City of industry

I’ve made no secret of my love of the farmers market and of local food in general. So when I went to see Michael Pollan read on Friday night and he said pretty much the same thing, why did it make me uneasy? It’s probably because of the chocolate factory.

Pollan is the author of The Botany of Desire and the new book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The Botany of Desire is a great book about how plants have used humans–not consciously, of course–to propagate the plant genes by stumbling upon features that humans find highly desirable. (One of the plants Pollan explores is Cannabis sativa, and he does hands-on research in Amsterdam.)

His new book, which I haven’t read yet, explores three aspects of the food chain: the industrial, organic, and hunter-gatherer. An excerpt, about Pollan going boar hunting, appeared recently in the New York Times Magazine (it’s now in the TimesSelect ghetto).

As I understood Pollan’s gist, he would have us abandon industrial food production in favor of small organic farms and cooking with whole foods. I’m sure that’s an oversimplification, but that’s how it sounded.

The problems with industrial food have been so often recounted that there’s no need for me to repeat them here, but just to take a stab at it: soil erosion, eutrophication of water, factory farm animals living in misery and squalor, dangerous reliance on monocultures, antibiotic resistance, vegetables devoid of vitamins and minerals, and bland food.

All of these problems are absolutely real. I have a degree in ecology, and I consider myself an environmentalist. Where I part ways with Pollan–well, let’s get back to the chocolate factory.

In the current (May) issue of Seattle Magazine, I have an article about Theo Chocolate, a new chocolate factory in Fremont. A new chocolate factory is not a common thing. There are less than two dozen chocolate factories in the US, and most of them are operated by huge conglomerates like Hershey and Nestle. Theo is aiming to be the greenest chocolate producer around–all of their beans are organic and fair trade. Also, they painted their machinery green. It’s pretty awesome. I got free samples. (Sadly, the article isn’t online, but I’ll put it up as soon as my contract allows.)

If you go to an artisan bakery, you’ll see people forming loaves by hand, maintaining buckets of sourdough starter, and basically doing things exactly how they were done five hundred years ago, but with larger ovens and electric mixers. Chocolate isn’t like that. Making chocolate bars is a truly industrial process. (It’s possible to do it by hand, but it’s absurdly labor-intensive. Scharffen-Berger has a handmade three-ounce bar that sells for $8.) Sure, Theo is my local chocolate factory, so in that sense it’s local food, but the beans come from half a dozen tropical countries around the globe. Even if they were making the chocolate by hand, they’d be relying on the shipping industry.

Likewise, I wish Pollan would stick his neck out and be more prescriptive about how we might realistically address our national eating disorder. We can’t all go off the grid like Salatin, nor can we just wish away 200 years of industrialization. So what to do? Is the ever-growing organic-food industry already on the right path? Or is more radical action needed?

That’s what the New York Times Book Review said, and it’s my critique of Pollan’s talk in a nutshell. On the one hand, you have a Valrhona Le Noir Amer 71% bar. On the other, high-fructose corn syrup. Both are products of the industrial food chain. If I have to give up the Valrhona to get rid of the HFCS, well, forget it.

My hunch is that Pollan’s critique begins with aesthetics. There’s nothing wrong with aesthetics–I believe beautiful and delicious things have value for no other reason than their beautiful deliciousness. But everyone wants to bolster their aesthetic argument with something meatier. A pasture full of contented cows is beautiful. Organic heirloom tomatoes are delicious. A McDonald’s drive-thru is ugly, and supermarket tomatoes are nasty. It’s very easy to jump from there to saying that McDonald’s and supermarket tomatoes are not only unwholesome but (the most damning word of the moment) unsustainable.

Maybe they are. But I don’t think you can win this way. I don’t shop at the farmers market because the farmers are nice. I shop at the farmers market because that’s where the best food is. And I usually stop at the supermarket on the same trip.

That’s the direction I think we’re headed in: not a wholesale abandonment of industrial food, but more and more a mixture of industrial and artisanal, local and global food. I think it’s at least theoretically possible to put those things in healthy balance.

Of course, that could be the Valrhona bar talking.

6 thoughts on “City of industry

  1. stacy

    what worries me is the extent to which that mix remains a luxury. organic and artisanal foods cost more; options like farmer’s markets and co-ops tend to require time. yes, anyone who prioritizes this sort of thing can find the time or the money, but the fact remains that if you’re time-strapped, working a low-wage job, and looking for easy food options and not that picky about them, you’re probably eating a lot of fast food. a happy meal is cheaper than anything else you can get quickly and without preparing. and that’s worrying.

  2. mamster Post author

    Yeah, stacy, I totally agree, and that ties in with something else I was wondering.

    If you talk to organic farmers, they will tell you that organic farming is just as productive as factory farming and sometimes more so (although sometimes they mean on a man-hour basis and sometimes a per-acre basis). If you talk to factory farmers, they will tell you the organic farmers are full of crap.

    If small organic farming were subsidized the way factory farming is, would organic vegetables end up just as cheap as conventional? I tend to doubt it, but I have no data to back this up, nor have I seen any.

    Cooking definitely takes time, but it’s not impossible to produce much better fast food. Why that isn’t happening, I really don’t know. It’s easy to say Americans just have poor taste, but that can’t be the whole story.

  3. stacy

    I would love to see heavy subsidies for sustainable farming and for healthy food retail operations. the gov’t seems to be finally treating obesity as a major health crisis. education is good, but throwing money at the problem of making affordable, healthy options more widely available is even better.

    I wonder how much feeling like you don’t have a choice plays in? David has really woken me up to the HFCS issue. He hates it with a passion, since he grew up with sugar, not corn syrup. and I’ve started paying more attention to stuff with it in, and I agree with him that sugar is way superior, but I don’t exactly thinking lobbying Congress on the subsidies that created the HFCS madness is going to get anywhere. I try to exercise my consumer power and avoid it where possibly, but frequently there aren’t alternatives. so I grumble and put up with it. which may, on a larger scale, partially explain why we just put up with bad fast food.

  4. Neil d

    I’m not sure how to interpret the question “If small organic farming were subsidized the way factory farming is, would organic vegetables end up just as cheap as conventional?” Would it be as cheap to produce identical, blemish-free tomatoes and deliver them to supermarkets from North Dakota to Arizona without pesticides and diesel trucks? Almost certainly not. Would people be able to eat more cheaply if they all grew their own produce in their back yards and made their own compost? Probably, but that would take more than subsidies to accomplish. (Peak oil, just maybe.)

    As for the aesthetic argument, I don’t think there’s any question that food that’s sustainable and/or good for you doesn’t necessarily correlate with tasting better – if Fast Food Nation made anything clear, it’s that fast food is popular because (duh) people like the taste. I’m not going to be the one to argue that whole grains (for example) taste inherently better than refined ones. They’re different aesthetics is all – when I ate nothing but white rice I thought brown rice was gross, and now that I eat only brown I think white is tasteless. That my pancreas has an opinion in the matter only plays into it if I consciously decide to let it.

    All of which is to say: Companies sell bad fast food because it’s cheap and easy to standardize (and can be churned out by untrained, replaceable labor), and consumers eat it because it’s cheap and tastes good and familiar. So while subsidizing organic tofu certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing, I think it’ll take a lot more than that to unravel our current food culture.

  5. mamster Post author

    Mmm…subsidized tofu. Neil, I knew I could draw you back in with a political post.

    I guess I’m conflating the issues of what is tasty and what is good in the spiritual sense (sustainable, friendly to labor, and so on), when maybe there’s less of a relationship between the two than I’d like to believe.

    But c’mon, in the case of a lot of foods–tomatoes and chickens come to mind–there’s a huge and to my mind inherent difference between the factory product and the local small-scale product. It’s really hard to imagine someone tasting a good farmers market tomato next to the kind of tomato they put on a Big Mac and not finding the farmers market tomato superior. (Although now that I write this, I guess I can sort of imagine that, if you’ve grown up believe that tomatoes taste like water.)

    Anyway, I guess my philosophy–and I’ll admit this is just what I want to be true–is that the palate isn’t the perfect guide to what is tasty and good, but it’s a better guide than whatever we’re doing now, which seems to be fast food three meals a day washed down with federal nutrition guidelines that you wouldn’t follow at gunpoint. That asking, “How could this be better?” will often lead you to, y’know, better. Wild salmon is an obvious example. Potatoes, too. But maybe those things only taste better to food nerds with too much money. I hope that’s not true, but I dunno.

    Neil, as usual when talking with you, I’ve totally lost track of what I was trying to say. I’ll have to ask my pancreas.

  6. Neil d

    Let me attempt, then, to steer this back toward the point I was trying to make, at least:

    I agree with you, of course, that farmer’s market tomatoes taste better than supermarket tomatoes. But then, photos of tomatoes taste better than supermarket tomatoes, so that’s not much of a challenge. The bigger question here was whether we can stop people from guzzling McDonald’s french fries on the grounds that they don’t taste as good as, I dunno, fresh ramps. And I hope you’ll admit that there are a lot of obstacles to that, and price is only one of them.

    A related problem is that even aside from taste, we’re discussing three very different concepts here – organic, healthy, and sustainable – that don’t always overlap. It would be easy to concoct a Big Mac and fries from all-organic products and have them be just as unhealthy (and just as tasty, or untasty, depending on your palate) as the traditional versions; wild salmon are excellent for you, but if everyone switched to eating them they’d be extinct in no time. For that matter, there are plenty of organic foods that aren’t all that much healthier for you than the traditional versions – most of the pesticides don’t end up in your veggies, but in the groundwater, so that when you buy organic produce it’s in some ways less beneficial to you than to your Cousin Phil in Iowa.

    Which brings me to what I think was my main point: While selling the “organic local food is yum!” angle has been an undoubted success of the modern foodie movement, ultimately I don’t think it’s any more the solution to problems of the American diet or the American ecosystem than the food pyramid is. I just took a break from writing this comment to eat a breakfast of organic oatmeal (not steel-cut, sorry – maybe once Jordan’s in grade school), not just because we like it – it would have been just as cheap, not to mention as tasty, to have non-organic oatmeal, or challah french toast, or a Boston Creme donut – but because we’re conscious of what it does to our bodies, to the environment, and to the economies of scale that will ultimately help make organic foods more affordable.

    None of which is very sexy, and none of which should stop people from extolling the taste virtues of local foods. But if the only thing that’s going to get people to the farmer’s market (or the organic foods section) is the craving for a better tomato, I suspect we’re all doomed.

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