Newspaper readers who linger over the food and dining sections should be familiar with a movement urging President Barack Obama to jump-start a “food revolution.” The enlightened eaters driving it have become very vocal about their preference for all-organic, locally grown foods. But the foodie trend is starting to have troubling side effects.
Since a few loosely organized connoisseurs have shifted their focus from the point of sale to the presidency, the boundary between personal food choices and government policymaking is gradually disappearing. In the process, once-serious debates about the future of American food and farm policy have been replaced by a bizarre mix of misguided activism, food snobbery and celebrity gossip.
The rumor mill that emerged over the Obamas’ pick for White House executive chef is a perfect example. Over the holidays, activist chef Alice Waters published an open letter asking him to choose someone who would “set the tone for how our nation should feed itself.”
The white-tablecloth-and-organic-shallot set has yet to calm down.
Even after it was announced that White House chef Cristeta Comerford would be staying, The New York Times printed a rehashing of a “behind-the-scenes” feud over the letter between Waters and another high-profile chef. And the feud intensified when the Obamas announced the hiring of Sam Kass, their private chef from Chicago, to assist Comerford.
This last decision has given new hope to a movement that is begging the Obamas to turn their new backyard into an organic community garden.
According to Waters and her sprouting acolytes, growing heirloom radishes on the White House lawn will help address issues as diverse as obesity, teen diabetes and global warming. But experience and common sense suggest that solving these problems will require far more than a presidential seal on a Berkeley, Calif., ideology.
Waters is not the only activist urging Barack Obama to adopt these gestures. Food journalist Michael Pollan has been so influential in this regard that 9,000 people signed a petition urging Obama to appoint him secretary of agriculture.
While Pollan’s efforts to educate the public are usually well-intended, his policy platform points to the problem with the entire foodie movement: It favors ideology over science.
In Pollan’s public letter to the president, appearing in The New York Times Magazine even before Election Day, he urged the presumptive new administration to make an organically grown, completely plant-based diet the basis for a “reform of the entire food system.”
Pollan could barely make it through one page before equating the consumption of conventional (read: non-organic) food with “eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.”
This “yuck factor” approach has already proven to be a regulatory disaster. (The outdated, backfiring government warnings about mercury in fish, and the prevention of vital research on genetically modified foods, are two notable examples.) And Pollan’s statistics, such as the claim that meat production accounts for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, are conspicuously out of date. (It’s less than 3 percent in the U.S., according to Environmental Protection Agency data.)
The upshot is that Pollan’s philosophy of food may be an apt guide for elitist shopping and meal-planning, but certainly not for governing.
Pollan, Waters and others may be happy to pay $7 for organic milk. That’s their right, of course. But asking the White House to lead a revolution against “cheap food” is a dangerous strategy when so many Americans are struggling to feed their families.
A knee-jerk rejection of conventionally grown — and affordable — food also fails to acknowledge the growing body of evidence showing that organic foods are no healthier (or “greener” even) than what our parents fed us.
President Obama’s hesitation to appease foodie activists suggests that he realizes something many Americans still don’t: Organic is a wishful agricultural philosophy, not a health issue. (You’ll even find organic snack bars on the current peanut-recall list.)
Our food system isn’t perfect, but neither is it “broken.” Despite alarmist claims to the contrary, America’s food supply has never been safer or more efficient.
As Obama’s own agriculture adviser Marshall Matz and former Sen. George McGovern wrote recently in the Chicago Tribune, “We need to get beyond ideology and depend more on science” in our food policy.
Obama is right to draw a line between public policy and his personal food preferences. And it’s time for all of us to recognize the food revolution movement for what it really is: a gourmet coup d’etat.