Omnivorous Hippies

Last nnight I went, with Dear Wife, to a big-ole “slow food” pot luck dinner at the Ag Hall, which is a big-ole barn out in a field where they have the County Fair every summer and the Christmas pageant every winter.

Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, gave a talk afterwards. Then a string band played.

As Pollan was speaking, I was thinking about how I was off by thirty years.

I grew up on a small farm in New Jersey. We had a cow & 8 sheep & 60 chickens & fruit trees & vegetable garden. (And my father, the farmer’s, day job was in New York City, 25 miles away.)

After college I did agricultural development as a Peace Corps Volunteer in west Africa. And then I did a Master’s Degree in agricultural economics at Purdue University. As a grad student living in Indiana then, having spent three years in rural Senegal, I was looking for something like the slow food movement, but I couldn’t find it. There were bits of the old hippie sensibility to be found here and there, and a bit of the “small is beautiful”, Peace Corps & even Foxfire philosophy about. But there wasn’t a movement, it seems to me, just a few committed souls, and a fair amount of nostalgia.

And anyway, that was a fringe position to have as an agricultural economist at a major land grant university. The entire focus of the place was how to use science and technology to produce more food and make more money, and the only jobs for agricultural economists –besides those overseas in developing countries–were with agribusiness and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Corporate farming was not only the norm, it was an unquestioned good. As was the industrial food industry it supplied.

Pollan started off his talk last night by explaining how countries like the USA that have adopted the “Western diet” (processed foods, lots of meat & dairy, no fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc) are facing a public health castatrophe and financial/health-care crisis that is part and parcel with it.

This was all predicated on what Pollan calls the “ideology of nutritionism.” And he’s right about that. It’s a pervasive ideology, which the slow food movement is only now beginning to chip away at.

Pollan says that there are four tenets of the ideology of nutritionism. Let’s see if I can remember them:

1. food is the sum of the “nutrients” it contains (and nothing else);
2. nutrients are impossible for the lay person to detect (you cannot, yourself, tell how much vitamin b12 or trans fat, etc, is in a food);
3. therefore you need a priesthood of experts to tell you what and how to eat
4. the point of eating is to get healthy

From this (false) ideology, Pollan says, come all manner of woe, including not only epidemics of food-related illnesses, but a variety of social ills that arise in the absence of the communal values reinforced by social production, preparation, and consumption of food.

I think he’s right.

The “western” diet is not only expensive in the deferred costs of ill health (according to Pollan, if current trends continue, 1/3 of persons born in USA this year will develop type II diabetes (This year every case of type II diabetes costs the city of New York $500k. Etc, etc.)), but expensive in the forms of all the taxpayer subsidies that go into producing industrial food, and the massive government bureaucracies that support agribusiness. And that’s not to count the cost in terms of misery, illness and death.

If we want to change this state of affairs, it seems to me, the challenge is to not only change our food purchasing, preparation and consumption habits. As a society we must also change the infrastructure and incentives so that all the externalities of industrial food are internalized in the prices, and that beneficial practices are favored and encouraged (which would lower the out-of-pocket costs to consumers).

The problem is that people tend to think that “industrial food is cheaper”. “Organic, slow food is great”, they will say, “but only rich people can afford it.”

And if you go to the supermarket, or even the farmer’s market, you’ll find that fresh, locally grown and organic foods do cost more than industrially-farmed and prepared foods. But good part of the reason for that is because of policy that makes agribusuiness food (what Pollan calls “food-like substances”) cheaper. Change the policy, and the relative costs will change.

But the “ideology of nutritionalism” makes it hard to even see that this is the case.
There’s a longer exposition of the main ideas in this article he wrote in the New York Times Magazine last year.

Wish I’da thunk of that.

What I’m trying to say is that it would have been nice to see this whole “slow food” thing take off 30 years ago. Then I would have written The Omnivore’s Dilemma and I would have become a famous writer and foodie and neo-hippie. It would have been inevitable. I feel quite certain about that.

Somehow that didn’t happen. It’s not my fault. My timing was off, is all.

So I became a computer geek and never did anything agricultural again, modulo growing a few plants in the back yard.

Some people dismiss “Slow Food” as a trendy fad of the over-educated and well-to-do, but I think they’re wrong. Critics also point out that modern agriculture (“the green revolution”, etc) is feeding millions of people who would otherwise starve or go hungry.

But hey, I know all about yields per hectare and “nutritional content” per unit of weight, etc, etc. Like I said, I used to be a relative expert in that stuff (“he has a master of science. . .in science!). That’s a large part of what agricultural economics is all about. Certainly modern agriculture, to the extent that it helps to feed the starving masses, is a good thing. Nobody is denying that. Or, at least, I’m not.

But it’s hard to make a case that the US/Western way of eating is anything but a public health disaster. Obesity and the diseases that go with it are out of control as are lots of other food-related diseases.

More subjectively, fast-food eating, in-the-car, on-the-go eating represent (I think; your mileage may vary) a net loss of human enjoyment compared to say, a leisurely dinner shared among friends.

At the dinner tonight I saw lots of my island friends, farmers, boatbuilders, musicians, schoolteachers, librarians, jewelers, writers, owners of the Chappaquiddick ferry. Old hippies, many of them. So much food! Just about all of it grown here on the island, 93.44% vegetarian.

24 hours earlier, yesterday evening, I had been in New York City for a ”business dinner” with a CEO of a software company for whom I just co-ghost-wrote a book on software process management. That was a good meal, and it was nice to meet in meat space a guy I had only known through telephone and email, even though I just written a good part of a book in his voice.

Which is only to say, I don’t understand anything at all about what goes on in the world. I am manifestly confused about the meaning of every little thing (as I expressed so poetically and eloquently in Cheap Complex Devices, have you purchased your copy yet?).

But tonight at the ag hall, listening to the music, tummy full but not overfull, watching Dear Wife talking with all her peacenik friends, I felt deeply content.

One Comment

  1. There’s another price that’s being paid, and that the farmers in the Mississippi basin who were recently flooded are beginning to see more clearly. All that land is now toxic, whether it was farmed industrially or organically prior to the flooding. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we saw some new federal laws coming down the pike to immunize Big Agribusiness from lawsuits resulting from this, if the recent FISA passage is any indication of a trend. And that would indeed be a shame. Of course, we also didn’t get the Farm Bill we need this year.

    With food, it’s not just the end result, it’s the way it’s achieved, and how well the land can sustain that result into the future. And right now the answer is– not very well.

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