April 2, 2014 at 10:18 am

Q&A With Food Writer and Skeptic Nathanael Johnson

nathanael johnsonNathanael Johnson is a journalist and the author of All Natural, a book that seeks to find the truth among natural and technological solutions to daily life. In 2013, he became the food writer for Grist, an online environmental publication, and promptly started on a 26-part series examining genetically modified food. Titled “Panic-Free GMOs” topics ranged from the existence of allergens in GE foods to reviews of books on GMOs to the connection between GE seeds and herbicide addiction. If the comments section hadn’t been so polarized, you might say that it sparked a lively debate.

The series was mentioned by NPR, The New York Times, Forbes, and other major publications. Now Johnson is taking on the idea of a sustainable food system itself. His all-around skepticism has been a refreshing and interesting touch at Grist which is largely known for being a strongly left, pro-environment publication where all things solar-powered, chemical-free, or related to climate change are embraced.

We took a moment to speak with him about his past and current work and what troubles he predicts for food and the food movement. The following Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What was your background as far as food before coming to Grist?

I was very interested in food from a sort of diet-sad perspective. I’d gone through my raw food phase, trying to become an All-American distance runner and my mother was kind of into every single new diet fad. I kind of had an attraction to the kind of conspiracy theory sexiness of the new diet fad and the promise that each one brings. On top of that, more legitimately, there’s some really interesting stuff that our fascination with diet fads tells us about science and certainty. It turns out a lot of the orthodoxy and conventional wisdom turns out to be based on incomplete science and this wonderful mystery that we still don’t know that much about. That’s sort of the root of it. I wrote a couple of stories for Harper’s that were about food and agriculture and then I kept on finding that the pitches I was writing and the things I was interested in revolved around this suite of concerns—the nexus of health and environment and farming.

You started with the series on GMOs which got a lot of press – negative and positive. Were people’s strong reactions unexpected?

I certainly didn’t expect then the bile with which my work was greeted. I’ve written about some pretty controversial things before. I’ve written a lot about natural birth and C-sections which I thought made people pretty crazy but this was orders of magnitude more insane than that. There was such polarization – if I wasn’t 100% on the right side, whatever side that might be, if I deviated and said maybe GMOs are kind of bad and not worth as much as we think people would be outraged. If you indicate on the other side even more so. That was surprising to me too. It was very hard to find honest brokers who said, “Maybe we can all agree on this point and this point.” Almost everybody I talked to had been in the trenches for 30 years and all had their axe to grind. And didn’t want to budge at all from that position.

I kept thinking I would find some way in which there was some clear linkage of genetically modified food and badness. You know, maybe some of the really paranoid fears about health are totally incorrect but there’s probably some bigger more holistic environmental problems that we’re blind to. So we sort of kept being like “Don’t worry GMO partisans, your time will come” but I never found that smoking gun. And not for want of trying. That’s a more compelling story in many ways.

Your current series is about the Steps to Build a Sustainable Food System. Do you have any favorites so far?

I really like my interview with Tom Willey whose an organic farmer. He’s just a very intelligent thoughtful guy whose really facing with both eyes open the problems of agriculture and admits his ignorance and the huge problems nobody has solved. Because of that, he wasn’t just giving me the rhetoric – he was very forthrightly explaining the problems he was facing.

On the other side, I also enjoyed talking with David Ausberger, a farmer in Iowa. He was just such a nice guy that I got along with so well and it was just really interesting for me to see how much work he was doing and how far conservation had come with the support of some very significant government subsidies to mainstream agriculture. You hear the story of the green rev and Earl Butz saying, “Plant fence row to fence row” and that’s where it ends. There’s been this whole evolution there that I was only marginally aware of.

Where do you see our food system headed and what roadblocks stand in the way?

I think one of the major roadblocks right now is that we have all of these people who are trying to make things better in every little way that they can in the conventional food system and there’s various pressures being brought to them – environmental and conservation pressures are certainly among those – and there are people who are trying to get at that in the alternative system as well. Those people tend to be much more idealistic and often have a little less experience in making things economically sustainable. Often those projects flame out under their own weight.

I would like to see these people getting together. I’d like to see the conventional food people realizing that there might be some real exciting possibilities for innovation coming from these outsider thinkers and fresh-takes on the food system. Maybe the organic-types realizing that the conventional people have this amazing wealth of understanding in terms of the nitty-gritty of how to make businesses run efficiently. If they could integrate and learn from each other instead of just yelling at each other I think we’d be moving much more quickly toward a food system that we’d all be happier with.