Uncertainty from attacks on production methods

by Morton Sosland
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Nostalgia, usually defined as a yearning for days gone by, has always played an important role in the food industry. Many foods benefit in marketing from a real or imaginary connection to a past that is frequently regarded as the height of romantic idealism. Even as modern food production and manufacturing have progressed to the point that innovations and efficiencies mean American food costs less than 10% of personal income, the possibility of returning to antiquated methods has an appeal with a life of its own. Indeed, the further removed food production moves from the days of small family farms and a time when home preparation accounted for most food eaten, the inclination expands to blame the food industry’s advances for current ills.

Based on a plethora of recent writings, it might even be concluded that a crossroads is near where the food industry will have to decide how to respond to attacks on modern food production. The preferred road may well be no longer neglecting these critics in favor of aggressive defense of the industry’s success in providing food at ever lower costs. Many examples of the lengths to which these attacks have gone may be cited. Two come particularly to mind. The New York Times op-ed columnist, Nicholas D. Kristof, who grew up on a farm in Oregon, wrote a piece titled “Food for the Soul.” Mr. Kristof said he has figured out the central problem of modern industrial agriculture. “It’s not just that it produces unhealthy food, mishandles waste and overuses antibiotics in ways that harm us all. More fundamentally, it has no soul.” Without examining what such a soul-related assertion says about people engaged in growing and processing food, it is important to realize that the columnist declares the family farm has been replaced “by insipid food assembly lines.” Why he uses “insipid,” meaning tasteless, is evidence of his search for every possible nuance to relegate modern food production to the worst possible position. In recalling his own youth as a farm boy, he doesn’t yearn so much for the past as he criticizes present industry practices.

And then there is Time magazine, which devoted the cover of a recent issue as well as numerous pages inside to an article hellbent on “Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food.” Written by Bryan Walsh, the magazine’s environmental columnist, its target is corporate farm production of livestock and poultry. It is replete with numerous “horror stories” about food production, food quality and food’s responsibility for obesity. Even though Mr. Walsh acknowledges that many of these issues have been around for a long time, and the low cost of food is a positive as well as a purported negative, the article is a paragraph-after-paragraph assault concluding that present-day food production is unsustainable. He declares that “our industrial style of food production will end sooner or later,” due to global warming and waning oil supplies. His replacement is organic farming based on downscaling to a proliferation of local producers. As ideal as that may be, experience underscores the inability of such methods to supply the exporting global population.

Yet, the multiplying of such articles may sooner or later bring about a response that is not just unacceptable to the food industry itself but a drag on the adequacy of the food supply. Look no further than the way efforts to restore stability to global banking are impacted by totally different approaches. These range from stepped-up regulation of bank lending to limiting businesses banks may operate. For the food industry, there’s no need to look beyond rules and policies being drafted by the federal government to regulate aquaculture, or fish farming, in federal waters. The food industry must not believe it is immune from these initiatives in a period when there’s much less hesitation about governmental interference for something as essential as the food supply and how it is made.

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