Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

From slow food to fast food nations: The naturalist perspective on food

By David Zilberman

I have been teaching agricultural policy and economics for thirty years and realized that much of the policy debate originated by thinkers and practitioners from a wide array of disciplines - and not limited to politicians, economists and policy analysts. This is not new; Silent Spring, written by Rachel Carson, a marine biologist, was a major trigger for pesticide regulation and integrating environmental considerations to policy discussions. Even earlier, The Jungle by journalist Upton Sinclair was influential in bringing about worker and food safety regulations. In recent years, we have seen the emergence of alternative schools of thought about food and agriculture. In a recent article, Gordon Rausser, Gabe Kahn, and I overviewed this literature referring to it as a naturalist alternative to the mainstream industrial agricultural perspective.[1]

Berkeley’s Michael Pollan is a dominant figure in this line of work. He emphasizes that food is much more than sustenance – people need to be aware and informed of their food and make intelligent food choices. Some of his books (e.g. The Botany of Desire) educate us about food, emphasizing the coevolution of humans and the plants we cultivated for our consumption. In others (e.g. The Omnivore’s Dilemma) he is more prescriptive, saying “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” He emphasizes moderation, aversion to processed foods, and eating meat within limits.

Pollan suggests that the Western diet is too scientific and he is suspect of modern food technology, big conglomerates and globalization. He distinguishes between three food systems – industrial (e.g. McDonald’s) which is cheap yet harmful to the environment, big organic (e.g. Whole Foods) which is less dependent on harmful chemicals but is energy intensive and wasteful, and "small organic" (exemplified by farmer and author Joel Salatin) which is local, fresh and resilient.

Pollan’s emphasis on food culture is echoed by the Slow Food Movement. Its founder, Carlo Petrini, author of Slow Food: The Case for Taste, argues for “rediscovering the flavors of regional cooking” and “developing taste rather than demeaning it.” The Slow Food Movement doesn’t oppose modernity and trade as long as it doesn’t compromise quality and diversity, emphasizes the pleasure derived from cuisine, and the importance of culture in agriculture and viticulture.

He doesn’t oppose markets, but rather commodification of food. The movement invests in identifying old recipes and promoting food excellence. It is a commercial enterprise at its core aiming to increase the value-added of the food sector by promoting diversified products. Furthermore, it has a protectionist stance in seeking to preserve the rents accrued to elite food producers and regions.

While the Slow Food Movement is European in origin, agroecology and diversified farming systems originated in the western United States, inspired by Rachel Carson, Small is Beautiful, and the writing of J.J. Rodale. In the early 20th century, Rodale emphasized that industrial production subverts nature and promoted the emerging notions of "organic farming" and sustainable agriculture by establishing the Rodale Institute.

Steve Gliessman, a distinguished professor from UC Santa Cruz, established the foundations of agroecology, including recycling, balancing nutrient flow, managing organic matter, enhancing soil coverage, fostering genetic diversity, and promoting beneficial biological interactions. Gliessman envisioned a gradual transition from conventional practices towards more sustainable agricultural systems with direct connection between food producers and consumers.

There are various strains of agroecology and diversified farming systems. They tend to oppose monoculture, corporations, GMOs, the profit motive, globalization, and subsidies to commercial farms. They value biodiversity and agroecological knowledge, collaborative social learning, local farmers’ markets, subsidies to ecological services, local production, and small communities. Some recognize the trade-offs between the higher yields of conventional farming systems with the lower reliance on purchased inputs and supposedly higher resilience of diversified farming systems.

The book Fast Food Nation, by investigative journal Eric Schlosser, attacked commercial agriculture from different angles. He compares the actual practices of agribusiness and commercial farming with the notion of socially optimum competitive equilibrium. He documents cases where agribusiness takes advantage of its market power, fixes prices, and abuses farm workers and farm animals. He also criticizes big organic as taking advantage of market power and energy subsidies and sometimes even "greenwashing." Schlosser is not opposed to modern technology or modernity, but rather his main emphasis is to introduce integrity and morality to agribusiness. Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, is another critic of current food policies arguing that subsidies distort food choices and are responsible for obesity and malnourishment. A related notion is of food justice, where the poor are denied access to nutritious foods and live in food deserts. Overconsumption of calories and deficiency of nutrients contribute to poor health of the poor globally, including in the United States.

The notion of animal welfare was articulated best by Temple Grandin, an exceptional professor of animal science. She argues that although animals are legally considered property, it is important to treat them, even livestock raised for consumption, ethically because of their ability to feel emotions and pain. Her ethical considerations are also supported by GHG emission reduction considerations.

She advocates a transition towards vegetarianism and in the meantime, the humane slaughter of animals and reduction in “unnecessary” slaughter. Humane slaughter is not only superior morally but also increases the quality of meat.

These various perspectives share several themes. They oppose subsidization of major crops like maize and soy, but at the same time some suggest the need to subsidize fruits, vegetables, organic farmers, and farmers’ markets. There is much opposition to big agriculture instead promoting small and local. They capture public sentiment and set a meaningful agenda. As an economist I am sympathetic to many of the arguments – there is a strong need to obtain better environmental outcomes, improve the quality of food, and address distributional and market power issues.

However, most of these bodies of thought emphasize advocacy and are short on analysis. In particular, they underemphasize several factors. First, they underemphasize tradeoffs and costs. There are tradeoffs on the demand side, where consumers choose food based on cost, taste, and convenience. Fast food is a huge industry for a reason. The development of ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat meals, modern equipment (electric stoves, refrigerators, and microwaves), and modern supermarkets have been contributors in enabling women to join the job market. At the same time, there are tradeoffs on the supply side between cost of production and technology. There is substantial evidence that GMO products are as healthy as any other conventional food, and organic products are not superior to conventional foods. So, modern technologies like GMOs, pesticides, and automations have been used to increase supply and reduce the price of food ingredients. Urban agriculture is a valuable but limited niche, and I doubt its capacity to feed the majority of humanity in an affordable way.

Second, the naturalized paradigms undervalue the importance of technology in production and distribution. Modern lifestyle is the result of immense innovations in medicine, biology, communication, etc. I am very aware of the risks that technologies pose, but when I see a poor farmer in Ivory Coast with a cell phone and bicycle, I realize the power of technology. My work, as well as the work of Matin Qaim and Wally Tyner, has shown that the use of modern molecular biology in agriculture reduces the cost of production of commodities and reduces greenhouse gases. GMOs could have provided much larger benefits to the poor had they not been heavily regulated. New developments like gene editing can provide many more opportunities and can be the key to a bioeconomy where crop production is the base for a large renewable sector and can revitalize the rural areas. The challenge is how to use it appropriately and spread its distribution broadly rather than giving up on it.

Third, the naturalist paradigm underestimates the importance of heterogeneity among people and regions. Differences in income lead to different food choices. For example, organic farming is fine in California when highly sophisticated farmers in desert regions apply imported water to grow specialty crops under relatively low pest pressure, but it is much more difficult to apply in humid regions in developing countries. There is a huge difference between farmers in Iowa that obtain more than 10 tons/Hectare of corn and farmers in Africa that may obtain 1.5 tons/Hectare. Introduction of new varieties, use of fertilizer, and better farming practices can bridge this gap.

I don’t expect people to use the same techniques everywhere, and that different technologies are appropriate in different locations. Ecological principles with other advancements are crucially important for improving agricultural systems. One major challenge is to develop research capacity and spread it throughout the world so all of humanity can benefit from advances in science and integrate it with traditional knowledge. Heterogeneity of food systems has always been with us. Levenstein’s historical analysis argues that there has always been a bifurcation between conspicuous consumption of the rich and subsistence diets of the poor. He actually argues that food becomes safer and more diverse with the emergence of agribusiness, regulation to control it, and improvements in education and science throughout the 20th century. Misleading information about food has always been a problem as well as unfulfilled, high expectations from science. Improved nutrition around the world has been a contributor to the 3 month average rise in life expectancy per year over the last few decades.

Heterogeneity brings me to a larger point. There is a place for both industrial and naturalized agricultural systems. The naturalization paradigm is leading to the emergence of higher-end restaurants and fresh food supply linking the farmer to the consumer, each of which have limited reach but are important source of income and innovation in agriculture. At the same time, the majority of people will be dependent on industrialized agriculture. The two can coexist and coevolve. Policies should enable both paradigms, but shouldn’t be used to promote one above the other. Thus regulatory standards should be based on the best available science from broad disciplinary perspective.[2] These standards will apply both to all forms of agriculture. Thus as long as utilization of modern biology is rendered safe in agriculture, it should be allowed subject to sound regulation. At the same time, there is a place for voluntary standards that cater to the wants of niche markets. While some can consume food that conforms to their perception and preferences, these should not override scientific knowledge and prevent providing safe, affordable food to the majority.

Personally, I am very encouraged by the debates among young, talented people about the future of agriculture. The most important thing is to have educated and enthusiastic people entering the agricultural field. Once they are in, they will better understand our agricultural reality, and make important contributions to its future. One of our challenges as a society is to provide them the opportunity to enter and contribute.

[1] I present this material as part of a new class I am teaching, EEP 141, on supply chains.

[2] With all its flaws, the National Academies of Science of major countries have done a decent job addressing the complexity of these issues.