Ideology-Free Food Systems Change

Food is one of my great passions. It’s nice to have one that just happens to overlap with a basic need for survival and is a topic that is perhaps the single most powerful lever for social change in the world. We all have to eat and when we can’t eat, or consume enough, or eat food that’s appropriate to our culture or taste sensibilities our quality of life suffers greatly.  Since devoting more of my energies to food systems as part of research I’ve found myself reading a LOT about food: where and how it is grown, it’s environmental footprint, and it’s health effects on individuals and the world around us. Needless to say, there is a lot to read. There are those that look at what to eat like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma & Marion Nestle’s What to Eat. Both authors have penned books on the politics of food as well such as Nestle’s Food Politics and Pollan’s In Defence of Food. Add to that the books on the food system as a whole such as Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved and Paul Roberts The End of Food and you’ve got a lot on your bookshelf.

Most of this reading does not paint our current Western food system in such good light.

Then there are books like the 100 mile diet by Alisa Smith & J.B. MacKinnon or Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver chronicle the real challenges of living life of local eating. I liked them both because they didn’t paint an unrealistic picture of what is involved in growing and eating in a manner that reflects (in places like Canada and the United States at least) a largely bygone era of food production.

I have found these books useful, interesting and (mostly) enjoyable to read. My consciousness around what I eat and my role in the food has expanded greatly since diving into this issue. I grew up in Southern Alberta and spent a lot of time in the country growing up, including visiting farms. It is a (literally) dirty business for hard-working people and a vocation that few non-farmers truly understand. It is for that reason that the themes of the books above can easily skate over perspectives that don’t gel well with with their central thesis (namely, that our current food system is unsustainable, perhaps inhumane, and not helpful to people — including farmers). And while I agree with all three of these statements, putting on my systems thinking cap and viewing the problem from that perspective has me cautious in wholeheartedly recommending that we abandon our current system. It is this critical perspective that drew me to an essay by farmer Blake Hurst that tries to put these recommendation into the perspective of the farmer and modern agrifood. Although the article is in the right-wing, business-first journal of the American Enterprise Institute I found it quite balanced and congruent with the conversations I’ve had with farmers over the past few years as I’ve become much more professionally engaged with the agrifood sector.

What I found interesting in Hurst’s article was how it burst a lot of the myths around farming that have been set up by many advocates of organic, small-scale farming that use the books I mentioned at the beginning as their defence. Hurst writes:

I’m dozing, as I often do on airplanes, but the guy behind me has been broadcasting nonstop for nearly three hours. I finally admit defeat and start some serious eavesdropping. He’s talking about food, damning farming, particularly livestock farming, compensating for his lack of knowledge with volume. I’m so tired of people who wouldn’t visit a doctor who used a stethoscope instead of an MRI demanding that farmers like me use 1930s technology to raise food…But now we have to listen to self-appointed experts on airplanes frightening their seatmates about the profession I have practiced for more than 30 years. I’d had enough. I turned around and politely told the lecturer that he ought not believe everything he reads. He quieted and asked me what kind of farming I do. I told him, and when he asked if I used organic farming, I said no, and left it at that. I didn’t answer with the first thought that came to mind, which is simply this: I deal in the real world, not superstitions, and unless the consumer absolutely forces my hand, I am about as likely to adopt organic methods as the Wall Street Journal is to publish their next edition by setting the type by hand.

It is here that I saw congruence and the levers for systems change: “unless the consumer absolutely forces my hand“. Indeed, if systems change is to come it must come from the bottom as much as the top, but do so in a manner that acknowledges the realities that Hurst outlines. I once spent almost two hours talking with Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon about their book on the 100 mile diet. I’ve also met Marion Nestle and spoken to her about these challenges. Both parties were passionate advocates, but neither were zealots or ideologues. Yet, ideological rants are what is coming out loud and clear from those who are against conventional farming. This was loud and clear when the U.K. Food Standards Agency published their study showing that organics were no more nutrient rich as conventionally grown food (see my earlier post). The news and the web are full of criticisms of it, driven (presumably) by an ideology that simply see the report as an attack, rather than a reflection of science.

Diversity of perspective is an essential ingredient for healthy systems change. Hurst’s article motivated me to write this because I think he has a valuable thing to say. While many might favour organics and small scale farming for the reasons I’ve cited earlier, the truth is that there are some things that conventional farmers do now that isn’t incongruent with this perspective and that perhaps ideology should be put into the backseat. As Peter Senge and others have outlined, we need to have all groups at the table to develop our systems change strategy and this won’t happen through attacking the others, only through listening. Maybe through being present with others, listening to their perspective, and developing a strategy based less on ideology and more on collaboration will be successful in getting the healthy food system we want.

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