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The Big Food Menace

In response to:

A New Way to Think About Eating from the March 20, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food [NYR, March 20], Jason Epstein refers, apparently with approval, to “a sustainable farm near Charlottesville, Virginia,” that is described at length in Mr. Pollan’s previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. And immediately Mr. Epstein undoes his approval with the following remarkable statement: “But sustainable farming is not sustainable on a national scale any more than Alice Waters can cook for the entire United States….”

This is merely a revision of the conventional “answer” that has been made for at least forty years to any argument for ecologically responsible agriculture. Earl Butz, who is deplored by Mr. Epstein, would have agreed enthusiastically. The reference to Alice Waters is shorthand for another part of the conventional answer. The point, invariably, has been that good farming and good food may be all right as a sort of hobby for the wealthy, but only industrial agriculture and the industrial food system can “feed the world.”

It is true that Alice Waters’s restaurant, Chez Panisse, is expensive. It has also been a good example, in its use of fresh local food, to eating places, not invariably expensive, all over the country. But Chez Panisse is not the only accomplishment of Alice Waters. Nobody has done more than she has to promote responsible food production and good food for those who need it most, namely schoolchildren. She is a great democratizer of the ideas of good food and good eating.

If “sustainable farming is not sustainable on a national scale,” what then? This question does not have an answer that is simple or easy, but Mr. Epstein ought at least to have asked it. And as a matter of fact it is being answered. Michael Pollan and Alice Waters are working on the answer. So are thousands of people who are occupied with making their farms sustainable, with “community-supported agriculture,” with farmers’ markets, with the development of local food economies, with vegetable gardens in city and country, with cooking and eating fresh, locally produced food.

Mr. Epstein, who evidently does not know of these efforts, accepts the present food industry, which is condemned by the book he is favorably reviewing, as “our second nature.” He then hastens to assure, us perhaps, but certainly himself that “Pollan is not a Luddite.” Did somebody accuse Michael Pollan of being a Luddite? Is somebody about to accuse Jason Epstein of being a Luddite? He evidently fears so, for he invokes this dreaded name in order to dissociate himself from the judgment that is at the heart of both of Mr. Pollan’s recent books: that industrial agriculture is not only unsustainable, but, on the basis of much evidence, is ruinous of the health of everything involved. It is degrading and wasting the land, poisoning streams and rivers, causing “dead zones” in the oceans, destroying farm populations and rural communities, destroying forests, destroying species and varieties of plants and animals. And the industrial food system, while aiding and abetting the ruin of agriculture and the agricultural ruin of ecosystems, is ruining the health of humans.

It may be understandable that Mr. Epstein chooses to wipe his hands and back away. But it is not understandable or excusable that he sees objection and opposition to such a state of things as Luddism. Nor is it understandable or excusable that he reduces this enormous, agonizing difficulty to a perfunctory sendoff: “The problem is not the existence of a mass feeding industry but its ethics….” Yes, let us all join the hunt for industrial ethics. But the ethical problem exactly is the existence of a mass feeding industry.

Wendell Berry

Lanes Landing Farm

Port Royal, Kentucky

Jason Epstein replies:

Can Wendell Berry have read what I wrote? He accuses me of attempting to “dissociate” myself from what “is at the heart of both of Mr. Pollan’s recent books: that industrial agriculture is not only unsustainable, but…ruinous of the health of everything involved.” This is exactly my unequivocal position. I wrote, “Pollan’s critique of the American food industry… is comparable to that of Rachel Carson as a contribution to the history of human self-destruction.” Though I am in favor of sustainable, small-scale agriculture and an enthusiastic admirer and friend of Alice Waters, I do not see how small-scale farming and Alice’s brave campaigns can replace the present system for the millions of Americans too poor and too distracted to take advantage of them. Since Mr. Berry himself offers no solution to this dreadful problem I assume he is as much at a loss as I am. We should not abandon the struggle. But we should also know what we’re up against.

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