Mean Old Joe

I sure know how to get myself in trouble. Yesterday’s post on food and politics really put me in the dog house. In fact it set a Joe Pastry record for angry responses. I can’t address them all, so in the interests of time, I’ll try to summarize the basic points of contention.

First there was the group that felt I was saying that there’s nothing wrong with the American food system. By no means. There’s plenty wrong with it, as anyone who works in it will tell you. It’s just safer, cheaper and more abundant than anybody else’s, and there’s a difference between wanting to fix the food system and wanting to destroy it, which is what more than a few activists and/or members of the Michael Pollan set want to do.

Next there was the group that accused me of endorsing Tom Vilsack, who they claim is just another “shill” for agro-business. I wasn’t, nor did I say he was the best man for the job. I am merely thanking God that he’s the nominee for Secretary of Agriculture and not Mr. Pollan (Mr. Pollan is too).

After that there were those who claimed I was demonizing food “elites”. I wasn’t. I was making fun of them. There’s a difference. And anyway I happen to be one myself. I can afford to buy $8 pounds of butter (well, sometimes) make my own graham crackers, and build my own 7-foot wood-fired brick oven. That’s pretty darn elite. There’s nothing wrong with being “elite”, provided you don’t forget that most of the world doesn’t enjoy the privilege.

Let’s see…then there were those who insisted Michael Pollan was as qualified for the job as anyone else, citing his excellent criticism and passion for his cause. That’s flat wrong, in my opinion. I made this point a lot answering emails last night: that we need critics of our food system, but we need more than mere critics in our top policy positions. Somewhere, expertise has to enter the picture. Passion is important, but it isn’t the same thing as knowledge.

Lastly, there was the group that accused me of being dismissive of people who want to turn the global food system back to a purer, organic state. That’s true, because it’s simply not possible. The math on this is one is actually very easy. There’s only so much arable land on Earth (about 1.5 million square hectares). If we were to convert all the world’s agriculture to organic tomorrow, yields would be cut (conservatively) by half. The first thing that would happen would be that about 50% (or about three billion) of us, mostly the poorest of us, would starve. Then, when the next major crop blight occurred (as it inevitably would without scientists creating new strains of disease-resistant crops) another giant chunk of the population would starve. Without fixed nitrogen from nitrogen fertilizers (because there’s only so much fixed nitrogen on Earth), yields and populations would then continue to grind downward, until our global numbers were down to around what they were before 1900 or so, around 2 billion (a regular share of which would routinely starve to death as a result of normal crop failures and lack of surpluses). Not a rosy scenario at all, is it? I don’t feel the least bit bad about being dismissive of it. Which is not to say I think organic farming should go away necessarily. If people want to eat organic and can afford the luxury, then they should be able to. They just shouldn’t make their enjoyment of organic food contingent on the rest of us eating it.

I think that pretty much covers all the main objections. So let us now move on to other, more enjoyable and less contentious, things.

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