Dangers in the food movement

We all have things that drive us crazy.  People with cell phones in their ears blathering into the ether or folks who bring tiny children to really expensive restaurants and wonder why folks glare at them as the kids go nuts from boredom.  As I get older, I find myself with a much longer list such irritants, but firmly ensconced at the top of my list are people who consider themselves experts on an issue when judging by what they say and do, they’re sitting high in an ivory tower somewhere contemplating only the “wouldn’t-it-be-nice” aspects.

When it comes to the “food movement,” the penthouse of the ivory tower is still occupied by Michael Pollan, author of “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and related work.  Heck, if he continues to write the stuff he writes about the food industry and how to feed yourself – get out that bow and arrow, plant that backyard veggie garden – he’ll be the eternal leaseholder of that space.  However, his downstairs neighbor is “food luminary” Dr. Marion Nestle. Dr. Nestle is an academic – she’s the Paulette Goddard Professor (no joke) in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University – who just announced she’ll be in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan on Saturday, October 29, to join the Occupy Wall Street crowd with “Occupy Against Big Food.”

Says Dr. Nestle: “The food movement’s goal is to make the food system healthier for people and the planet.  That goal is entirely consistent with the goals of everyone else involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement.” It may be consistent, but it strikes me as a bit exploitive, but that’s a rant for another day. 

Nestle has written books as diverse as “What to Eat,” “Food Politics: How Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health,” and “Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety.”  She even advises on what to feed dogs and cats.  I’ve read none of these books – just being honest – but I’ve heard her speak and I’ve read her blogs.

Like Pollan, her opinions are predictable, and like Pollan, there’s a huge chunk of reality missing from Dr. Nestle’s academic approach to life. The missing bit is, quite simply, the answer to the following question: How do you feed 7 billion people today and 9 billion by 2040 through organic, natural and local food production?  The answer is you can’t, not without embracing mechanized and technologic food production, both apparent anathemas to the “food movement.”

I agree with Dr. Nestle; food production must strive to provide healthy sustenance in a way that does not do harm to the planet. But again, reality confronts us and Dr. Nestle prefers to turn away.  There simply isn’t enough land to raise the organic crops, fruits and veggies necessary to feed the world, even if you were to shut down animal production, not without technology and the efficiencies of scale necessary. 

It galls me that a premise of the food movement’s bloviating against modern, conventional U.S. farming and ranching is that big is automatically bad and efficiency of production is to be shunned.  However, it appears “big” is a relative term, apparently dependent on the production practice embraced. If you’re a monster organic or natural producer, selling at a premium to big city restaurants and Whole Foods within 500 miles, you’re the “local organic farmer,” and you’re to be esteemed and emulated.  If you’re a big conventional producer – even family owned – selling to big city restaurants, grocery stores, chain restaurants and others within 500 miles AND shipping across the country to meet demand, well, you’re bad, just plain bad. 

Most of the folks like Pollan and Nestle – “food movement leaders” – who contend we can feed this country and the world off of 50-acre hobby farms have never set foot on a real, live working farm of more than 150 acres in the middle of Iowa in February, nor have they worked calving or spent more than a couple of days “observing” how farming and ranching operate.  They do research, which by definition is a selective process. You get to pick what fits and supports your ideology.

While some find the “food movement” interesting or entertaining, I find it almost dangerous.  It misinforms and misdirects people to buy expensive foods for which the higher price is unjustified either by safety or humaneness. It plays off a naïve fantasy of a holistic lifestyle, and it’s generally promoted by those who can well afford to pay for that fantasy.   

Unfortunately, that’s about 1-5% of the population, the same group with whom Occupy Wall Street has a bone to pick.  How consistent is that, Dr. Nestle?


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