Michael Pollan gave an interview to The Globe and Mail in Canada recently, and some curious opinions expressed by America’s sustainable-foodie-in-chief made me choke on this morning’s small-farmer-sustainable-organic-biodynamic oatmeal.
Asked to weigh in on recent pushback against the food movement, Michael Pollan honed in on an issue near and dear to our hearts at Fair Food Fight: Promoting small farmers. Said the Omnivore:
There are people in the food movement who aim to replace Big Ag with Small Ag. But I think there are many more people in the food movement who seek to reform Big Ag. And to cast it as a choice between the small, diversified, sustainable farm and the highly productive massified farm is a false choice.
For those who saw Food Inc or read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, this is a slightly new tune in the Michael Pollan songbook. I think he’s making a reasonable and rather obvious argument, though: Small Ag poses no real threat to Big Ag, so, kids, choose your battles carefully. Point taken.
Nonetheless, there is a choice to make, between Big and Small. After all, the converse of Pollan’s statement also true — Big Ag poses a real threat to small farmers — and Pollan has said so himself. Repeatedly. Throughout his career.
Consider Pollan’s own argument against the horrible effects of massive consolidation, as he laid it out in Food Inc (YouTube), or the crucial role that small farmer Joel Salatin has played in the development of Pollan’s worldview, or Pollan’s famous open letter to the next president before the 2008 election, in which he extolled the need for Small Ag (“We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America — not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past but as a matter of national security.”)
Perhaps it’s only a choice between Big and Small when Joel Salatin isn’t there to contradict you?
It’s hard to get a bead on what Pollan’s really saying — especially when he starts running interference for Walmart a breath later. As you probably know, the world’s largest retailer is noisily “going green,” and Pollan willingly throws a couple blocks down field for them in the Globe and Mail article. Walmart says it’s going local and reducing antibiotics in meat, and that press release is good enough for Pollan to jump on board:
Wal Mart is interested in localizing its production right now, and they’re doing a lot of things to do that. They are going to big farmers and trying to get them to change the way they behave. There’s a lot of movement to get antibiotics out of production in animal farming.
Walmart striving to reduce antibiotics is a good thing, right? Maybe. Of course, the argument sounds strange coming from the man who brushed off similar announcements by McDonalds in years past.
‘This whole [food] system depends on antibiotics. As much as McDonald’s might like to, the industry can’t simply throw away that crutch without rethinking everything.” (Organic Consumers Association).
One can apply that same argument to Walmart’s local foods initiatives. Is it a good idea? Sure, in a press release, it’s totally awesome. But like McDonalds selling “sustainable” beef, Walmart can’t start calling food from big farms local simply because it suits them to do so. If the “local farm” is nonetheless a large, intense production facility, that’s not exactly being honest with consumers who’ve come to think of local as smaller, more sustainable, and less industrial (in no small part to Michael Pollan himself).
Isn’t this ultimately why Pollan was questioning the organic industry, when, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he called b.s. on the concept of Big Organics? Why doesn’t get “Big Local” get the same scrutiny?
Maybe Pollan has “behind the scenes” info about Walmart’s efforts to go local. Perhaps he’s got good reason to be optimistic.
Reforming Big Ag into Big Local might be the Omnivore’s next initiative, his newest tune. That’s his choice, and I’m honest when I say it might be a good idea. Seriously.
But I’m still throwing down with small farmers — not because I think they’ll ever “replace” Big Ag, but because (a) the economy already benefits and rewards big players, and (b) the whole chain matters to me, not just the farm field. If we start promoting Walmart, it feels to me like the food movement will have skipped back to square one. I’m personally not interested in fighting the battle for shelf-space at Walmart, nor propping up that machine with my dollars and energy. If larger farms and food companies want that, and are even willing to change practices to take advantage of the opportunity, let’s hope Walmart starts honoring its contracts and making it a worthwhile reality for farmers.
But I’m far more interested in supporting something less monolithic and sprawling than Walmart, such as more direct food chains that empower small farmers, democracy, and local food systems with a single purchase.
I’m working on a new project for Equal Exchange called P6: The Co-operative Trade Movement, (Equal Exchange also sponsors Fair Food Fight). P6 is a pilot project between six natural foods co-ops and EE to promote foods and products that meet two of the following three criteria:
* Grown by a small farmer or producer
* Local (to the participating grocery co-op)
* Co-operatively produced
Better, you don’t have to be near one of the six participating P6 stores to take part. On the P6 site, you can read about “P6″ farmers around the country, nominate products for very special consideration in the monthly P6 Hall of Fame, see suggestions from other shoppers in the sustainable foods world nationwide, comment, kibbitz, disagree, swap recipes, upload pics, and promote your favorite small farmer foods. It’s a “crowd vetting” of products that, in the end, have to be produced democratically (by a co-op), by a small farmer, or locally.
Here’s the kicker. You will only find the P6 label at natural foods co-ops — Seward Co-op in Minneapolis has gotten great, in-depth local press about this project all ready. As more farmers and shoppers see the value in promoting their products at democratically-run co-ops, the pilot project will hopefully expand to more stores across the country. But, as a result of it being a co-operative marketing effort among grocery co-ops…
You’ll never see P6 at Walmart.