“Profood” v. “Industrial” Food. Where Is the Middle Ground?

As some of you know, I’m writing a history of meat in modern America (“modern” in this case meaning 1870-2000) so I try to stay current with what’s what in the world of food and food politics. So naturally I read up on things like the “profood” movement. I inadvertently hurt some feelings with a Tweet I posted yesterday, and for that I apologize. (Frankly, it never occurred to me that anyone would actually READ the Tweet.) My tweet was as follows:

I have come to the conclusion that the “profood” people are, um, out of touch with reality.

The “profood” in this case refers to a group of people who advocate changes in the American food system. You can read more about it here. As near as I can tell, profood types are all about the “family farm” and sustainable foods and eating local. They also want better food, more “real” food served in, for example, hospitals and schools.

I admire their energy and agree with their general thrust: I hate the idea that the nation’s schoolkids are eating crap every day. And I become almost unhinged every time I see an adult hand a two-year-old a coke or a bottle of “apple juice.” (Which is mostly corn syrup.)

So I’m all in favor of eating well. (And if you read this blog, you know I practice what I preach.

And I’m also keenly aware that millions of people rely on “convenience” foods out of both choice and necessity.)

My problem with this “movement” is its simplistic approach to a complex problem. The profood people, inadvertently or intentionally, are demonizing the existing food system. As near as I can tell, they hope to achieve their goals in part by tossing the baby out with the bathwater, or, in this case, the entire existing food/farming system out with the foodproducer/farmer.

As one farmer said, they’d like to force him to live in the 19th century, while they get to live in the 21st. That won’t work. There is no way “family farms” and “local foods” are going to feed 250 million people. No way. No how. (And that’s only counting the people here in the US. There’s also the matter of foods exported to other countries.)

But here’s my biggest fear about “profood.” They’re (unintentionally) advocating what amounts to a two-tier food system. One system — local, sustainable, organic, etc. — for the rich. And “industrial” food for the rest of us. Because “local” food produced on “family farms” is expensive food.

And here’s the brutal reality that seems to escape the profood people: Many Americans rely on “industrial” food to fill their stomachs because that’s the food they can afford. They can’t shop at the groovy local “coop” store (aka “health food store”) and buy those four dollar quarts of “local” milk and those two dollar local tomatoes. Or those three dollar heads of organic kale.

Moreover, millions of working Americans can’t take time to plant food and then can or process the harvests. Because, ya know, they’re too busy working for a living.

That’s what I mean when I wrote that some profood people are “out of touch with reality.”

So I’m all “profood” and I favor changes in our food system — but turning back the clock and/or creating a two-tier food system isn’t the way to go. Put those carrots on the school lunch tray, please! But just know that the schools will only be able to pay for those carrots when the carrots are grown in the most efficient way possible: On a large “industrial” farm.

Otherwise, only a few will get carrots. And many will get none at all.

8 thoughts on ““Profood” v. “Industrial” Food. Where Is the Middle Ground?

  1. Thank you for clarifying your earlier tweet. With more detail, I better understand the point you were trying to make in 140 characters. It also allows me to clarify several misinterpretations you have drawn regarding Pro Food.1. “profood types are all about the ‘family farm’ and sustainable foods and eating local” – There is no mention about the size of farms supporting Pro Food, but since a vast majority of US farms are family-owned, working with family farms is a fact of life. Sustainable food is about which seeds are selected and how they are grown. There are many ways to achieve such an objective, e.g., organic, biodynamic, permaculture, etc. Finally, I have never specifically advocated for “local” as a priority, since sustainable is the priority and allows more food to be produced to feed the people demanding it.2. “profood people, inadvertently or intentionally, are demonizing the existing food system” – What is it with the word “demonizing”? Regardless, the industrial food system, and specifically the parts of it that produce the highly-processed foods that are sickening millions, deserves the criticism leveled at it. The problem is the companies doing the damage are unwilling or unable to change the mix of products they deliver to market since they offer the profitability needed to satisfy investors. As for the rest of industrial food, they are not nearly as big of an issue, which the exception of being highly concentrated and opaque.3. “They’re (unintentionally) advocating what amounts to a two-tier food system. One system — local, sustainable, organic, etc. — for the rich. And ‘industrial’ food for the rest of us.” – This sounds like it was taken directly from industrial food’s play book. As someone who understands the complexity of our food system, you surely realize the reasons highly-processed industrial food is cheap. First, its not food, but manufactured calories making it inherently less expensive than growing real food. Second, it is heavily subsidized by taxpayers, who get to pay additional money down the line for the resulting health-related issues. Regarding your two-class concern, that is not Pro Food. Never has been. Never will be. In addition to be inclusive, Pro Food is dedicated to the goal of accessibility at all socio-economic levels.As someone very involved in Pro Food, and who sees the complexity of our food system from a business and logistical perspective, I understand the challenges we face. It will take entrepreneurial energy and the money that follows entrepreneurs to move toward Pro Food’s vision, which is why I believe anything is possible.Cheers,Rob Smarta.k.a., Jambutter

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Maureen. It is not about one approach or another. We have a runaway food system that is contributing to problems from obesity to environmental pollution and is undermining our ability to feed future generations. The choices of rich versus poor, industrial versus family and modern versus antiquated are all false dichotomies. It is not a time to stick our heads in the sand and claim that the food system we have today is perfect. It is time to recognize that humanity is making great advances in our understanding of biological relationships. The potential of working in harmony with nature to redefine efficiency away from chemical fertilizers and economies of scale to wholly functioning systems. We can incorporate many of these advances into our agriculture practices and food system in a way that benefits all of society. The idea that healthy food is too expensive and that’s just the price of progress is sad. While profood does not profess to have all of the answers, claiming that our runaway food system is just the way things have to function in the modern age is really out of touch with reality. How about eliminating subsidies for commodity crops which encourage production of raw materials and processed foods and develop systems to make carrots available to those who can’t afford them? How about getting control of a food system that encourages overproduction where the surplus junk goes to feed our children in schools and hospitals?

  3. Thanks so much for comments.If I may point out: I didn’t say healthy food was too expensive. I said that for many people, local/family-produced foods are too expensive. There’s a big difference.Nor did I say that the existing food system MUST remain intact. Clearly something’s gotta give. What I said was that many people interested in changing the food system are proposing simple solutions to extraordinarily complex problems.”Healthy” food is obviously the most economical food we can eat. Eg, cooking a bag of beans is cheaper than buying a can of beans.What I object to is what seems like a narrow, almost elitist, focus on the definition of “healthy.” But hey, I could be wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time!And certainly I appreciate Rob’s time in clarifying various issues. I think he would agree, however, that many people who tout his “profood” vision are not as careful to stick to the core principles as he is.Finally, it’s worth saying again that I am in no way, shape, or form attached to or involved with the “industrial food industry.” I’m a historian. Not, alas, that it will do much good to note that last fact. (I did learn something from writing the beer book!)

  4. Maureen, you’re right on target. Local, organic and sustainable is a noble goal and I also try to make the effort. The main problem with industrial food is that it’s a profit-driven industry and shareholders demand ever-increasing returns which in turn makes manufactuerers find ways to cut corners– often to the detriment of unsuspecting consumers. That part of the system needs to be changed.But I agree that it’s important to acknowledge where industrial food has brought us. As a woman, I credit the industrial food system with giving women the opportunity to pursue careers outside the home. If it weren’t for canned tomatos and store-bought bread, we’d all still be at home cooking all day, whether we wanted to or not. I’m glad I have the choice to cook from scratch– or not. I certainly makes cooking from scratch more joyful. I’m sure you’ve read Rachel Laudan’s paper “A plea for culinary modernism” that ran in Gastronomica in 2001– but in the off chance you haven’t, it’s a great read and addresses this issue directly.

  5. Jennifer, I’ve not read Laudan’s essay, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got that issue of Gastronomica in the house, so I’ll track it down. Thanks for the reference.Did you read Pollan’s recent essay on cooking? I wrote (a ridiculously long) response to it here at the blog. You can find all five parts here.

  6. Maureen,I am dissapointed at the criticisms that you have recycled here. As an strong proponent and stakeholder in ProFood, I am of course, personally hurt, but criticism is cool. We expect it. But so many of your criticisms have been dealt with before. A little bit of research would have illustrated that for you. Anyway, Rob’s comments are more than enough of a response. But one thing he didn’t mention is your quote of a farmer declaring, “they’d like to force him to live in the 19th century, while they get to live in the 21st.” That is particularly disingenuous. Local sustainable farming is some of the most high-tech and technologically sophisticated farming there is. Because it doesn’t rely on enormous John Deere machines does not mean its not sophisticated. In case, you want to do a bit more research…here is a post of mine entitled, “Organic Farming is High Tech, Oh Yes It Is!” Hope you enjoy…Z

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