1. Q: How did your love affair with food begin?
A: Gardening. I had my first garden when I was 8 years old, on a strip of land next to our house on Long Island. And when I'd get together three or six strawberries, I'd put them in a cup and sell them to my mother. Then, when I was 30, my wife and I bought a house in rural Connecticut, and I started gardening seriously. I realized that the garden was a really interesting place to think about our relationship to the natural world.
2. Q: Is that how you got involved in investigative writing about plants and food?
A: In the late ‘90s, I saw that something called genetically modified crops was coming on the market and thought, Wouldn't it be cool to plant some of that seed in my garden and see what it's all about? So I got in touch with Monsanto and told them I was a gardening writer for The New York Times. They generously gave me some seed for their New Leaf potato, which was genetically engineered to release BT pesticide—which kills the Colorado potato beetle. That ended up as an investigative cover story for the Times magazine.
3. Q: What did you learn?
A: I was visiting potato farms that were 50,000 acres, highly automated, using lots of very toxic pesticides. And I was, like, “This is where our french fries come from.” A field that farmers wouldn't reenter three days after it had been sprayed because they knew how toxic these chemicals were. So that was the beginning of a journey. I'd had a glimpse of where our food comes from.
Then you applied the same approach to meat.
I followed a steer through the standard system and wondered, How am I going to feel about that after I've really looked at the belly of the beast? You can build a lot of suspense over “Will he or won't he eat the food?"
4. Q: What did you decide about beef?
A: I decided I was going to eat grass-fed beef. Along the way, I found there were a few ranchers who were finishing [only feeding] beef on grass. That's a new-old streak in America. The cattle who'd been fed their whole life on pasture grass and hadn't been drugged with pharmaceuticals, hormones, antibiotics — I was happy to eat.