Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A contrarian food-movement takedown

There's a new book out I'm intrigued by, even though what I know of it is that the NYT reviewer, Dwight Garner, hated it. Tyler Cowen, "a right-leaning economist and a contrarian foodie," prefers cheap, "ethnic" foods to either farmers' markets or haute cuisine, which does not, admittedly, make him unusual. (Stand-out line from the review: "I suspect Thucydides preferred the little joint on a side street to the place with the fountains where the waiters peeled customers’ grapes.") At the intersection of expressing a preference for honest, no-frills grub (see: the iconic Hoagie Haven, the bad-yet-good pizza-by-the-slice places in NY) and an adventurer's preference for off-the-beaten-path establishments lies the food philosophy of virtually every American male with a food philosophy. It's very Anthony Bourdain, very much a denial of vanity - the opposite of a salad with dressing on the side.

But it's an approach that makes sense. Very expensive food, almost no matter the cuisine, always tastes about the same, always has that glossy, cream-sauce quality. If you're more interested in the taste of food than in the dining experience, you probably do want to avoid tourist traps, high-end establishments, and fast-food chains, which are indeed three different worlds. If the result - amazing Vietnamese food tucked away in a strip mall, say - rings pretentious, or reads as "reverse snobbery," so be it. It's not, as Garner charges, incoherent.

(I must out-contrarian this discussion by noting that no-frills-ness can itself be a marketing tactic aimed at persuading customers that a place has really amazing food. This can be the case in "ethnic" places, but is really perfected in the establishments I refer to as hipsters-make-your-food. There, shabby decor and rude service are paired with prices that are not so much high as high for what's being served - the $10 slice of pizza, the $25 take on an Egg McMuffin. Because taste is subjective, because I am suggestible, food really does taste better in low-key surroundings.)

Garner's real problem with the book is that "Mr. Cowen comes perilously close to suggesting that we shouldn’t care about where and how our food is grown." If that's the case, depending how we're defining "we," I'm on Team Cowen, although I suspect Cowen would disagree with what I'm about to write. My own sense is, "we" as in consumers, grocery-shoppers, should absolutely not be charged with turning grocery shopping into a research project.


Yes, consumers should make informed choices when choosing between the produce aisles and the factory-processed-desserts section. But this ought to be at the nutritional level of vegetables vs. Twinkies, not an analysis of what it means that these tomatoes come from Mexico... while these others are from Canada... and it's unclear which were grown closer by... pr how much energy greenhouses use... or whether life better for a tomato-farmer in Mexico or Canada... or if we should even be eating tomatoes in November... etc. Such matters - and here, I shall out myself as a contrarian foodie but definitively not a right-wing economist - might be dealt with by the government, via subsidies or whatever behind-the-scenes decisions are made that determine what is or is not at the supermarket, and at what price.

But it is sacrilege, at this point, to say that you don't think individual consumers should ponder the ethics of their out-of-season asparagus. It is socially unacceptable, in certain circles, not to nod along enthusiastically to mentions of "local" or "organic." Contrarian sympathizers force the food movement to advocate for paths that really make sense, not to merely repeat conventional wisdom or adhere to trends. More useful to the Pollan cause, I'd think, than a book about how Michael Pollan is swell. 

11 comments:

PG said...

Such matters - and here, I shall out myself as a contrarian foodie but definitively not a right-wing economist - might be dealt with by the government, via subsidies or whatever behind-the-scenes decisions are made that determine what is or is not at the supermarket, and at what price.

Despite my general liberal enthusiasm for government action, I wouldn't want the government to exclude cheap products (whether Mexican tomatoes or Vietnamese Tshirts) from U.S. markets. I think such an intervention would have a very negative impact on low-income people. I strongly suspect that part of what has kept inflation in check throughout the last couple booms and busts of the economic cycle is the increase in cheap imports. I've become increasingly cynical about free trade's being a net benefit for all Americans (rather than just those who own shares in multinational corporations that increase their profits through offshoring), but curtailing it would definitely be a short-run shock to our wallets.

However, as I do wish that we would retain U.S. manufacturing and agriculture jobs, and being someone with disposable income who won't go hungry or unclothed if I buy American (or local/organic/ethical), I think it's preferable that such decisions be made at an individual level and through social mores that are somewhat tailored to socioeconomic status. If the government categorically keeps the cheap stuff out of the U.S. market, then everyone is forced to pay for the more expensive stuff. If the work is instead done by peer pressure, the cheap stuff is available to those who can't afford to spend more, while those who can afford it feel obligated to do so.

My concern is more about jobs and trade deficits than the quality of the tomato's life, so the Canadian vs. Mexican tomatoes are equally OK to me in the absence of American tomatoes. Both countries are part of NAFTA, significant importers of U.S. products and services, and are pretty good about living up to trade agreements. This is in contrast to China's subsidies, dumping, currency manipulation, etc.

Phoebe said...

PG,

"I think such an intervention would have a very negative impact on low-income people."

Phrased like this, it would seem that I'd suggested that the government remove all items from supermarkets that aren't those paltry $4 bunches of kale that appear at the more cutesy of suburban NJ farmers' markets. What I'm suggesting is that if there are products that are truly objectionable (certain eggs, evidently), the overall bar needs to be raised. A bit. Not to the roof. That would still leave room for those with the income for and - and this is key - interest in going above and beyond.

The problem with your way - having those with enough disposable income vote with their food dollars - is that very few people who could afford to purchase according to some ethical framework (a preference for domestic being just one such framework) wish to do so, and of those who do, there's little understanding of what that even entails. Does what's printed on the package even mean anything? And which labels are you looking for? Local? Organic? Is "greenhouse" good or bad? These things are not impossible to form opinions on, if you take the time to research them, but there's no reason to think individual consumers - even ones in the professions with nice incomes - have a clue what 'better' would even consist of in most cases.

PG said...

Oh, I didn't see anything in the post about eggs other than the cost of a hipster McMuffin. The post seemed to be about food that is grown and not raised/ranched, with specific mentions of tomatoes and asparagus. So the element of cruelty didn't enter into my comment, which was meant to be about "where and how our food is grown," to re-quote the NYT review.

I'm most familiar with my own policy preference of buying American, and this is pretty straightforward for agricultural products. They're generally required by law to be labeled with their source and are rarely as mixed source as something like, say, a car that had its parts manufactured in Germany but was assembled in Detroit. Also, there's clear definition by Federal Trade Commission regulations about what constitutes Made in the USA (ie how much of the product can have originated elsewhere).

What's "better" in other frameworks presumably depends on specific preferences, and I'd be happy for the government to require and enforce a clear standard for accurate labeling for those frameworks as it does for buying American. I'd guess that if you're trying to reduce negative impact on soil and water (wanting to avoid scary runoff), you'd be more concerned about buying organic. If you're trying to reduce negative impact on air quality and climate change (wanting to avoid emissions), you'd be more concerned about buying local and getting your meat and dairy from animals that emit the least gas (ie avoid cattle products).

If you care about *everything* and have to run a cost-benefit analysis weighing a dozen factors, your life probably does become as complicated as that of the act utilitarian, which is why that possibility in ethics always seemed ridiculous to me.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I didn't specifically mention eggs in this post, but why not go with tomatoes? There was just some book out about where our (domestic, I believe) tomatoes come from, and it's grim. But if it's really as grim as all that, with slave-labor conditions, avoiding them shouldn't be up to the consumer.

What you call "straightforward" might well be, to someone like yourself who is - and it's not a bad thing, quite the contrary, just an unusual one - a bit of a researcher, someone who enjoys and is good at figuring things like this out efficiently. Even if everything's properly labeled - which it's worth remember, as it stands, it's not - not everyone has a thing in this regard, or would even know where to begin. If your idea of eating right is more vegetables, less meat and cake, is that really such a disaster? Do you really need to care where each vegetable comes from, and if so, if you need to do so, shouldn't the truly offending vegetables be off the market?

As you say, it's not obvious, if you take everything into account that you're supposed to, which purchase makes the most sense. And why wouldn't someone who cares about pesticides also care about emissions? Everything kind of has to become a research project, or else shopping according to your values becomes something you do as a cultural signifier and nothing more.

PG said...

Are the domestic tomatoes problematic in a Caesar Chavez throwback way (i.e. we don't have the legislation in place to protect people), or in a Taco Bell protest circa 2001 way (farms are ignoring the laws on the books)? If the former, I'll definitely look into it more, as I would have thought existing law largely prohibited slave labor practices.

If the latter: It's a bit Scroogey of me, but I incline to the view that if I pay my taxes and politically support enforcement of existing regulation that bars the problematic practice, I don't need to try to enforce the law by policing my own consumption. I've already paid taxes and voted for someone else to inspect the farm for me, yay division of labor.

And with regard to regulation, as I said, I'm all for government establishing what "organic" means and forcing businesses to comply with it, just as is done for "Made in the USA." I just want low-income people who may not have the money to live on an all-organic, hormone-free, American-raised diet still to have the option to buy the cheaper, less ethical stuff, especially when it comes to non-animal products.

I'm less concerned about the economic effect of stronger anti-cruelty standards because Americans eat too much meat and dairy anyway. What exasperated me most about the NYT ethical carnivore contest were the dimwits insisting that only recently in human history was it possible to be a vegetarian. Yeah, Hindu and Buddhist vegetarianism, it just now happened.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I don't wish to begrudge you a good argument here, but I think we're in full agreement. I also think I might need to clarify my initial point.

What I was getting at was, food-movement leaders typically ask us - a broad "us" that they insist includes those without much income, b/c remember how sprinkled around the country are farmers markets that take food stamps! also, remember legumes! - to do our grocery shopping according to an ethical framework. They give the impression that there are right and wrong answers, and that the stakes are huge. And in some cases, they have a point.

My contribution to this discussion is to suggest that the government intervene - whether by actually enforcing existing legislation, or by removing/fussing with subsidies, or how on earth should I know - in such a way as to make that which is truly objectionable cease to appear in stores. Here I'm repeating myself, but the point absolutely is not to bring supermarkets across the country up to some absurd, frou-frou standard that would have Alice Waters herself comfortable buying groceries at Walmart. The idea would be that some kind of centralized entity with actual expertise in this area (as opposed to consumers) would look into what actually needs to change, and would fix that, and only that.

This would still, of course, leave consumers with plenty of choices to make, whether on the basis of cost or any other factor. Consumers would still be able to reject plenty of items according to their ethical determinations, but the stakes would not be so high.

And in case you do want to research tomatoes.

PG said...

I suppose I'm confused about what you're deeming "truly objectionable." That which is already prohibited by law (slave labor in the U.S.; spraying DDT; eating species that are on the brink of extinction; etc.) is presumably what the democratic polity already has determined to be beyond the pale. What the food movement leaders want goes much further, for example into preferring that currently-legal fertilizers and insecticides not be used.

But just as good liberals in the 1960s and 70s participated in Chavez's calls to boycott the agricultural products of producers who refused to negotiate with the farm workers' union (I think grapes were the big thing), thereby strengthening the union's hand, people who are concerned about currently-legal practices today can make consumer choices based on their politics that will change food production.

"What actually needs to change" will vary tremendously in different people's minds, and I doubt that there's enough of a consensus for most of the changes to lead to new federal regulation right now. (There are more local changes, such as the successful California referendum on the treatment of chickens, and municipal bans on foie gras.)

In the meantime, however, if there's an increased market for organic food, profit-driven retailers will want to serve that market. Speaking of WalMart, they now sell lots of food that is at least labeled organic. I can go to WalMart and buy organic milk, while a fellow citizen with less money and/or less ethical concern can buy cheaper, non-organic milk.

Or to take my cause, if enough people complain to the Gap that there's nothing to buy that's domestically made, and take their business to American Apparel instead, the Gap has a market incentive to open U.S. manufacturing. The outcry over Apple's and Nike's overseas manufacturing as unethical (albeit legal by local standards and legal for import as well) has had some effect in causing those companies to pledge better oversight of their contractors.

In other words, while each person no doubt wants his preferences given the force of law, it can take a long time to persuade enough people in a democracy that those changes should be made. We can use our power as consumers to persuade corporations to enact our preferences even before the government requires them to do so. Why should this be any different for ethical food production than for, say, nondiscriminatory treatment of LGBT employees despite the lack of federal law requiring it?

Phoebe said...

PG,

""What actually needs to change" will vary tremendously in different people's minds,"

Which is precisely the point. Individuals, for the most part by a long shot, don't know what to care about if they're even going to care about the ethics of their food purchases. What I'm advocating is merely a greater minimum for quality. Not vastly greater, but somewhat greater, as determined by experts who've really looked into this, not whichever trendy concern was most recently voice by Gwyneth Paltrow or who knows.

The issue is, to repeat, that the food movement's experts, those who've really looked into this, deem the current situation unacceptable, and it doesn't appear to be entirely hyperbole/self-promotion. What's on supermarket shelves needs to be acceptable enough that one is not committing a grievous sin by selecting one vegetable or egg and not another. Then we can move on to a system where the rich and/or hippie-ish can vote with their supermarket dollars.

"Why should this be any different for ethical food production than for, say, nondiscriminatory treatment of LGBT employees despite the lack of federal law requiring it?"

Ordinary people, even those with some food-movement inclinations, have no idea how food is produced, what's acceptable and what isn't, etc. Even those in the food or farming industries will know at most about one small part of it. If you described optimal conditions on a farm to someone who works in an office, they might well be horrified. Whereas it's clear enough what it means to be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation. A consumer contemplating the purchase of a tomato is in a very different position than someone whose colleague was just fired for being gay, or when someone's partner can't get health care through their work.

"people who are concerned about currently-legal practices today can make consumer choices based on their politics that will change food production."

The famous grapes example aside, no one ever knows this. Or you'll get instances, like this new tomato book, where maybe some people will stop buying tomatoes, without having a clear sense of which tomatoes are the problem, and without considering whether any other items in the supermarket are produced under any better conditions. It's just vastly, vastly inefficient to make these issues ones of consumer choice. I mean, especially once you factor in prepared foods, who has any idea what they're consuming? And what of all the other factors determining which produce to select - health, what you know how to cook, what looks good that day. If what's available in stores needs to change, the handful of shoppers doing that kind of research project won't be enough.

PG said...

This guy's obsession with just tomatoes in Florida in terms of worker conditions is a bit weird. When you look at the abuses of illegal immigrant workers, it happens pretty much everywhere they are, even in states that are more politically liberal and less hostile toward illegal immigrants than Florida. The abuses are against existing law -- but so is hiring illegal immigrants in the first place.

The CIW group that the caller talks about isn't really trying to get the government to do a great deal more enforcement, especially as the political impulse now is to maximize deportations. All of their "Take Action" suggestions are about lobbying corporations and creating consciousness. Which experts' opinions do you think should be followed?

The NPR story was almost as much about the highly artificial methods used to grow the tomatoes as about the modern slavery. This quote seemed to summarize it:
"Well, I was a food writer and had been covering the flavor issue for years. But, you know, to be honest, the workers were invisible to me. I think that's tell-tale of food journalism in general at that time. It was only in the last - it was only when these slavery cases started getting made public that I realized, wait, the problem goes way beyond a not particularly good tasting winter tomato."

Phoebe said...

PG,

By "experts," I mean that ideally, some entity in the government, new or existing, would make sure that what's in supermarkets isn't causing outrage on any level (sustainability, labor, etc.). By "experts," I mean that those making these determinations would know enough not to think that any farm work is by definition somewhat tragic, because it doesn't take place in an office.

And by all means, those outside the government, such as the group you link to, should lobby for whichever changes, or - as it stands, with the government not as involved - promote awareness, if that's all that a group feels can be done.

The problem now isn't that people outside the government with expertise in this area are asking for change. It's that the food movement asks us to approach these issues via our own individual purchases. Which has some impact, but doesn't necessarily lead to any coherent, systematic improvements, and is far more likely just to make individuals feel good about themselves for picking up ramps at the farmers market.

One huge problem with making this an individual-consumers, shop-with-your-dollars issue is that the consumers who care about this issue often have incredibly romantic ideas about where food should come from, the ones breathily advocated by Alice Waters. Where for each ingredient that makes its way into your digestive system, you know the producer personally. It's an approach that only works - if then - if you're a food-movement celebrity or stay-at-home spouse living in Berkeley or next to an amazing, year-round farmers market.

"The NPR story was almost as much about the highly artificial methods used to grow the tomatoes as about the modern slavery."

It was, which explains why the tomato guy was on every podcast like this for a while. The food movement is about both of these issues - how food is produced, and how it tastes. One possible conclusion some will no doubt draw from this tomato exposé is that it's wrong to eat any tomatoes other than the ones purchased at a farmers market in the summer - or better yet, grown in one's own yard.

The food movement, in other words, isn't primarily a labor-rights movement, or a buy-domestic movement, or even a food-safety movement. It's about some mix of nostalgia and Europhilia, and the highest possible quality of vegetables (farm-to-table or better yet, foraged for the ultimate terroir experience.)

The tomato issue was perfect because it's a way of framing what might seem like a snooty concern ('my tomatoes are too mealy and tasteless') as a progressive cause.

PG said...

The problem now isn't that people outside the government with expertise in this area are asking for change. It's that the food movement asks us to approach these issues via our own individual purchases. Which has some impact, but doesn't necessarily lead to any coherent, systematic improvements, and is far more likely just to make individuals feel good about themselves for picking up ramps at the farmers market.

I think this sets up an erroneous either/or between government intervention and purely individual action. The CIW seeks to organize consumers to lobby not government but private sector companies. It's actually been slowly successful at this; I remember when they were telling people to lobby Trader Joe's, and now TJ is listed as one of their "good" companies.

Politicians who believe in near-total freedom of contract, in illegal immigrants' forfeiting their rights upon crossing the border, that there's already excessive environmental protectionism choking the productivity of American business, that all animals are non-sentient pre-food (except maybe any animal Obama ate in Indonesia as a child) -- they're currently very influential and ready to attack any government expert who proposes new regulations as Obama's "food czar," coming to take away your eggs and make your tomatoes too expensive or inaccessible in winter. This is a political climate in which Michelle Obama gets criticized for creating a nanny state merely by planting a garden and suggesting that children get off their rears and exercise occasionally. I don't blame the Obama Administration for not having an expert call for new regulations because it would be suicidal to do so right now.

If political collective action is not viable, then what's wrong with altering bits of the system through private-sector collective action? (Indeed, the more companies you get to sign up for better methods of production, the fewer of them will be lobbying against government regulation later -- indeed, they may be lobbying FOR it in order to level the playing field with their competitors who hadn't signed onto the private pacts.)

The tomato guy didn't seem critical of the various federal, state and local government employees who called in or whom he mentioned. I suppose it's possible that he's such an extreme statist that he never criticizes the government, but he may sincerely think they're doing about as much as they can (thought I was kind of gobsmacked by the State Dept caller's suggestion of the federal government's helping consumers to understand their "slavery footprint").