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More on Food and Industrialization

March 11, 2010

I found this interesting Freakonomics blog entry by James McWilliams, which speaks directly to some of the comments I made regarding the industrialization of food and the movie “Food Inc” in my last post.  It was especially interesting that just an hour before I was in a conversation with my room mate about various sub-cultures in our society that shun most things contemporary in favor of embracing some imagined lifestyle from the past.  Their engineered lives are created from old material culture and a limited reading of history.  You may see them wearing their Navy styled  coats, favoring rye cocktails and waxing about an author they admire from pre-1950s.  In these circles the past is good but the modern is approached with wariness.  I admitted to my room mate that even though I hold some admiration for those with these romantic idealized lifestyles, I believe they are living in a past that never was.  If given the choice between being born into a time and social class to which they pay homage and being born in their cosmically ordained time and place, while having a true understanding of each reality, the majority all choose to stay where they are. 

At first when I read “The Persistence of the Primitive” I realized when it comes to food I am one of those people.  In my last blog I was lamenting the trends of the food industry in the last over the last 60 years.  I want ingredients lists on packaged foods short with substances I recognize, produce from local farms when possible, and animals treated ethically; like they used to be, right?  I identified with McWilliams’ narrative of a time and place where food was simpler and healthier in the U.S., but then became industrialized and unhealthy.  McWilliams is correct to point out the errors myself and others make when looking at the past for answers to today’s problems.  Our vision can get a little rosy.

Still, models for change may often be based imprudently on the past, but contemporary criticisms of our food industry are substantive and not just wistful longings for “simpler times”.  Even though McWilliams states that back in the 1860s food may have been adulterated with “sawdust, engine grease, plaster of Paris, pipe clay and God knows what else”, to imply we are better off, he is missing the point: our food is unhealthy.  If production and processing methods were suspect in the past then the problems are what is persistent.  Also, if looking back for answers has not made the desired changes, it does not necessarily mean these flawed solutions have no merit.  I don’t think small organic farms are a panacea, but they are an alternative that is currently economically viable and socially supported. 

In his defense, I don’t think McWilliams is trying to necessarily paint all those with a desire to change the food industry with the same brush.  He even alludes to the complexity of the issue.  The issues as well as the people involved are complicated and varied.  At the extremes I am sure there are luddites who would like to see an exodus back to the land as well as those who would like to just take a pill for nourishment.  I enjoy going to upstate NY and picking strawberries as well as daydreaming about vertical farms in a Manhattan that could produce its own food without pesticides and chemical fertilizers.  I envision a future where both of those things exist but the current harmful industrial farming practices are extinct.  A best of both worlds in a future the romantics will have helped to create with imagined ideals that are worth our aspirations.

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