing the cooking, is creating that other landscape. And it really was the industrializing of cooking—which we call food processing, done by corporations, of course—which drove the industrialization of our farming.
It’s McDonald’s that gives us the giant monocultures of Russet Burbank potatoes that I wrote about in Botany of Desire, or the feed lots that I wrote about in Omnivore’s Dilemma. And I came to realize that you couldn’t understand those landscapes without reference to these everyday decisions we make about whether we’re going to cook or whether we’re going to go out to McDonald’s. That they were linked. I never expected to write a book about a landscape as familiar as my kitchen, or anyone’s kitchen. But that’s of course the great lesson of ecology—these things are connected.
Hitt: Recently you’ve described yourself as a “superorganism.” What do you mean?
Pollan: One of the byways of this book was learning about fermentation, and meeting these “fermentos” as I call them—these passionate fermentation geeks who have a completely different relationship to bacteria than most of us do. And they taught me a different way to think about bacteria. Learning about these external fermentations, whether you’re talking about tea or beer or bread, very quickly gets you into its mirror image, which is the fermentation within, the fermentation in your own large intestine and what those bacteria are up to.
So I followed this path into the microbiology of the gut and was amazed to learn that first, we are only 10 percent human, if you’re counting cells, and 90 percent bacterial. And those bacteria have a profound impact on your health, on your mood, on your immune system, on your metabolism and whether you’re going to become infected by bad bacteria or not. And it turns out that health—which we think of as a property of us, the human cells in our body—turns out to be a collective property of the whole community. That community consists of these microbes. You can’t be healthy if they’re not … That’s a radical rethinking of who we are.
Hitt: At one point you referred to “the impoverished westernized microbiome,” and you posed the question of whether the human body needs what some microbiologists call “restoration ecology.” So you’re applying environmental metaphors to the human body. How might this kind of language make us think in a new way about our bodies?
Pollan: I think when you bring the concepts of ecology into your body, that’s a revolutionary new paradigm for medicine and for the philosophy of human identity. It breaks down the “us and them” attitude we bring to nature. It’s a very direct implication of the natural world in the body. We know when we eat, we’re always taking nature into us. But the idea that we’re a host to an ecological community and that that ecological community is obviously shaped by what’s going on in the world—whether we’re talking about toxins, antibiotics—you’re really breaking down that barrier between us and nature out there. Nature is passing through us. I didn’t tease out these implications, but I think it does have important implications for how you think about nature. It definitely brings it home.
Hitt: And also how you think about what you eat?
Pollan: Yes. If it doesn’t necessarily change your diet, it does change your attitude toward the various chemical compounds that poison this environment. We’ve understood that feeding antibiotics to livestock is a public health risk because of the rise of superbugs and antibiotic-resistant microbes, and that’s the reason people have campaigned to remove them. But it turns out there’s another reason to remove them and that is that these antibiotics are poisoning and cutting down on the biodiversity inside you. So there are implications of knowing this that go beyond diet.
Hitt: How was it that scientists recently came to start talking about the human microbiome?
Pollan: There are two tools that have allowed for this wilderness to be explored. One is this new sequencing technology. But the other was theories of ecology. It was when scientists began thinking, “Hey, what if we ask the questions that ecosystems scientists ask?” Which was radical for medicine. Medicine doesn’t usually think that way. And that really opened it up. And they started using terms like community dynamics and invasion resistance. And exotic species. And resilience. So there was an intellectual tool and there was a technical tool. And they were both required to make the breakthroughs we’re starting to make.
Hitt: Wow, that’s cool. So, there really was a kind of theoretical borrowing?
Pollan: Yes. And this may be prove to be a key legacy of ecology—what it teaches us about health. Who would have thought?
Hitt: What might the last 50 years of environmental action policy and environmental education teach us as we begin to discover the Amazonian rainforest that resides in our gut?
Pollan: We know that we’re connected and that there are links between soil and health, and water and health. This is just another way to draw those links.
I was really struck by how many of the microbiologists were concerned about very common food additives. Xanthan gum and polysorbate 80, these emulsifiers, which seem like one of the least toxic of food additives—these are just chemicals that allow water and oil to be held in solution so they don’t come apart. And if you’re making processed food, that’s really important because it looks really nasty when the sauce in your frozen, I don’t know, beef Stroganoff, starts separating.
These [emulsifiers] are very important in processed food. But it turns out that they may be damaging the lining of the gut. And that’s not what the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] ever tested for ... So we really have to rethink toxicology in light of the microbiome.
Hitt: These microbes evolve really, really fast. As you point out, some of them take 20 minutes a generation. That’s crazy—it’s so at odds with everything we know about life out here on the megafauna scale of existence, where evolution is slow, really slow. Is there any evidence that this microbial speed will advantage us in some way as we all adapt to, say, global warming?
Pollan: One of the questions I’ve struggled with in writing about the gut and writing about fermentation in the book is how weird it is to outsource very important functions of life to microbes and not have evolved our own systems for dealing with metabolism, temperament, immunity. I mean, it is a huge outsourcing of a critical life function.
One case I thought was absolutely fascinating is this difference in the gut of Japanese people and Americans. There’s a very common bacteria that we all share, that all humans have in their gut and it’s involved in digesting polysaccharides of complex carbohydrates and plants. And the Japanese version of it has a gene that allows it to break down seaweed that we can’t break down. When you eat seaweed in a Japanese restaurant, you’re not getting the nutritional value from it that a Japanese person is getting. And they actually traced the source of that gene and it came from the bacteria that hang out on seaweed in the ocean. In other words, the bacteria who first learned how to digest seaweed. Through the eating of enough seaweed, this bacteria that is common in the gut of the Japanese borrowed this bit of genetic information and uses it now to digest seaweed. And so now it’s a permanent part of the genome of that bug.
There’s an example of how the microbiome evolved to take advantage of a change in the environment—i.e., Japanese eating of seaweed—probably because they needed to. And the same thing is true with, say, dealing with a new toxin, detoxifying and other changes in our environment. It’s kind of evolution on fast forward. That’s probably critical to our ability to adapt to change and it may become more critical as we face more rapid and radical environmental changes.
Hitt: You’ve written in the past about arguments over preserving “pristine” nature or humans intervening to “garden” nature. How does that apply the human microbiome?
Pollan: Well, if you want to adjust to changes in the environment, you need the genetic resources. This ability to adapt probably depends on high levels of biodiversity, and that’s precisely what we have damaged with the Western diet and the Western overuse of antibiotics and other antimacrobials. As scientists have pointed out to me, if you damage the biodiversity enough, the various genes you need to cope will not be there. And the microbiome will come up empty-handed in meeting the challenges it faces.
So, that’s an argument for restoring the biodiversity of the gut—gardening it, if you will—introducing more species. That may turn out to be the value of these pristine microbiomes, that the genetic resources we need may exist there. We may have to culture those and reintroduce those. We don’t know enough to say exactly how to garden the microbiome, but we may need to. We may need to just give it enough biodiversity to be resilient to change. And you see, I’m using all the words we use when we’re talking about a farm or any land.
Hitt: So, now that you’re very intimate with the alchemy of cooking and fire, water, air and earth, how would you change America’s farm policy if you could, right now?
Pollan: Well, I would try to create incentives that drive diversification. I still feel that the great evil of American agriculture is monoculture. It really does contribute to so many problems at the level of the field and the pests, but also at the level of the diet. The thing you learn is the importance of diversity in what you eat, and to the extent you would drive diversity [in farm policy], you would also be creating raw materials for cooking rather than raw materials for processed food, which are mostly corn and soy.
I love this term “specialty crop.” That’s what the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] lingo is for anything you grow that you could actually eat—fruits and vegetables. Corn and soy and rice and wheat, these are commodity crops—in the case of rice you do eat it directly, but everything else has to be heavily processed first. Right now, we actually have laws that prohibit farmers receiving subsidies to grow commodity crops from growing specialty crops. They get fined. If you’re growing corn and soy, and you want to put in 20 acres of tomatoes because somebody’s doing some local canning deal in your county and you want to get in on it and diversify, you get fined. I know farmers who have been fined $40,000 or $50,000 for doing that. That’s unconscionable. We should be encouraging farmers to diversify, for both economic and ecological reasons.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6bd9fda1316965a9ba24dd60fd9cc34d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/3KaMnkmf0tc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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