Amid the endless fields of commodity soybeans and corn, small-scale farmers are starting to grow vegetables for niche markets, and for community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs), where people pay an upfront fee for a share in the farmer’s harvest.
The phenomenon is driven in part by chefs and gourmets who long ago discovered that free-range chicken or grass-fed beef tastes better. Now average consumers, too, are starting to demand those same things. They also want to support rural farmers in their area, and limit the environmental costs—the “food miles”—required to produce any given meal. This consciousness, which took shape some time ago in upstate New York and the Napa Valley, is relatively (and somewhat ironically) new to the country’s “breadbasket.” But now that it’s emerged in the heartland, the appetite for story pork may just be here to stay.
The search for taste. A sense of rural justice. An awareness of the connections among farming, climate, and natural resources. In recent years, all of these notions have hit the mainstream. But current food scares—from melamine in Chinese candy to salmonella in Mexican hot peppers to E. coli in Californian spinach—have forced consumers to pay extra attention to food origins and labels. So has the gnawing fear that terrorists might contaminate the food supply.
These concerns go beyond the seeming abstractions of taste or justice. They may also help to explain why food coverage has gotten increasingly prominent, not only at the Post-Dispatch but at papers throughout the country. Last year, especially so. The New York Times explored global food production in a lengthy series. In the spring, The Washington Post published a five-part investigation of the global food crisis. “The issues are coming out of the cooking pages,” Paul Roberts, the author of The End of Food (2008), told me in a recent conversation.
In his book, Roberts examines the global food supply and its paradoxical imbalance, with abundance in some places and famine in others. “We’re still defining this new area,” he said, referring to food coverage. “Food is so driven by economics, by trading and speculation, and we have to be able to understand how those markets work.”
For me, covering any and all of the above—farming, commodities, grain markets, salmonella—was new. On some days, I felt woefully under-equipped to cut through the mudslinging of the pro- and anti-ethanol campaigns, or to understand the scientific arguments for and against genetic engineering. Like so many beat reporters, I needed a crash course in the story of the moment. One day, I might have benefited from an advanced degree in agricultural economics; the next, from some background in soil science. Sometimes, I felt like a business reporter, and other times, like a science reporter. And on many days, I simply wrote easy, feature-like trend stories just to give readers a below-the-fold diversion.
Through it all, I’ve often wondered whether the food beat is too diffuse and unwieldy for a single journalist. Is it, I wondered, a realistic prospect to report on agriculture, regulation, public health, and biotech at the same time? There is no road map for the beat, at least as I’ve devised it, and as far as I know, I’m the only metro or news reporter trying to cover the subject in this way.
At most newspapers, even with the new visibility given to food stories, the beat is divided among different desks. Commodities are covered by agriculture reporters. Health or science reporters cover nutrition. Reporters who follow the Food and Drug Administration or the Department of Agriculture write about regulation, while business reporters tackle much of the remainder. (The Times and Post series last year were written in large part by business reporters.)
Michael Pollan, probably the most influential food journalist in the country these days, sees a convergence going on. “I think the beats are melding in very interesting ways,” he told me. “It used to be that on Wednesday, you got your recipes and you treated food as a lifestyle issue. Ag was a business beat. Now they’re bleeding together because food is a political issue, and a health issue. I think people are starting to connect the dots. You can’t think of [food] as environment or science or ag or business. It’s all of those things.”
Pollan, who came to food from ecology and environmental science, teaches a class at the University of California, Berkeley, called “Following the Food Chain.” The class draws students from departments across the school, including chemistry, law, and public policy. “I think it’s very important for people doing this work to have a mixed bag of tools,” he continued. “You need to understand ecology; you need to be a pretty good business journalist. It truly is interdisciplinary.”