Blink. Could It Be We Might Have Dialogue, not Standoff, About Food Politics?

Do I detect a fresh breeze, a change in the air, an ebbing of the tide, well, enough of environmental metaphors, in the standoff between the food movement and US farmers and food processors?  Although many involved in this debate are unknown outside the US, although household names here, I’ll try to introduce them. Consider the following.

Not all Industrial Food is Evil” says Mark Bittman.  He’s written cookery columns in the New York Times for years, is the author of a slew of well-regarded cookbooks, and in the past year or so has morphed into an opinion-writer on food. It would not be an exaggeration to say that his aim has been to expose what he believes to be the failings in the modern American food system.

Yet on this occasion, after a visit to the Rominger tomato farm in California, he concludes:

It’s far from paradise, but it isn’t hell either. The basic question is this: Are the processes and products healthy, fair, green and affordable?

The canner P.C.P. is running what appear to be safe and clean production lines while producing close-to-“natural” tomato products that nearly anyone can afford.

And then over at Grist, a site that describes itself as “dishing out environmental news and commentary with a wry twist since 1999″ their new food writer, Nathanael Johnson is managing to get people talking about golden rice and whether the kerfuffle raised by Michael Pollan’s off-the-cuff twitter comment that Amy Harmon’s piece for the New York Times had “2 many industry talking points.”

Better yet, Johnson’s suggesting thinking about food debates by using arguments to explain the science and to enhance understanding:

At times I feel as if I’m standing between two giant argument machines: Each takes in every argument, runs it through an algorithm, and spits out the pre-formulated retort. One talking point reflexively provokes another, which then triggers a third. It’s like two computers engaged in an endless series of tic-tac-toe games — and it makes for a sterile, airless debate.

But there’s also a third, truly useful way of thinking about argument: Argument as collaboration, where two parties, by challenging each other, build to a stronger conclusion than they could have ever reached alone. That’s such an underused way of thinking about argument that it doesn’t even fit comfortably within our definition of the word. But that’s the kind of argument I’m trying to conduct here to figure out where I stand on GM food.

Hey Farmers [Meaning Those Who Sell at Farmers’ Markets] Be Honest with Your Customers is the title of a Soapbox at the lovely site I once wrote for, Zester Daily.  The author, Sara Franklin, a dynamo who manages to combine cooking, writing, and being a graduate student in food studies at New York University, comments on the less than stellar produce sometimes sold at Farmers’ Markets.

The whole thing — this scheme of local food, farmers markets, community-supported agriculture groups and the like — hinges on trust. We bemoan a “lack of trust” in Big Food, decrying E. coli outbreaks and mislabeling of “natural” foods. Big, we reason, can’t be trusted. All it wants is to make a buck. But what happens if even the local farmers — who, by definition, are intertwined (and benefiting, for that matter) in this whole local food movement — aren’t keeping us in the loop?

Sara is a fierce advocate of farmers’ markets.  But her remarks open the way to realizing that we are all human, small and big farmers included, and that sellers at farmers’ markets are human like the rest of us, not guaranteed carriers of food morality.

“Does Big Farming Mean Bad Farming?” asks Jane Black, a food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues, particularly for the Washington Post.

She visited a farm that might once have been taken as the very epitome of bad, 3000 acres of GM corn and soy farmed by Tony Thompson in Minnesota, and concluded:

As shorthand, the big-equals-bad equation is convenient. But it obscures an inconvenient truth: Plenty of small farmers do not embrace sustainable practices — the Amish farmers I know, for example, love their pesticides — and some big farmers are creative, responsible stewards of the land.

 

Farming and food processing are major parts of the economy, crucial to the health of the population, and with an impact far beyond American shores.  One of my bitches for years has been that the press has not done a good job in covering them.  What could have been a productive dialogue has too often been a stalemate. I cannot tell you how glad I am to read these columns.

 

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