Voting With Your Fork

To someone who’s spent the last few years thinking about the American food chain, a visit to Manhattan’s Union Square in the spring of 2006 feels a little like a visit to Paris in the spring of 1968 must have felt, or perhaps closer to the mark, Peoples Park in Berkeley in the summer of 1969. Not that I was in either of those places at the appointed historical hour, or that the stakes are quite as high. (Isn’t hyperbole an earmark of Internet literary style? O.K. then.) But today in these few square blocks of lower Manhattan, change is in the air, and the future — at least the future of food — is up for grabs.

When Whole Foods planted its flag on 14th Street last year, setting up shop an heirloom tomato’s throw from one of the nation’s liveliest farmer’s markets, two crucial visions of an alternative American food chain — what I call, somewhat oxymoronically, Industrial Organic and Local — faced off. And then this spring Trader Joe’s opened in Union Square, further complicating the picture (for both the farmer’s market and Whole Foods) with its discount take on both organic and artisanal food.

The shopping choices laid out so succinctly for New Yorkers in Union Square today neatly encapsulate the kinds of question we will all be grappling with over the next few years as we navigate an increasingly complex, politicized and ethically challenging food landscape. The organic strawberry or the conventional? The grass-fed or the organic beef? And, if the grass-fed, the Whole Foods steak from New Zealand or the Hudson Valley steak across the street? The organic tomato or the New Jersey beefsteak? The omega-3 fortified eggs or the cage-free eggs? (That last phrase is one of my favorite snatches of recent supermarket prose: I mean, does an egg really care whether it’s caged or not?) The ultra-pasteurized milk or the raw? The farmed fish or the wild? In January, the jet-setting winter asparagus from Argentina or the rutabaga from Upstate? And how do you cook a rutabaga, anyway?

I’ve been doing a lot of food reporting over the past couple years and have discovered there are no simple, one-size-fits-all answers to these questions (several of which I hope to take up in future columns). But it seems to me the crucial thing is that such questions about how we should eat, and how what we eat affects both our health and the health of the world, confront us today in a way they never before have. My explorations of the American food chain — or now, food chains — have convinced me that these questions (except perhaps the one about rutabaga) are actually political questions, and much depends on how we choose to answer them. The market for alternative foods of all kinds — organic, local, pasture-based, humanely raised — represents the stirrings of a movement, or rather a novel hybrid: a market-as-movement. Over the next month I plan to use this column as a place to conduct a conversation with readers (or “r-eaters,” as someone at a lecture proposed the other night) about the politics of food.

Union Square, which 75 years ago served as the red-hot center of the labor movement, is now, at least symbolically, ground zero of the food movement. And while much separates the various choices and philosophies on offer here, it’s important to recognize what unifies the Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and the farmer’s market, and what has brought so many of us 21st century food foragers to Union Square and all places like it: the gathering sense that there is something very wrong with our conventional food system — what I call the industrial food chain, by which I mean typical supermarket and fast food.

It has become a commonplace to say that the industrial food system is not “sustainable” — indeed, even Monsanto now acknowledges that American agriculture is not sustainable. (Which is why it supposedly needs the company’s genetically modified organisms in place of pesticides.) But it’s worth taking a moment to think through exactly what it means to say that a system is unsustainable, lest the word lose its force. What it means, very simply, is that a practice or activity cannot go on as it has much longer — that, because of various internal contradictions, it will sooner or later break down.

This is the the case with our industrial food chain: evidence of failure is all around us. While it is true that this system produces vast quantities of cheap food (indeed, the vastness and cheapness is part of the problem), it is not doing what any nation’s food system foremost needs to do: that is, maintain its population in good health. Historians of the future will marvel at the existence of a civilization whose population was at once so well-fed and so unhealthy. This is unprecedented. For most of history, the “food problem” has been a problem of quantity. Our shocking rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, foodborne illness and nutrient deficiency suggest that quantity is not the problem — or the solution.

To say a system is unsustainable also means it cannot endure indefinitely for the simple reason that it is using up the very resources it depends on: it is eating its seed corn. Certainly this is the case in industrial agriculture, which is literally consuming the soil and the genetic diversity on which it depends: there’s half as much topsoil in Iowa today as there was a century ago, and our single-minded focus on a tiny number of crops (and within those crops a tiny number of varieties) is driving untold numbers of plant and animal varieties to extinction. These are genes whose disappearance we will rue when our monocultures fail, as all monocultures sooner or later do.

“Unsustainable” also means a system can’t go on indefinitely paying the costs of doing business as it has been doing. In the case of the industrial food chain, that includes the cost to the treasury ($88 billion in agricultural subsidies over the last five years); to the environment (water and air pollution, especially from our factory animal farms); and to the public health. Cheap food, it turns out, is unbelievably expensive. Many of the costs of cheap food are invisible to us, but they will soon force themselves onto our attention. Take energy, for example. The industrial food system is at bottom a system founded on cheap fossil fuel, which we depend on to grow the crops (the fertilizers and pesticides are made from petroleum), process the food, and then ship it hither and yon. Fully a fifth of the fossil fuel we consume in America goes to feeding ourselves, more than we devote to personal transportation. (Unfortunately the industrial organic food chain guzzles nearly as much fossil fuel as the nonorganic.) If the era of cheap energy is really drawing to a close, as it appears, so will the era of cheap industrial food.

The last sense in which the industrial food chain is unsustainable is that it depends on our ignorance of how it works for its continued survival. Indeed, our ignorance of its methods is as important to its workings as cheap energy. If I’ve learned anything over the past several years, as I’ve followed the industrial food chain from the supermarkets and fast food outlets back through the meatpacking plants and C.A.F.O.’s (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) and food science laboratories and farm fields, it is that the more you know about this food, the less appetizing it becomes to eat. If people could peer over the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture they would surely change the way they eat.

Increasing numbers of Americans aren’t waiting: they’re changing now. This desire for something better — something safer, something more sustainable, something more humane and something tastier — is what’s bringing people to the Whole Foods and the farmer’s market, as well as to C.S.A.’s (community-supported agriculture programs, about which more in a subsequent post) and directly to farmers over the Internet. Taken together the fastest growing segment of the American food system are these alternatives to it. Change is indeed in the air.

And this change is not limited to the marketplace. A vibrant grass-roots movement to change food (and beverages) in the schools is rapidly spreading across the country — witness last week’s tactical retreat of the soda makers from school cafeterias. A debate is just getting underway about food policy at the federal level, as Congress starts work on the next farm bill; it will have to decide whether the government should continue to subsidize high-fructose corn syrup at a time when we have an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes. Animal rights groups are forcing the fast food industry to change the miserable condition in which billions of food animals now live.

I write from the road, where I’m on tour promoting my book, and I’m hearing a lot of anxiety around the subject food but also a lot of hope. Indeed, of all the issues before us today, the food issue is one of the most hopeful. As the tableaux in Union Square demonstrates, we have choices. We no longer have to take the food on offer, which makes this issue unique.

A couple of weeks ago we all paid our taxes. Whenever I write that check, I can’t help but think of the various uses to which that money is put. Whatever your politics, there are activities your tax money supports that I’m sure you find troublesome, if not deplorable. But you can’t do anything about those activities — you can’t withdraw your support — unless you’re prepared to go the jail. Food is different. You can simply stop participating in a system that abuses animals or poisons the water or squanders jet fuel flying asparagus around the world. You can vote with your fork, in other words, and you can do it three times a day.

So this column will take the form of a discussion about how to cast those sorts of votes. I take seriously this idea of conversation. I’ve found that publishing a book in the Internet era (my last one came out in 2001, before the word blog had even been coined) is a completely new and bracing experience, far more reciprocal than writing has ever been. I get e-mail from people reporting they’re on page six and have a question they’d like answered before they go on. (This seems a bit much…) When I go on the radio and say something dubious or sloppy, inevitably someone will straighten me out within the hour. Daily, readers and listeners force me to rethink my positions or consider questions I’d never known to ask. Make no mistake: not all of these questions are so provocative. The other day a reader emailed to ask, “So what do you think about dried fruit?”

I take all these questions (well, almost all of them) as a sign of a healthy ferment rising around the politics of food, and have undertaken this blog to air the best of them in a more public way than my e-mail correspondence. So come gather around this table to talk. About anything — except, unless you absolutely insist, dried fruit.