Humans, Food, and Inhuman Food

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

Go there >>

No Bar Code

Go there too >>
Lost in the
Supermarket

Related Links:

Related Links from the Utne
Archive:

Comments? Story tips?
Write a letter to the editor

Like this? Want more?Subscribe to Utne
magazine

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.