Food aid’s path to influencing ‘eco-foodies’

by Morton Sosland
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It was more than a year ago that this page created a bit of a stir by noting the concept advanced by a highly regarded philosopher that concerns about many aspects of food have replaced morality about sexual behavior in the minds of modern-day Americans. The fascinating point of this argument was that moralizing about sexual conduct has been largely abandoned, while food — how it is grown and processed — is being increasingly surrounded by moral issues. This page acknowledged obsessions that have arisen about food, citing trends like vegetarianism and Atkins dieters where claims of moral justification have influenced the foods that people buy and eat. In the year or so since that piece was published, the morality question has, if anything, intensified, as evidenced by the expanding attention being given to so-called urban farming.

Certainly, the advocacy of consumers also becoming farmers to grow the food they eat takes this issue a giant step in its impact on traditional food retailing and, yes, food manufacturing. In some metropolitan areas, where even apartment dwellers proudly tell of planting food in window boxes as a moral and economic obligation, this movement has gone so far as to spur local governments to impose limits on farming within city limits. Regulations have been suggested to restrain building of barns, to limit applications of animal-made fertilizer and to impose night-time curfews on hoeing and similar spade work.

As amusing as this may seem and as reflective it might be of trends that will influence the food industry’s future, sight must not be lost of how these same forces have had a seriously negative effect on efforts to help millions of hungry people in poor countries. Robert Paarlberg, professor of political science at Wellesley College, has taken the lead in warning about the dangers of views held by “modern eco-foodies,” who he says are full of good intentions even though “changing our shopping and eating habits is being wildly oversold to Western consumers.”

Professor Paarlberg asserts that “food has become an elite preoccupation in the West, ironically, just as the most effective ways to address hunger in poor countries have fallen out of fashion.” His use of “elite” certainly smacks of the same issues of morality noted previously. It is his concern that emphasis on “organic, local and slow” in food production, including the concept of urban farming, has become a significant influence on how aid is offered to poor nations, in Africa and in Asia. Instead of helping these countries build the internal infrastructure and embrace modern agricultural techniques that would improve their food supply, he says a new line of thinking opposes helping farmers in these needy nations gain access to improved seed and fertilizer. Instead, the mantra of “sustainable food” has managed to win the upper hand, which does little, if anything, to produce the quantities required.

“We need to de-romanticize our view of pre-industrial food and farming,” Professor Paarlberg says, in a message that ought to influence thinking about domestic food as well as foreign aid. “That means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive and highly capitalized agricultural system we’ve developed in the West. Without it, our food would be more expensive and less safe.”

Convincing the “elites” that their emphasis on morality in food production is wrong will be extremely difficult in an America where food supply adequacy is overwhelming. Yet, Professor Paarlberg’s assertion that such thinking deprives people in poor countries of sufficient food may be just the argument needed to spur a shift in thinking, in America as well as in other parts of the world. Food is an industry that has been impacted many negative ways over the years by fads and weird trends. Thus, any hope of reversing what is wrong with current thinking about how food should be produced, on farms and by food manufacturers, makes this debate about foreign food assistance hugely important.

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