One of the more interesting cultural/political developments of the past decade or so is the the politicization of food consumption habits. On the one hand you have the mass of mainstream America, which has never enjoyed a more diverse assortment of culinary options. For most in the West our pantries have never been fuller and calories cheaper—an incredible blessing we’re paying for with expanded waistlines but nevertheless a net win. The emerging critics of this way of life are an odd assortment of anti-capitalists (specifically anti-Big Agriculture, anti-Big Chain Restaurant, and indirectly Big Oil), health nuts, and organic yuppie lefties, accompanied by crunchy localist “Front Porch” conservative types from the heartland.
If you’re familiar with the works of Michael Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilema) and the like, you’re already aware of the contours of the foodie critique. Big chain restaurants/supermarkets/etc. require food at such quantities and to such specializations that only Big Corporate Ag can satisfy them. They also require such low prices that traditional, local farmers can not compete at either price or quantity, driving them out of the business. Meanwhile, the number of varieties within food options has gone down (Pollan has talked about the number of chicken breeds, for example, that have disappeared in the last 100 years), all the while Big Ag requires petrol-based fertilizers to keep production up. It’s unsustainable price-wise and volume-wise, they say, so people should try other options like eating locally, and growing and cooking their own food.
The foodie narrative has become pretty well established. I ran into it during my most recent convalescence in this article on “The Dominos Effect” in Men’s Health. All the major plot points are there: the Big Pizza four (Domino’s, Pizza Hunt, Papa Johns, Little Caesars) dominate the market to a tune of $36 billion per year; “the unrelenting push for ever-cheaper pizza ingredients is hurting the planet and driving small and medium-size farms out of business;” the bio-engineering needed to create ingredients for “the perfect slice” is cutting down on plant diversity; the simple domination Big Pizza has over certain commodities in the production of its product, like the fact that 1 in 20 cows in America are simply producing mozzarella for Domino’s supplier, Leprino Foods; and the highly subjective (but in some ways, the foodie narrative’s strongest) argument that chain foods “just don’t taste as good”.
Aside from homebrewing and patronizing the local craft brew scene, and despite living next door to a Trader Joe’s, I’m not much of a foodie. I find it hard to argue against the advances in food output, pest and spoilage control, and transportation brought to us by Big Ag. Calories have simply never been cheaper. Yet there is some romantic appeal to the self-sufficient, yeoman farmer in the crunchy con critique. And the big question is, which I don’t think either side can answer at the moment, is it all sustainable?