A Food Elitist Strikes Back


Dan Mitchell over at The Daily Bread blog furiously defends Michael Pollan and other food elitists against my Hit & Run blogpost citing Missouri farmer Blake Hurst's excellent essay "The Omnivore's Delusion: Against the Agri-Intellectuals." First, could we get any more metablogospherish?

Well, anyway, Mitchell writes:

Reason stands as the most rational media outlet of the "right" these days,* but that says lot more about the sorry state of the conservative media than it does about Reason itself. Its rationality is strictly relative, as this "Hit & Run" item illustrates nicely.

Then comes his heartfelt defense of Pollan from my nastiness:

Hurst's essay, according to "Hit & Run" writer Ronald Bailey, provides a "reality check" for people who might have been swayed by books like Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and movies like Food, Inc. That's because it comes from a "real farmer." As opposed, I guess, to the fake farmers that Pollan talks to all the time for his work, or, I guess, the actors playing farmers who were too frightened of retaliation from big food companies to talk to the makers of Food, Inc.

Fake farmers? Nope. But how about farmers carefully selected to make Pollan's armchair predetermined points? 

Mitchell continues:

Like most ideologues, though, Bailey doesn't seem to understand people who don't go full-tilt like he does. Since he doesn't see a reasonable middle ground, he assumes nobody else does, either. So anybody with a different point of view must also be a rabid dogmatist whose ideas should not only be dismissed, but ridiculed.

According to Bailey, Pollan and the rest aren't engaged observers making  good-faith, arduous efforts to understand and explain the impacts of industrial farming, they are "East and Left Coast armchair agriculturalists" who don't know what they're talking about.

Well, that certainly pins my ears back! But notice how people with whom Mitchell agrees are "engaged observers" making "good faith" and even "arduous" efforts "to understand the impacts of industrial farming" while their critics (that would be me and Hurst) are "ideologues" and "rabid dogmatists."

Mitchell (I won't say from his armchair) pretty evidently thinks that the food elitists who are so "arduously understanding" actually know what is and is not "sustainable" when it comes to farming. Mitchell writes:

The idea is to incorporate certain "sustainable" principles into that system  to lessen the very real bad impacts it has on our health and on the environment. For instance, to reduce its use of petroleum and its reliance on the nastiest of pesticides that befoul our waterways.

So what effects does conventional agriculture have on our health? He doesn't say, but perhaps he's pointing to the 5,000 Americans who die of food-borne illnesses each year. That's not great, for sure. But Mitchell overlooks the fact that the situation was a lot worse in the good ole days before "industrial farming." As I have reported earlier:

So how big a problem is foodborne illness? In 2000, researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that "foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year." That sounds pretty bad. But let's give those numbers a bit of context. In 1900, six years before Upton Sinclair wrote his great muckraking book, The Jungle, about the filthy conditions in the meatpacking industry, the death rate from gastritis, duodentitis, enteritis, and colitis was 142.7 people per 100,000. It is likely that most people experienced bouts of intestinal distress several times a year. Today, accepting CDC calculations of 5000 deaths per year implies a hundred-fold reduction, to just 1.4 deaths per 100,000 people. Additional good news is that the incidence of many foodborne illnesses continues to decline according to the CDC's FoodNet surveillance network established in 1996. In its 2005 report, the CDC found that the incidence of O157:H76 infections had fallen by 29 percent from the 1996-98 level.

Efforts to reduce the incidence of foodborne illnesses began almost as soon as Louis Pasteur nailed down the germ theory of disease. Consider that New York City was supplied with milk from 40,000 different dairies at the end of the 19th century and their standards of hygiene were not high. So in 1893 New York City philanthropist Nathan Straus established "milk depots" that offered low-priced pasteurized milk to city residents. Straus' milk depots dramatically reduced the death rates from typhoid and tuberculosis in the city's children. The public health movement took off as well and food safety regulations were widely adopted. Prior to the 20th century, most food was produced on small family farms and sold by individual grocers and butchers in local markets.

Critics decry modern outbreaks of foodborne illness as the alleged consequence of "factory farming." However, the demise of small family farms over the past century has coincided with a substantial reduction in foodborne illnesses. In 1900, 30 million farmers (nearly 42 percent of the country's population) lived on 5.7 million farms. By 2002, only 1.9 million (less than 1 percent of the population) Americans described farming as their primary occupation and they worked on 2.1 million farms, half of which are under 100 acres in size. Also during the 20th century, the rise of national and regional grocery chains and industrial food processors saw dramatic improvements in overall food safety. Such companies had a lot more to lose if urban dwelling consumers believed that the companies were poisoning them. Natural Selection Foods is learning this lesson now. And it must be said that more centralized food production and distribution also enabled more effective regulatory oversight.

And what about the effect of "industrial farming" on the environment? Again as I have reported:

Since 1960 global crop yields have more than doubled, with the benefit that the area of land devoted to producing food has not increased very much. If farmers were still producing food at 1960 levels of productivity, agriculture would have had to expand from 38 percent of the earth's land to 82 percent to feed the world's current population. This enormous increase in yields is the result of applying more artificial fertilizers, breeding higher yielding crops, a wider use of pesticides and herbicides, and expanding irrigation. More recently, advances in modern biotechnology have also contributed to boosting yields. …

Herbicide resistance is also a key technology for expanding soil-saving no-till agriculture which, according to a report in 2003, saved 1 billion tons of topsoil from eroding annually. In addition, no-till farming significantly reduces the run-off of fertilizers into streams and rivers. 

Mitchell's cri de ceour of defensive accusation continues:

Pollan and the rest aren't pretending that this is a zero-sum game—a simple choice between an organic and an industrial system. But Bailey and Hurst sure are.

I don't know about Hurst, but in my column on "Organic Alchemy" to which I provided a link in my blogpost, where I critiqued a 2002 Swiss study that favored organic over conventional farming on "sustainability" grounds, I pointed out:

The Swiss researchers did find some true benefits from organic farming, including greater water retention by the soil and a higher presence of beneficial insects. Unfortunately, they did not test their organic systems against the newest form of conventional agriculture, no-till farming combined with genetically enhanced crops. This uses much less energy and less pesticides than the old-fashioned systems examined by the Swiss scientists.

Since no-till farmers don't plow, their tractors use less fuel. Also, since weed control is achieved using environmentally benign herbicides instead of mechanical removal through plowing, even more fuel is saved. Finally, no-till farmers use less insecticide, since genetically enhanced crops can protect themselves against pests. Against all this, organic farming's 19 percent energy advantage would likely disappear.

No-till farming matches several other advantages of organic agriculture as well. Both methods offer improved soil structure, more water retention, greatly reduced soil erosion, less pesticide and fertilizer runoff, and a higher presence of beneficial insects. Although organic farmers refuse to see it, switching to genetically enhanced crops would go a long way toward accomplishing their avowed goals of restoring their land and helping the natural environment.

More recently, I heartily recommended Tomorrow's Table by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak:

"The farmer and cowman should be friends," the cast of Oklahoma! famously sang. Now the more vicious conflict is between organic and biotech farmers. Tomorrow's Table (Oxford), by Pamela C. Ronald (a crop biotechnologist at the University of California, Davis) and Raoul W. Adamchak (a farmer who runs the university's student organic farm), tries to bring the two sides together.

Adamchak points out the benefits to soil fertility and water retention that organic cultivation brings. Ronald makes a persuasive case for the safety of biotech techniques. No one has ever been harmed by growing or eating genetically engineered crops, she notes. Since the technology is contained in the seed, biotech crops especially benefit resource-poor farmers. By boosting food production, biotech crops use less land.

Part memoir, part almanac, part cookbook, part scientific treatise, the book shows that farming doesn't have to be just organic or biotech; it should be both. 

And what about those pesticides? In my review of food elitist and novelist Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I pointed out:

Reading Kingsolver, one could also conclude that pesticides were created by giant chemical companies whose sole aim was to cause cancer. But even the American Cancer Society agrees that there is "no evidence that residues of pesticides and herbicides at the low doses found in foods increase the risk of cancer." Studies also show that eliminating pesticides could cut corn yields by 30 percent, rice by 57 percent, soybeans by 37 percent, and wheat by 24 percent. Again, that would mean that a lot more of nature would have to be plowed up to maintain the food supply at current levels.

Family farms are not declining because of some conspiracy by industrial ag giants. Actually, what happened is that farmers became so productive that we needed fewer of them. In 1950, 15 percent of Americans lived on farms. Today only 1 percent of us live on farms. The meantime, the output of staples like wheat and corn nearly tripled, while vegetables nearly quadrupled. And the amount of land devoted to crops fell slightly. This dramatically increased agricultural productivity liberated many like me from farm labor so that we could do other work.

I will end with my own heartfelt plea to Mitchell and other food elitists: 

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.