Humans, Food, and Inhuman Food

The cost of mass-produced food may be higher than you think

| May 4, 2006


To journalist and University of California at Berkeley professor Michael Pollan, the acts of food production and consumption may be many things -- political protest or capitulation, ecological stewardship or devastation -- but, above all, they are human. From our earliest days, humans have had to decide how and what to eat, and those decisions have often held people together as a society. That fundamental act of choosing one's food, however, has become a simple calculation of price for most consumers in the United States.

No longer guided by 'the cultural tools that once helped us choose our meals,' Pollan argues in an interview with The Sun, people are 'going one-on-one with the food supply.' The lowest cost has become the best option, and a sort of don't-ask-don't-tell relationship has developed between individual consumers and their food. Questions about who raised it, how it was raised, and how far it traveled to get to you, simply float downstream like so much run-off from pesticide-ridden fields.

But Pollan explains that the food system doesn't have to work like this. In an excerpt from his recent book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, that appeared in Mother Jones, Pollan points to one farm that is working to change the relationship people have with food. Polyface Farm will only sell locally. So when Pollan wanted to sample the Virginia farm's chicken, he had to drive there himself. And so do all the farm's customers, because that's farmer Joel Salatin's policy: Customers must pick up their own purchases, see the farm, get some face time.

Salatin practices what he refers to as 'relationship marketing' -- a practice that, Pollan writes, 'allows many kinds of information besides price to travel up and down the food chain.' By seeing who produces their food and how it is produced, Salatin's customers are escaping the 'opacity' of industrial food. For their troubles they are rewarded with a closer connection to their food and, as Pollan sees it, a closer connection to their world.



Of course, that connection comes at a price. Organic foods usually cost quite a bit more than their conventionally produced counterparts, and many would-be organic consumers are simply priced out of the equation. While that's not about to change any time soon, Salatin thinks that the problem isn't in how expensive organics are; rather, he thinks the problem is in how cheap conventional food is. Conventional food is cheap because it is mass-produced, but it is also cheap, Salatin believes, because the price doesn't include externalities, such as the price of pollution or the long-term health damage caused by unhealthy foods. Once these costs are factored into the price of food, he thinks, a more reasonable picture will appear.

For Pollan, food goes beyond a price: He tells The Sun that 'our relationship to food constitutes our most profound engagement with the natural world.' To sever that relationship with a trip to the supermarket, then, is not only a crime against the environment, it's a crime against yourself. When people start to become personally invested in what they eat, they enter into what Pollan calls 'a kind of landscape and kind of community.' While a whole litany of benefits result from the 'relationship' model, Pollan argues, the current system breeds nothing but problems: '[C]heapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing.'
-- Nick Rose