On Poison

Recently I stumbled onto a blog post my friend Marcy wrote a few months ago at Becoming Three, called “Poison.” She was reacting to the propensity of some local food advocates to be a bit hyperbolic about the dangers of, well, non-local food.

As a non-famous local food advocate, I thought it worthy of a bit of response, if for no other reason than I largely agree with her. Much of the local food propaganda must really be called just that – propaganda. Sure, the things you see in Food, Inc are real, make unhealthy food-like substances, and the tag line (“You’ll never look at dinner the same way”) is valid when you watch the film. But, who will watch it? Mostly the already-converted, or the adamant refuters.

The inflammatory rhetoric simply polarizes people. Those who are interested in local food tend to become more elitist, more alarmist, and more annoying. Those who are firmly entrenched in industrial agriculture become more protectionist, more libelous, and spend yet more money on lobbying to perpetuate their way of making money.

The big problem is, we’ve created a world in which it is fiscally irrational to eat well, at least on an individual level. As Michael Pollan has pointed out, you can eat 1200 calories worth of processed cookies for a dollar, or 250 calories of carrots (or 90 calories of broccoli). But, really, which is less expensive? Obviously, many more calories worth of food went into the processed food, way more into transporting it and its ingredients, and more energy went into, well, processing it. More labor, more people working on it, more electricity, more oil. By all rights, it should be more expensive.

The secret? It really is more expensive. You’ve already paid the rest of the price, but not voluntarily. No, I’m not talking about the environmental destruction or the increase in health care costs caused by unhealthy “food-like substances.” Real, yes. But anyone likely to read this is who hasn’t already considered making moves to eat more sustainably isn’t going to be swayed by hearing that argument yet one more time from me. So, to paraphrase James Carville, It’s the subsidies, stupid.

We need to reform the farm bill. That mysterious piece of legislation, framed in the proverbial smoky back room, and paid for by all of us via our taxes, is what makes local food, healthy food – heck, food – more expensive than all that stuff from the middle of the grocery store. But it’s a piece of legislation the wider populace has no real impact on – just a handful of legislators who are heavily lobbied by industrial agriculture.

Granted, there is no easy way to suddenly fix it. Too large a portion of our economy has become dependent on farm subsidies. At the same time, if they didn’t exist, we’d see much more entrepreneurial drive, more people involved in healthier agricultural production at a small local scale, driving local economies, improving health, increasing food security and safety, spurring employment and economic development, and all sorts of good stuff. But it takes time for those local systems to grow and develop. Alexander’s solution to the Gordian knot applied to food would lead to economic ruin and mass starvation.

We need time to slowly untangle the mess of the farm bill to allow local food to really become viable for the masses. But we also need to make progress. The more alarmist we are, the more hyperbolic we are, the more the ag-industrial complex lobbies, and the more threats, hoops, and stumbling blocks presented to small, local farms.

If you want to be healthier, reduce your impact on the environment, help your local economy, and all those other good things – support your local farmer. Buy local food. Go watch your food being produced, or produce it yourself. How is the land treated? How is the labor treated? How is the food treated? That should be the determining factor on good.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants. Then, tone down the rhetoric so we can have a real, meaningful conversation about the issue.

One Response to “On Poison”

  1. Marcy says:

    Thanks for the response!

    And I like that you include “how is the labor treated” in your penultimate paragraph. That’s a relatively new issue for me, and not just in food. Shopping becomes so much more complicated. There’s not much at the Salvation Army thrift store, but buying secondhand helps me feel I’m supporting slavery and such a little less.

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