Let’s Imagine The Future We Need: A Rumination on Food, Cities, and the Future
Food reformers argue that the nation’s food system is “broken,” and that it can be repaired by taking food out of the hands of corporations and returning it to the people. (For the sake of brevity, I’m simplifying complex arguments.) Their proposed alternatives include farmers’ markets, urban gardens, and cooking at home rather than relying on processed foods. Activists want to eliminate “corporate” farms in favor of small, family-owned ones that rely on nature rather than commercial “inputs” such as commercial fertilizers and herbicides.
Reformers are especially critical of the American way of meat. Their concerns range from modes of livestock production to the slaughterhouses where animals are turned into meat to the amount of meat Americans consume.
As I noted in my recent history of meat in America, the historical roots of this crusade date back to the 1960s and 1970s. Those decades marked an important moment of reform enthusiasm that fueled, among other things, interest in appropriate and/or sustainable technology, the so-called counterculture, Naderism, the war on poverty, and consumer advocacy.
But that twentieth-century episode was just one in a long history of American reform enthusiasm. For example, some of the thirteen original colonies were founded in part as experiments in social and religious utopias. In the early 1800s, a widespread and lengthy episode of reform fever inspired movements aimed at abolition, education (free schools), and temperance, to name a few. In the late 1800s, reformers mounted a crusade to ban alcohol, a project that reached fruition as the Eighteenth Amendment.
These and other reform movements were inspired by the belief that Americans and/or the nation were in a state of spiritual decline. In these “declension narratives,” the people/nation have erred but the routes to redemption are many: stop drinking, find god, educate children. (Again, I’m simplifying the work of a large group of historians.) It’s worth noting that in some cases, the proposed reform adds (build a system of free public schools); in others, it subtracts (eliminate alcohol and the nation will be better).
So, too, in the 1960s and 1970s: Critics argued that ours was a barren society, dominated by faceless corporations and populated by citizens alienated from each other, from nature, from their spiritual desires and needs. (Again, I’m summarizing and simplifying.) The critics offered a host of solutions: fight corporate power, join communes, do drugs, fight poverty, find god, etc.
At the time, some activists focused on food and food systems as vehicles with which to rejuvenate/redeem the national soul. They reasoned that everyone’s survival depends on food and air, water, and land; the need for food cut across racial, economic, and social lines.
So everyone would benefit from the creation of closer connections to food systems; from those more-intimate relations, reformers argued, would come a new sense of community and a spiritually revitalized nation and citizenry. Thus the focus at the time on farmer-to-market projects, “community food security,” family farms, and organic and other more “natural” agricultural methods.
That nearly-half-century-old project continues with today’s food reformers (many of whom trained at university programs created back in the 1970s). And now, as then, food crusaders focus on small, alternative food systems as an appropriate alternative to hyper-efficient, large-scale modes of agriculture and food processing.
At first glance, this vision of a nation revitalized through small-scale agriculture and food production is heart-tuggingly delightful. Appealing, comfortable, satisfying.
On second glance, however, today’s food reform agenda is, like the one from which it descended, unrealistic, utopian, and conservative to the point of being regressive. Its proposed solutions look back rather than forward. In this case, the route to redemption requires (re)creating a rural idyll; requires us to get back, metaphorically or otherwise, to the garden. (By definition, an “idyll” evokes a nearly utopian state of simple pleasure rooted in the rural.)
That vision can never be more than that: a vision, and one that leads to a dead end. Here’s why.
For the past three hundred years, farmers’ numbers have declined; their numbers plunged during the past century. But that trend had nothing to do with corporate machinations (as reformers claim) than it did with ordinary folks voting with their feet: For two centuries, Americans have demonstrated a preference for city rather than country.
Decade after decade, farmers accommodated that preference by adopting labor-saving technologies that enabled them to feed an urban population. The more efficient farmers became, the more able others were to pursue non-agricultural kinds of work.
In short, today’s food reformers ask us to abandon two centuries of demand for city life in favor of a society yoked to the farm. Their crusade looks backward, not forward; it wastes intellectual energy on an essentially futile effort.
For example: At present, the U. S. population is roughly 350 million. The vast majority of us — some 85 to 90 percent — live in an “urban place,” a city or town. Here’s a fact about city folks (a fact so obvious that it’s easy to overlook): They rely on others to make the food they eat. But only about two percent of Americans work on a “farm,” and not all of those people and farms produce foodstuffs. That means some 700,000 people, give or take a few, grow the food the rest of us eat.
These statistics raise obvious questions: If we adopt reformers’ model of food production — small scale, “family” farms —- where will the necessary farmers come from? Who will grow the food needed for the urban majority? (Note: I’m not volunteering for duty.) Reformers argue that the environment and food safety are better served if livestock is raised “naturally” on pasture. But where will the land for that project come from? Every year, rural acres are converted to other uses (even as fewer farmers feed more people). Owners sell to developers who use the land for houses, shops, schools, and roads. (Because urbanites want houses, streets, and shops, not farms.)
So where would we graze those hogs, cattle, and chickens? Would we plow up highways and interstates? Tear down housing developments? Raze malls?
These are legitimate, questions. If we’re going to “fix” the food system by resorting to an elysian vision of farming and land use, then we need to address the project’s practicalities.
I propose an alternative. Rather than look backward, why not rethink the future of what we have and use most?
For example: The physical infrastructure on which cities rest needs work. Millions of urbanites rely on sewer and water systems whose foundation were built more than a century ago. Surely we can improve those systems. We need, now, to reinvent the nation’s “power grid.” We need more imaginative transportation systems. Bridges and roads are in need of repair.
For the foreseeable future, and even given the totally whackadoodle nature of today’s Congress, taxpayers will spend money on those things. Never enough, of course, but there will be money spent on infrastructure. The question is how that money will be spent.
So to food reformers, I say: Turn your support to an urban-centric agenda. Invest your energy in refurbishing, reimagining, and reinventing the complex infrastructure that underpins the cities where most of us live. Support politicians interested in and agendas aimed at reinventing urban life. That’s where we stand the best chance of inventing a new future.
As for contemporary agriculture: It’s essential to ponder it not in isolation but as a part of the larger social and economic system. Yes, raising livestock using a factory model (confinement, automated watering and feeding systems, and so forth) is problematic. But that method uses relatively small amounts of land (thus freeing up more land for urban use). And the problems associated with livestock production — odor, manure runoff and the like — affect relatively few people and relatively small amounts of land, air, and water.
Rather than replace these (relatively) efficient models of production with inefficient, backward-looking methods, why not improve what we’ve got? For example, why not lobby for zoning laws that set aside land specifically for livestock production and meatpacking? Would some landowners be forced to sell their farms and move? Yes. But surely that’s preferable to the alternatives: persuading city folks to move back to the land or razing housing developments so the land can be used for grazing. How about a special minimum wage for agricultural and meatpacking workers? Let’s pay those people, say, twice the going minimum-wage rate — and let’s require packing plant owners and farmers to pass those costs to consumers (aka city folks).
Better yet, let’s imagine a new kind of farming. A new kind of livestock production. A new kind of slaughterhouse. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but we serve ourselves and the future if we look forward, rather than back for solutions.
So. If you’re interested in a regressive, conservative system of food-making, join the small, slow, local food crusade. Better yet, move to a rural area. You’ll get the full monty: Lots of odors and animal reality. Along with high prices thanks to lack of infrastructure (grocery stores located miles away, lack of high-speed internet access, the relative inefficiencies of rural water systems, and so forth). Plus, ya know, you can spend your time pulling weeds. (Fair warning: that way of life leaves little leisure for thinking great thoughts and tapping out said thoughts on a keyboard.)
But surely it makes more sense to focus our energy on rebuilding, reinventing, reimagining the world in which most of us already live.