25 January 2013

Ask anyone in the organic movement why America’s food system is so messed up, and one of the top responses will likely be cheap fossil fuels. From the energy required to make nitrogen fertilizer to the long distances food is shipped, cheap fossil fuels are at the root of the problem. The abundance of fossil fuels, of course, is not just bad for the food system. Climate change is the most pressing issue of our time. By solving the problem of improperly priced fuel sources, a large number of sustainability issues will be well on the way to being resolved.

This is a tall order, however. We Americans have become accustomed to the lifestyles afforded us by cheap fossil fuels. In order to effectively price carbon, large scale federal action will be required. Though many (most depending upon which poll you look at) Americans agree that action must be taken to combat climate change, few would support the drastic changes in lifestyle required. When Obama made climate change a part of his 2008 platform, he talked about the benefits of green jobs, not the discomfort that might come from a carbon tax. The lack of pressure from the populace combined with powerful special interest groups make a federal scale readjustment of fossil fuel prices a daunting task.

The organic movement, to its credit, understands the problems in our food system and the barriers to reform fairly well. The prescriptions for reform, however, are where the foodies go wrong. Thanks to Michael Pollan the people who care most about reforming the food system have been convinced that the most ethical way to eat is by eating things that you have produced or gathered yourself. Many of our best and brightest have rejected mainstream society in favor of rural idyll.

The National Young Farmers Alliance recently sponsored a documentary about young people choosing to take up organic farming as a career. One of the most striking things about these young people’s conversion narratives is the moral certainty they feel about their chosen career. In a world as complex as ours, such moral certainty can only come from romantic escapism.

The fault in the organic movement’s thinking has its roots in the 1960s counterculture. The young people of the counterculture were tired of the slow pace of reforms they sought, and decided to reject the old style of progressive reform. Instead of lobbying their fellow citizens, the counterculturists tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. They had no faith in the country’s ability to change, and set out to establish their own society. Think communes and food co-ops. The countercultural outlook is inherently romantic, because it involves creating a society that is in perfect accord with one’s own beliefs.

With a number of notable exceptions (Grow Power in Milwaukee stands out) foodies of our time have adopted the romantic mindset of their countercultural forefathers. The rallying cry might be tune in, turn on, plant a tomato. The organic lifestyle is, for the most part, only available to a certain section of the educated upper middle class. Somehow attendees of expensive liberal arts colleges can afford to take an unpaid internship on organic farm upon graduation.

The central moral issue of our time is climate change. All considerations should come after this monumental challenge. This is not to say, of course, that other issues should be neglected. Of course they can’t be neglected. It is to say, though, that the implications of climate change should be considered as it relates to all other issues.

Reforming our food system is intricately connected with climate change. We need to consider how we will grow food in a non-fossil fuel intensive way. Though misguide in its efforts, the organic movement is certainly laying the groundwork for this change. They need, however, to keep in mind what the ultimate goal is. The moral certainty that comes along with growing food as an end in and of itself needs to be questioned relentlessly within the movement. Sustainability is a popular buzzword, but no food system that cannot realistically feed the world is worthy of the name sustainable. There is serious doubt as to whether organic methods can feed the world.

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