ArticleMessianic Hopes and Politics in the Food Movement
What is at the end of your fork? To ask this question is to plunge into a search for answers that are difficult to discover, but if discovered, leave most of us wishing we had never bothered asking in the first place. Ignorance can be, if not bliss, then at least something that doesn’t ruin lunch. Yet for even the most indifferent eaters, the realities of America’s food production system are increasingly difficult to avoid.
The story of how dangerous, unsustainable, and even immoral the production and consumption of food is in America represents one of the most significant emerging social narratives of the new millennium in the West. Authors such as Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan—whose respective books Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2001) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) are groundbreaking, powerful, and essential works about the myriad flaws of America’s food system—helped establish what has since become a burgeoning industry of exposés, documentaries, and activism on the subject. The mission statement of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, with its emphasis on the globalized, interconnected nature of the problem, nicely captures the standard message that has taken hold: “The world’s most pressing questions regarding health, culture, the environment, education, and the global economy cannot be adequately addressed without considering the food we eat and the way we produce it.”
A heightened sense of awareness and anxiety about the way we make the food we eat has become a fixture of American life for a certain segment of the population. As Paul Roberts writes in his book The End of Food, “The very act of eating, the basis of many of our social, family and spiritual traditions—not to mention the one cheap pleasure that could ever rival sex—has for many devolved into an exercise in irritation, confusion and guilt.” There is a reason that the annual Food Issue of the New York Times Magazine, which published many of the articles that laid the groundwork for Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, is less a celebration of gastronomy than a sociopolitical survey of the current state of mind regarding our food dystopia.
Indeed, 2009 may come to be seen as the year that critical analysis of our food situation reached a critical mass. If Time magazine’s August 2009 cover story, “Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food,” indicates this subject has finally hit the mainstream. The article was notable not for what it said, all of which had been said previously, and better, by others, but that it appeared at all. It was a summary of how far the reformist food movement has come. Even the American Farm Bureau—the self-proclaimed “Voice of Agriculture”—whose interests are entirely opposed to the very idea of moving away from our current food practices, couldn’t help but concede begrudgingly, in an article on its website titled “Critics of American Agriculture Intensify Efforts,” that “this has been a good year for the critics of mainstream farming and ranching.” Alice Waters, Berkeley’s Slow Food movement pioneer and co-owner of the legendary Chez Panisse restaurant, showed up at the White House. Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden made headlines (we now have a president who knows the price of arugula). The University of Wisconsin distributed free copies of Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008) to its incoming freshmen, which caused a stir and backlash from farmers. All of this leaves one with the sense that awareness of the issue has reached a saturation point.
The dire state of our food system is now well understood, and its abuses have been amply documented. These include factory farms, synthetic products, harsh treatment of animals, well-financed agribusiness lobbyists, misguided farm policies, and a cornucopia of cheap, unhealthy goods that are doing a number on public health. And yet at the very moment when the food movement is beginning to cross over to the mainstream, it’s hard not to wonder whether it will succeed in building on the success it has had in raising awareness. Its bracing diagnosis has not been followed by an equally effective outline of a remedy. The movement, for all its successes, seems stuck.
There are a number of reasons for this, but one of them stands out, and here the trajectory of Pollan’s work, despite its many virtues and achievements, seems telling. Pollan has distinguished himself as the movement’s most eloquent and cogent thinker, and his books have, rightly, become the urtexts for those who seek to understand how America’s food system works and why it is ultimately destructive. He has established a powerful and lucid narrative about the system’s immense dysfunctions, and reading him leaves you with a clear picture of what is at stake. But there is also something absent from his work, and it is the very thing that appears to be absent from the movement as a whole. The food movement, for all its passion, is almost bereft of politics. Without politics, the movement inherently becomes more about style. It asks how we consume not as a society but as individuals. In this sense it purports to solve the food problem simply by helping consumers make more informed choices. This is demoralizing for the simple reason that remaking our food system is an enormous undertaking that will require far more than slogans, good intentions, and a sentimental attachment to whole foods and farmers markets. Sooner or later, politics, in all its incremental and often unappetizing details, will have to take a seat at the table if the food movement is ever going to serve up something greater than personal satisfaction for the few who can afford it.