My Food Manifesto

There is a lot of talk these days about food. People are talking about what is in food, how our food choices affect public health, potential steps to change what we eat and an explosion of new choices in the market. It’s all been very sudden an at times overwhelming. Some new ideas are good, and I think some ideas aren’t so much so. I myself started thinking more and more about this due to the influence of farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry and my socialist outlook on life. Some things I have found in my involvement with the issue…

1. “Organic” is not a solution. There are conflicting reports on whether organic farming is more or less productive than conventional farming. Studies go both ways and based on the data no one can really be sure if organic is more productive than conventional. As it stands now though, organic food is more expensive, that is certain. And while that could change, and while many Americans are happy to pay more for food that probably is healthier, what America tends to forget is that not everyone in the world is capable of paying a little extra to eat. If hypothetically the world shifted to organic farming overnight we might solve the chemical problems of conventional farming but at the expense of much more global poverty and starvation. What middle-class Americans are turning to for smalll health reasons could be incredibly fatal to those who are not so priviledged. So while maybe organic is better, we don’t know that, and to jump to a quick decision could mean a lot of people dying.

2. The problem is land. We have limited farm space, and what we have now we are quickly losing to poor maintenance or outright destruction via urbanization. Space for growing food is not dictated by any sort of logic, but markets. Acres of arable land disappear, not counting real or potential loss of food now or in the future. Changing farmland to subdivisions might be great (economically) in the short term, but its effects are permanent through the long run. It’s easy to build houses in a field, but impossible to build farms out of subdivisions–the cost to revert is unfeasible.

3. We’re playing the same sort of game with food that “Wall Street” played with housing only a few years ago. You’d think after the housing bubble which lead to a meltdown in the global economy, foreclosures everywhere, that we’d learned our lesson. But food is being gambled with now exactly as housing once was. Investors are speculating on agriculture and inflating the actual value of what we have, not because they think agriculture will catch up to speculations, but because they think IT WONT. Same way no one cared that people had mortgages they really couldn’t afford.

Wall Street isn’t totally evil. Investment can provide capital to make lemonade out of lemons; talk all the trash you want but you would not be as well off as you probably are without someone fronting money for economic projects. However, conversely, to think investment is tied to the greater good of humanity and not quick profits is also naive. Assholes in the stock market aren’t going to fret if their activity causes a crisis in food because the people who play in it know whatever happens they wont be the ones to starve.

4. Crops are not grown to feed the world. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding bio-fuels these days. The ironic twist is that while many who support bio-fuel are also those who tend to support the eradication of food shortages. Simply, we can’t have both. Again it goes back to lack of land and the market effects of what is grown. Bio-fuels will create a shift toward land use for ethanol production, but at the cost of feeding people. We’re already seeing a shift in agriculture, especially in the developing world, toward bio-fuels. And herein is another situation where the wants of middle-class, “enviornmentally-friendly” Americans could act to the detriment of poorer countries. Shifting away from petroleum is certainly very necessary, but we simply aren’t equipped as it stands to farm what powers our cars and keep everyone fed.

5. On a related note. There is also a benefit to the growing “fair trade” movement, for farmers and the ethical well-being of those who buy it, but it’s not a perfect solution. Even if one is willing to pay more for coffee/chocolate/bananas/etc. that gives a fairer market value to such crops (the alternative is cheap goods made possible by violence and authoritarian government, as we know) the problem is it still diverts production toward what middle-class America wants regardless of the places where such luxury items are grown. If third world farmers grow coffee, even fairly-traded, it means for such countries less cassava, wheat and other staples. In turn what happens is those countries are buying what they need to survive from places like the U.S. and China. It’s not an efficient system if the goal is keeping humans alive, but suits the alienated patrons of strip mall coffee shops who want to brag about their enlightened perspective.

6. Vegetarianism and veganism are becoming outdated. There is absolutely nothing bad about being a vegetarian/vegan. I was one for almost half my life and I still prefer to eat that way. It’s a simple formula that relates to what I’ve said already: raising animals means feeding them, animals eat more than they offer back in food value, so going vegetarian makes better use of the food we have. The only problem with vegetarianism and veganism is that such lifestyles are absolutes. A vegetarian can eat NO meat. Vegans eat NO animal products. Pundits like Michael Pollan advocate reduction of meat and a more vegetarian diet, and they’re incredibly right, the problem is that “less meat” is not an accepted lifestyle, and we’re all about lifestyles these days.

I don’t have figures to work with, but I can make a comfortable estimate. If the average omnivore cut their meat intake by 10% it’d do as much if not probably more than all vegetarians combined. Reduction is the point, and reduction does not require total abstinence from animal farming, but simply less of it. Vegetarian ideas can be harmful when they suggest that only a complete abstinence is worthwhile. Granted a lot, if not most, vegetarians I think would agree with this; it doesn’t change that people want social recognition and just “I eat less meat now’ hasn’t the power of “I’m a vegetarian.”

That’s not to say I criticize people who do go all the way. If veganism appeals to you, go for it. You’ll be happy, healthy and eating great food if you know how. People say there’s no joy without a steak, or that you’ll waste away to nothing; both myths are ridiculous. I wont ever understand the anti-veg arguments that without meat we’d become weak pansies, as beef (which comes from a cow, if you didn’t know) is produced by a herbivorous animal. “Strong as an ox” is cliche, but I never hear anyone say “strong as a housecat.”

7. We have to stop worrying about artificial. “All-natural” products are sweet. Humankind existed for ages without having to resort to the unnatural. But that in itself is no argument. Quick! I offer you two choices: artificial flavoring or rattlesnake venom, which do you choose?!! Natural has a pleasant ring to it, makes us think of flowers and beautiful vistas and such, but it doesn’t pay the bills. Entreat the idea that with limited resources somethings simply can be more efficiently made in a lab than in nature (and that efficiency means having to destroy less “nature” to get what we need.)

I took this to point in looking, not at food, but in one case soap. I was curious whether or not goat milk soap really was better for the world than “chemical” soap. What I found, it’s pretty clear to me, that Dial is way better for the environment than hippie goat milk stuff. Though you probably don’t, and I didn’t, know where the ingredients in conventional soap comes from, I’ll tell you: soybeans, slaughterhouse refuse and just about any plant. The names are out of a chemistry text, but their origins are pretty simple (some stuff, like sodium palminate might be a little unsustainable), goats on the other hand like a lot of space, eat a lot of shit and generally use up what we don’t have. And there’s nothing more “natural” about taking the milk from a goat to wash your hands than there is to just manufacture it synthetically. Goats don’t make milk so you can have clean hands.

8. Marketing screws with our heads. There is no standard for what is environmentally-friendly or anything like that. No company has to prove a thing to label their product such, they simply have to do enough to assure there’s no backlash. Fast food companies get notoriously into trouble for this for marketing products that appear low-calorie (the chicken salad!) but contain as much if not more calories than what’s thought to be obviously fatty.

And oh! Are companies not preying on your willingness to buy “natural” things! No one is worse than the vitamins/supplements industry. They’ve got millions by the short hairs believing that echinacea will cure a cold better than those pharmaceutical corporations. Here’s the bad news: those companies are corporations, they make millions and their stuff doesn’t even have to work. Echinacea, by the way, doesn’t work, but those who want to escape “corporate drugs” manage to line the pockets of a lot of corporate snake oil pushers just because it’s “natural.”

But organic food is still revolutionary, right? Unless you consider that the largest buyer of organic crops is Walmart. Yes, Walmart. It’s a business like any other, but even a corporate giant is ready to affirm that you are in fact doing a world-changing act of revolution so long as you buy. Corporations really do kind of suck most of the time, but that doesn’t mean they wont buy your love by telling you what you want to hear.

9. “Urban farms” are great but wont solve the matter. Especially in my Portland community there is a surgence of people using urban spaces to produce and offset the need for agribusiness. Even Detroit is catching on. It’s a swell thing. Lawns are aesthetically pleasing to some, but don’t really do much. There’s only good in growing your own food, but not if it causes you to forget what it actually takes to sustain life. Not starving requires actual farms. What you grow in your backyard takes pressure off the system, but it wont keep you alive. People have had gardens for ages and ages, nothing new is being presented, only that we now confuse a garden with a farm (I’ve been mocking Portland for realizing every backyard plot as an “urban farm.”)

One of the great appeals of gardening is that it’s hands-on, you work for and directly benefit from good ol’ mother nature. What remains obscure is just how much we eat that we don’t see, touch or otherwise acknowledge. We sense the miracle in seeing our tomato plants produce, but it’s nearly impossible to see the same miracle in the organic pasta sauce we buy at Whole Foods, even though a tomato (wherever grown) is just a tomato, and unless you have acres of backyard, you need a real farm.

10. We have no means by which to act on these issues. The world is driven by markets. It’s an abstract buy-and-sell world that runs on buy-and-sell reasoning, but not the concrete matter of hunger. Market proponents say that capitalism will inevitably lead to a solution, and in one regard they are right, there’s no profit to be made in anyone not buying food. The problem is that markets operate on a system of profit well and always before they concern themselves with the actual result. Hunger is less severe now than it was in ye olde feudal days, for sure, but we’re still operating on a principle that will hopefully make human life better as a side effect rather than focusing on that as the primary goal.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable. It was a shitty system. The remnants of its ideology aren’t doing much better in Cuba or North Korea. Talk all the smack you want on capitalism, you’re not pleading to defect to Pyongyang. Those who take a religious mind to capitalism call this the eschatological pinnacle of history (Glenn Beck and Fukayama, I’m looking at you!) The more sober-minded simply see what we have as the best that’s available to work with. We have wars, poverty and hunger still and in great number, but nothing else we can assure ourselves of.

A principle feature of capitalism is that one can influence history by purchasing. It’s sort of the unmentioned credo; you have your democratic say by buying what suits you. There are innumerable problems though with this, which I’ve touched upon already. 1. We make decisions irrespective of the effect it has on others in the world. 2. We are easy to dupe by marketing. 3. Marketism has no real long-term thinking, no concept of sustainability. 4. Poorer countries are just plain fucked because they lack any buying-power. 5. The law-of-averages of a market system tends to be a pretty shitty moral code (for instance, was slavery good until enough people came to the side of abolition?)

Even liberals these days are quick to dismiss the concept of class, but so what, right? We can easily speak of gay rights because our class includes gays. We can talk feminism because our class includes women. The battle over food, on the other hand, is anathema. No matter what goes on in the economic world, you and I are always going to eat. And we’d all like to think that we are guided by a moral principle rather than self-interest, but how does the fight for gay marriage (yay!) compare to anti-hunger these days? Face it, we fight harder for (or against) legal contracts of couples much more than the reality that some people don’t even eat enough to keep death away.

Moral guilt is shit. It’s not that we must feel bad for our daily trivialities to focus on starvation in Africa. You and I need not beat ourselves for biting into a sandwich while some kid goes hungry in Sudan. Moral guilt is impossible; eat your sandwich, eating is life, and we all love life, right? Culpability rests not in some mythic failure to act against evil, but indifferernce to that which causes it. To speak of some unknown Sudanese kid again, they aren’t starving because I don’t share my sandwich, they’re starving because I don’t regard how food gets passed around.

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