New Grub Street

How did ethics become a staple of contemporary food writing?
May 8, 2007

Time was, a war of words between a food writer and an organic-foods retailer would have attracted the interest of maybe seven people in your local food co-op–a bit of chatter over the brown-rice bin and everyone would move on. Those of us in a Safeway with our Perdue roasters and our broccoli avec a hint of pesticide would not have known that an argument took place. But the recent exchanges between Michael Pollan, author of the 2006 bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, and John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, are, if not squarely in the mainstream, awfully close to it.

Thanks to his perch as The New York Times Magazine’s resident food sage, Pollan is a well-known champion of the ethical superiority of small, local organic farms, and of the superior taste of their products. Whole Foods, of course, is a bringer of organic food to grateful yuppies across the country. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan describes Whole Foods as the embodiment of “Industrial Organic.” The company’s appetite for product has driven some organic farmers to scale up and become very much like the farms they were supposed to replace: organic dairies now house thousands of cows who have never munched on a patch of grass, while Brobdignagian vegetable farms ship their produce across the country, undercutting small, local farmers. Whole Foods even sells “organic” TV dinners (Pollan says one he tried “looked and tasted very much like airline food”) and, during the North American winter, has asparagus shipped north from Argentina. This would be environmentally dubious on its face, Pollan suggests, given the fuel required to ship the vegetable. In any case, it “tasted like damp cardboard.”

Mackey immediately fired back. In an open letter on the Whole Foods Web site, he said his company was committed to local farmers as well as consumer choice, and he charged that Pollan’s blanket condemnation of large farms undersold the benefits of encouraging big agriculture to eschew pesticides. The dispute culminated in February, when two thousand people paid $10 each to see a debate between Pollan and Mackey at the University of California at Berkeley. For those expecting an interenviro cage match it was anticlimactic, but Mackey did seem genuinely concerned that the industrial-organic label was going to stick to and hurt Whole Foods, despite its $5.6 billion in sales last year, and 19 percent growth.

“What am I eating?” Pollan asks in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. “And where in the world did it come from?” Those two questions, and Pollan’s ability to unpack them with an enviable, discursive essay style, have made him into a food writer who can scare ceos and, maybe, move markets. In the past few years a raft of reporters and writers have stepped forward with him to answer those twinned queries in all their anthropologically thick complexity. Their work draws together issues of taste, ethics, and politics, bridging the gap between James Beard and Rachel Carson. Much of their writing has an activist tone: last September, The Nation

brought together several environmentally conscious writers under the umbrella of a “Food Issue.” But mainstream newspapers, too, now know that their readers expect them to report on the political and ethical implications of food–and to track trends generated, in part, by the new food writers.

In 2004, for example, The New York Times hired away from The San Francisco Chronicle its star food writer, Kim Severson, who describes her beat as “food from the table out.” In recent months, Severson has written about how supermarkets have been “greenwashed” via deceptively enviro-friendly labels and packages, taken note of the neologism “food miles,” a measure of how far one’s food traveled to get to one’s table, and interviewed people who had sought out farmers’ markets after an e. coli scare involving bagged spinach. “The world of food reporting had been divided,” Severson told me recently. “You’d have an agriculture reporter who didn’t understand how a kitchen worked and a reporter covering hunger who might not understand what it took to put food on the table at night,” plus the restaurant critics and the recipe editors. Newspapers today, she adds, “are really bringing all of that together.”

Even The Wall Street Journal, about as detached from Berkeley as you can get, has been running richly reported pieces on the contests between the giants of the organic industry, like Horizon Organic, and smaller organic cooperatives to recruit new farmers as suppliers. In fact, it’s not the Journal but The Economist that’s worked hardest to foment a backlash. In December it lobbed a rotten tomato at the very idea that you can effect change by the foods you buy and eat. Far from saving the world, the venerable weekly argued, the pro-organic and pro-local-foods movement just “might make it worse.” One reason, it says, is that organic farming is less efficient than the intensive modern sort, so a wholesale switch to organic “would require several times as much land as is currently cultivated. There wouldn’t be much room left for the rain forest.”

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This new species of food writing didn’t suddenly sprout out of barren soil. Writing about slow-food, you might say, has been slowly germinating, and The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, by the Vanity Fair writer David Kamp, tells one story of its growth. Here, the roots of the organic and local-foods movements are more intertwined with the spread of good cooking than we usually think. As American food industrialized over the course of the twentieth century (bringing such taste sensations as Miracle Whip and Crisco), immigrant chefs with impeccable culinary taste maintained oases of fresh ingredients, carefully prepared, in bistros and restaurants. Some Americans, like a young James Beard in the 1930s, drew connections between those chefs’ close attention to their ingredients and their relationships with farmers, and the kind of home cooking their own mothers had done.

During the heyday of the counterculture, a second generation of foodies pushed American food in an even more local direction. Alice Waters, who recruited her neighbors in Berkeley to grow greens for her restaurant, Chez Panisse (founded in 1971), is the best-known example. Other countercultural Californians headed north from San Francisco into towns like Bolinas to start organic farms, while restaurants like San Francisco’s Greens and Ithaca’s Moosewood imported a slice of that off-the-grid sensibility to city dwellers. Still, the organic movement remained fringe, and people who cooked with local ingredients were praised largely for their food, not their politics.

In Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food, Warren Belasco, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, traces the roots of today’s food concerns back yet a few more centuries. The “deep structure” of today’s debate, in his words, was established as early as the late 1700s, when Thomas Malthus was issuing his infamous dire predictions about population and the food supply, and the French philosopher Condorcet was reassuring readers that “nature has set no limit to the realization of our hopes.” Since then the debate has been framed by food pessimists (like Bill McKibben, who in Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, writes that “the planet is already buckling” under our consumption habits) and food optimists (like the Economist editors, who think free trade, science, and economic theory will forestall disaster). Belasco also explains how productivity gains have defied the worries of contemporary Malthusians–so far: from 1935 to 1985, thanks to new hybrid forms of corn and the nitrogen-based fertilizers that fuel their vigorous growth, corn yields in the United States increased sixfold.

That particular bit of history is missing, or curiously spun, in much of the new food writing. For Pollan, the story of agriculture in the twentieth century is one of a fall from grace. The invention of chemical fertilizer “marks a key turning point in the industrialization of our food,” while new hybrid corn species are part Frankenfood, part capitalist boondoggle (because farmers suddenly had to buy new seeds each year). And now the use of fossil-fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides, plus mechanization, means that it takes fifty gallons of oil to grow an acre of corn. That may well be decadent. But Belasco shows that the food debate we’re presently having–What should we eat?–owes something to the increases in productivity that answered another question: Will we have enough to eat?

Pollan fantasizes about a bar code that would provide shoppers with information about the origins of the foods they are considering buying. Indeed, if there’s a founding principle of the new food writing, it’s that we could change the food system if we truly looked at it, thereby discovering the unethical practices we endorse by buying certain meats and vegetables. The opening chapters of The Omnivore’s Dilemma feature some repellent images of industrial farming, particularly where animals are concerned. Pollan’s descriptions alone of one Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation that houses hundreds of beef cattle “standing dully or lying around in a grayish mud that, it eventually dawns on you, isn’t mud at all,” flush with antibiotics, and of other cafos in which pigs have their tails chopped off, without anesthesia, because …well, it’s enough to persuade this reader to think about some alternatives.

The idealistic alternative Pollan offers is that of a farm in Virginia run by Joel Salatin, who refers to himself as a “grass farmer” because grass is the foundation of his enterprise. He lets his cows graze on clover, orchard grass, sweet grass, bluegrass, and timothy one day, then “mobs and moves” the herd to a different pasture so the grazed pasture can rebound. His chickens live authentically chickeny lives. All told, Salatin displays a kind of agrarian self-sufficiency, Pollan writes, that Thomas Jefferson assumed would become the American norm but that now “constitutes a politics and economics and way of life both deliberate and hard-won–an achievement.”

But what kind of politics, exactly, and what kind of economics? In Pollan’s book, and even in more prosaic newspaper pieces, some of the political and economic dimensions of the local-foods movement are suppressed or underexplored. In one telling passage in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Salatin brushes off a question from Pollan about how, say, New Yorkers might take advantage of the local-farm network, retorting: “Why do we have to have a New York City? What good is it?” Pollan, a former New Yorker, demurs, but quickly drops the subject, telling readers that the lesson of the exchange is that a shared concern about food offers a “sturdy bridge” across a “deep gulf of culture.”

But Salatin’s hatred of American bigness–big economies, big cities–is of a piece. He’s turned his back on our whole hyper-Hamiltonian economy. Pollan limits his lament to the nationalized food system, which opens the door to some contradictions. How consistent is it for those of us immersed in the national and transnational economy to decree, after finishing The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that our food, and our food alone, must originate within 150 miles from where we’re sitting?

Bill mckibben’s attempt to eat during seven months only food grown in the valley around Lake Champlain–he lives in Vermont and teaches at Middlebury–forms the centerpiece of Deep Economy. Because of the New England climate, that meant lots of vegetables he’d frozen himself and lots of root vegetables: “By February, our eleven-year-old daughter was using the words ‘icky’ and ‘disgusting’ fairly regularly.” Today he’s back to eating Alaskan salmon and Florida oranges, but in general, he writes, when it comes to shipping food across the country, “if we took global warming seriously, we’d stop doing it right now.”

And no, McKibben says, in a move that will alienate him from some of Pollan’s fans, you can’t win by going local only with your food. He attacks not just industrial agriculture but industrialism, period–at least, most economic growth since 1950. Citing studies that find no correlation between happiness and gdp per person above a certain level (which the United States has long since surpassed), he writes that if happiness were the goal, all our economic activity for the last half-century “has been largely a waste.” Long working hours drive us crazy, McMansions block our views, and we see our friends and neighbors less than our parents or grandparents did.

A reversion to local food networks would save oil and revitalize our social networks–“consumers have ten times as many conversations at farmers’ markets as they do at supermarkets,” McKibben writes. But he also urges us to forswear materialism, install solar panels on our houses, embrace ” local dollars“redeemable only in our hometowns, and rewrite telecommunication laws to give local radio stations a hand. The sweep of these proposals offers a rebuke to some of the press coverage that treats the local- food movement as a trend that can just be tacked on to the American way of life, like Kobe beef or a low-carb diet or, for that matter, food grown without pesticide. In fact, it’s a radical reimagining of that way of life.

Paul Molyneaux, who in Swimming in Circles takes us on a tour of the world of aquaculture–one much more unfamiliar than traditional farms–basically agrees with McKibben that our current food-supply practices are unsustainable. His book, which is at times disjointed and repetitive but at its best is eloquent, even lyrical, also does exactly what Pollan says needs to be done: it opens your eyes to the shrimp and salmon farms that supply more and more of our seafood.

Molyneaux was on the scene in 1987, when, he says, the first salmon pens were installed in Cobscook Bay, in Maine. When he could no longer find work as a fisherman, he applied for work at the company that ran one of the fish farms. Expecting a managerial job, he was offered one shoveling food into the pens for $7 an hour. That’s the story of aquaculture everywhere, he argues: billed as a way to keep an “ active waterfront” in areas where fishing has petered out (often because of overfishing), it ends up enriching owners of fish-farming companies but doing little for the erstwhile fishing communities. And he’s pretty certain it’s not good for the oceans, or the fish. Farmed fish are prone to infection. In 2001, a virus infected some of the pens in Cobscook Bay, killing 2.6 million salmon. Pesticides used against the sea lice that plague farmed fish have turned up in the flesh of wild fish, and when farmed salmon escape, they can infect wild salmon, which have no defenses against the farm-bred diseases.

Molyneaux rebels against the idea that fish farming is a solution to the overfishing of open-sea grounds, as some experts tell him, and balks at the idea that it’s an economic engine. But his book also has a refreshing note, one absent from Pollan’s and McKibben’s: the admission of doubt about his own arguments and beliefs. “For a professional journalist in a world of cloudy and subjective perceptions,” he writes at one point, “finding truth has become almost impossible.”

I can feel his pain. weighing competing claims by the new food writers and their polemical opponents can be just as mind-boggling as reading the science pages to get a handle on basic nutritional information. McKibben embraces local food to save the environment; The Economist claims that more energy might be burned if we all started driving to small farms; Lee Silver, a Princeton biologist and public-policy professor, in a letter in The Wall Street Journal, says that there is no evidence whatsoever that consuming conventional vegetables causes any harm. What are consumers newly awakened to these issues to do? And how can journalists help them sort through the issues?

With apologies to Silver, Americans are never going to subcontract decisions about what to put in their bodies, or their kids’ bodies, to experts in white coats. To think otherwise underestimates the cultural power of food. Still, what goes for religion goes for organic: if its view of the world is accurate, it should have nothing to fear from science–which is why it’s troubling that Pollan uses scientific evidence in a notably inconsistent way. In his most recent Times Magazine essay, “Unhappy Meals,” he scoffs at the scientific effort to break foods down into their constituent parts to determine which elements are healthy (beta-carotene?) and which aren’t (saturated fat?). Just eat “real food” from any “traditional food culture” and you’ll be okay, he argues. But in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, when he wants to nail down the superiority of grass-fed beef, he consults the proceedings of the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids, citing arcane articles on the contrasting effects of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. If his claims about grass-fed beef are true, it’s evidence–as if any were needed–that science isn’t the enemy of ethical eating, making his recent flirtation with anti-science attitudes all the more puzzling.

Just keeping the vocabulary of the new food debate straight for readers would be a service. To the uninitiated, terms like “organic,” “local,” and “sustainable” all start to coalesce into a fuzzy green ball after a while. Pollan has helpfully shown that “organic” does not, as many people assume, refer to “food grown lovingly on small farms, without chemicals.” Now activist groups, and newspapers, too, are playing roles in clarifying what lies behind those lovely food-package illustrations.

One notion dear to foodies–“food miles”– still leaves me scratching my head. Craving some clarification I called Jagdish Bhagwati, a Columbia University economist who studies trade, and whom I knew to have a nondogmatic view of globalization issues. So which is more energy-efficient, I asked, a few large farms supplying a network of well-positioned supermarkets, or a new localized network of small farms? “It depends which small farms and which large farms,” he said, bemused. The problem is unsolvable. It would take “skillions” of calculations by consumers to tabulate the amount of petroleum consumed at each meal. To defray those costs, without toting a computer and a global map into the supermarket, we could impose a gas or carbon tax that would raise gas prices to a level that factored in the damage to the environment caused by combustion engines. Such a tax might indirectly help small farmers, but what it would really do is discourage wasteful travel throughout the economy (including by food journalists on book tours). If it didn’t do enough to help small farms, Bhagwati added, and you wanted to preserve them because they are beautiful, or their food tastes good, he recommended a direct subsidy to their owners. Although he’s a rigorous economist, he’s not unsympathetic to the European slogan, “Eat your view,” which stresses the beauty of rural landscapes.

Activist food writers often imply that there is no middle ground between an embrace of industrial agriculture and all its depredations, and the organic way. But there is an underexplored center. Consider the views of C. Ford Runge, a professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, who pointed out to me that fewer than 500,000 farmers supply at least 80 percent of the food in the United States, and that giant combines in Florida and California provide the bulk of our fruits and vegetables. “To imagine that that could be replaced by a fully local system of agriculture strikes me as naïve,” he says.

So is Runge unsympathetic to Pollan’s position? Not necessarily. He shares the view, made at length in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that subsidies for commodity crops like soybeans and corn encourage overproduction and excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers. Without those subsidies, he explains, prices for food produced by the biggest farms would rise a bit, making food from small farms more competitive. There’d also be less soil damage, and the runoff into rivers and streams would be cleaner. Pushing for elimination of farm subsidies, in other words, is less sexy than driving to a rural farm–or reading a brilliantly lyric writer–but it might provide more bang for the environmental buck.

Organic food presently accounts for only 2.5 percent of all food sold in the United States–and that counts all the “industrial organic” food Pollan scorns. Are, then, these debates about the ethics and politics of food largely a pastime of a tiny elite–grist for editors’ dinner parties but of tiny relevance to most consumers, who rush to the nearest market and grab what they need? A review of Pollan’s book in Reason thought so: “What Pollan fails to explicitly acknowledge …is that his brand of boutique eating is a luxury good.” But what’s more elitist–Pollan’s disdain for McDonald’s and Whole Foods, or The Economist’s argument that if organic shoppers had studied economics they’d realize how stupid their views are? I call it a draw. In the end, the elitism argument will be answered by citizens who are already changing their habits.

Jill Wendholt Silva, the food editor of The Kansas City Star and president of the Association of Food Journalists, takes charges of elitism seriously. But she says Missourians’ interest in organic and local foods continually surprises her. When she first wrote about Community Supported Agriculture cooperatives a decade ago, “people told me, ‘That will never work,’ ” she says. “But they’ve grown slowly and now people want us to report on the local csas, and how to join them.” During her fourteen-year tenure as editor, she’s watched foods from respected local farms enter a few elite restaurants. Now they’re catching on in supermarkets. And this year, for the first time, she’s been buttonholed at her son’s and daughter’s soccer games to talk about community agriculture. “When it’s in the supermarkets,” Silva says, “and the soccer moms are talking about it, you know it’s the start of something big.”

Christopher Shea is a columnist for the Ideas section of The Boston Globe.