Factory food and its consequences
These food writers don’t hype restaurants or counsel recipe-clippers — they’re too busy challenging the underpinnings of our industrial diet

By Jonathan King, Public Affairs

02 October 2002 | The question — Are the alternatives to factory food viable? — was posed in a way that brought still more questions to mind. By “factory food” the convenor and moderator of the panel considering the question — Journalism Dean Orville Schell — meant to describe not only the millions of pounds of processed, denatured foodstuffs that Americans consume daily, but all of the products of conventional, large-scale agribusiness.

It’s a question that the panelists — author and journalist Michael Pollan, “Fast Food Nation” author Eric Schlosser, “Atlantic” magazine columnist Corby Kummer, and journalism-school teaching fellow Mark Hertsgaard — have thought and written about extensively, and that a capacity crowd came to hear them address in Wheeler Hall one evening last week. The discussion was one event among many during a four-day program on “Food and the Environment” organized by the Graduate School of Journalism in partnership with the Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism.

Michael Pollan, who has written thoughtfully, even lyrically on topics ranging from botany and architecture to cattle ranching, focused the question on the food factories themselves as he mused about the definition of “viable.” Biologically speaking, he pointed out, it means “able to live and grow,” a definition that poses serious questions when applied to our current system of industrial food production. The organic agriculture movement, he said, began in the 1960s with the insight that industrial food is not in fact sustainable — an insight reinforced today by phenomena like the spread of Mad Cow Disease in Britain, recalls in this country of genetically modified foodstuffs unapproved for human consumption, and the increased incidence of foodborne diseases.

But the largest problem associated with industrial agriculture, Pollan maintained, is that it promotes monocultures: the planting of too much of the same crop over too large an area. “It’s not the way nature does business,” he said; “it’s very precarious.”

Monocultures, he said, are at once dangerous and themselves in danger: a serious threat to biodiversity, yet readily susceptible to risks that smaller, more diverse planting schemes are not. Hence the habitual reliance of factory farmers on insecticides, which kill beneficial organisms along with the pests that threaten the enormous investment of capital that monocultures require. Hence also their susceptibility, at least potentially, to terrorists: “One steer infected with a dangerous pathogen could reach hundreds of thousands of meat-eaters in no time at all,” he said.

No magic bullet
Pollan next examined the very concept of “alternative.” The idea, he suggested, bespeaks another kind of “factory-think” by implying we should be looking for one alternative, a kind of magic bullet. To rely overmuch on any one approach, he insisted, would be to invite a systemic breakdown. His preference would be for “a great many alternatives: organic agriculture, integrated pest management, an animal agriculture based on humane treatment of animals, and a locally based agriculture, whether or not it’s strictly organic, that is based on the notion of ‘food miles’ — how far your food has traveled from farm to table.”

All of these alternative approaches, he concluded, are “just the R&D effort for what we’re eventually going to end up with. We need a Darwinian effort to try lots of things and see what works” — including hybrid forms of agriculture combining useful aspects of both the organic and industrial models.

Mark Hertsgaard, who writes and broadcasts frequently on environmental topics, spoke about another large-scale food-production effort — the Green Revolution, which, by developing seed varieties that thrive with the help of petrochemical fertilizers and controlled irrigation, has dramatically increased grain yields in the Third World. Its advocates, he noted, will say “Look, whatever factory food does to the environment, it does pump out a lot of product” — pointing to the tens of millions of deaths from starvation that this production model has helped prevent. “There’s an argument for that,” Hertsgaard acknowledged, before enumerating the numerous and serious downsides of the Green Revolution — its ecological, economic, and political effects. “It’s biased toward the people with property, with equipment, with the capital needed to buy those seeds, to use the equipment, to develop the economics of scale it takes to work,” he said. At the same time that production increases, therefore, distribution becomes more unequal. The rich can afford the new and improved foodstuffs, but the lower classes have a harder time — with famine resulting more from poverty, in these cases, than from scarcity.

Speaking to the converted
Corby Kummer’s longstanding interest in traditional foodways and artisanal foodstuffs shaped his initial response to the question of alternatives, which was as intimate in its focus as Pollan’s and Hertsgaard’s were macroscopic. He’s spent the last two years working on a book (in collaboration with panelist Schlosser) about the burgeoning Slow Food Movement, which includes among its aims making good food a part of everyday life.

He offered examples from his research to support his prescription that people “become involved with the people who produce [their] food,” beginning with June Taylor, an Oakland woman who makes fruit preserves and jams and sells them at local farmers’ markets. “She’s always right there when the market starts,” Kummer said admiringly, “finding new sources of organic fruit, trying new recipes. She amuses and challenges herself while making a product everyone can use.” Farther afield, there’s a Portuguese man in the Algarve who hand-rakes top-quality salt in a protected marsh area, building a business that will help keep the marshes and their dependent species alive. And he cited an Ecuadorian man who teaches indigenous people to grow quinoa again – “interesting, good quinoa” Kummer insisted to his seemingly skeptical audience — following the grain’s long-lasting suppression by the conquistadores.

“Here in the Bay Area,” the Boston-based writer said, “you’re at the epicenter of what I hope will inspire the rest of the country. You’ve got organic grape growers reviving old varieties and making organic wine. You’re the converted, the people who can set the example for others by finding people who produce food and making regular contact with them. It’s about restoring the relationship of grower and buyer; it’s putting a face to food.”

This theme was familiar to many in the Berkeley audience, who have heard it propounded for years by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. Waters, who introduced the panelists, spoke of her conviction that the exercise of conscious choice in food shopping is at its core a political act, while cooking and eating that food is a cultural one, each of enormous importance in its sphere.

“We understand some of the environmental consequences of fast food, factory food,” she said, “and the consequences to our own health and pleasure, but I really don’t think people understand the set of values that comes with the food choices they make. Something like 85 percent of the kids in this country don’t have one meal a day with their family. We’re endangering the education and enlightenment that comes from people communicating with each other — because the dinner table was once the place where we passed our values on to our children. That’s not happening anymore.”

It’s not just worthy values that are endangered by our national dependence on factory food, more than one speaker suggested; there are ecological and economic costs, many not clearly understood by the consumers whose food-purchasing decisions have the potential to create real political changes. Particularly misguided is the illusion, especially in the case of fast food, that food is cheap — an illusion that will be perpetuated so long as the external costs of its production are not passed on to consumers. Why? Because food producers aren’t obliged to pay those costs themselves.

“One of the great environmental victories of the 1970s,” observed Schlosser, whose “Fast Food Nation” recently spent weeks on the nation’s best-seller lists, “was to force coal-burning power companies to accept the external costs they were imposing on the rest of society. If you look at the livestock industry the same way — in terms of polluted runoff, of food-borne illness, of worker injuries, of obesity — that steak suddenly looks much more expensive.”

This line of thought brought Schlosser back to the evening’s starting point: alternatives.“It was never inevitable that a small number of companies would control most of the world’s food supply,” he said. “It was no great unfolding of history — it happened because powerful groups were able to make it happen. The idea that there is no alternative to this system is not only something that the industry would like you to believe, but it’s also a sign of our own provincialism. This system will operate until people work to make it different: That means being aware of how it operates, caring about that, and then doing something to change that.”


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