Perhaps the most subtle and complex challenge the good-food revolutionaries face is persuading people to change their behavior--on a mass scale and in enduring ways--about something so intimate and fundamental as food. In May I attended a screening of a new documentary called Fresh. Unlike the star-studded Food, Inc.--which features Michael Pollan and Gary Hirshberg, the founder of Stonyfield Farm (and is unrelated to Pringle's book)--Fresh didn't get much hype, but it delivers essentially the same message: our food industry is in need of radical change. The screening was followed by a panel discussion featuring some of the usual suspects, including Joel Salatin, the voluble Virginia farmer immortalized by Pollan in The Omnivore's Dilemma.
Salatin runs Polyface Farms, where the grass growing in his pastures is the basis of a sun-based, symbiotic and self-contained food chain in which all the animals he raises for food--cows, chickens, turkeys, pigs and rabbits--work in harmony to sustain the entire operation. In The Omnivore's Dilemma Salatin comes across as a thoroughgoing outsider, someone disgruntled with the modern world and unsparing in his critique of our food-production and consumption habits:
Me and the folks who buy my food are like the Indians--we just want to opt out. That's all the Indians ever wanted--to keep their tepees, to give their kids herbs instead of patent medicines and leeches.... But the Western mind can't bear an opt-out option. We're going to have to refight the Battle of the Little Big Horn to preserve the right to opt out, or your grandchildren and mine will have no choice but to eat amalgamated, irradiated, genetically prostituted, barcoded, adulterated fecal spam from the centralized processing conglomerate.
Salatin is a great character, a pastoral curmudgeon, and from a purely logical and moral standpoint, his approach to farming and sustainable food may be unassailable. But it's difficult to see him as the future of sustainable farming in America, where less than 2 percent of the population is engaged in farming, down from 50 percent in 1885. Someone in the audience asked Salatin how we will get the "thousands" of farmers "like you" that we will need to see this revolution through. Salatin's answer? "One person at a time."
Granted, Salatin was speaking extemporaneously, but one person at a time is not a realistic strategy for success whether the goal is to develop new farmers or to persuade people to steer clear of McDonald's, no matter how many "healthy choices" are added to its menu--not when your opponents are as mighty as Big Agriculture, as vast as globalization, as ingrained as America's love of convenience and as mysterious as human behavior. Reading and listening to the good-food manifestoes, I get the sense that many of their authors consider the superior logic and morality of their case to be so self-evident that once everyone tastes a grass-fed steak or a free-range egg, the battle will be won. But a strategy that relies primarily on the morality of personal choice and grassroots conversion--crucial components of any solution, to be sure--will never be enough to fix what ails our food system. For evidence of just how quickly consumers can abandon the cause of sustainable agriculture, one need look no further than the hardships experienced by organic dairy farmers during the recession. After several years of double-digit growth, dairy farmers nationwide--many of whom took on significant debt to convert to organic--are being told by distributors to cut production by 20 percent this year to accommodate a deep drop in demand. Seven dollars has become too steep a price for a gallon of organic milk. "I probably wouldn't have gone organic if I knew it would end this way," one Vermont farmer told the New York Times earlier this year.