What the heck is wrong with you, Joe?

Got something of a nasty-gram last night (not entirely unexpected) that in essence said: you tell us to grow our own starters, bake our own bread, make our own pastry dough, ice cream, even soda water, yet you defend the industrial food establishment. What the heck are your politics?

I’ve answered questions like this before of course. The answer is that I don’t have any food politics, that I’m basically a food anarchist. Or maybe more accurately: a food libertarian. I believe everybody should have the freedom to eat whatever they feel like eating. For my own part, a large portion of my diet is locally grown and raised (especially in the spring, summer and fall), with the notable exception of the things that I bake. For you can’t be a baker — especially a pastry baker — and not be complicit with the industrial food system. Flour milling is by definition an industrial activity. In most parts of the nation it is neither local nor organic, and even when it is, is rarely capable of producing a product fine enough for most kinds of pastry and cake making (and this is to say nothing of sugar and chocolate production). It’s why pastries aren’t on the dessert menu at Chez Panisse and never will be.

So there’s that. But more so, having been involved in the food and restaurant industry to one extent or another since the age of 16 (my family’s also been involved in farming for generations) I know enough about the way food is produced to know that the kinds of utopian fantasies espoused by Mr. Pollan and his ilk simply aren’t workable, given that they require virtually unlimited resources of time, money and especially land. Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia (Michael Pollan’s ideal and the subject of much of Omnivore’s Dilemma) is about 500 acres in size. Of that, only a scant 50 or so are devoted to any kind of consistent production — yet Salatin considers the remaining acreage essential to his broader organic project. Spread over the Earth, a system that inefficient would consign the vast majority of humanity to starvation. As it is our modern production systems are heavily burdened, and even so will need to find a way to produce 35% more calories in the next 30 years to meet global demands. There is simply no way we can do that organically. Even by more “conventional” organic methods, we could till and farm all our parks and all the rain forests in the tropics and still not have enough space.

So you see my problem. Not only do I doubt whether much of what Mr. Pollan says is workable, I frequently doubt whether or not it is even moral. Better for the land and the planet? Yes I think so. Yet moving forward as a global society we need to find solutions — and I believe we can and will — that strike a balance between taxing Mother Earth and feeding the families that live on her. But those solutions will at least to some extent be rooted in technology, for no matter how blue in the face Mr. Pollan may get decrying the evils of modern food production, the pre-industrial days of “zero-input” family farms driven by mule-power simply aren’t coming back. The days of non-GMO aren’t even coming back, not ever.

And I don’t think that’s bad. I suppose I am somewhat unique in the foodie/food blogging world in that one of my base premises is that our modern food system is a wonder. Riddled with problems that need to be fixed, but for all that still a marvel of ingenuity, economy, safety and abundance. My feeling is that if Mr. Pollan — who has many good ideas — was more in touch with that sense of appreciation, he’d be engaging with that system to create constructive change. Instead he’s the voice of a cranky elitist “movement” which seems to define success to the degree that it can poo-poo the achievements that have allowed most of us to be born. His choice I guess.

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