From the Oscar nod for the anti-farming documentary "Food, Inc." to Gwyneth Paltrow hyping meatless recipes in her "GOOP" newsletter, Hollywood's enthusiasm for all things vegan and organic seems to be at a high. But with the overwhelming majority of Americans still choosing conventionally raised foods and eating a balanced diet, elitist foodies' moment in the gastronomical limelight could be just that — a moment.
It's easy for celebrities to passionately condemn farming by large agricultural firms. They don't have to worry about a grocery bill.
For average Americans, bringing home the bacon gets a lot harder when you have to buy $29-per-pound artisanal cured pork belly.
But that hasn't stopped Hollywood's out-of-touch food purists from trying to guilt-trip all of us into changing the way we eat.
In the past year, glitzy celebrity propaganda campaigns have become ubiquitous. Longtime PETA activist and occasional actress Alicia Silverstone wrote a vegan cookbook. And vegan techno musician Moby is branching out into nonfiction writing with a new title that attempts to eviscerate livestock farming and traditional models of food safety.
Promoting a vegetarian lifestyle by focusing on health benefits may seem intuitive, but it shouldn't be. A 2006 Oxford University study found that vegetarians are just as likely as omnivores to die from strokes, and from colon, breast, and prostate cancer.
And research has repeatedly shown that organic fruits and vegetables are no healthier than their conventionally grown counterparts. The organic label, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirms, is no more than a "marketing program." In other words, buy organic produce if it soothes your conscience, but don't think you're getting a health benefit to justify the cost of those $6 carrots.
Likewise, proposals to convert more farmland to pesticide- and fertilizer-free operations may feel good. But feelings won't change the economics of growing food.
Organic farms produce less food with every acre. An analysis last year by researchers from Cornell and Washington State universities found that organic dairy production would require more cows (and therefore more land, more feed, and more water) to produce the same amount of milk as conventional cows. More cows produce more methane and more manure.
If today's cattlemen reverted to the agriculture of 60 years ago, they would need an additional 165 million acres — an extra land mass roughly the size of Texas — to produce the same amount of beef. That land would have to come from somewhere. How enthusiastic is Hollywood about clear-cutting forests to make room for "free range" animals?
And how come today's anti-pesticide crowd also is against American advances in genetically modifying food plants? It is advances in food technology that make some crops less attractive to pests, allowing farmers to put less pesticide on the land.
In the spirit of debate, let's hear from the opposition. When Food Rules writer Michael Pollan sat in the cushy guest seat on Oprah in January, the darling of the "slow food" scene smugly exhorted viewers: "We all can vote with our forks."
I couldn't agree more — but I don't think Pollan will like the results.
If organic produce isn't necessarily better for the environment, and avoiding meat isn't going to prevent you from getting cancer, maybe Hollywood should go back to just making movies again. Preferably silent ones. I think the rest of us can handle the grocery shopping on our own.