The Difficulty of a Changing Paradigm

Since I’ve been ramping up the food politics talk of late, I think it best that this article from Mother Jones gets some attention.

A key bit:

Nearly everyone agrees that we need new methods that produce more higher-quality calories using fewer resources, such as water or energy, and accruing fewer “externals,” such as pollution or unfair labor practices. Where the consensus fails is over what should replace the bad old industrial system. It’s not that we lack enthusiasm—activist foodies represent one of the most potent market forces on the planet. Unfortunately, a lot of that conscientious buying power is directed toward conceptions of sustainable food that may be out of date.

Think about it. When most of us imagine what a sustainable food economy might look like, chances are we picture a variation on something that already exists—such as organic farming, or a network of local farms and farmers markets, or urban pea patches—only on a much larger scale. The future of food, in other words, will be built from ideas and models that are familiar, relatively simple, and easily distilled into a buying decision: Look for the right label, and you’re done.

But that’s not the reality. Many of the familiar models don’t work well on the scale required to feed billions of people. Or they focus too narrowly on one issue (salad greens that are organic but picked by exploited workers). Or they work only in limited circumstances.(A $4 heirloom tomato is hardly going to save the world.)

I admit to being all over the map when it comes to food production. I believe that ideas such as organic food and locavorism are good ideas in theory. It’s when they have to be put into practice that it seems to run into difficulty. (I rationalize my position on locavorism by adhering to local retail outfits rather than buy at places such as Safeway and Kroegers. If I must have grapes, turnips, or zucchini from far away places, then I try to ensure that someone local will benefit from it.)

But the reality is that the means to which a country can provide food to 300 million people is no small task. And I mean any food here, not just nutritious food. I would love to see people of all classes have regular access to cheap, nutritious diets, but I think it’s safe to say that we’re not quite there…yet.

So, if organic foods, and pesticide-free production methods are not sustainable processes, then what’s really the point of making the argument in the first place? As with any problem, it’s not that our answers are incorrect, it’s that the status quo was and is so far off of the mark in the first place. That a group of people (now measuring in the tens if not hundreds of thousands) can say “You know what? I’d rather not eat tomatoes that taste like ass, or ground beef that came from a cow that was only slightly better treated than a sack of potatoes” demonstrates that more than a small minority agree that something is wrong. Whether it’s the means of production, how people are treated during production, how ethically we treat animals, or even how the food tastes, a notable and motivated segment of the marketplace has said “We should be able to do better.”

So. What constitutes “better?” No one knows at the moment. Certainly there are folks who will claim their way is best, usually with a fair amount of bias in their claims. We will try a fair amount of new philosophies out for size to see how they fit. The trick here is to not be a fundamentalist in any of them, but be open minded enough to recognize that a better idea will always be a year or so away. I may be looking for winter vegetables from the Pacific Northwest at the moment, but I know that this is not the only solution.

Ironically that, in of itself, may be the ultimate solution.