Thursday, February 17, 2011

Art Dept Discussion: What are We Eating?

Thanks to Jesse Hemminger for an invitation to today's Topics Table at Hopkins Hall, to talk about Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food and what we're eating.

Pollan's argument is that "nutritionism is the ideology of industrial agriculture," and that, as such, thinking in terms of "nutritional value" (rather than eating food) has led us astray. Pollan himself notices how hard it is to escape from nutritionism, since he keeps drawing on it to explain why the "Western diet" (too broad a term?) is so unhealthy. (In fact, thinking of diet in relation to health is already to slight the cultural meanings of food, to downplay pleasure, taste and sociality.) This ineluctable pull says something about the nature of ideology: it's not just a distortion, but has its own structural necessities. It is fitted to, and makes somewhat intelligible, a certain reality.

Pollan also emphasizes that food--eating--is a relationship. From this perspective, "nutritionism" is the symptom of a relationship: to industrial agriculture, but also to science and to media. A relationship, that is, to a particular way of understanding relationships, namely, through the vocabularies of scientific reductionism and industrial production. It is important to us to know the latest about diet and health, and thus to acknowledge that professional authority.

At the same time, the development of industrial agriculture in the United States is not exclusively profit-driven, but also has a particular, historical path-dependency. It was historically justified by the need to "feed the world," which was born out of the experience of WWII and the emergence of the postcolonial world (famine in India, starving children in Biafra). Even know, the prospect of demographic apocalypse--feeding the 9 billion--continues to drive the development of GMO foods and to deride romantic localism. Industrial producers and nutritionists think on large scales, ultimately in terms of calories and nutrients and energy-efficiency, rather than in terms of local cultures. From the deracinated scientific standpoint, foods ought to be fungible, rather than culturally embedded: rice is, finally, rice. This way of thinking is premised on the background of famine or catastrophic deprivation, in which hunger and survival ultimately erase and override all other, meaningful considerations.

As a goal, feeding the world means feeding it indifferently. It locates agency all on one side, leaving the "receiving end" to be fed, passively. This is monocultural thinking with a vengeance (as it were). The prospect of climate change requires a more flexible, elaborated and localized approach to resilience. For instance, here's a link to discussion of what a sustainable food system might look like.