It’s Time to Rethink Farm-to-Table, and the Future of 'Good' Food

In her new book 'A Matter of Taste' Toronto journalist Rebecca Tucker evaluates the future of being a moral eater.

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Nov 21 2018, 7:30pm

Photo by Markus Spiske via Pexels

The following is an excerpt from 'A Matter of Taste: A Farmers' Market Devotee's Semi-Reluctant Argument for Inviting Scientific Innovation to the Dinner Table,' published by Coach House Books and available now.

Our eating habits have long been defined in part by a sense of morality, of separating the good food from the bad food. We are meant to feel a certain way (virtuous, clean, pious) when we eat ‘ good’ food, and the inverse (out of control, irresponsible, ugly) when we eat—or simply desire—food that is ‘bad.’

But what constitutes food on either side of the moral divide has been a moving target. For my mother, and her mother, good food meant food whose ingredients they recognized—nothing processed, nothing boxed. Over time, that understanding would have evolved to include a few twentieth-century conveniences, like store-bought crackers, supermarket eggs, and cured meat from a deli counter instead of a neighbour’s basement. But despite these few concessions to modernity, my childhood eating habits were remarkably, unusually (and, if you were to ask me, infuriatingly) clean and, well, good.

In 2018, however, those twentieth-century conveniences—the boxed crackers, deli meats, and probably-not-freerange eggs—don’t quite pass muster. In response to the industrialization of our food systems, food that is recognized as good is no longer simply food that is healthful; the moral needle has moved toward food that is organic, food that is local, food that supports a farmer whose name you know, and, perhaps above all else, food that has been affected by as little human intervention as possible.

Stretched to its logical conclusion, this new food moralizing should mean we’re all buying food that saves the planet. But stretched to its practical conclusion, this has simply meant that feel-good foodie-ism has become more of an aesthetic than a powerful political movement.

Despite years of proselytizing from luminaries like Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, farm-to-table cooking and farmers’ market shopping remain rarefied practices, possible on a recurring (never mind constant) basis to those with not only the surplus money it takes to buy into these supposedly sustainable systems, but the surplus time to spend learning why they ought to. Farms and markets, despite their salt-of-the-earth origins, have become the arenas of the elite. And as the global population skyrockets while the average household income for younger generations continues to stagnate, it is increasingly impractical to imagine that food-system salvation will be delivered in a Williams-Sonoma farmers’ market tote. The belief in one’s moral goodness should have nothing to do with how much locally grown kale is in one’s diet. And besides, the inflappable attachment to farmers’ markets and organic produce can be damaging in its own right; obstinate partisanism, in food as in politics, doesn’t seem to be moving the needle much these days.

I am confident in the belief that our broken food systems are fixable. And I’m not alone. At the University of Guelph’s Arrell Food Institute, for instance, Evan Fraser, the Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security, is leading a think tank called Feeding 9 Billion, aimed at developing food systems that will feed the planet’s population once it hits its projected nine billion people in the year 2050. Fraser, one of Canada’s—and, indeed, the world’s—most prominent voices on food security and the future of sustainable food, believes that vertical farming, artificial intelligence, and data-based farming are key to the future of food. In Florida, Kevin Folta, a horticultural sciences professor, is advocating for the adoption of crop-saving genetic technology. Kimbal Musk (yes, Elon’s brother) has started an ‘accelerator’ for urban farming. John Deere is adopting smart farming machinery that uses technology and machine learning to eliminate waste and create efficiencies. In New York, a company called Agritecture has cornered the market on urban-farming consulting, tapping into the controlled environment architecture industry—essentially, indoor farming—that will be valued at an estimated $9 billion in the next two years.

In this book, I look at four important aspects of the future of food, all of them underpinned by the urgent need to reevaluate when and how to—and if we should at all—apply morality to our food buying, growing, and producing choices. First, whether or not the farmers’ market ethos is truly sustainable, considering both the cost of producing these goods and the cost of purchasing them. Second, how the urbanization of the human race has ignored the need to integrate agriculture into city planning (and how this can be remedied). Next, how innovation and lab science can help conventional and organic farmers produce hardier, more efficient crops and more reliable yields. And finally, how information technology and computer science is offering truly outside-the-box, future-thinking solutions to current food crises.

You can buy "A Matter of Taste: A Farmers' Market Devotee's Semi-Reluctant Argument for Inviting Scientific Innovation to the Dinner Table” at places you can buy books.

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