your food is smarter than you
July 12, 2009, 4:36 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , ,

These are excerpts from Michael Pollan’s No Bar Code essay in which he talks to Joel Salatin of Polyface farms.

You know you’re in trouble when your food is smarter than you.  Smashing metaphor:  a lack of knowledge of the world – the loving inward gaze – could very well be the source of bad diet!  We won’t travel to see the world – who needs to see the world? – but we’ll ship the goods from hell’s half acre over here so we can eat it.

Our food is well traveled; it’s also sold to us as a quantity, with no mention of value.  Like the movies.  We don’t care how good the movie is, just how much it makes at the box office.  Likewise, we’re sold the piece of fruit’s price and weight, never nutrition or production or farm information.  As long as it looks like an apple and I can eat loads of them in and out of season, who cares what it tastes like?  Or how many chemicals are keeping it from turning to mush in my hand?

Here are Michael Pollan’s comments on how in food, quantity always trumps quality and how we have come to this state by general public ignorance:

The typical fruit or vegetable on an American’s plate travels some 1,500 miles to get there, and is frequently better traveled and more worldly than its eater.


When you think about it, it is odd that something as important to our health and general well-being as food is so often sold strictly on the basis of price. Look at any supermarket ad in the newspaper and all you will find in it are quantities–pounds and dollars; qualities of any kind are nowhere to be found. The value of relationship marketing is that it allows many kinds of information besides price to travel up and down the food chain: stories as well as numbers, qualities as well as quantities, values rather than “value.” And as soon as that happens, people begin to make different kinds of buying decisions, motivated by criteria other than price. But instead of stories about how it was produced accompanying our food, we get bar codes–as illegible as the industrial food chain itself, and a fair symbol of its almost total opacity.

Much of our food system depends on our not knowing much about it, beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner; cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing. And it’s a short way from not knowing who’s at the other end of your food chain to not caring–to the carelessness of both producers and consumers that characterizes our economy today. Of course, the global economy couldn’t very well function without this wall of ignorance and the indifference it breeds. This is why the American food industry and its international counterparts fight to keep their products from telling even the simplest stories–“dolphin safe,” “humanely slaughtered,” etc.–about how they were produced. The more knowledge people have about the way their food is produced, the more likely it is that their values–and not just “value”–will inform their purchasing decisions.

Michael Pollan, No Bar Code, Mother Jones

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