November 20 2012
Two Very Different Food Movements
Writer Jayson Lusk, author of the forthcoming book "Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto About the Politics of Your Plate", has a fantastic piece in the Wall Street Journal describing two very different food movements: one where Americans enjoy going to farmers markets and trying new and exotic flavors and the other that imposes the natural and wholesome by regulatory fiat.
Before the election, author Michael Pollan wrote in the New York Times Magazine that "One of the more interesting things we will learn on Nov. 6 is whether or not there is a 'food movement' in America worthy of the name—that is, an organized force in our politics capable of demanding change in the food system." By Mr. Pollan's own standard, we must conclude that there is no viable food movement worth its sea salt. Right?
That depends on which food movement we are talking about. There is the food movement that has caught fire over the past decade—encouraging consumers to use the power of their wallets to prompt farmers and retailers to grow and sell better-tasting, more-nutritious produce. It is the movement that has led to a surge in farmers markets, an explosion of niche producers of jams and salsas in exotic flavors, the rise of craft brewers in strip malls and backyard garages all across the U.S. Wal-Mart is now the country's largest seller of organic produce. That food movement is alive and well.
So, what was the food movement that failed earlier this month? The one that wants the coercive power of the state to strong-arm Americans into eating fashionably. It is the movement that refuses to acknowledge the hard work of the vast majority of American farmers—Urvashi Rangan of the Consumers Union says that farmers' fertilizers "rape the soil"—simply because they cannot make a living selling the stuff that the food elite think we all should eat. It is a movement that uses scare tactics and misrepresents the consensus scientific opinion about food technologies in an effort to demonize agribusiness. It is the movement that distrusts consumers to pick the right soda size.
Lusk's piece is important for several reasons. First, it gives people the confidence to be a part of the food movement whose super-stars (Pollen, Nestle, Waters, Brownell, Bittman) often espouse big-government solutions (taxes, regulations, bans, restrictions on certain ingredients). Second, it reminds those who tend to advocate for big government programs in other areas, such as social welfare programs, that government intervention doesn't work in the food arena; it simply fails to improve people's food choices and, in fact, often creates worse outcomes.
I've lost count of the number of conversations I've had with both liberal and conservative friends on this topic. It is the one area we can always agree. My liberal friends firmly believe in government intervention for nearly everything and truly trust the benevolence of the federal government. Yet, when it comes to food, they nearly always roll their eyes and shrug at the silliness of these regulations. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a particular favorite area for collective criticism. If I have a mixed group over for dinner and fear a confrontation, I need only bring up Happy Meal toy bans and we're all happily discussing the folly of government involvement in areas where parents should be in control.
Lusk has touched on an important and rare area where liberals and conservatives agree. We want to be left alone to make our own food decisions--good or bad.