In 2008, I was attending a panel discussion on “sustainable food” at Harvard University, in the storied Faculty Room of University Hall. The purpose of the panel was to promote and celebrate good food, so we were all served tasty hors d’oeuvres carefully sourced from local farmers and fishermen, beginning with demitasse cups of a delicious scallop chowder from Cape Cod Bay. The featured speakers were a celebrity restaurateur from the San Francisco Bay area, a playwright from New York, and the young leader of Slow Food USA. It didn’t take long for all three to reach a lockstep conclusion: In the future, they said, sustainable food would have to be organic, local, and “slow,” definitely not fast or industrial.
Most at the event nodded their heads in assent, but I had a different take, having just returned from a research trip to rural Africa. I had been interviewing farmers in Uganda who were trapped inside a food system that was entirely organic, local, and slow. The women I had spoken with (most African farmers are women) did not know it, but they were living an extreme version of the Harvard dream. They were organic because they could not afford any nitrogen fertilizer; their food was all local because the surrounding rutted dirt roads made transport almost impossible during the rainy season; and their daily food preparation tasks were laboriously slow. Before cooking a porridge meal for their family these women had to strip, soak, dry, and then pound the maize kernels into flour, then carry in wood to build a fire and water for the pot. Despite these efforts, many of their children were stunted from poor nutrition.
Farmers are important to me for personal as well as professional reasons. Both of my parents were from a farming background, and as a young teenager in the summer months I worked on my uncle’s Indiana farm, alongside my older brother and two cousins. We got up early to feed the cattle and hogs in the dark, before getting our own breakfast. My cousins were still too young to drive a car, but they were working with animals five times their size, handling powered machinery, and they already knew things about farming well beyond the ken of most playwrights or big-city restaurateurs.
Discussions of food today can quickly turn into discussions about farming. Consumers not only want food to be tasty, safe, nutritious, and affordable; they also want it to come from farms that protect the natural environment, respect the welfare of animals, help sustain rural communities, and give hired workers a living wage. I share all of these goals, but my specific prescriptions differ from the Harvard panel’s dream. My research experience has not left me yearning for an organic, local, or slow food system, since that would mean abandoning a century’s worth of modern science. It would force farmers to accept more toil and less income, consumers would be given fewer nutritious food choices, and greater destruction would be done to the natural environment. All of this is explained in Resetting the Table.
The use of modern science is broadly welcomed in medicine, transport, and communications, yet it has become strangely controversial in food production. Many of my friends in Massachusetts, where I live and work, take the view that modern farming has become far too “industrial.” They agree with Mark Bittman, a former New York Times columnist, who blames industrial farming for having “spawned an obesity crisis, poisoned countless volumes of land and water, wasted energy, tortured billions of animals.” They would also agree with Philip Lymbery, the author of Farmageddon, who concludes that “every day there is a new confirmation of how destructive, inefficient, wasteful, cruel and unhealthy the industrial agriculture machine is. We need a total rethink of our food and farming systems before it’s too late.”
The use of modern science is broadly welcomed in medicine, transport, and communications, yet it has become strangely controversial in food production.
As their preferred alternative, many of my friends would prefer a return to small, local, and chemical-free (organic) farms. These farms should produce a traditional mix of both crops and animals, as opposed to the specialized, industrial-scale farms that today produce just one or two crops and may have no animals at all. When it comes to buying food, my friends would rather not be seen shopping in supermarkets, since too many items on the shelf are heavily processed or have traveled too many “food miles.” Their ideal, when they have time, is to buy unprocessed foods directly from local growers at a farmers market, or from a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm. They admire Alice Waters, proprietor of the acclaimed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley (she was one of the speakers on the 2008 Harvard panel), who states with pride that she has not set foot in a supermarket for the past twenty-five years.
I hear all this, but I’m not persuaded. I want a food solution that works for all, including people who live on a budget and those without a lot of spare time. Dinners at Chez Panisse must be a wonderful experience, but they start at more than a hundred dollars, not including the wine. Buying fresh produce at a farmers market is rewarding in season, but even then it means a separate trip to get the kitchen products that local farms don’t grow. Assembling healthy meals from fresh, unprocessed ingredients is a joy for many, but the time required for shopping, preparation, and cleanup may be too much for a single parent with school-aged kids.
Food solutions should also make sense for farmers. Here is where the organic approach creates problems, since it tells farmers they cannot use manufactured nitrogen fertilizers. True, all farming worked that way before synthetic fertilizers were first developed early in the twentieth century—but it made food production less abundant and needlessly laborious. Most farmers in the United States don’t want to turn the clock back, which is why only 1 percent of their land has been converted to organic production methods.
Problems would also arise if we “relocalized” our food system. Dietary health would decline because fresh fruits and vegetables would become scarce for many consumers in the cold winter months. Since transport costs have continued to fall, the dominant food system trend remains one of globalization, not localization. It might seem that traditional methods would at least be a better way to protect the welfare of farm animals, given the abuses they suffer under today’s “factory farm” confinement systems, but these traditional methods could not begin to meet today’s greatly expanded market demand for animal products. Total meat consumption in United States is now five times as high as it was in 1940, and trying to meet this expanded demand with traditional pasture and barnyard methods would be impossible. It will be better to follow Europe’s example and tighten welfare regulations for the farm animals we raise indoors, while developing better imitation meat products to reverse the growth of the livestock industry.
Excerpted from Resetting the Table: Straight Talk about the Food We Grow and Eat. Copyright © 2021 by Robert Paarlberg. Excerpted with permission from Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.