Thursday, September 23, 2010

Industrial food finds its voice...

The arguments against industrial ag, which I have already embraced have rippled up our value chain to the entire food sector. While I still hope for rapprochement of some kind in the not too distant future, at least we are marshaling some reasoned explanations as to why our system evolved this way and what is good about it. (And not everything is good, of course).

This debate has been moved forward by some thoughtful general media bloggers, and they remind us of why our food system looks like it does.

As a historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by this movement: the sunny, rural days of yore contrasted with the gray industrial present. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast; artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front.

That food should be fresh and natural has become an article of faith. It comes as something of a shock to realize that this is a latter-day creed.

For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad. Fresh meat was rank and tough, fresh fruits inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Natural was unreliable. Fresh milk soured; eggs went rotten. Everywhere seasons of plenty were followed by seasons of hunger. Natural was also usually indigestible. Grains, which supplied 50 to 90 percent of the calories in most societies, have to be threshed, ground, and cooked to make them edible.
So to make food tasty, safe, digestible, and healthy, our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission. They created sweet oranges and juicy apples and non-bitter legumes, happily abandoning their more natural but less tasty ancestors. They built granaries, dried their meat and their fruit, salted and smoked their fish, curdled and fermented their dairy products, and cheerfully used additives and preservatives—sugar, salt, oil, vinegar, lye—to make edible foodstuffs.
Eating fresh, natural food was regarded with suspicion verging on horror; only the uncivilized, the poor, and the starving resorted to it. When the ancient Greeks took it as a sign of bad times if people were driven to eat greens and root vegetables, they were rehearsing common wisdom. Happiness was not a verdant Garden of Eden abounding in fresh fruits, but a securely locked storehouse jammed with preserved, processed foods. [More of an article all farmers should read]

This careful analysis is not saying local, artisinal food is a bad thing, but reminding us what we have is much better than the calorie chart at McDonald's suggests compared to just a few decades ago.

To be sure, I am not defending sugar and salt-laden prepared foods, nor unhelpful gorging habits, but like the writer I would suggest we have the infrastructure to make a truly healthy and efficient food system at hand.

Critics simply often fail to do the math required for recipes for 300 million, or they have philosophical axes to grind.  This includes the desire to shape what rural life should look like according to their dreams. I find this drive concerning enough to include it as a reason why farmers should sacrifice as much as possible to own, not rent land. Owners - not operators - will be the final line of defense for how we farm.

In fact, as more economists and political writers examine our food system they are led to similar conclusions, to the consternation of alternative agriculture proponents.
Apparently, the D.C. liberal-blog intelligentsia has stopped worrying and learned to love industrial food. A few weeks ago, Think Progress star blogger Matt Yglesias penned a paean to mediocre strip-mall chain restaurants, calling for "more Olive Gardens" and deeming the the faux-fancy steakhouse chain Capital Grille "excellent." So impressed is Yglesias by the food system that he would apparently like to model the education system after it!
And just Monday, Washington Post luminary Ezra Klein announced that "Industrial Farms Are the Future." The alternative food networks popping up everywhere present "no viable alternative" at all, Klein insists. We should all forget the farmers market and let Big Ag's diesel-gulping combines lead us forward. [More, also read the links]

For corn and soy farmers we need to keep in mind we are not in the food business so much as the energy business.  Our job is to capture solar energy in a way that can be converted into edible stuff efficiently. Our crops are designed and chosen to do this and our production system is propelled by the economics of this premise.

Those same raw ingredients could be converted into more healthful foods served in more socially positive ways. But even then the staggering advantages of industrial over agrarian production will ensure its dominance.

What we need a new and slightly clearer signals of how these calories need to be delivered to the market. And at the same time we need to join with others concerned about food to choose better alternatives for our own plates.


Anonymous said...

FWIW my observation is that the beef that I've eaten in the past few years is superior to that I grew up eating which was organically raised from good stock on our farm. We didn't know we were organic at the time.

Anonymous said...

Yup industrial ag is just such a warm fuzzy bunch of guys. Just like Monsanto hiring Blackwater to do intel and infiltration on its behalf. Just your normal everyday business of field plot tests. This is not about corn this is war!

Don H. said...

If the "Historian" who trashed fresh food had eaten my mother's, grandmother's, or any of my farm relatives cooking,
he or she would be singing a different tune.

Thomas said...

Phipps, the way I see it is that this debate can never be settled until there
is an actual experiment performed between industrial ag and non-industrial ag on
even footing. And the only way you could get that is either set up a USDA and
USDNA with equal budgets, or get rid of USDA...