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The "Foodie" Movement: When Agriculture Becomes a Romanticized Past

Are developed world "sustainable farming" initiatives romanticizing their ancestors' agrarian past?
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juin 21, 2011

The history magazine Lapham's Quarterly just published a wonderful graphic showing how tomato, black pepper, and coffee crops/products changed over time and travelled the globe. It depicts in an accessible way the extent to which the developed world depends upon extensive and complex global agricultural trade--and how food history can be shaped by these processes. The role that climate change may have on these patterns remains to be seen.

An accompanying piece, "Pastoral Romance," by Brent Cunningham, offers a strong critique of the way in which a new generation of "yuppie" developed world young adults have romanticized the history of farming and food, in America and elsewhere. As a proponent of farm-to-plate eating, a researcher in climate change and agriculture, and a young adult from New York City, this one hit home. And--I believe--it can provide useful insight for developing country agriculture too.A visual history of how food travels

In making his case, Cunningham disagrees with food revolution celebrities like Michael Pollan, of Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food fame. The article contends that the food system developed in the way that it did because food production and preparation were exhausting, repetitive tasks that relied on inherent inequalities (of slaves on the field, women in the kitchen, etc.). Developments leading to faster--and yes, unhealthier, processed--foods were seen as a great leap forward because, in many ways, they "liberated" certain populations to spend their time on other tasks. Alongside the civil rights and feminist movements, this often translated to more education and white-collar jobs.

So a food revolution of sorts MAY be emerging in the developed world, but ultimately it cannot and will not be shaped by the romanticized nostalgia of urban yuppies. Within these communities, the drive towards healthier foods is a good one, especially as obesity rates surge not only in the U.S., but also in China and other emerging powers. However, as Cunningham says, "New ideas about food need to conform to people’s social and economic aspirations, and those aspirations are going to be different in 2011 than they were in 1900, and they will be different, too, in Huntington, West Virginia, than in Brooklyn, New York." That said, path-breaking movements, even those built on overly idealistic premises, may have strong impacts on the mainstream, as seen in America by pro-nutrition actions by Walmart and other food distributors/companies, as well as Congressional efforts to monitor consumer labeling. 

The history of America, of course, will not be the history of many other countries, where agriculture will continue to be a strong contributor to GDP and the backbone of many livelihoods. Even so, it links back to much of what we know from behavioral economics (e.g., earlier blogpost on new work by Banerjee and Duflo)-- that humans value saving time, sometimes even at the expense of other "values"; that our values differ based on social, gendered, and/or geographic categories; that enjoying the superior taste of unhealthy foods may take precedence over nutritional value; and that the correct incentives or institutions can be important drivers of change. This is as true in advocating healthier foods (nutition), as in improving agricultural production and climate resilience (food production security).