Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Hath the Foodie a Conscience?

Two very eloquent articles in The Atlantic focus a critical eye on the conscience--or, as the authors would argue, the lack thereof--of the "foodie" movement. James McWilliams' short article was inspired by B. R. Myers' phillipic, written with a vocabulary as sharp as its moral categories.

The real pleasure in Myers' writing is his willingness to mount an attack on the food movement using the language of virtue, peppered with references to Aquinas and religious tradition. Often the food debate is presented as a battle between industrial-utilitarian calculators at Bunge or Monsanto and folks like Wendell Berry or Michael Pollan, who deploy more traditional moral categories. Myers' castigation, written with perspicuity worthy of a 17th century divine, is a refreshing approach.

How sustainable now, brown cow?
Author: Daniel Schwen
While both McWilliams and Myers are frequently on-target when it comes to their critique of the excesses of the  food movement, both fail to really engage with how a sustainable food system ought to function. One assumption they both make, for example, is that meat production is necessarily more sustainable than organic vegetable or fruit production.

The reality is more complicated. Cows, it is true, are not efficient converters of feed into meat, and therefore are comparatively wasteful competitors when it comes to grain, which would otherwise go to feeding people. However, cows, like other ruminants, are capable of a miraculous chemical process whereby they can convert grass, something pretty thoroughly inedible, into beef, which is delightfully so.

Now, organic vegetable production can to a certain extent take advantage of parallel processes. For example, an organic farmer can mow his grass, compost it, and then turn it into biological matter that can grow tasty vegetables. However, this takes a lot longer, and takes a lot more labor, not to mention gasoline for the mowing devices. Moreover, good composting usually requires a source of rich nitrogen -- animal manures being an obvious choice!

Even pigs are not an open-and-shut case. They aren't ruminants, and they aren't particularly efficient converters of grain, and so, like grain-fed cows, they compete with poor human beings for food resources. Unsustainable, right? Yes, if you're feeding them on just grain. But pigs can eat and utilize a wide range of food resources, including a wide variety of waste food, from culled crops to kitchen scraps -- including tea bags!

Even the most efficient vegetable operation has crop failures and culls. Depending on the individual farmer's marketing strategy, he may even have to cull crops that are otherwise quite edible but not "pretty." Grocery stores, for one example, are notoriously picky about having pretty vegetables. True, culls are compostable, but the composting process can take weeks or even months (and will usually need a rich nitrogen source), whereas a pig will happily turn waste vegetables into rich organic matter in roughly twenty-four hours -- not to mention it will turn them into pork in a good six months.

So foodies with a penchant for meat shouldn't necessarily feel guilty. A well-conceived animal farming operation converts things that people can't or won't eat (like grass and waste food) into fertile soil and tasty food. An efficient grass-fed beef operation will use solar power more effectively (and therefore be a good deal more sustainable) than a poorly run vegetable farm.

There is no doubt that the foodie movement, when taken to excesses, is subject to the vicious gluttony and status-worship that Myers so delightfully skewers. But moving beyond appearances and peccadilloes, and taking a serious look at the mechanics of a good food system, the foodie movement basically has it right: solar-powered, soil-friendly vegetables and meats, which are often more abundant and delicious, have decisive advantages over the conventional alternatives.