Monday, March 29, 2010

What Food Revolution?

If anyone has been able to prove that there is a "food revolution" going on, I sure don't know anything about it. Without doubt there seem to be more people rebelling against the status quo of mass produced junk and convenience foods. But there is nothing  "revolutionary"  about rejecting the crappy food that permeates modern post-industrial life in favor of hand made, locally produced food. A revolutionary concept has to involve a more fundamental change in the way we think about things and advocating that sell and buy food at a farm stand rather than a supermarket does not measure up. For an  idea to be revolutionary it has to at least have the quality of "newness"  or originality. For example

The idea that it should not be assumed that real knowledge about nature is only found in texts (typically written by people who got their information from other texts) or by Divine Inspiration but can only be obtained by directly observing nature while systematically recording what one observes then looking for patterns in the data (i.e. Baconian Science),  was truly revolutionary because it represented a new way of thinking about how knowledge ought to be obtained. The notion that people were not born with the right to rule (or born with the burden of being ruled) but instead were born with the right to self-determination,  was an idea that was itself born in the period of The Enlightenment and eventually became the keystone of the revolutionary Constitution of the United States.

There is nothing new about the idea that the food we put on the table ought to be locally sourced and grown without pesticides. That's the way most people got their food for centuries. As recently as the 19th century most of the food sold in New York City came from organic farms upstate and on Long Island and New Jersey. Even the bloody fish was local. 

When Dante Alighieri had the novel idea of writing in Italian rather than Latin, he helped to set in motion a revolution in literature that not only resulted in the replacement of Latin as the language of the literati, but was a major impetus for the flowering of The Renaissance. Which leads me to a second objection to the use of the term "revolution" to describe what I see happening to the way we think about and  procure, prepare and consume their food.

In order for a movement  to be  a revolution it has to sweep away that which the revolutionaries want changed. In other words, a revolution is mostly a revolution in retrospect when some significant numbers of people realize that the old ways of doing things have been largely discredited and that the  changes pursued by the revolutionary have begun to become part of the normal way of thinking. At this moment in time, more than 92 % of all american agriculture products end up as processed food, and the overwhelming majority of that food is grown hundreds of miles from where our largely urban population lives. Walk into any American home and open the pantry if you wonder if there  is a food revolution going on and you are not likely to see any evidence of it there. Even my own pantry is loaded with stuff in boxes filled with food that is grown in many cases thousands of miles from where I live and I work on a farm!

This food revolution we keep hearing about is more properly characterized as trend towards adding a small percentage of locally sourced, organic, humanely raised, non-GMO, hand made food to a diet that is, and will continue to be, comprised largely of processed food made in factories by strangers.

I know this is going to sound terribly cynical, but when I see how much fame (and presumably lucre) has accrued to the most vociferous proponents of this idea that there is a food revolution at hand , I cannot help but think that at least part of their motivation for continuing to beat the drum in spite of any evidence that anything like the revolution they describe has occurred I cannot help but think of P.T Barnum and WC Fields and their  brilliantly cynical takes on the critical thinking skills of the public.*

Finally, I realize that I oversimplified my argument and that I have not included all of the characteristics that have been attributed to the alleged "food revolution." I also, realize that I have reduced the concept of a revolution to only two qualities (the originality of the idea and its success in affecting change) and I apologize in advanced for my shallow presentation.

*There is a sucker born every minute. -PT Barnum
Never give a sucker an even break.- WC Fields


GCAR said...

A well thought out, well spoken rant against JO, perhaps?

Bob del Grosso said...

I'm aware of JO and his new show but I was not thinking about him specifically. There are many public figures who are preaching this notion that our way of eating is changing in the direction of sustainable, humane, organic locovorism. While there is no doubt that there has been a rebirth of small farms that produce food in the way there is no way that they will ever account for a small fraction of the food consumed in this country.
I think that there is a food revolution going on in this country but it is not the one that people like Dan Barber and Jamie Oliver are talking about. Rather what is changing what we eat and the way we eat DRAMATICALLY is the result of the infiltration of the food supply by genetically modified organism and advances in food and cooking technology that gives us products that last for years, but can be cooked in seconds. I could go on, but it gets depressing.

Tags said...

It is the revolution of a very big clock that measures years and decades instead of minutes and hours as we return to a simpler way of eating.

Walt said...


Outstanding post; and I agree 100% that we are not in the middle of a true "food revolution".

However, would you agree that we live in a nation built predominatly of followers? A people who by and large are willing to jump on a bandwagon just because it seems a popular place to be? If those folks preaching "revolution" can get others on board, then I don't see the harm. Who cares what their motivation is if they're delvering the right message?

And, if they are indeed delivering the right message, can they spread the word without being so extreme?

Let's look at another example, gun control. No matter which side of the argument you support, I think we can agree that each side has taken the most extreme position possible in order to advance their own agenda. Our country has simply lost the ability or even the desire to lead from the middle.

As such, if we don't have those extreme proponents out in front banging the drum, then who will the masses follow (Monsanto?)and how will we continue forwarding the current trend?

Carri said...

You know, Bob, I'm not sure how many people are proclaiming a food revolution is happening, rather, they are trying to start one. maybe it's ill concieved, but it's something. And I am right there with them.

tristero said...

A revolution is a turn. That is all.

In cultural usage, a revolution is a dramatic turn. What you are doing is confusing innovation with revolution.

The fact that people are making money off it is neither here nor there. If Jamie Oliver makes money , so what? I'd rather him than the head of Smithfield.

Whatever. Call it whatever you want. The fact that more and more people are turning away from garbage food is both a significant and dramatic turn of events. And a very good thing.

The fact that it is a small movement, and the food is expensive doesn't detract from its significance. Awareness of food issues has increased dramatically in the past 10 - 15 years. Some of that is certainly due to the efforts of Oliver, Waters, Pollan, et al.

We need more people, not like Jamie Oliver, he's sui generis, but more people passionate about good food who are also influential in national policy.

pitufo13 said...

At first glance I was put off by your attack on the so called revolution based on semantics. But, after your prosaic diversion I found myself in your corner.I call myself an advocate of slow food and local food yet my pantry too is full of boxes and cans made by strangers. Even my fruits and vegetables, even the organic ones, come from far away often. Point taken. Now what do we do about it?

IdahoRocks said...

I like the line from the movie "Food, Inc." that every time someone buys something from the grocery store they are voting for the kinds of products the store should stock. So, if there's a food revolution, then the grocery stores would be the obvious place to look.

Thinking about it, the grocery stores are far different now than fifty years ago, but how much has changed in the past ten years? Certainly more "organic" (such a questionable term) products are on the shelves, but what else has changed?

I know that in my little town in north Idaho more people are growing their own food and eating more local foods, but that has more to do with economics than with a food revolution.

Interesting post, Bob.

nhallfreelance said...

So, if people genuinely, on a massive scale, started returning to a true understanding of what food is and of its provenance, would that constitute a revolution? I think the most interesting thing about that prospect, especially given your very well argued points, is that the new model of eating is so damn young, yet so damn pervasive, that it constitutes a complete change in the way people approach and even intellectualize food on such a basic level that any significant alteration to this new mode of making (a telling enough word) and consuming (there's another one) food would constitute a genuine revolution, despite the fact that it's only reversing the trends of the past 50 years or so.

Bob del Grosso said...


Well, if everyone rejected manufactured food and began cooking for themselves and raising their own stuff it would represent a renaissance and a return to old ways not a revolution.
However, it would seem like a revolutionary to those who had little cognizance of human history and to city dwellers who would experience the biggest change in lifestyle. Imagine having to raise cows and chickens in Manhattan and competing with your neighbors for pasture? :-)