January 25, 2008

In Defense of Food

In Defense of Food coverMichael Pollan’s journalistic probes of our food system have yielded several illuminating articles and books. This week’s feature is an excerpt from his latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (The Penguin Press, 2008).

So many of the problems of the industrial food chain stem from its length and complexity. A wall of ignorance intervenes between consumers and producers, and the wall fosters a certain carelessness on both sides. Farmers can lose sight of the fact that they’re growing food for actual eaters rather than for middlemen, and consumers can easily forget that growing food takes care and hard work. In a long food chain, the story and identity of the food (Who grew it? Where and how was it grown?) disappear into the undifferentiated stream of commodities, so that the only information communicated between consumers and producers is a price. In a short food chain, eaters can make their needs and desires known to the farmer, and farmers can impress on eaters the distinctions between ordinary and exceptional food, and the many reasons why exceptional food is worth what it costs. Food reclaims its story, and some of its nobility, when the person who grew it hands it to you. So here’s a subclause to the get-out-of-the-supermarket rule: Shake the hand that feeds you.

As soon as you do, accountability becomes once again a matter of relationships instead of regulation or labeling or legal liability. Food safety didn’t become a national or global problem until the industrialization of the food chain attenuated the relationships between food producers and eaters. That was the story Upton Sinclair told about the BeefTrust in 1906, and it’s the story unfolding in China today, where the rapid industrialization of the food system is leading to alarming breakdowns in food safety and integrity. Regulation is an imperfect substitute for the accountability, and trust, built into a market in which food producers meet the gaze of eaters and vice versa. Only when we participate in a short food chain are we reminded every week that we are indeed part of a food chain and dependent for our health on its peoples and soils and integrity–on its health.

“Eating is an agricultural act,” Wendell Berry famously wrote, by which he meant that we are not just passive consumers of food but cocreators of the systems that feed us. Depending of how we spend them, our food dollars can either go to support a food industry devoted to quantity and convenience and “value” or they can nourish a food chain organized around values–values like quality and health. Yes, shopping this way takes more money and effort, but as soon you begin to treat that expenditure not just as shopping but also as a kind of vote–a vote for health in the largest sense–food no longer seems like the smartest place to economize.

Visit michaelpollan.com for information about Michael Pollan’s writing and  speaking events as well as links and resources for sustainable eating.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »