Sunday, October 11, 2009

A better answer to Michael Pollan...

I'm not sure the strident condemnation of Pollan-esque opinion in the food world is all that productive, but this approach deserves at least considering.
The good news is that there’s no real reason to think that food you prepare yourself is for some reason intrinsically healthier than food someone else prepares for you. Indeed, a normal “home cooked” meal is mostly eaten by people who didn’t cook it. One or two people cook, and the kids or the guests eat. And at the same time, it’s not as if the good people at Taco Bell are serving unhealthy food out of some perverse desire to clog America’s arteries. They’re just trying to make money the best way they know how. If someone—Jamie Oliver, for example—devised an appealing mass-market food product that was better than Taco Bell on the taste/price/convenience dimension but also healthier, well that would be an excellent thing for the world.
And maybe someone could do it. The world’s purveyors of processed foods have noted a real market demand for healthier products. Consequently, they’re poured a lot of time and energy into creating things that at least seem healthier. And so we really have a lot of healthy-seeming options. But they’ve never, as best I can tell, poured all that much effort into trying to create things that are actually healthier. But someone could. Jamie Oliver could do it. Mark Bittman could do it. Michael Pollan could do it. And it would be more likely to succeed than an endless procession of NYT Magazine articles hectoring people about how they should cook more. [More]

If we think our current system of producing food - and especially meat - will continue unchanged by current food trends we may be rudely surprised. But simply vilifying or ridiculing critics don't address the concerns they share with growing numbers of consumers.

Better still, other voices are coming to view the locavore movement with dispassionate eyes, and more realistic expectations.
But even so, something is missing. Most notably, I don’t see how community cohesion necessarily follows the fact that one can, if one wants, interact with the person who grew your food. Historically, such personalized economic transactions were the norm, but they were inherently fraught with risk and tension. In colonial America — a place I’ve studied in some depth — all markets were initially driven by face-to-face interaction. It should come as no surprise that things could get, well, personal. Markets were intensely competitive and exclusive. Everyone knew everyone. And that was often the problem. The court records of colonial New England are replete with personal market transactions gone awry.
When merchant-led expansion fostered systematic trade with distant markets, the nature of local trade changed. Mediators entered the scene. The supply chain lengthened. The personal nature of exchange yielded to standardized norms required by middle men who had only a tenuous connection to the products for sale. Impersonal mediators and distant institutions (such as banks and insurance companies) ultimately diffused face-to-face interactions by placing a buffer between buyers and sellers. Markets became larger and less personal. Neighbors became customers. Legal battles continued apace, but they were not personal. Just business.

Today, as we return to local markets (farmers’ markets have grown from 400 in 1970 to over 4,000 today), who is to say that the novelty of personal exchange will not gradually fade? Who is to say that the mystique of the local farmer will not diminish and that we’ll eventually come to realize that what we’re engaging in at the farmers’ market is, no matter what the perceived social benefits, ultimately an economic experience? Are we about to witness fistfights over the price of baby arugula? Probably not. But if we did, there’d be a historical precedent for it. [More]

I remain convinced industrial agriculture is less threatened by the local food movement than we have over-imagined.  I fully expect significant changes in animal agriculture to be sure, but I also think we can embrace such changes and deliver products with less dislocation than we suspect now.


Anonymous said...

John. As usual your comments make sense. I too think Ag has over reacted to Pollan and the local food movement. But from a larger perspective, I think the reason many farmers respond the way they do is that they are conditioned to expect, no demand that the public bow down in continual praise and adoration for the work they do to produce food. Ag marketers spout praise to farmers all the time as a way to suck up to farmers and make the sale. Farmers as a whole just cannot stand when someone criticizes them for whatever reason and then they get defensive and react badly. In looking at the big picture, I think a lot of people in ag need to chill. There are a lot of occupations that do good things for society and no one ever praises them either, so why should agriculture and farmers be any different. Lowered expectations of praise would do a lot to lower farmers' collective blood pressure, thicken their emotional skin and perhaps allow them to look at various public issues from a clearer and less emotional and defensive perspective. Public opinion varies greatly and not everyone is going to love and praise farmers and modern agriculture. Live with that thought and live longer.

Vines and Cattle said...

I was all set to type a complimentary response, and the first commenter nailed it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with above comments except....sometimes the situation is not one that farmers expect praise, it is one that a farmer gets vilified by opponents in a community for proposing to expand or diversify their business. If there is no conflict prior and one is created, then an attack can follow which filters to the entire farming community. It is understandable that farmers get defensive when they come under new and harsh scrutiny. It may be less about expecting praise and more about, let the farmer do their job and have a little faith that the farmer can handle it and be mindful of environmental issues or nuisance concerns.