Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Second Agrarian Divide?

It's amazing and in some ways puzzling to me to watch how food markets are developing in the U.S. It seems like more and more energy is being put into reconstructing the diversity, quality, and geography of traditional food systems and that there is more and more interest in consuming local produce and learning (or relearning) to consume in post-industrial (pre-industrial?) ways. Today, there were two New York times articles that inspired me to write something. One about the local wheat movement, challenging the idea that wheat can't be grown in places like New York State and that wheat ought to be a flavorless, uniform, and consistent commodity. There is a whole package of self reinforcing knowledge that must be recovered together to make such a thing possible: what varieties of wheat grow well where and in what seasons; what those variates of wheat are best used for (pasta, bread, pastries, cakes); how to bake responsively to the variable qualities of flour ground from these different wheats (to adjust the flavors and moisture instinctively to get a good result from different flours); how to enjoy and consume baked goods that aren't just white starches but where wheat and its flavors are an actual player.

Times reporter Indrani Sen writes: "It might take a while to appreciate high-quality, small-batch flours after a lifetime of eating food made with mass-produced flour. Their musky fragrances are often more pronounced, and variations in taste and texture bring a new range of complexity to baked goods, making supermarket flour seem one dimensional by comparison."

I've often thought that, in addition to ecological ways of producing food--i.e. farming methods that mimic ecological processes so that food production is environmentally sound and sustainable--there are also ecological ways of consuming food that mirror or parallel the process of growing food. After all, food is made up of living things, which are limited by their nature and their relationship to the seasons, the soil, the weather, and their relationship to other living things. I think one of the reasons that I love cooking and that I am so fascinated by the world's different cuisines is because of all of the almost ecological knowledge encoded into traditional cooking. Obviously, seasonal eating and the knowledge to make the most out of each season's products is a big piece of this. But it goes well beyond knowing what is in season and knowing what to do and how to respond to the varying qualities of the living things produced by a farm and how to break down and recombine the different components of farm products to make the most of them. French recipes, so I hear, used to stipulate whether winter or spring eggs were to be used, because of their different properties (I might have gotten the seasons wrong, but you get the point). When a cow is killed, it's different parts all have different uses, from the roasting parts, to the soup bones, to the viscera which require special care and treatment to be palatable and occasionally even delicious.

All this knowledge, and then the actual physical investments needed to grow, mill, store, and transport wheat at the local level, must be recovered and put in place to make anything like a market for local wheat possible. And apparently, there is enough interest and will to make this happen. It's bizarre to me, because all of this infrastructure and knowledge existed in the U.S. before it was wiped out by industrial ways of producing and eating and by the subsidies that have upheld and expanded this system in the name of development and progress. Until the 1960s, the Midwest was populated by hundreds of local breweries that produced a vast variety of beers with the knowledge of German, Czech, and Polish immigrants. Midwestern small batch brewing was wiped out by bud light and other tasteless brews only to be later resurrected in the 'snobbish' microbrew craze on the coasts and in cities like Portland, OR. It turns out that people--at least those with economic means--really value the way we used to produce and eat--or at least the way they imagine we used to produce and eat.

What's more puzzling, is that this knowledge and this infrastructure exists (however precariously) in developing countries like Paraguay. Still, rather than strengthening, developing, and making more viable these traditional food systems, most proposed responses to the current global food crisis involve the further industrialization of agriculture. It seems to me that this creates a food supply that people consume not because they demand it or because it is nutritious, but because its empty calories are so cheap that the diversity of qualities people actually value cannot possibly compete. Moreover, by further submitting the food supply to the very vulnerabilities of energy and input intensity that have created this crisis, such a response seems to only postpone an inevitable adjustment toward more sustainable way of producing and eating while leaving an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, environmental destruction, and culinary barrenness in its wake.

The other article was only slightly related, but was about how supermarket chains are opening smaller stores that focus on fresh food and convenience, upending "a long-running trend in the grocery business: building ever-larger stores in the belief that consumers want choice above all." Audre Martin writes: " Of course, small grocery stores have been around forever, and some old-time neighborhood markets still exist. Meanwhile, a handful of specialty retailers have proved that shoppers will flock to smaller stores if they are offered a novel experience." I've also always puzzled at why anyone shops exclusively at huge supermarkets. It strikes me as outright irrational. Produce is much more expensive, for example, at the supermarket near my old apartment in Chicago, than it is at the nearly equidistant Vietnamese small grocers on Argyle street. I never understood why Chicago neighborhoods are not populated by grocers of this sort rather than by Jewel. But it turns out, people like the convenience and quality of a small store for quick shopping trips, and now supermarket companies like Tesco have discovered this and will be the ones to profit from it.

This apparent turning back happens at a time when the monopoly of agribusiness over the food supply and the trade of food has reached alarming levels. From Monsanto's patenting of plant genetic material and the legal system's support for the privatization of life to Walmart's tremendous share in the supermarket industry, private companies have never had so much power to impose their values and profit motive on the way we eat and the way we produce our food. This has led to an illusion of diversity and a reality of stark agricultural and gastronomic monotony.

[This picture is just outside the largest fragment of Atlantic Forest left in Paraguay; the emptiness of the cleared forest and the tree stumps that dot some of the landscape give eerie testament to the extent and the newness of the destruction]

It's like food production and consumption is being pushed or pulled in opposite directions and a highly developed dualism is arising that parallels the increasing inequality of income, education, and health in the U.S. I often wonder how this could possibly play out. Can these two food systems coexist, and if so, for how long? What tensions does this imply for Americans, some of whom will increasingly get their chicken from farmer Phil and others from Phillip Morris?


Arianna said...

I am so glad someone is writing about this! Or, was, I suppose I am reading this a little late, but this topic seems even more relevant now; at least in my opinion the influence from the large supermarket chains (superseis, stock, etc. etc.) can really be seen changing the way people buy their food in Paraguay. And, up here in the US, the local food movement has been getting stronger and more public every day.
I just found your blog (looking for a chipa reciple) and plan to read more of it!

Anonymous said...

sac Louis Vuitton Louis Vuitton Louis Vuitton Sacsac Louis Vuitton pas cher

Anonymous said...

[url=]hermes bags sale online[/url] Bloomingdales dress Liquidation naples

[url=]how to buy a birkin bag[/url] persistent lower back pain in toddlers is often a serious issue. a few results comprise of microbe infections, hard disk drive drawbacks, inflammation of the joints, and then tumors. these problems is affected by the life, and unpleasant slots they can be their life-threatening.

[url=]hermes discount[/url] UGG boots to start followed released taking a fill shades, much like original brown, chestnut and moreover chocolate brown. sorts of 3 shapes and colours are especially are part of incredibly dull colored. when using the track record within the entire population, UGG hunter wellingtons led to countless considerably more variations and extra different shades when considering human beings make a choice. they give UGG a developer new look. as well multi-colorful UGGs get clients at times small want personal one. there're 3 diverse shades of UGGs, usual, lighting for your home perfectly as as some sophisticated colours(UGG simple yet perfect extra tall sale made).