Farm-to-Fable: The Limits of Foodie Pilgrims
LAST MONTH A group of Stanford scientists started a food fight when they published a study that found organic meat and produce is not more nutritious than the conventional stuff. Some seized on the findings as evidence that organic proponents have unwittingly drunk the Kool-Aid—there is nothing superior about that $5 organic heirloom tomato but the price. Meanwhile, champions of organic foods poked holes in the study’s methods and said it was beside the point anyway: most people buy organic to avoid consuming pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones, and because they are concerned about the environmental effects of dumping chemicals on fields year after year.
This skirmish was a reminder that the mechanics of food production are no longer the preoccupation solely of aging hippies and back-to-the-landers. Food has become a tendentious theater in America’s ever-morphing culture wars. The collected works of Michael Pollan—the most prominent apostle of the new food-awareness movement—have for many become orthodoxy. A central tenet of the Pollan-inflected faith is that our own health is bound up in the health of the food chains that nourish us—a sensible idea that has been taken up, unfortunately, by smug diners who you just wish would order already. The satirical television show Portlandia, which pokes fun at the pretensions of uber-green yuppie hipsters, captured this annoying fetish in a skit featuring a couple at a restaurant who insist not only on hearing the backstory of the chicken on the menu, but on traveling to the farm where it was raised to see the conditions for themselves.
The desire to know where our food comes from isn’t as laughable as that Portlandia shtick presumes. Hell, even I have a yen to visit the CSA (community supported agriculture) farm in Pennsylvania that every week sends boxes of peppers, onions, and eggplants to New York City, where I and other city slickers pick them up at the local YMCA—and I was raised on a farm, so roots and soil are not a novelty. In Harvest, Richard Horan seeks to reap an audience of curious food lovers like me. And his book holds out the promise of a status report on America’s small farmers. Can they make a go of it more easily now that farmers’ markets, CSAs, and even mainstream supermarkets are expanding the reach of organic foods?