Food and food production have become incredibly divisive topics. Industrialised agriculture exacts a heavy toll on our environment and a lot of the cheap, processed convenience food on supermarket shelves is not what you would call nutritious. But Toronto-based writer and journalist Rebecca Tucker is troubled by the response. A hazy conglomerate of “good food”, encompassing trendy phenomena such as farmers’ markets, locavorism, organic produce, and whole foods is being pushed as the only pathway to sustainable salvation. In this short book, she pulls no punches and roundly criticises the guilt-tripping, moralising, fanatical side of the foodie movement, while also exploring some alternatives. And it’s about time, because, as she shows, feeling good is not the same as doing good.
This book is part of the series Exploded Views, in which Canadian indie-publisher Coach House Books releases short, controversial essays. As the subtitle mentions, Tucker is a self-professed farmers’ market devotee, having grown up in a household lorded over by an Italian mother who abhorred both food waste and processed food. But isn’t it a truism that those inside of a movement are best capable of criticising it?
And Tucker is plenty provocative here. The good food movement, including proponents of organic agriculture, nose-to-tail, or locavorism, is accused of pushing a moralising, guilt-tripping agenda with a zealotry bordering on religious fanaticism. Of preaching bucolic, nostalgic farming practices totally out of touch with our modern needs and times. In her eyes, farmers’ markets have become trendy bastions where people with disposable income can splash money on heirloom vegetables so that they can do their share of virtue signalling on Instagram with a #markethaul. She accuses them of perpetuating ideological notions, thinking that buying an organic squash once a week actually makes a difference to the hardships of life as a farmer. Hell, when she broaches the topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) she places anti-GMO activists on par with anti-vaxxers (take that!).
“farmers’ markets have become trendy bastions where people with disposable income can splash money on heirloom vegetables so that they can do their share of virtue signalling on Instagram”
Now, before you switch off (because some people tend to do that), let me backpedal a bit here. I have highlighted some of the juicier morsels above, but to do this book justice it is worth pointing out it is much more than just a rant. She reminded me of a milder version of British food critic Jay Rayner who slew similar holy cows in his book A Greedy Man in a Hungry World: Why (Almost) Everything You Thought You Knew About Food is Wrong.
As a slight digression, being someone who doesn’t shy away from controversial statements (I’m Dutch. We speak plainly. Get over it), I absolutely loved this aspect of her book. Also, living in Totnes, a small market town in southwestern England, I am exposed to much of what she describes on a regular basis. This place is (quite literally) the spiritual home of the Transition Town Movement and grand-fuckin-central of everything that is wholesome, eco, organic, local, and Green.
“Tucker’s tongue is sharp and her pen is sharper, but her critique is sincere and not baseless […] this book is not a rant”
So, yes, Tucker’s tongue is sharp and her pen is sharper, but her critique is sincere and not baseless. Some of the more searing points, not often mentioned in these discussions, is that the good food movement is failing to be inclusive. Catering as it does to affluent people, it excludes the poor or those who, with full schedules, two jobs, or a family to raise (sometimes on their own), lack both the time and the financial clout to prepare three wholesome meals from scratch every day. Another overlooked aspect is that by shirking automation and modernisation, organic farms often rely on an underpaid and overworked migrant labour force that will be sent home as soon as the season is over.
Interestingly, she places the origin of this movement with the publication of Michael Pollan’s 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. It is perhaps true that it exploded into popular consciousness at this point, but this pitting of nature against science has roots that can be traced back to the 1930s (see my review of The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Conflicting Visions of the Future of Our Planet). In the wake of Pollan’s book, many other phenomena such as locavorism quickly became popular (see The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating). Well-reasoned pushback has been slow to appear (because, you know, facts are more time-consuming to come by than opinions). Riffing off both these book titles was Desrocher and Shimizu’s hard-nosed analysis in The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet, and I still need to dig into Conventional and Organic Farming: A Comprehensive Review through the Lens of Agricultural Science.
“To feed a burgeoning world population, a wholesale retreat to nature is not an option anymore.”
Outside of academia there have been other interesting developments as well. Tucker here explores three of them. First, urban farming. For Tucker this goes beyond community garden plots to encompass vertical farming, hydroponics, and aquaponics (the last one a combo of hydroponics and fish culture in a closed-loop ecosystem). Second, high-tech approaches such as genetic engineering, lab-grown meat, and precision farming (this last one relies on GPS-guided, automated equipment that manages crops on very fine-grained spatial scales. Not quite individual plants, but close). Third, the power of information technology and social media, such as apps to try and minimise food waste by rehoming almost-expired food from grocery stores, farm produce that doesn’t meet aesthetic criteria, or substantial leftovers from corporate events. Now, none of these will solve all our woes, but it is high time we looked past this false notion of silver bullet solutions. We’re dealing with complex, real-world problems here.
I found A Matter of Taste to be an incredibly refreshing little book. Tucker’s indignation at the excesses of a self-righteous, borderline-snobbish good food movement is infectious. More importantly, however, is that she takes the discussion well outside of the confines of the GMO debate. They make an appearance, but only relatively briefly. She clearly sides with for example Mark Lynas who decries the opposition to genetic engineering on many grounds (see my review of Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs). But ultimately, she joins the small but growing chorus of reasonable voices exemplified by the husband-and-wife duo of organic farmer Raoul W. Adamchak and plant geneticist Pamela C. Ronald (see my review of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food). Like them, she argues that to tackle the complex problem of feeding a burgeoning world population, a wholesale retreat to nature is not an option anymore. It may make us feel good, but that is not the same as doing good. For that, we need to combine the best of all worlds, including organic farming, large-scale conventional agriculture, and biotechnology.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
Other recommended books mentioned in this review: