In the 10 years since I wrote “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” many things about the American food system have changed for the better, but perhaps the most important development — and potentially the most challenging to the long-term survival of that system — is the fact that the question at the heart of my book has moved to the heart of our culture.
I hasten to add this is not my doing. When I wrote the book, Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” and Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics” had already helped pique the curiosity of Americans about the system that fed them. Yet, in general, all writers can really do is lift a sensitive finger to the cultural breeze and sense a coming change in the weather; very seldom do they actually change it themselves. (Or as one of my mentors once explained, “Journalists are at best short-term visionaries. Any more than that, no one would read them.”) In fact, during the four years I spent researching the book, most of the time I felt like I was late to the story. Something about the public’s attitude toward food and farming was already shifting underfoot, and I became convinced my book was going to be dated on arrival. Food safety scandals, such as mad cow disease in England and outbreaks of E. coli contamination in fast food hamburgers in America, had raised disturbing questions about how we were producing meat. At the same time, climbing rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes had led many to wonder if perhaps Americans had developed a national eating disorder of some kind. Food, which is supposed to sustain us and give us pleasure, was making people anxious and sick. Why?
Well, I wasn’t as late as I feared, and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” found a much larger audience than I ever dared to hope. It turned out that millions of people shared my curiosity about where our food comes from and concerns about how it is produced. What’s more, the asking of those questions by large numbers of people, and the surprising answers they yielded, set into motion a certain economic and political momentum. As I wrote in the introduction (though to be honest more in hope than expectation), “If we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat.”
And so we are. Some remarkable changes have taken place in the food and farming landscape since the book was published in 2006. Consider this handful of statistics, each in its own way an artifact of the “where-does-my-food-come-from” question:
There are now more than 8,000 farmers markets in America, an increase of 180 percent since 2006. More than 4,000 school districts now have farm-to-school programs, a 430 percent increase since 2006, and the percentage of elementary school with gardens has doubled, to 26 percent. During that period, sales of soda have plummeted, falling 14 percent between 2004 and 2014.The food industry is rushing to reformulate hundreds of products to remove high fructose corn syrup and other processed-food ingredients that consumers have made clear they will no longer tolerate. Sales of organic food have more than doubled since 2006, from $16.7 billion in 2006 to more than $40 billion today.
The kind of grass-finished beef and pastured eggs that Joel Salatin produces at Polyface Farm were so exotic in 2006 that national sales figures for them didn’t exist; now, you can find these foods in many supermarkets, and both categories are growing by double-digit percentages each year. (Carl’s Junior, the fast food chain, introduced a grass-fed hamburger in 2014.) From California to Georgia, there are now hundreds of farms modeled on Polyface’s intricate choreography of animals. And Salatin himself has become an international celebrity farmer, a social type I don’t think existed in 2006.
In fact one of the most encouraging developments of the last few years has been the rising prestige of farmers, who, as Salatin pointed out, used to be the butt of dumb hick jokes. One of the most popular internships among college students today is to work on an organic farm. Most of these aspiring farmers will no doubt decide farming is not for them, but even those will emerge from the experience with a keener appreciation for what it takes to be a farmer and a greater willingness to pay a fair price for the important work farmers do. But some of these novices are evidently sticking it out: The total number of farmers in America, which had been in free fall for most of the 20th century as agriculture industrialized, has begun to rise again for the first time since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began keeping track. This is encouraging news, since it’s hard to imagine creating a more sustainable and diversified agriculture without a great many more farmers on the land.
This new generation of young farmers is helping to build what amounts to an alternative food economy. That new economy is comprised of farms supplying local markets; farms employing organic and other sustainable methods; and farms raising animals outdoors, as well as producers of artisanal foodstuffs of all kinds and new distribution models such as the farm subscriptions known as CSAs, or community-supported agriculture. No one knows quite how large this new food economy is, but we do know it is growing much faster than the old one, which has stalled. Its rise is the direct result of consumers and producers working together to shorten the food chain in order to radically simplify the answer to the “Where does my food come from” question.
Yet the fate of this new economy is still up for grabs: It isn’t certain that these new farmers will make it, or that our desire to eat from a shorter, simpler food chain won’t somehow be co-opted by a food industry that now recognizes its consumers want something different — something more transparent about its origins and ethically defensible in its practices. Big Food is snapping up artisanal companies that positioned themselves as ethical alternatives. At the same time, the practice of “farm-washing,” in which highly industrialized food products are marketed as if they came from small farms, is popping up both in the supermarket and fast food outlet. These days Big Food is certainly talking a good game — promising to improve the welfare and diet of the animals, drop the antibiotics, simplify their products and support farmers and ranchers — but whether such promises will actually be kept is questionable. McDonald’s recently won plaudits for a promise to stop buying chicken raised with antibiotics — until a reporter recalled that this was the very same promise the company had made, and failed to keep, a decade before. The reform of the food industry is important, but it’s doubtful it will happen voluntarily.
Even so, the fact the industry feels compelled to make these promises is helping to legitimize a new set of values in the food system, one in which simplicity and transparency are prized. But there is such a long way to go. As much as I hoped to find upon rereading it that the first section of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” in which I explored the prevalence of corn in the American diet, was obsolete, I’m sorry to report that it is not. A single statistic will make this clear: Last year the corn crop was a record-breaking 14 billion bushels. As readers of the book well know, commodity corn is the basis of both feedlot agriculture and processed foods, and the amount of American farmland devoted to corn is actually larger today than it was in 2006 — by some 12 million acres.
What that tells us is that government subsidies and farm support programs still heavily tilt the fields of American agriculture toward monocultures of corn and soy, the building blocks of processed food and cheap meat. To the extent there is now an alternative food economy in this country, it remains small by comparison and exists largely in spite of federal agricultural policies.
So far at least, Big Food retains its grip on the levers of government that determine agricultural policy in this country and, in turn, the rules of the game that determines our food choices. Yet, for the first time, that grip is being challenged by the food movement — another phrase you didn’t hear back in 2006. This loose, still somewhat inchoate coalition of activists bent on reforming the food system has been growing steadily and in recent years has begun to find its voice — or perhaps I should say voices.
The food movement is a big and lumpy tent, covering a wide range of concerns, including everything from childhood obesity and hunger to animal welfare, sustainable farming and feedlot pollution to farmworker rights, fast food worker wages, the campaign to label genetically modified food, farm bill reform, food safety regulation, eliminating antibiotics from livestock production, farmland preservation, urban agriculture, school lunch reform, the regulation of food ingredients and marketing, and on and on. It’s a long, daunting list of issues, and some of these interests occasionally work at cross-purposes, as when animal rights activists pick fights with sustainable meat producers.
Yet a consensus does seem to be forming around the idea that, as a first step, the nation needs not just farm policies to keep food cheap, but something it has never had before: an overarching national food policy. The details of such a policy would take years of politicking to work out, it’s true, but at a minimum, any national food policy worth its name would not only seek to ensure access to healthy food for everyone, but also see to it that the country’s agricultural policies no longer serve to undermine the health of either the population or the environment, as they presently do. That would be a good start.
In the last decade or so, the desire of millions of Americans to “vote with your fork” has helped build an alternative food economy far larger and more vibrant than I could have imagined when I was writing “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” I can vividly recall Salatin sharing his dream for a mass exodus from the supermarket, and reading his eccentric letters to his customers, which would always begin with the salutation “from the non-barcode-people.” There are more non-barcode people today than in decades. But voting with our forks, powerful as it is, can take us only so far in remaking the food system. To make healthy, sustainably farmed and humanely raised food accessible to all Americans — and not just those who can afford the delicious alternatives now so abundantly on offer — we will need to vote with our votes as well. This is next. And now that the question of where our food comes from and how it is produced has begun to enter into the bright space of our politics, there is every reason to believe that the interest of eaters in something more beautiful than food that is fast, cheap and easy will sooner or later prevail.
Excerpted from “The Omnivore’s Dilemma 10th Anniversary Edition” by Michael Pollan. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Michael Pollan, 2016.
Pollan is the author of seven books, including “Cooked: The Natural History of Transformation,” “Food Rules,” “In Defense of Food” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” He is also the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.