Cornucopia Blues | The Nation


Cornucopia Blues

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Ó Gráda is instructive on the difficulty of changing people's behavior, even when the brutal conditions of their lives dictate it. At one point, he compares the causes of death from famine in sub-Saharan Africa today with those in Ireland in the 1840s and India in the 1890s. "Extreme poverty is responsible for children catching deadly diseases even when their parents are familiar with the modes of transmission, simply because they cannot afford the minimal needs for prevention. Thus, in Thane, near Bombay, a woman who had already lost two children to waterborne illnesses pointed out that 'to boil water consistently would cost the equivalent of US$4.00 in kerosene'--a third of her annual income." The problem in Thane, as in Ireland and Africa, was that "behavioral patterns and consumption were subject to a great deal of inertia. It is not enough for people in some sense to 'know' what causes disease; they have to be persuaded to change their behavior." If such persuasion is difficult to accomplish around life-and-death issues like disease and starvation, imagine what it will take to persuade Americans, who live in a land of convenience and processed plenty, that food is more than just lunch.

About the Author

Brent Cunningham
Brent Cunningham is the managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

I believe that Pollan, the movement's most synthetic thinker and eloquent writer, understands that the hardest part of the revolution is still to come. In an interview last fall with Bill Moyers, he said, "I think we have to figure out different solutions in different places, and it's not all or nothing." And The Omnivore's Dilemma is sprinkled with moments where he touches on the jagged conflicts looming beneath the smooth surface of his narrative. "By definition local is a hard thing to sell in a global marketplace," he writes. "Local food, as opposed to organic, implies a new economy as well as a new agriculture--new social and economic relationships as well as new ecological ones. It's a lot more complicated." He even wonders at one point whether Salatin represents a case of allowing the ideal to become the enemy of the good.

At the same time, Pollan is such a clear and lyrical writer that it is easy to glean from his books the sense that the revolution is well under way, its triumph inevitable. And in fact it is under way, at least among people who have the time and money to participate. This isn't to criticize Pollan but rather to stress that the rank and file of the revolution--at least at this point--is elite, as the revolution's critics charge, and thus susceptible to the easy allure of an inspirational battle cry and generous portions of moral rectitude. They can afford to spend more money on better food, and so the thornier aspects of "What next?" may not necessarily engage them. I know more than a few foodies who have no desire to live like Joel Salatin, but the idea of Salatin's life--and the lives of his happy chickens and pigs--makes them feel part of something virtuous.

Stung by the charges of elitism, some good-food advocates (including Schlosser) have begun to adjust their rhetoric to include issues such as social justice for farmworkers and the importance of extending the benefits of the revolution to those who may not immediately grasp its inherent worthiness. But even so, the solutions too often remain impractical and exclusive. In his most recent book, In Defense of Food, Pollan offers guidelines for what to eat and how--buy a freezer, eat wild foods when you can, get out of the supermarket--that are suited to people with disposable income, not to the single mother who must feed her kids while working two jobs, negotiating the world without a car and dealing with the many other, less obvious burdens of poverty. To her, the Value Meal at the corner McDonald's is practicable; foraging for salad greens is not. For the revolution to succeed, it must find ways to make better "food decisions" practicable for her. Even if she wanted to vote with her fork, she has few realistic options as she waits for the system of agricultural subsidies to be fixed.

Last year, Michael Specter published an article in The New Yorker that examined the concept of the carbon footprint and cast doubt on the "widely held assumption that the ecological impacts of transporting food--particularly on airplanes over great distances--are far more significant than if that food were grown locally." Because so many variables contribute to a product's carbon footprint--including water use, cultivation and harvesting methods and the type of fuel used to manufacture the packaging--it is impossible to reduce the politics of food to a simplistic equation of local always being better than global. Given the complexity of the equation, Specter asks, "How do we alter human behavior significantly enough to limit global warming? Personal choices, no matter how virtuous, cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money."

The same is true of reforming our food system: securing money for lobbying efforts and passing the necessary laws will require getting our hands dirty in something other than organic topsoil. It will require playing the game of power politics, which means identifying specific, manageable goals, being willing to compromise and accepting the prospect of incremental change. It will mean, also, keeping foremost in mind the fact that what we do in America can have life-and-death consequences for people around the world for whom the notion of voting with their forks is a meaningless abstraction.

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