Food Fight

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Akiko Ida and Pierre Javelle /

This article is part of a series of articles on food and the American diet. For more, readIn Praise of Fast Food,Waste Not, Want Not,The Rich Get Richer, the Poor Go Hungry,andThe First Family’s Fallow Gardens. For more writing on food from the alternative press,

It might sound odd to say this about something people deal with at least three times a day, but food in America has been more or less invisible, politically speaking, until very recently. At least until the early 1970s, when a bout of food price inflation and the appearance of books critical of industrial agriculture threatened to propel the subject to the top of the national agenda, Americans have not had to think very hard about where their food comes from, or what it is doing to the planet, their bodies, and their society.

The dream that the age-old “food problem” had been largely solved for most Americans was sustained by the tremendous postwar increases in the productivity of American farmers, made possible by cheap fossil fuel (the key ingredient in both chemical fertilizers and pesticides) and changes in agricultural policies that emphasized boosting yields of commodity crops (corn and soy especially) at any cost.

But although cheap food is good politics, it turns out there are significant costs–to the environment, to public health, to the public purse, even to the culture–and as these became impossible to ignore in recent years, food has come back into view. Beginning in 2001 with the publication of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and, the following year, Marion Nestle’s Food Politics, the food journalism of the past decade has succeeded in making clear connections between the methods of industrial food production, agricultural policy, foodborne illness, childhood obesity, the decline of the family meal, and, notably, the decline of family income beginning in the 1970s.

Falling wages made fast food both cheap to produce and a welcome, if not indispensable, option for pinched and harried families. The picture of the food economy Schlosser painted resembles an upside-down version of the social compact sometimes referred to as “Fordism”: Instead of paying workers well enough to allow them to buy things like cars, as Henry Ford proposed to do, companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s pay their workers so poorly that they can afford only the cheap, low-quality food these companies sell.

Cheap food has become an indispensable pillar of the modern economy. But it is no longer an invisible or uncontested one. One of the most interesting social movements to emerge in the past few years is the “food movement,” or perhaps I should say “movements,” since it is unified as yet by little more than the recognition that industrial food production is in need of reform because its social/environmental/public health/animal welfare/gastronomic costs are too high.

It’s a big, lumpy tent, and sometimes the various factions beneath it work at cross-purposes. For example, activists working to strengthen federal food safety regulations have recently run afoul of local-food advocates, who fear that the new regulation will cripple the revival of small-farm agriculture. But there are indications that these various voices may be coming together in something that looks more and more like a coherent movement. Many in the animal welfare movement have come to see that a smaller-scale, more humane animal agriculture is a goal worth fighting for. Stung by charges of elitism, activists for sustainable farming are starting to take seriously hunger and poverty.

Viewed from a middle distance, the food movement coalesces around the recognition that today’s food and farming economy is “unsustainable”–that it can’t go on in its current form much longer without courting a breakdown of some kind, whether it be environmental, economic, or both.

For some in the movement, the more urgent problem is environmental: The food system consumes more fossil fuel energy than we can count on in the future and emits more greenhouse gas than we can afford to emit. In the past few years, several major environmental groups have come to appreciate that a diversified, sustainable agriculture–which can sequester large amounts of carbon in the soil–holds the potential not just to mitigate but actually to help solve environmental problems.

But perhaps the food movement’s strongest claim on public attention today is the fact that the American diet of highly processed food laced with added fats and sugars is responsible for the epidemic of chronic diseases that threatens to bankrupt the health care system. The health care crisis probably cannot be addressed without addressing the catastrophe of the American diet, and that diet is the direct (even if unintended) result of the way that our agriculture and food industries have been organized.

Michelle Obama’s recent foray into food politics suggests that the administration has made these connections. Her new Let’s Move campaign to combat childhood obesity might at first blush seem fairly anodyne, but in announcing the initiative in February, and in a surprisingly tough speech to the Grocery Manufacturers Association in March, the first lady has shifted the conversation about diet from the industry’s preferred ground of “personal responsibility” to a frank discussion of the way food is produced and marketed.

“We need you not just to tweak around the edges,” she told the assembled food makers, “but to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children.”

So far, at least, Michelle Obama is the food movement’s most important ally in the administration, but there are signs of interest elsewhere. Under Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, the Food and Drug Administration has cracked down on deceptive food marketing. Attorney General Eric Holder recently avowed the Justice Department’s intention to pursue antitrust enforcement in agribusiness. At his side was Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who launched a new initiative aimed at promoting local food systems as a way to both rebuild rural economies and improve access to healthy food.

Though Vilsack has so far left mostly undisturbed his department’s traditional deference to industrial agriculture, the new tone in Washington and the appointment of a handful of respected reformers has elicited a somewhat defensive,
if not panicky, reaction from agribusiness. The American Farm Bureau recently urged its members to go on the offensive against “food activists,” and a trade association representing pesticide makers called CropLife America wrote to Michelle Obama suggesting that her organic garden had unfairly maligned chemical agriculture and encouraging her to use “crop protection technologies”–i.e., pesticides.

The first lady’s response is not known; however, the president subsequently rewarded CropLife by appointing one of its executives to a high-level trade post. This and other industry-friendly appointments suggest that while the administration may be sympathetic to elements of the food movement’s agenda, it isn’t about to take on agribusiness, at least not directly, at least until it senses at its back a much larger constituency for reform.

One way to interpret Michelle Obama’s deepening involvement in food issues is as an effort to build such a constituency, and in this she may well succeed. It’s a mistake to underestimate what a determined first lady can accomplish. Lady Bird Johnson’s “highway beautification” campaign also seemed benign, but in the end it helped raise public consciousness about “the environment” (as it would soon come to be known). And while Michelle Obama has explicitly limited her efforts to exhortation (“We can’t solve this problem by passing a bunch of laws in Washington,” she told the Grocery Manufacturers, no doubt much to their relief), her work is already creating a climate in which just such a “bunch of laws” might flourish: a handful of state legislatures are considering levying new taxes on sugar in soft drinks, proposals considered hopelessly extreme less than a year ago.

The political ground is shifting, and the passage of health care reform may accelerate that movement. If health insurers can no longer keep people with chronic diseases out of their patient pools, it stands to reason that those companies will develop a keener interest in preventing those diseases. They will then discover that they have a large stake in things like soda taxes and in precisely which kinds of calories the farm bill is subsidizing.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the food movement’s agenda can be reduced to a set of laws, policies, and regulations, important as these may be. What is attracting so many people to the movement today is a much less conventional kind of politics, one that is about something more than food. The movement is also about community, identity, pleasure, and, most notably, about carving out a new social and economic space removed from the influence of big corporations and government.

One can get a taste of this social space simply by hanging around a farmers market. Farmers markets are thriving, and there is a lot more going on in them than the exchange of money for food. Someone is collecting signatures on a petition. Someone else is playing music. Children are everywhere, sampling fresh produce. Friends and acquaintances stop to chat. Someone buying food here may be acting not just as a consumer but also as a neighbor, a citizen, a parent, a cook.

Though seldom articulated as such, the attempt to redefine, or escape, the traditional role of consumer has become an important aspiration of the food movement. The modern marketplace would have us decide what to buy strictly on the basis of price and self-interest; the food movement proposes that we enlarge our understanding of both terms, suggesting that not just “good value” but also ethical and political values should inform buying decisions, and that we’ll get more satisfaction from our eating when they do.

Put another way, the food movement has set out to foster new forms of civil society. But instead of proposing that space as a counterweight to an overbearing state, as is usually the case, the food movement poses it against the dominance of corporations and their tendency to insinuate themselves into any aspect of our lives from which they can profit. As Wendell Berry writes, corporations “will grow, deliver, and cook your food for you and (just like your mother) beg you to eat it. That they do not yet offer to insert it, prechewed, into your mouth is only because they have found no profitable way to do so.”

The corporatization of something as basic and intimate as eating is, for many of us today, a good place to draw the line.

Food is invisible no longer and, in light of the mounting costs we’ve incurred by ignoring it, it is likely to demand much more of our attention in the future. It is only a matter of time before politicians seize on the power of the food issue, which besides being increasingly urgent is also almost primal, in some sense proto-political.

For where do all politics begin if not in the high chair?–at that fateful moment when mother, or father, raises a spoonful of food to the lips of the baby who clamps shut her mouth, shakes her head no, and for the first time awakens to and asserts her sovereign power.

Michael Pollan is the author of, most recently, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. Excerpted from The New York Review of Books (June 10, 2010), an independent biweekly magazine to sate the literary, cultural, and intellectual appetites. Copyright © 2010 by Michael

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