If you haven’t read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma
and you are reading this blog, then click over to Amazon
and get it. (I’ll wait.) It examines the sad state of the U.S. food industry, and what the book calls our “national eating disorder” -- and perhaps our national food sourcing disorder.
Part of this disorder is the increasing separation of consumers from the food supply. Pollan attempts to follow an ear of corn from field to table, but fails once the corn enters what one farmer calls the “military industrial complex” of food production. Pollan compares this to the futility of trying to track “a bucket of water after it has been poured in a river.”
He also describes how the Chicago Board of Trade
(CBOT) corn grading system developed in the 19th century created a commodity orientation that set even but low standards, rewarded farmers for yield, and removed consumer awareness and choice relating to taste, farm, and location. Burlap sacks identifying the corn’s source (still a ubiquitous feature of fair trade coffee co-ops) disappeared, in a symbolic transformation of corn farming from craft to agribusiness.
The result has been monoculture, a focus on the wrong traits, and a variety of agri-environmental ills up and down the supply chain, all of which are described in colorful detail by Pollan. The role of traceability in the fair-trade system offers an interesting alternative to this commodity model. Most Fair Trade crops display unique taste and physical characteristics relating to a farmer’s choice of what to plant, and the origin. When these unique characteristics are ignored, the commodity-oriented “military industrial complex” takes over, and the artisan nature of small family farming is threatened. We must care about what we consume, care where it comes from, and value diversity and choice. Another great reason to support Fair Trade.