The Politics of Food and the Historian’s Work: When the Twain Shall Meet, Part 2 of 3

Part One — Part Two — Part Three 

Frankly, it’s painful to watch this conflict unfold. The issues involved are extraordinarily complex, they are global in nature, and involve the lives of billions of people. Unfortunately, that complexity is obscured by the way in which the public debate is taking place.

On one side are committed, passionate grassroots activists, many of whom are focused on what they regard as a “food crisis,” for which they propose various solutions.  (*1)

On the other side are people who produce the food. They’re hindered in part by their own diversity: There is no single “farm” voice, no single “producer” voice, and as a result it’s hard for food producers to present a coherent defense of the attack on it. (*2)

On one side is a vehement offense (“modern farming is evil and so is corporate food”), on the other a disorganized, bewildered defense (“we’re feeding the people of the world! how can we be evil?”), all of it spiced with hefty doses of glib, ignorant chatter that insult one side or the other. (*3)

Lost, and nearly invisible, in the middle are the hundreds of thousands of people — chemists, biologists, agronomists, economists, etc. — who have been studying issues of sustainability, global food production, and the like for decades. (I get the distinct impression that many of the antagonists on both sides are blissfully unaware of the history of the “sustainability” issue.)

These are people working in public and private institutions, working with farmers and food manufacturers alike. (Much of their research, it should be noted, is, in this country, taxpayer-funded.) Unfortunately, much of what they have to say is lost amidst the noise.

Result? The public discussion over the modern food system has become so politicized, and its participants so polarized, that people who learn that I’m writing a book about the history of meat assume that I must be “working” for one side or the other. That I intend to either defend big corporations, or write a diatribe against “factory meat.”

Not true. My “agenda” is simple: to explore what it means to be an American. “Meat” is simply a vehicle for doing so.

That’s it. That’s the beginning, the middle, and the end of my agenda. I’m not out to “get” one side or the other. I’m not assuming that one side is right and the other side is wrong.

I’m only  interested in exploring the long view of the big picture. I’m trying to figure out “what happened” and why in hopes of furthering my understanding of who we are as a people and a nation. It’s what I did with my other three books. It’s what I do. It’s what other historians do.

Sadly, some people don’t believe that. To this day, many “beer geeks” believe that one of the “corporate brewers” paid me to write the beer book. That’s not true, but since I didn’t toe the “party line” on the subject of beer (Big Beer is evil. Small Beer is saintly), it follows that I MUST be in the pay of the corporations.

Next: Where the historian and the debate finally meet

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*1: The phrase “food crisis” is itself interesting. It’s a loaded term — akin to “pro choice” and “pro life” — that is used to commandeer and define the terms of the debate.

*2: You’re thinking, “Wait! The “food establishment” is big corporations. Surely they can defend themselves.” Easier said than done. Big food corporations, for example, simply ignore the assault as not worth their time, leaving the troops on the ground — farmers — to defend themselves. Or, more typically, they aim toward more “ecologically correct” foods by mining all that research being carried out in universities and other laboratories.

*3: For a prime example, see this essay by Nicholas Kristof in a recent issue of the New York Times. It’s been awhile since I’ve read anything quite so inane. No surprise, the many of the nation’s hardworking farmers took offense.

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