From an interesting essay on the resurgence of sustainable agriculture and its stress on food localization.
Jordan Kleiman reviews critical reactions to Michael Pollan, whose 2006 bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals “has contributed substantially to the recent burst of enthusiasm for local food.”
The critic is Julie Guthman, professor of community studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, author of the book, Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California, which came out in 2004.
“What, then, does Guthman find so troubling about The Omnivore’s Dilemma? While she faults the book on a number of counts,25 her main criticism focuses on Pollan’s argument for localism. That argument begins with the premise that our regulatory system—at least the part of it charged with overseeing the production, distribution, and consumption of food— has largely failed to protect public health and the environment and has helped undermine the vitality of the small-farm sector and rural communities in general. Guthman agrees with this premise, noting that our current “neoliberal political climate” has enabled corporations to capture the regulatory system. She is troubled, however, by the tendency of many local-food advocates (especially Pollan) to view the local as an inherent bulwark against the environmental destruction and social exploitation associated with global capitalism. Pollan, for example, contrasts what he sees as the intrinsic integrity of local-food economies with the untrustworthiness of globalized industrial food chains. The latter, he maintains, are based on a lack of transparency—that is, they are tolerable only insofar as their inner workings remain hidden from public view. In contrast, he argues that localized food chains are highly “legible” to consumers and thus trustworthy by definition. And in one of the more provocative sections of the book, Pollan insists that attempts to verify trustworthiness from a distance through labeling or other certification strategies are too easily corrupted.
In short, Pollan and many other localists argue that in light of the corporate capture of government regulation (and in light of inherent deficiencies in bureaucratic culture itself, as we will see below), consumers should “opt out”—that is, they should turn to direct observation of farmers and processors as the only reliable means of ensuring that our food is responsibly produced. The “glass abattoir,” in this view, takes the place of the USDA inspector in an emerging “culture of audit.”
Guthman complains that Pollan’s argument for localism reinforces the “neoliberal political climate” that weakened regulatory standards to begin with. By abandoning the fight for a more effective regulatory state in favor of an atomized “culture of audit,” she argues, Pollan and other localists appear to embrace “the idea that the food system can be changed one meal at a time.”28 In the hands of Pollanesque localists, Guthman concludes, “food politics has become a progenitor of a neoliberal anti-politics that devolves regulatory responsibility to consumers via their dietary choices.”
This sort of localism is doubly unfortunate in Guthman’s view. First, she argues, it is elitist. While Guthman admits to sharing Pollan’s “foodie predilections” and to taking her “personal eating choices seriously,” she views those choices “as ways to opt out” for the individual, not as “a road to change” for society as a whole. In fact, she explicitly rejects “the fantasy that individual, yuppified, organic, slow food consumption choices are the vehicles to move toward a more just and ecological way of producing and consuming food.” In her view, “the structures of inequality must necessarily be addressed so that others may eat well.”
Guthman also worries that Pollan’s brand of localism romanticizes the local, uncritically attaching to it a number of norms embraced by food activists and thus endowing it with a “pre-political status.” In other words, by conceiving of the local as an inherently ethical space (“a place of both biological and social organicism”), Pollanesque localists remove it from the realm of political contestability, and thus, it might be added, from the realm of history.
Although Guthman does not elaborate on why this might be problematic,32 two of her colleagues in AFSRG, Melanie DuPuis and David Goodman, do so in an article that appeared just prior to the publication of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. DuPuis and Goodman object to the growing tendency among food activists to embrace an “unreflexive localism” that promotes the local as “a normative realm of resistance” to the “anomic” forces of global capitalism. In other words, DuPuis and Goodman reject the dual assumption that the local necessarily embodies such positive attributes as an ethic of environmental stewardship, a commitment to quality, and an overall trustworthiness, and that it is therefore an intrinsic bulwark against global capitalism’s relentless commodification of food. To begin with, DuPuis and Goodman argue that localism is overdetermined—in other words, that while it might serve as a bulwark against the forces of globalization,34 it might just as easily “provide the ideological foundations for reactionary politics and nativist sentiments.” They also worry that localists, most of whom appear to be white, middle-class reformers, tend to assume rather undemocratically that their race- and class-based culinary preferences should be the norm for society as a whole. Finally, DuPuis and Goodman argue that unreflexive localism can actually serve as the “handmaiden of neoliberalism.” They frame this argument in terms of the growing literature on “glocalization,” according to which the spread of global capitalism strengthens sub-national and global political structures while “hollowing out” the nation-state and undermining its hard-won (if tenuous) regulator y achievements in the areas of public health, environmental protection, and antitrust action.36 From this perspective, the relocalization of the food system may actually contribute to the erosion of the state and thus play into the hands of free-market ideologues.
So what does one make of all of this? First, Guthman is on solid ground in criticizing Pollan’s implicit suggestion that food activists abandon the fight for a strong regulatory system in favor of constructing a localized “culture of audit.” While Pollan is right that we can learn a great deal by directly observing where our food comes from, we cannot learn everything we need to know in this way. When consumers peer through the glass-walled abattoir with their naked eyes, for example, they will not be able to see the microbial threats to their health. Federal inspectors with proper training and equipment are much more likely to detect those invisible dangers. Of course, rejecting Pollan’s libertarian localism does not necessitate rejecting localism in general; in fact, many of the scholar-activists associated with the Agro-Food Studies Research Group argue that we should build local food economies, but that this effort must be coupled with a fight to shore up the regulatory powers of the state.
It should be noted that Pollan’s preference for “opting out” stems not only from his concerns about the corporate capture of regulatory bureaucracies, but also from his frustration with bureaucratic culture itself. Like Joel Salatin, the “beyond organic” farmer who appears in the pages of The Omnivore’s Dilemma as the paragon of food localism, Pollan seems to view as insuperable the “one size fits al l” mentality characteristic of federal bureaucracies. That mentality, as others have noted,38 has indeed imposed overwhelming financial burdens on small slaughterhouses, dairies, and other community-scaled processing facilities by requiring expensive technologies and procedures specifically designed to deal with the daunting challenges posed by large-scale, high-speed production employing unskilled workers. Moreover, if a community-scaled slaughterhouse lacks sufficient throughput, the USDA will simply pull its inspector, effectively shutting down the operation.39 Yet if the critics of Pollan’s localism were to address this issue (which they do not), it is probably safe to assume that they would reject his conclusion that we should “opt out” rather than fight for a regulatory culture more attuned with the needs of local food chains. Whether or not it is possible to create such a culture within a large federal bureaucracy is, of course, an open question. But Pollan’s willingness to discount the possibility without giving it serious consideration raises some uncomfortable questions regarding the feasibility of his preferred alternative to the current agricultural orthodoxy.
Or at least that is what his critics were left to think until he abruptly changed course in the weeks leading up to the 2008 presidential election. In an open letter to presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama, Pollan appears to have relinquished his role as the nation’s foremost journalistic advocate of libertarian food-localism by laying out a detailed set of policy recommendations for the next “Farmer in Chief.” As if to answer all the criticisms discussed above (including my own), Pollan made a compelling case for mobilizing the nation’s “vast federal machinery” in an effort to overhaul a dysfunctional food system. Among other things, he urged the incoming Farmer in Chief to promulgate a regulatory strategy “sensitive to scale and marketplace,” one that would place stringent limits on industrial agriculture interests while protecting the economic viability of small producers and processors. More fundamentally, Pollan pressed the future president to promote the development of ecologically diverse, solar-powered regional food economies. Federal support for such economies, he argued, would not only help bring ecologically sustainable agriculture into the mainstream, it would also defuse a looming diet-related public health crisis, make us less dependent on foreign oil, diminish global warming, generate green jobs, and render our food system less vulnerable to insect and terrorist attacks, both of which gain considerable leverage by targeting large-scale technological systems.
Why Pollan suddenly turned to public policy as a tool for restructuring the food system is unclear. Perhaps he sensed an impending leftward swing in American politics that might provide some traction for his preferred package of reforms. If so, he refused to acknowledge as much, instead contending that his proposals transcend conventional ideological divisions. He may be right. On the cultural level, Pollan argued convincingly that countercultural foodies and evangelical home-schoolers alike will find much to praise in a sustainable food system that allows them to “tak[e] control of [the] family dinner and diet back from the fast-food industry.” Whether consumers falling between these two extremes—the vast majority of Americans, that is—would favor such a food system remains to be seen, but the potential for sustainable food to appeal across ideological lines is real, assuming the movement can shed the stigma of elitism.
Pollan seeks a similar ideological transcendence in the realm of political economy. While calling for the mobilization of the liberal state to help set American society on the right course, he believes the federal government can best accomplish this task by developing and strengthening a multitude of semiautonomous economic networks. This is a liberal vision insofar as it relies on centralized governmental power to achieve social progress. But by defining progress as the dissolution of large concentrations of economic power rather than the use of such power to advance the public interest, Pollan has stepped outside the framework of modern liberalism. The liberal state, in his view, should be put in the service of a decentralized social vision.
Pollan’s recent turn to public policy as a tool for restructuring the food system should lay to rest the charge that he has been too quick to abandon government regulation. Whether his newfound enthusiasm for federal intervention catches on among his fellow locavores remains to be seen, but it is clear that Pollan himself has struck out in an overtly political direction. This is not to imply, however, that he was insufficiently political prior to publishing his open letter to the 2008 presidential candidates. Stoll may be right that The Omnivore’s Dilemma fails to address the maldistribution of land, and Guthman and her colleagues are certainly justified in their scrutiny of Pollan’s tendency to reduce food politics to consumer choice and assign normative (pre-political) values to localism. Nevertheless, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a profoundly political book, although not in the conventional sense of the word. At the core of Pollan’s argument is a call for the proliferation of local-food economies comprised of interconnected local institutions such as Community-Supported Agriculture programs, farmers’ markets, farm stores, community-scaled slaughterhouses and processing facilities, small shops, farm-to-restaurant programs, and metropolitan buying clubs. These institutions, he notes, have long worked hand-in-glove with another set of institutions—the Rodale Institute, the Land Institute, and, it might be added, the New Alchemy Institute—that have served as an alternative network for research and development aimed at working out the scientific and technological details of a locally scaled and environmentally sustainable food system.
This sort of institution-building effort is best understood as a manifestation of “prefigurative politics,” not anti-politics. Those who view Pollan as apolitical tend to assume that the only form of politics worthy of the name is “instrumental politics”: the direct confrontation of the powers that be, such as fighting in the streets, courts, and the halls of Congress to loosen the corporate stranglehold on regulatory agencies. In contrast, advocates of prefigurative politics seek to create a new culture within the shell of the old, typically by building a set of alternative institutions. In doing so, they aim to prefigure the world in which they would like to live. This countercultural strategy is precisely what animated the original organic movement of the 1960s, whose eclipse by “Big Organic” Pollan laments. While it is certainly legitimate to question whether a prefigurative strategy for social change can provide an effective or sufficient means to address the environmental and social ills generated by our globalized industrial food system, it is a mistake to think of such a strategy as apolitical. As a coordinated, if indirect, effort to alter an existing set of social and economic relations, it is political by definition.
Note on prefigurative politics:
“The concept of prefigurative politics is borrowed from Doug Rossinow, who discovered it in Winifred Breines, Community and Organization in the New Left: The Great Refusal, 1962–1968 (South Hadley, Mass., 1982). On the New Left’s prefigurative politics and the distinction between prefigurative and instrumental politics in general, see Breines, 6–7, 30, 47–50; Rossinow, “The New Left in the Counterculture: Hypotheses and Evidence,” Radical History Review 67 (1997): 85; Rossinow, The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (New York, 1998), 248, 422n; and John Case and Rosemary C. R. Taylor, eds., Co-ops, Communes and Collectives: Experiments in Social Change in the 1960s and 1970s (New York, 1979), 4.