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9 Questions for Best-Selling Author Michael Pollan

The author of ‘This Is Your Mind on Plants’ says psychedelics ‘are wasted on the young’

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Elias Williams

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.

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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.

5. Q: Your focus lately has been consciousness-changing drugs. How did that begin?

A: Around 2013, I started reading about all these experiments using psilocybin, of all things, to treat cancer patients. If I were faced with a terminal diagnosis, I couldn't imagine rolling the dice on a psychedelic trip. But these people were getting an enormous benefit from it. About two-thirds of them reported having a powerful, mystical experience and losing their fear of death. And for many, it also helped reduce depression, anxiety and what doctors call existential distress.

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6. Q: Why do you think psychedelic drugs are so important for people over 50?

A: I believe psychedelics are wasted on the young. Their real value comes when you're older. One, because many people as they age get interested in spiritual questions, and psychedelics are a way to explore the spiritual side of yourself. And two, older people tend to get stuck in grooves of behavior that are sometimes quite destructive. The research suggests that one of the things that psychedelics are good for is breaking old habits and forming new ones — “shaking the snow globe,” as one researcher put it to me.

7. Q: Is science more accepting of these drugs?

A: Psychedelics are being legitimized as a subject of study and a therapeutic modality. [In late May] Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, made a positive statement about psychedelics. So this is not nearly as fringy an area of science and medicine as when I published my first book on the topic. The atmosphere has changed dramatically, and it's very exciting.

8. Q: Does it surprise you that there's a boom concerning psychedelic therapy?

A: It surprises me that there's been very little pushback from the psychiatric establishment. The reason is that they're acutely aware of a mental health crisis in this country, and the tools they have to deal with it are inadequate.

9. Q: How has your experience with psychedelics changed you personally?

A: You should ask my wife, who is more of an expert on me than I am. She was worried, at first, that I would change in some way. As it turns out, she'd tell you that I've changed for the better. The experience has made me more open and more able to talk about emotions without getting defensive. Between practicing meditation, which helps me sustain what I've learned from taking psychedelics, and the occasional new experience, I can keep the flame alive.

Michael Pollan's newest book, This Is Your Mind on Plants, was released on July 6. 

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