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July 10, 2008

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You'll have to send this post to Jonah Goldberg. He thinks that organic food is the true core of fascism, as opposed to superficial details like, say, the glorification of violence.

What’s interesting, though, about Pollan’s argument is how fundamentally conservative it is.

Well, except the part where he becomes a vegetarian. Good book though.

Yes, I too have noticed that anti-science theme running through Pollan's books -- not in a Republican, "pay no attenion to those pointy-headed elitists who say the earth is warming" kind of way, but more in a Frankensteinian (perhaps Icarusian?) sense of recognizing the limits of human knowledge. Pollan is essentially arguing that when it comes to the question of what to eat, science simply doesn't have the answers.

At the same time, it's not like he's arguing for tradition simply because that's how it's always been done; rather, he views food traditions as evolutionary processes, which is hardly an anti-science argument. I guess it's a warning against scientific hubris: complex systems can't always be boiled down to their most vital components.

The conservative element here shouldn't seem that surprising. "Crunchy Cons" would probably be sympathetic to the kind of holistic, small community arguments made by Pollan. Plus, the same DIY, tradition-based motivation that leads many conservative Christians to homeschool also leads to them gardening and (especially on the West Coast) engaging in other hippie actions.

This climate (whatever others may be) is not favourable to granaries, where wheat is to be kept for any time. The best, and indeed the only good granary, is the rick-yard of the farmer, where the corn is preserved in it's own straw, sweet, clean, wholesome, free from vermin and from insects, and comparatively at a trifle of expence. This, with the barn, enjoying many of the same advantages, have been the sole granaries of England from the foundation of it's agriculture to this day.

I'm not sure why this is so surprising, well maybe it's less obvious in the US, but from a European standpoint it's crystal clear: at least from 1968 onwards there has always been a decidedly conservative element within "the left" (green, anti-nuclear, peace movement, preservation of endangered peoples and marginalized languages etc.) while "conservatives" have always struggled to reconcile the revolutionary and destructive forces of inherently dynamic capitalism with their purported support for traditional life-styles and values.

The British government has been pushing "5 a day" (which food manufacturers have been trying to subvert) for some years now - five portions of fresh fruit or vegetables a day. Most people have by this time absorbed at least the idea, even if it's difficult to put it into practice. Primary schools get funded to buy a piece of fruit for each child at snack time. Local co-ops get funded to sell fresh fruit and vegetables cheaper than supermarkets.

Speaking from my own experience, I know that when I decided to try for 8-10 portions of fresh fruit and vegetables daily, along with wholegrain cereals and less dairy and aiming to eat organic as far as I can afford to (and I'm fortunate in living in a city where I can do this without going bankrupt) I got healthier: I picked up fewer stray infections, I have more energy, I feel fitter.

It's always possible to eat healthier food the more money you have. Providing organic fruit and vegetables at an affordable price is something that benefits people on a low income both at the farming end (pesticides and chemical fertilisers are not safe for the workers) and at the eating end - the residues aren't particularly safe for us either.

What conservatives tend to object to is not so much advocating a healthy diet, as advocating the social structures that enable everyone to eat a healthy diet. (Tomato ketchup is not a vegetable.)

I'm a traditionalist, so I pretty much stick to the Nacho Cheese Doritos, rather than these new-fangled flavors that are coming out.

there has always been a decidedly conservative element within "the left" (green, anti-nuclear, peace movement, preservation of endangered peoples and marginalized languages etc.

novakant, could you expand a bit on the last? I'm very embarrassed to say that though I have spent a lot of time studying language endangerment, I really have no idea how it maps onto the European political landscape. Thanks.

Michael Pollan amusingly summed up his dietary advice with a line I have often used:

'Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.'

Excluding maybe the Amish, the most conservative (in the Burkean sense, as used here) people in the US in living memory are the hippies. To the degree that any traditional folk craft, practice, or tradition is still alive, you can probably thank a hippie for it.

The reason French people don't get fat is that they eat modest portions. No doubt generations of adaptation to the food of their region helps, but basically, when they eat, they don't eat too much. It's considered bad manners.

Thanks -

they don't eat too much

Yeah, I never understood the whole “upsize” phenomena here. I mean good lord – do you really need a whole pound of fries and a quart of soda with that triple bacon cheeseburger?

heard a story on NPR yesterday saying that 25% of the people in China, of all places, are likely to be overweight, these days. just a in the west, they blamed it on the decrease in exercise, increase in fatty foods, etc..

(another story about it, here)

Jesu, some conservatives do seem to object to a healthy diet--they object to talk about organic food and vegetarianism as being somehow better than the mainstream food.

Fraser: Jesu, some conservatives do seem to object to a healthy diet--they object to talk about organic food and vegetarianism as being somehow better than the mainstream food.

Well, vegetarianism isn't necessarily better - you can eat a very, very unhealthy vegetarian diet! (Fries, tomato ketchup, Quorn burgers, white bread, chips, and chocolate...) And yeah, I think a lot of conservatives (small c) object to vegetarians...

But I'm surprised that organic food isn't accepted as better in the US - it has become accepted as of higher quality in the UK, regardless of your politics. (It is, of course.)

For instance, consider the French diet (which includes lots of wine and meat but little heart disease) or the infamous Mediterranean one.

Is this some new use of the word "infamous" with which I am hitherto unacquainted, or do you literally mean that the Mediterranean diet is one "having a reputation of the worst kind : notoriously evil" (Merriam-Webster)?

One minor quibble - Your comment about July 4 BBQs seems off the mark. It seems to me that one is very likely to encounter "food" as opposed to "food like substances" at a BBQ. My experience is that you eat grilled meats as opposed to, say, chicken nuggets or lunchmeats; corn on the cob, as opposed to, say, things made with corn syrup; and watermelon, as opposed to, say, artificially watermelon-flavored candy. I'll admit you might run into a chip or two and maybe a couple of pies, but the bulk of the "food" at a BBQ is, um, "food," even if it's a bit heavy on the meat. [(in a hushed tone, looking to make sure no one is listening) What does he say about beer...?]

"at least from 1968 onwards there has always been a decidedly conservative element within "the left"" (and what russell said)

Yep. For one small example, take heirloom tomatoes and such - that's something that goes across the political spectrum, but as a cultural signifier, most strongly associated with folks who'll be using them to prepare a (pseudo)peasant-style meal while listening to folk music on NPR after coming back from the garden/farmers' market/Whole Foods.

While the flip side of arugula (or rocket, as Burke might have known it) is that for most of its history it's been the kind of thing Italian peasants would have gathered (being often a quasi-wild green) . . .

(It might be that a difference lies in liberal/left folks being more likely to take things from other people's traditions, from cultures in other places and/or times, as opposed to the recent mythic past?). Quinoa-stuffed tomatoes!

And even in other ways, it seems like things got bizarrely switched at some point when I wasn't paying attention, so suddenly my fellow liberals and I are arguing about the importance of marriage, staying home to raise kids, and restraining gov't power. Though certain cultural conservatives would probably see it as cherished values being hideously twisted, as if in a funhouse mirror, - gay marriage, legislation requiring businesses to give new parents non-tiny amounts of time off (parents! OMG, men taking care of babies! -, and possible gov't funding! and accepting a) the possibility that women might want to return to the workplace, and even advance! ,and b) the economic realities!), etc.

I do think it's marvelous that only knowing that a family homeschools, gardens, does a lot of bread-baking, and goes squaredancing tells you very little about, say, their voting preferences. I've often kinda hoped that this sort of thing would help be, at a national level, the beginning of - well, if not a beautiful friendship, at least increased neighborliness, but I don't know . . .

[i]Yeah, I never understood the whole “upsize” phenomena here. I mean good lord – do you really need a whole pound of fries and a quart of soda with that triple bacon cheeseburger?[/i]

Yeah, whenever I see the commercials for like a Wendy's Baconator (840 calories, 51 grams of fat), or a Pizza Hut pizzone (610 calories, 23 grams of fat), I think "It's no wonder most other countries think we're insane." Seriously, a Baconator meal with fries and a regular soda provides:

1410 calories, 71 grams of fat, 26g of saturated fat, 2250mg of sodium, and 131g of carbs.

And that's one meal. People who are eating that are probably not holding back at other meals either. The portion sizes at "family style" restaurants are simply outrageous -- 2-3 times as large as they should be.

For me a lot of it is academic, since I've been a vegetarian going on 18 years; although as Jes points out, there are a lot of unhealthy, poor-eating vegetarians, too.

We're fortunate enough to live where there are a lot of good farmer's markets with a lot of local and organic produce (and meats and fish for those that eat them) at good prices. We're also a 15-minute drive from Cleveland's famous West Side Market, where you can get foods from a combination of local/organic growers and wholesalers at fantastic prices. Also, just 40 minutes east is Perry, Ohio, the nursery capital of Ohio, with lots and lots of "pick your own" fruits and vegetables. Finally, my mom grows enough tomatoes, cukes and peppers every year to keep us supplied all summer.

But I'm surprised that organic food isn't accepted as better in the US - it has become accepted as of higher quality in the UK, regardless of your politics. (It is, of course.)

No, it's not, if one realizes how US agribusiness concerns have found ways to label products organic that aren't really. Here are your one two three links, though I'm not sure if these are the best, but they can give you a taste of what's at issue.

To be fair, the conditions in the UK and the EU make it much more feasible to have truly organic food that is raised close to your home, whereas the US requires a lot of transportation and economies of scale to maintain the current price structure (a 10-15% markup doesn't really cover the additional costs of organic, and that's about the limit that US consumers are willing to pay above the usual) Some argue for the ideal model of buying direct from the farmer who supports artisanal varieties and operates on a smaller scale is the true definition of organic, but when eating organic becomes a fashion statement, then the market is going to find ways of meeting demands which will dilute the notion of organic.

Of course, Phil provides a counter example, which also give me a chance to include this SFChronicle article that I had to leave out

"You'll have to send this post to Jonah Goldberg.

Y'know, one of my first thought reading the post was: OMG - nobody tell Jonah - Edmund Burke's a fascist.

The argument that tradition (or culture, as it's more generally known) provides humanity with an adaptive system is an old one. Genes are adaptive, but require thousands of generations to adapt. Culture is also adaptive -- but it takes must less time to adapt. How long? More than two generations, less than ten, perhaps. This gives humanity enormous adaptive flexibility.

However, technology permits humanity to alter its environment, and we are doing so at an ever-increasing rate. This accelerating change requires adaptive changes in our behavior. Our ability to change is limited by the speed with which we can alter our culture (traditions). That speed is fixed, but the speed with which we are changing our own environment is increasing. Ergo, there must come a point where we are changing our environment faster than we are responding to the changes. Beyond this point, we are decreasingly adapted to our environment. Any species that cannot adapt to its environment goes extinct.

There is one tiny hope: a rational creature can adapt more quickly than a cultural one. However, to do this, we need to be really good at rationalism (possible) and we must abandon traditionalism for rationalism (forget it).

The end may not be nigh, but it's on its way.

Ahem. As the (apparent) liberal representative of the California food and fiber industry to this blog, I need to point out something.

Organic is great. It also contains the seeds of its own destruction. (heh.) Industrial farming is the only way we know to grow enough food for the planet that people want. Yields from organic methods are simply too low.

A world-wide shift to organic farming would result either in forced vegetarianism or massive starvation.

"I'm not sure why this is so surprising, well maybe it's less obvious in the US, but from a European standpoint it's crystal clear: at least from 1968 onwards there has always been a decidedly conservative element within "the left" (green, anti-nuclear, peace movement, preservation of endangered peoples and marginalized languages etc.) while "conservatives" have always struggled to reconcile the revolutionary and destructive forces of inherently dynamic capitalism with their purported support for traditional life-styles and values."


I think I became aware of the weird, topsy turvey nature of the conservative/liberal labels when I started reading Garry Wills. I think a lot of what passes for "conservative" thinking in the US is a debased form of 19th century liberalism. "Debased" of course is my opinion.

No, it's not, if one realizes how US agribusiness concerns have found ways to label products organic that aren't really.

Oh. :-(

Reminds me of the time Coca-Cola tried to sell bottled tap water (cite, cite) in the UK as "spring water". Granted tap water from the mains is (in the UK at least) likely to be purer and more reliably potable than any spring water, still - Coca-Cola were trying it on, and it surprised me that they evidently expected to get away with it.

A world-wide shift to organic farming would result either in forced vegetarianism or massive starvation.

Meat would become a luxury item, yes. And the problem with this is...?

I'm very embarrassed to say that though I have spent a lot of time studying language endangerment, I really have no idea how it maps onto the European political landscape.

Oh, I'm no expert either and the whole picture is a bit muddled. I was thinking of support for the Kurds for instance, which was one of the focus points of the left for a long time, way before the right ever gave a damn about them or those on the left turned neocon. Also, East-Timor used to be a big issue for the left, while most on the right were quite happy to ignore it as long as they could do deals with Suharto. Generally, I think it's fair to say that the left would be more supportive of ethnic minorities and promote the protection of their traditional life-styles under the banner of human rights, while the majority of conservatives wasn't all that bothered about such niceties, especially if there was money to be made.

There are exceptions though, such as for instance the conservatives' support for the Sudeten Germans, which was always a bete noire for the left, due to the issue also being abused for cold war propaganda purposes. However, large parts of the left did have a bit of a blind spot when it came to criticizing oppression of such people in socialist states.

The Society for Threatened Peoples would be an example for an organization that is rooted in the left spectrum of the political landscape.

you can change the language of the site to English in the menu

I mean good lord – do you really need a whole pound of fries and a quart of soda with that triple bacon cheeseburger?

Two words - "bong hits"

novakant, thanks.

To me there is no contradiction at all. To be "conservative" means you want to *conserve* something, there's something you want to keep the same or to keep traditional. This is a basic human desire, and there's nothing wrong with it.

During the 20th Century it became clear that it was no longer possible to be conservative across the board: change is so multifaceted and inevitable that even the most change-resistant people had to prioritize their conservatism and pick the things they *really* don't want to change.

So: many hippies are food-, environment-, and clothing-conservatives: I probably count as one, myself. *That's* where my conservatism is focused.

But politics is always about power, so political conservatives *by definition* focus on conserving the distribution of power. And since large corporations have the most power in our society, anything that undercuts their power will be opposed by political conservatives. That's why political conservatives snear at organic food: not because there's something "unconservative" about it, but because it's an opposing conservatism.

I'm a traditionalist, so I pretty much stick to the Nacho Cheese Doritos

OK, so I'm putting you down as a supporter of the War On Teroir.

Sorry, couldn't help myself. :(

However, to do this, we need to be really good at rationalism (possible) and we must abandon traditionalism for rationalism (forget it).

Or, of course, we could stop altering our environment, at least at the rate at which we currently do that.

Industrial farming is the only way we know to grow enough food for the planet that people want. Yields from organic methods are simply too low.

I hear this a lot, but I'm not convinced. Not least because of the amount of "industrial farming" that is dedicated to producing (1) meat and (2) corn to feed the meat (and turn into corn syrup).

Do you have any information to back up your claim here, or is it an assumption on your part? I don't know whether it's true, or not, but I'm suspicious of it.

Thanks -

novakant: I take your point about threatened peoples generally, but the specific case of the Kurds was different, I think. Here, at least, it was largely about a history of severe oppression, and less abut protecting a vanishing culture. I imagine this might have been quite different in Europe, though, since Europe, unlike the US, has a non-negligible Kurdish population.

Zorro:
when it comes to the question of what to eat, science simply doesn't have the answers.

It's got pretty good answers concerning what not to eat, however. :) (Or, at least, what not to eat too much of.)

DaveC:

Heh!

Fraser:
they object to talk about organic food and vegetarianism as being somehow better than the mainstream food.

It depends on how you define "better." If you mean "better for you," than there's really not much evidence to suggest that this is the case for, say, organic versus conventional produce, or vegetarianism versus an omnivorous diet. It can best be described as "inconclusive."

As to the question of whether it's better for the environment, of that there can be little doubt.

hairshirthedonist:

Yes, but what about the BBQ sauce? Unless it's home-made (and possibly even then), it's all corn syrup. :)

(The Original) Francis:
Organic is great. It also contains the seeds of its own destruction.

You're right about this, if adopted worldwide. In North America, however, we could get away with it pretty readily. But you're starting to get into the problem of overpopulation, and that's a completely different (if related) can of worms. To the extent that industrial farming of the sort you describe simply isn't sustainable, it too contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Also, I agree with Jes, sort of. I don't advocate vegetarianism (forced or otherwise), but most people should probably be eating a lot less meat (and more produce) than they actually do. There's a reason meat is so high on the food pyramid.

I might have a steak once or twice a month. I know people that do so two or three times per week. I'm also trying to work in more vegetarian meals (or, at least, more vegetable-intensive meals), but it can be difficult at times.

Also, on a pet peeve note, most of the "vegetables" I eat -- squash, peppers, tomatoes, beans, etc. -- are actually fruits or legumes (a type of fruit).

publius:

Have you seen Super Size Me? Of particular interest was the segment on the school for troubled youth, where they drastically improved student behavior by eliminating junk food, sugary soft drinks, etc.

Even troubled kids have endocrine systems.

tgirsch - i have and it pretty much stopped me from going to mcdonalds for almost a year. (I still go very rarely).

but that makes sense i think -- personally, i feel better when i eat better, but who knows whether that's just mental

Enough of this. How about an open thread for recipes?

personally, i feel better when i eat better, but who knows whether that's just mental

Your brain is part of your body.

How about an open thread for recipes?

Seconded.

Thanks -

Here, at least, it was largely about a history of severe oppression, and less abut protecting a vanishing culture. I imagine this might have been quite different in Europe, though, since Europe, unlike the US, has a non-negligible Kurdish population.

There is of course a difference between a culture that is vanishing because it is anachronistic and has trouble sustaining itself in the face of modernity and an ethnic minority that would be doing just fine were it not for the fact that the majority oppresses them. Yet, had the Turkish government had its way, the Kurdish culture would have vanished, the laws against teaching, writing and even speaking in the Kurdish language were designed to destroy their culture and turn them into Turks. Saddam Hussein, though he was infinitely more brutal, seemed rather less interested in these cultural issues, but driven purely by the desire to consolidate his power.

"But I'm surprised that organic food isn't accepted as better in the US - it has become accepted as of higher quality in the UK, regardless of your politics. (It is, of course.)"

Not unless it's defined. People can (and do) call anything "organic food," thus rendering the term meaningless unless specifically defined.

"Or, of course, we could stop altering our environment"

This seems a touch impractical, though perhaps less so with your modifier. But, still, unlikely, and not necessarily overall for the best, even if enacted. We shouldn't, say, build new wind power devices, and tidal power devices, and put up lots of solar power panels all over? Because that's going to take an awful lot of altering our environment. Etc.

This seems a touch impractical, though perhaps less so with your modifier

Yes, quite right. I'll try to make a better answer.

First, some changes to the world are harmful, and some are not. One value of cultural adaptation is that it provides a way of testing which are which. The good stuff persists, the bad stuff does not.

As an aside, IMO the cultural response does a better job of doing this than a purely rational one, because it accounts for a broader range of meanings for "good", and draws on a broader range of experience in doing the evaluation.

IMO changes to culture can happen faster than E. assumes, but still, technological manipulation of the environment can happen very fast, and can overwhelm the rate at which all of the consequences can be understood and evaluated. So, E. has a very good point.

Where I disagree is with his assumption that technological change MUST occur at that rate. It's our choice.

Thanks -

Dunno is anyone is still reading the comments all the way to the bottom, but there is some good stuff in this post from Russell Arben Fox's blog In Medias Res, about the intersection of conservatism and the well-publicized return to traditional systems of production and distribution in the food industry (organic production, CSAs, the eat-local movement, backyard/community gardens, and so on).

It's fascinating and somehow cheering to think about those places where respect for traditional values meet other values I hold dear (reversing the trend towards corporate gigantism, putting an end to topsoil loss, toxic residues, virtual or real slavery, etc.).

"Dunno is anyone is still reading the comments all the way to the bottom...."

Now you do.

Gary, you're a peach!

"Gary, you're a peach!"

A peach who reads a lot.

David, thanks for the link. I enjoyed reading it.

Thanks -

Russell Arben Fox is a good guy. He's both smart and clearly committed to living wisely and morally. It would be a darn sight better world if the folks like him could get some leverage over the allegedly conservative political party, but in the meantime I learn a lot from him even though I also argue back a lot. :)

Bruce, that's very kind of you to say; thanks for the good words. And David, thanks for the original link; I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

As the post makes clear, there's been several people (some within the mainstream conservative movement, some without) over the last few years who have argued about and tried to advance the idea that those of a conservative bent--if they take their Burke at all seriously, to make use of publius's post--ought to be the first to sustain local and organic foods, and oppose corporate agriculture. (John Schwenkler's piece in The American Conservative is a good start, as is, of course, Rod Dreher's Crunchy Cons.) You can just look at McCain to see that they haven't exactly had much success yet. My main beef (ha! a pun!) right now is that these folks see, I think, an unreasonable amount of overlap with another perennial "conservative counter-culture," namely libertarianism. The idea that the small, healthy, and local would win out over corporations in a fair--unsubsidized, unregulated, unsupervised--capitalist contest is, in my opinion, a bit of a crazy dream, but for the moment I say: more power to them. Pretty much anything that can get more people aware of these concerns is good news in my book.

Hey - welcome, Russell Arben Fox!

Nothin' but the truth, Russell - your name in comments makes me happy when I'm reading at Crooked Timber, for instance.

I agree that it's really hard to imagine a sustainable food culture winning against agribusiness, advertising, and so on. But I think there's room to help it grow into a visible, persistent alternative, and that this witness to the not-necessity of doing things in ways most convenient for a handful of corporate concerns can in turn catalyze things I (at least) am not yet imagining.

The idea that the small, healthy, and local would win out over corporations in a fair--unsubsidized, unregulated, unsupervised--capitalist contest is, in my opinion, a bit of a crazy dream, but for the moment I say: more power to them.

A few thoughts.

I'm not sure it's necessary for either industrial agriculture or local, small scale agriculture to 'win'. What would be useful IMO is for both to have a place at the table.

There is certainly a demand for locally grown food. The CSAs in my area, which are based on a 'buy a share' model, are sold out, and there's a waiting list for new shares. The farmer's markets in my area are always packed. People want the food.

I will say that reading your piece, and the pieces you linked to, was a bit of a Rashomon experience for me. Where conservatives see the meddling hand of the state, I (a lefty) see the amoral shark-like influence of corporations. I'm sure there's something to both points of view.

What I will say is that I don't think you will see the kind of popular sovereignty you talk about in your piece as long as the interests of corporations are favored above, or even as anything like equal to, those of the public.

Somehow, the legal fiction of the corporate 'person' has attained the legal standing that belongs to human persons, and the principle of respect for private property has turned into the idea that no constraints should be placed on how that property is employed.

I wonder how the constitution would read had the institution of the modern corporation been in existence when it was written.

In any case, I'm delighted to find conservatives who are at least open to placing limits on the coercive actions not only of government, but of corporations as well.

Thanks for your article.

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