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The Food Movement, Rising’: An Exchange

In response to:

The Food Movement, Rising from the June 10, 2010 issue

letters_pollan-081910.jpg
Schloss Ambras, Innsbruck/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Giuseppe Arcimboldo: To the Woman
of Good Taste, sixteenth century

To the Editors:

Michael Pollan inadvertently reveals the dangers of the local food movement when he extols its multiple benefits [“The Food Movement, Rising,” NYR, June 10]. In an otherwise excellent article, he claims that “the local food movement wants to decentralize the global economy, if not secede from it altogether.” As it stands, this argument carries two political dangers.

First, it comes perilously close to equating local food systems with sustainable food systems, when the former is merely one ingredient of the latter. The notion of sustainability should not be confused with a narrow green agenda because it embodies social and economic values as well as environmental values. The implication for food politics is clear: a sustainable food movement should embrace fairly traded global produce as well as local produce.

Second, the localism of the food movement can easily degenerate into parochialism unless it is leavened with a cosmopolitan disposition. Sadly, such parochialism is especially evident in Italy, the great bastion of the local food movement, where the right-wing Northern League uses local food specialities to prosecute its campaign against ethnic minorities. “We want polenta, not couscous” says the League—a slogan that betrays its ignorance of the cosmopolitan origins of so much “local food” in Italy.

Kevin Morgan
Professor School of City and Regional Planning
Cardiff University
Wales, United Kingdom

To the Editors:

In “The Food Movement, Rising,” Michael Pollan implies that all anti-hunger advocates support federal subsidies for corporate agribusinesses.

My book All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America? repeatedly slams US corporate farm subsidies for increasing food insecurity overseas, harming the environment, placing unsubsidized small farmers at a competitive disadvantage, and costing taxpayers tens of billions of dollars that could be better used ending hunger and reducing the deficit. While Pollan’s claim that “sustainable” farms “do not harm the environment” is exaggerated, we should certainly shift government priorities in order to make farms as sustainable as possible.

My constructive criticism of Pollan and some other “locavore” leaders is not merely that they advocate policies that could increase food prices, but that they have argued that food prices should increase, without providing serious proposals for how the 49 million Americans who are today food insecure—unable to afford all the food their families need—would survive if food prices were even higher.

It is helpful that he and others now highlight the practicality of efforts to increase the use of federal nutrition assistance benefits at farmers’ markets, but given the limited growing seasons and food choices at markets in most parts of the country, that’s hardly a comprehensive response to the problem. I have also criticized food theorists who claim that all Americans ought to grow their own food, pointing out that few low-income Americans have either the land or the time necessary to do so.

Hunger activists and community food security advocates can—and must—find common ground in order to accomplish our goals. A first step would be acknowledging that fighting poverty and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive.

Joel Berg
Executive Director
New York City Coalition Against Hunger New York City

To the Editors:

I’m sure we all owe Michael Pollan a great debt of gratitude for the way he has brought the evils of corporate agribusiness into the public eye, but why does he insist on alienating the vegetarians who could be his greatest allies? Jonathan Safran Foer’s book is anything but a “vegetarian polemic,” composed, as it is, out of a multitude of voices, including those of cattle ranchers. As a vegetarian of over forty years, I closed the book convinced that eating some meat under the right circumstances would be fine.

Foer manages two things that Pollan keeps away from: he asks us simply to face the question of whether it is moral to take the lives of animals in a society where it is not necessary for our livelihood—simply to face it head on. In the process, he also brings to light much more vividly than Pollan the environmental crisis created by the meat industry—dangerous overuse of antibiotics in animal feed and the uncontrolled disposal of animal waste that seeps into our water supply. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan dismisses vegetarians as naive and out of touch with reality, but in his focus on grass-fed beef he underplays the damage done by the corporate meat industry that Foer vividly depicts. Food movement omnivores need to stop feeling guilty in the presence of vegetarians and form the kind of alliance that Pollan claims to advocate.

Ellen Finkelpearl
Scripps College
Claremont, California

Michael Pollan replies:

I agree with Professor Morgan that rhetoric about locally grown food can go overboard when it speaks of seceding from the global economy. But I think most people pushing to reregionalize food systems recognize the value of trade when it is conducted under rules that protect both producers and the environment. Trade has an important role to play in development, but if the food crisis of 2008 taught us anything, it is that relying on global markets to feed one’s country is dangerous in a world where those markets are subject to tremendously destructive price swings, often caused by decisions made on Wall Street or in Washington. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, however: fostering a greater degree of food sovereignty does not mean banning trade altogether, and shouldn’t. It means government support for local farmers and markets, re-instituting grain reserves, and taking various other steps that have been frowned on by the World Bank, IMF, and WTO.

Joel Berg’s criticism of the sustainable food movement has certainly been “constructive,” especially concerning the impact of various food reforms on the poor. But I think he misrepresents my positions on cheap food. I don’t believe cheap food has necessarily been a blessing to the poor. Not only has it led to high rates of obesity and type II diabetes among the poor (blacks and Hispanics have the highest rates of all), but cheap food has, in effect, “subsidized” falling wages and made it easier for government to shred the safety net. In the sweep of human history it is unusual, if not unprecedented, for the poor to struggle with obesity more than the wealthy do, but that is one of the effects of the cheap food economy.

However, now that cheap food is a pillar of our economy, simply to raise its cost to consumers would have disastrous effects on many people. When I suggest that people should spend more on food, I am (obviously, I thought) speaking of people who can afford to spend more—to “vote with their forks” for local, organic, and other forms of sustainable food that need our support to thrive. This food costs more, very often, but it is worth more too, by several measures. But as I’ve said on countless occasions, only some of us can afford to vote with our forks, which is why we need also to vote with our votes for new kinds of federal policies that will make sustainable food more affordable and more accessible.

Under current agricultural policies, we are subsidizing the least healthy calories in the supermarket: added sugars made from subsidized corn, and added fats made from subsidized soy. As a result, the cost of processed foods like soda has fallen since the 1980s while the cost of fresh produce has risen. When a food shopper with a dollar to spend in the supermarket must choose between buying 1,200 calories of processed food or 250 calories of fresh produce, we have made it economically rational to eat badly.

It is simply not accurate to say the food movement has put forth no serious proposals to remedy this situation. Changes in the structure of federal farm payments have the potential, if well designed, to make healthy calories more competitive with unhealthy ones. Much work is being done to improve access to high-quality fresh produce, including local and organic food, in underserved neighborhoods. On two acres near Milwaukee’s biggest housing project, Will Allen’s Growing Power Farm raises nearly $1 million worth of high-quality produce and employs more than thirty people.1 There is much to debate here—for example, should federal nutrition programs like food stamps actually emphasize nutrition or simply the provision of calories?—but I agree with Mr. Berg that hunger activists and sustainable food activists need to join forces to create a healthier and more equitable food system.

Ellen Finkelpearl mistakes my (very limited) defense of meat eating in The Omnivore’s Dilemma for a disdain for vegetarians. In fact, I have the utmost respect for vegetarians and vegans, who are light years ahead of most eaters insofar as they have seriously considered the moral, ethical, and environmental implications of their food choices. They are conscious eaters, which is what we all need to become. It was perhaps unfairly dismissive of me to label Foer’s book a “vegetarian polemic,” because it is more than that—it is a serious effort to make its readers more conscious of what is at stake on their plates, and there’s much in it with which I agree.

It happens that when I thought through the ethical and environmental implications of meat eating, I came to a different conclusion: I argued that under certain circumstances and from certain kinds of farms, eating meat is defensible, and in fact that there are situations in which meat-eating is environmentally sustainable. In making my case, I struggled mightily with the powerful arguments of philosophers such as Peter Singer, who was entirely correct when he wryly congratulated me on successfully defending one percent of the American meat industry—the one percent in which animals are not treated cruelly. The struggle now is to expand that percentage, a struggle in which vegetarians and carnivores need to link arms.

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    For my own attempt at setting forth a comprehensive approach to reforming the US food system, see my essay “Farmer in Chief,” The New York Times, October 9, 2008.

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