Even if you weren’t aware of the rising intensity of debates over food politics in recent years, the face-off between Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama probably caught your attention. One of Michelle Obama’s most high profile acts as First Lady was to plant an organic food garden on the White House lawn—ironically later found to be contaminated by sewage-sludge-based fertilizer, rendering the lovingly grown vegetables off limits. The launch of the Obama Foodorama (the First Lady’s foodie blog) and “Let’s Move” (Obama’s cause célèbre child anti-obesity campaign) soon followed. Palin’s subsequent attacks on Obama’s “interference” in personal food choices culminated in her visit to a Pennsylvania primary school, where Palin publicly proffered cookies to schoolchildren, in a presumed attempt to warn them of nanny state “food police.”
The Palin-Obama food fight (farcical as it might seem) indicates the polarization in America’s food wars. Underpinning this debate are two sets of diametrically opposed views: “personal responsibility” versus “government regulation”; and “conventional” versus “alternative” agriculture. Supporters of conventional approaches argue that intensive agricultural production and associated government subsidy schemes are our best bulwark against food insecurity and farm-family penury; they reject calls to use government policy to promote more “healthful” foods, arguing in favor of personal responsibility and consumer choice (and, hence, markets as the locus of solutions). The “alternative” food movement, in contrast, tends to favor Michael Pollan-esque Small Ag solutions, celebrating organic production and locavore consumption (although its proponents tend to be agnostic, or divided, on the question of market versus government action). The result is often a confrontation between “Big Ag” and “Food Snobs.”
BUT WHAT if these options weren’t a stark either/or? What if, in other words, this is a false dilemma? Consider the case of France, which is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of agricultural and processed food products (despite being ranked twenty-first in terms of population size) and Europe’s largest agro-industrial producer. Although agro-industry is its largest industrial sector, France is also the country that personifies Small Ag, as symbolized by the paysan and the terroir so dear to the French: local farmers who live and work on the landscape to which consumers have adapted both buying habits and regional cuisines. The French have never forgotten what North Americans are now trying to relearn with foodie fads like the 100-Mile Diet, whose authors spent a year eating only food grown within a hundred miles of their home. French consumers’ tastes are demanding, as any visit to a local food shop or market will quickly reveal. Agro-industrial producers have adapted accordingly (and haven’t necessarily suffered for it...
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