"People should know where their food comes from," an organic farmer from Montana declared at a conference on agriculture and the environment I attended this past weekend, sponsored by the Political Economy Research Center. This notion is increasingly popular among political environmentalists. It is usually a shorthand way to express opposition to genetically enhanced crops and to convey approval for their organic equivalents. From a nutritional and ecological point of view, the idea is bunk.
First, a bit of background. It is not at all surprising that most Americans think that chickens come plastic-wrapped without bones, that milk pours from gallon jugs, or that fresh fruit can be picked year around. After all, less than two percent of the country lives on farms today. But when I was growing up in the 1960s I knew exactly where at least 90 percent of the food I ate came from: my family's crops. Every tomato, bean, squash, cucumber, pea, potato, ear of corn, turnip, mustard green, carrot, and cabbage I ate came from our huge garden. We picked wild blackberries and grew gallons of strawberries. We had cherry, apple, peach, walnut, and European chestnut trees. We canned nearly everything and had a root cellar. Our honey came from more than 20 beehives.
As for meat, we raised and slaughtered all the beef, pork, chicken, goat, lamb, and turkey we ate. Our milk came from our dairy herd, and we spent many hours churning butter. The domesticated meat was occasionally supplemented with squirrel, groundhog, opossum, and mud turtle. Although I didn't much care for them, our fish consisted of crappies and catfish taken from the farm ponds. My father's standing orders for butchering the beef was to make as many steaks as possible and turn everything else into hamburger. The meat was wrapped in waxed butcher paper and stored in giant freezer chests. We had a smokehouse in which we salted our own hams. I even knew the names of the cows and pigs we ate. You can't know much more about where your food comes from than that.
It is precisely this personal food history that makes me cherish modern grocery stores and restaurants. American grocers can choose what they offer their customers from among more than 320,000 different packaged foods. As a kid, it was an enormous treat to go to the local Piggly Wiggly to buy tasty exotic prepackaged items like hot dogs, spaghetti, and Velveeta. (Incidentally, it was Piggly Wiggly that invented the novel concept that customers should be allowed to roam a store's aisles and pick out their own groceries.) And the proliferation of fine restaurants in the last two decades has been amazing.
Which brings me back to the absurd assertion that everybody should know where his or her food comes from. I knew where my food came from because it took my family a huge percentage of our time just to do the mind-numbing and back-breaking labor of raising it. Of course, we sold our surplus cows, milk, and wool for money so that we could buy incidentals like clothing, medicines, books, refrigerators, televisions, tractors, trucks, and cars. And no one hectored us about knowing where those items came from.
One of the great glories of modern life is the enormous elaboration of the division of labor and how the efficiencies gained from that division makes people much wealthier than they could otherwise be. Since we all don't have to stitch our own clothes, bake our own bread, compound our own medicines, or even cook our own meals, we are all much better off. This is why as a society we can afford to have economic niches like pet dentists and manufacturers of elastomolds for pastry chefs who specialize in baking madeleines.
And why should they care? Food today is cheap, nutritious, and safe. The last century has seen a vast improvement in food quality and safety. In millennia past, food and water were the chief sources of many deadly diseases. Consider that as recently as 1933-35, a U.S Public Health Service survey found that 5,458 children between the ages of 1 and 15 died from diarrhea and enteritis, most caused by food-borne pathogens. By contrast, a recent survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that just 29 Americans died of food-borne illnesses between 1993 and 1997. Meanwhile, stomach cancer rates are down by 75 percent since 1950 because old-fashioned food preservation techniques like salting, pickling, and smoking have been replaced by refrigeration.
That doesn't mean people are or should be prevented from learning about where their food comes from, if that's the way they want to spend their time. Among life's greatest pleasures are fine dining and food connoisseurship. The expanding division of labor and our growing technological prowess is nurturing more and more differentiation among foods, permitting the creation and appreciation of thousands of wines, cheeses, chocolates, coffees, teas, and so forth. I might prefer parmigiano-reggiano versus your inexplicable fondness for boursin. Or I might think that Rombauer Napa Valley Zinfandel is nectar and sniff at that swill from Australia that you quaff. Today, you can choose "slow food" (though it has some unsavory ideological baggage) over fast food, or choose both when that suits you.
Nor is there anything wrong with waking up on Saturday mornings to rush out to the local farmers market. I, too, cannot resist organic heirloom tomatoes. I buy organic not because such foods are ecologically or nutritionally superior—they aren't—but simply because the local lady who grows the Brandywines, Mortgage Lifters, and Yellow Pears I crave chooses that method of production. I'm glad she grows them, not least because that means that I don't have to anymore. For those who are deluded enough to think that organic foods are nutritionally superior, the market makes the opportunity to buy them widely available, generally at a 30-percent price premium. (Ideologically motivated organic aficionados should keep in mind that organic production typically yields a third less food than other means. That means that more land is being plowed down, leaving less for forests and other wildlands.)
But there is something wrong with the puritanical notion that it's a sin to live in blithe ignorance of the ultimate sources of your nourishment. Life is too short for most people to learn how to fix their computers and cars, and too short for most to learn about food production. And that's just fine. Eating shouldn't be a moral duty; it should be a pleasure.