Think of this as a follow-up to an earlier post about “local” slaughtering: An interesting and thoughtful essay over at Grist written by the typically thoughtful Tom Laskaway.
The subtitle could be something like “You’re Damned if You Do, and You’re Damned if You Don’t.”
‘Cause, really, there’s just no pleasing the “pro-food,” “sustainable,” “eat local” folks. No way. No how.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for change. I’ve made that clear here over and over again, to the point of being a bore. (*1)
But moving toward a new future requires taking the present into account and understanding why things are as they are now. Any carpenter will tell you that you can’t start remodeling until you know something about the underlying structure of what’s already there.
The “local” folks don’t get that it’s impossible to return to a society that’s “local” in its orientation. (Barring, of course, some kind of nuclear holocaust that leaves us singing “Wooden Ships.”) (In which case, eating “locally” is gonna be the least of our problems.)
Put another way, we Americans live in an urban society with national markets and highly specialized agriculture (eg, Flordians grow citrus, and Kansans wheat) because specialization and national markets are the most the most efficient way to feed millions of people, the vast majority of whom live in cities (and therefore don’t produce their own food). (*2)
That means, for better or worse, we must also live with federal regulations. The whole point of the USDA is to create a national food system that is fair and safe for everyone, not just for a few. The reason that the USDA spends so much time negotiating with large corporations is because those corporations “own” the infrastructure necessary to produce and transport the food.
Americans created that national food system a century ago.
The effort began more or less randomly, as entrepreneurs responded to astonishingly rapid urban growth by creating corporate structures for moving food from one region of the country to another (eg, oranges from Florida to New York).
Over the course of several decades, Americans figured out how to moderate that system of private enterprise with a dollop of federal oversight, the goal being to keep food prices in line and the food itself safe.
The system, which provided inexpensive, abundant, and yes, safe, food in every state, not just a few, took decades to create because it took Americans that long to understand that they were no longer living in a “local” world.
So there’s a reason for the infrastructure.
Yank it out from under the dinner table — take away the large corporations that process and move millions of pounds of foodstuffs; take away the USDA — and we’ll be back where we were 120 years ago: With unsafe food and a screwy hodgepodge of food laws that differ from city to city and state to state.
Again, I’m all for change. I believe that, yes, we can.
But let’s move forward, not backward.
*1: Remember my historian’s mantra: if we know that the past is different from the present, then it follows that the future is ours to shape.)
*2: Yes, I understand that the “profood” people are most bothered by the fact that our food system is national and agriculture is specialized. But so far, none of them have offered an alternative — other than spending summers gardening and canning — that would support an urban society. Now if their end goal is to dismantle the cities and have all of us move to the countryside, well. . . okay. But they need to say so.