The Columbia Journalism Review takes stock of the state of food journalism in a long essay by Christopher Shea. He’s not talking about recipes and restaurants, but the examination of the economics and science of food production, in which ever-more people seem to be taking an interest.
Shea’s piece centres on the recent work of Michael Pollan, whose The Omnivore’s Dilemma I mention frequently. Shea takes him down a few pegs, suggesting that underlying Pollan’s work is a certain dreaminess about an impossible world without cities or large-scale food production.
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.”
Other points of the Shea piece:
- The merging of agriculture reporting with food reporting is basically a good thing;
- Done properly, it informs us about elements in food production that will make us change our consumer habits, enhancing our rational choices;
- We’re stuck with industrial-scale food production if everyone’s going to eat, although we could probably do some things better;
- Nobody really knows for sure whether a bunch of small farms or a small number of ginormous ones is a more planet-friendly way of feeding the population we’ve got;
- A carbon tax would help sort things out;
- So would an end to farm subsidies.