Taking Food Seriously

Whenever I’m in the company of other journalists and the conversation turns to our respective beats, mine — food — usually draws a silent snicker. It’s deemed a less-than-serious subject, and I suppose compared to covering war or national security, it can be viewed that way. Even when someone is ostensibly complimenting a food story, as a colleague of mine recently did, it comes out backhanded, like so: “You wouldn’t think a piece about food could be so … interesting.”

No? Excuse me, but are you not dependent on the stuff?

This disdain for food journalism has several springs. One of them surely is sexism: at least in some quarters, food is traditionally women’s work; therefore journalism about it is, too. In general, journalism that deals with everyday life close to home will never enjoy the prestige of the exotic dateline. Another source of this low esteem is the venue in which much food journalism is found: the Wednesday food supplements of daily newspapers, the historical purpose of which has been to keep full-page supermarket advertisements from bumping into one another. Tremendous quantities of fluff journalism have been committed in the name of covering food.

But this is changing: look again at your paper’s Wednesday food section, and you’ll find it brimming with issues of politics, economics and health, not to mention agriculture and cultural politics. Today, instead of “Great Dishes for Which We Have Campbell’s Soup to Thank,” you’re much more likely to find tough pieces on school board battles to drive fast food from the cafeteria, the links between E.P.A. air pollution rules and methyl mercury levels in tuna, backdoor efforts to weaken federal standards for organic agriculture—or as in today’s Times, profiles of muckraking journalists like Eric Schlosser. If you’re interested in reading sharp coverage of political economy, Wednesday newspapers have become one of the best places to find it.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself,” John Muir once wrote, “we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Some of these things are better hitched than others, and food is surely one of them. We don’t ordinarily think about it this way, but eating represents our most powerful engagement with the natural world — it transforms the world by remaking the landscape more than any other human activity, and it transforms, and defines, us. Whenever a biologist wants to understand the role of a creature in the ecosystem, the first question he or she asks is, What does that creature eat, and what eats it? What, in other words, is its place in the food chain? Well, Homo sapiens is no exception. As William Ralph Inge, the English essayist, wrote early in the last century, “all of nature is a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and passive.” Even the eating of a Twinkie represents transactions between species, though in the case of the Twinkie I’d be hard pressed to name all the species involved. (Have you read a Twinkie ingredient list lately? It’s long and full of surprises, one of which is beef.)

I teach a course at Berkeley’s graduate journalism school called “Following the Food Chain,” and what my students quickly discover as they go down that trail is that it takes them to a great many unexpected places. Food connects us to nature, first and foremost, but it also attaches us to all the other large systems that organize our lives — from energy and economics to politics, public health and cultural identity.

In recent years we’ve all come to appreciate the critical links between oil and things like the health of our economy and the conduct of our foreign policy. Crises have a way of laying bare such connections. I’ll wager that food will soon take its place alongside energy as an issue of national security. This would be nothing new. Often in the past, when food has been in short supply or the desire for certain kinds of it (like spices) has been sufficiently powerful, food has shaped the destiny of nations. The fact that we don’t think about food in these terms today is probably a testament to what a good job the food industry has done keeping us well (or at least abundantly) fed, our supermarkets fabulously stocked and our attention fixed on the glossy new products and “value meals,” rather than on the way the food is produced or what it does to us when we eat it. During the last 50 years we’ve been living in a kind of fool’s food paradise, marked by astounding bounty and apparent choice.

Immediately after 9/11, we had a brief taste of the national security implications of the way we feed ourselves. There was much anxious talk about the terrorist threat to our “food security,” a term unfamiliar to most Americans. People in Congress and the Food and Drug Administration worried publicly about the high degree of centralization in the industrial food supply. In a situation where a single meat-processing plant is supplying hamburger – typically ground together from hundreds of cows from many countries on multiple continents — to hundreds of thousands of Americans at a time, a single act or accident of contamination could sicken or kill vast numbers of people. (Only four corporations process 80 percent of the beef consumed in America today.)

There was talk in Congress of reorganizing our food safety system, now Balkanized among several far-flung federal bureaucracies. But that moment passed; the industry wanted to keep things as they are. And although security has since been tightened at many big food plants (incidentally, making it more difficult for journalists to gain access), no one had the stomach to confront the larger problem: that in an era of terrorism threats (and widespread concern about food-borne illness), a highly centralized food supply system is precisely what you don’t want. No, what you want is a food system that is redundant and highly decentralized, so that a crisis in one region doesn’t become a national crisis. In his farewell press conference as outgoing Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson broke the silence on this threat once again: “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do.”

Sooner or later, the inexorable trend toward free world trade also will force the food security issue to the forefront of our attention. Economists will tell you that when we stop subsidizing American farmers (and the pressure to do so is mounting, from an unlikely alliance of the World Trade Organization, developing world countries and U.S. agribusiness companies) and protecting their market with tariffs, our food will come from wherever in the world it can be produced most cheaply. That means it will come from countries where land is cheapest and environmental laws most lax. This is precisely where the logic of free trade is taking us: the iron law of competitive advantage dictates that we should put our land to “higher uses” — like houses — rather than doing something as old-fashioned with it as growing food. And indeed I’ve heard projections from people working for the governor of California suggesting that by the end of this century, the Central Valley – where most of America’s fresh produce is grown — will be wall-to-wall houses and highways: no more farming.

Where will our food come from then? From Mexico, South America and, increasingly, China. And how do you feel about that? I find that, whatever people may think about free trade in sneakers and electronics, they are distinctly uncomfortable about giving up our ability to feed ourselves. Food feels different from other commodities, which may explain why, worldwide, many of the most powerful protests against globalization have centered around food: the protests against genetically modified crops, the movement to defend local food against the global tide of homogenization. We see every day how our dependence on foreign energy has crippled our foreign policy. Imagine how much more debilitating a dependence on foreign food would be. Make no mistake, how we feed ourselves is about to become a national security issue.