It was the kind of “consideration” that any good politician proffers while eating a million-dollar bowl of organic pecan ice cream, the kind that Bill Clinton was particularly good at proffering. When Waters told the president that she would even “send the seeds” and then “come and plant them,” the gastronomically kvelling chief executive had responded: “You do that, Alice!”
But a few months later, after a follow-up letter failed to evoke the same spirited commitment, Waters cued up a lobbying campaign, drafting a cadre of like-minded friends–among them California Senator Barbara Boxer and the homemaking entrepreneur Martha Stewart–to write similar letters. Again, no luck. The president wrote back, but now he was saying such things as “an informal kitchen garden would not be in keeping with the formal gardens of the White House,” and promising, as a sop, to put “a vegetable garden” on the roof of the executive residence. Well, that wasn’t what they had discussed. Waters sent off another letter.
What Waters wanted was a “national monument” to organic agriculture–Olympic-sized compost heaps, espaliered pear trees, edible topiaries–a Versailles of the American Georgic! “I meant it!” she assured me a few months later, when we met for an interview at Berkeley’s Acme Bakery. “This is important stuff for me and for the country! Because I have a vision that, if things don’t change, my grandkids won’t even know what a real apple tastes like! So [the White House garden] was important.”
Perhaps. But in the early 21st century, one might imagine that world peace, global warming, or even the price of gasoline might also compete for a commander-in-chief’s limited attention. More to the point: If one were to contemplate seriously a monument to American agriculture, it would certainly not be organic agriculture, which provides a negligible portion of the nation’s everyday vittles (and which would wreak its own environmental havoc on vast swaths of virgin land if prescribed for the world’s hungry). No, the proper monument to American farming would more likely be a manicured stand of Monsanto sugar beets, arranged around a statue of a modern farmer perched inside his air conditioned tractor–Georgius Mechanicus, if you will.
Yet, as Alice and I talked, I came to realize the true significance of her letter: In 21st-century America, chefs preach. And preach and preach and preach and preach…
Chefs have always preached. But historically they did it to other chefs. Writing about the excesses of nouvelle cuisine in the 1983 edition of French Provincial Cooking, the noted cook and author Elizabeth David warned her fellows of “a certain coldness and ungenerosity of spirit, an indifference to the customer.” In his 1825 The Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the grandfather of modern culinary writing, cautioned against burdening the customer with the concerns of the chef.
Later on, when chefs did preach to the diner, theirs was a message of middle-class joy. To Julia Child and Betty Crocker, for example, great food was that which the average consumer could buy at the supermarket, take home, and cook.
But today’s chefs, particularly today’s celebrity chefs, cleave to a different hortatory, one directed not at each other but almost entirely at the diner, the ultimate vessel of their commerce. And a big and politically influential commerce that is. Once confined to a few postwar technocrats like Child and Crocker, today, dozens of celebrity chefs compete to hawk their wares on QVC and the Food Network. Their expensive cookbooks, inevitably given away during pledge drives, tutor the viewers of public broadcasting. Touring the country giving cooking demos in upmarket suburban malls, they are nothing less than modern pashas in toques.
But they aren’t just peddling a better risotto or personalized nonstick skillets. Today’s celebrity chefs have assumed a graver mission: to school the country–or at least its aspiring elites–on the politics of food. Gone is Betty Crocker’s vibrant optimism. Today’s activist chefs are dour. From their menus to their multimedia bully pulpits, more and more of America’s big chefs routinely preach not a joyful gospel of God’s great abundance, but rather a message of doom and scarcity, as if the 20th century and the agricultural revolution had never happened.
In their worldview, food is no longer something to be enjoyed; it is something to be feared and understood through a complicated set of new rules that acknowledge the global implications of every plate of pt. Though most Americans just want to have fun and tuck into a good meal, spending upwards of $128 billion on high-end dining every year, the uptown chefs just can’t lighten up. Instead, they increasingly serve up a message of humorless moral suasion that increasingly ends up on the plates of policymakers around the world.
* Addressing a press conference on genetically modified (GM) foods in Washington last year, Peter Hoffman, chef and owner of New York’s upscale Savoy restaurant, proclaimed: “We do not need golden rice.” (Golden rice, which is engineered with a breakthrough technology to deliver vitamin A, helps Third World children ward off blindness, a disability that afflicts some 200 million in Africa alone.) Hoffman then went on to issue a sweeping condemnation of the Nobel Prize-honored Green Revolution, the mix of hybrid seeds, irrigation and fertilization techniques credited with saving more than a billion people from starvation in the ’60s and ’70s. “The Green Revolution was a dismal failure,” Hoffman told the attendees. “We don’t need it now; we didn’t need it then.”
* Speaking to an incoming class of young chefs, Eve Feldon, chef and associate dean of the influential Culinary Institute of America, proclaimed, “It is up to us to share … what the right thing is: what it means to buy immature tuna … what it means to buy perfect-looking apples … what it means to purchase food locally and to pay the real cost of growing it. So customers know they’re eating in a place that is thinking about how the food is grown, produced, packaged, and delivered.”
* Inveighing against the “unnaturalness” of imported foods, Peter Berley, cookbook author and former executive chef of New York’s Angelica Kitchen, told the Boston Herald, “A child could tell you that there are no pumpkins in August, and if you could import them from somewhere, they wouldn’t taste right. If we get strawberries from New Zealand in February, what did it take to get that strawberry to Boston? Not only does that berry not taste very good, but there’s a great expense that is hidden, and it’s an expense to the planet.”
* Headlining a recent press conference for the Chef’s Collaborative, a professional organization dedicated to “changing the way people make their food choices,” Chicago chef and restaurateur extraordinaire Charlie Trotter asserted of GM foods, “This untested technology diminishes the purity and taste of food.” For this he offered no evidence. Trotter was joined at the same podium by Alice Waters, who was even less equivocating. “Flat out,” she pronounced, “No genetic engineering.”
Witness, then, the new cuisine of trepidation. But why now? Why, in a time of unprecedented abundance for everyone–vine-ripened Mexican tomatoes for $1 a pound! World-class reds and whites from Montepulciano d’Abruzzo for $5 a bottle! An international glut of inexpensive extra virgin olive oils and cheeses and nuts and fruits at Trader Joe’s and Price Club!–why oh why are the chefs of America so dour, so chary–so very very very bummed out? To find out, I got on the high road.
If there is a culinary mecca in Southern California, a place where the high foodie meets the ideal ingredient, it is the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, held every Wednesday under almost invariably balmy, blue skies. God, it seems, shines on organic farmers.
One such Wednesday I met up with Evan Kleiman, chef and co-founder of Angeli Caf, perhaps one of the most successful Italian restaurants in L.A. and certainly one of the most influential. Kleiman also hosts a local PBS radio show about food and matters culinary. It was there, between lively interviews with quirky orange growers and serious digressions about the acidic content of various olive oils, that I first detected a note of angst in her otherwise unperturbed and worldly countenance.
“Basically, when it comes to food and the food supply, I find it frightening that something so fundamental to life has been left to people whose only concern is profit,” she told me. “I mean, as far as I can see, because of that, there are now only two kinds of people putting food in their mouths–the ones who’ve lost the notion that food is something made by human hands, and then there are the others–and not very many, mind you–for whom there’s still some link with food as a culture of nurturance.”
But is that really true? I asked. It seemed to me that there was more variety available than ever before, and for increasingly affordable prices, to boot. Just the other day I had driven downtown to the Grand Central Market in L.A.’s booming Latino core and bought three pounds of peaches for a dollar. True, they weren’t as luscious as the $3-a-pound peaches being hawked at the certified organic market here today, but they weren’t bad, especially if you put them in a bag for a few days to ripen and…
Kleiman cut me off, amiably. “That’s the whole problem. We’re now spending less for food than we ever have, and it shouldn’t be that way. We should spend more on food to support farmers like those guys”–she gestured at a few fellows trudging by with flats of organic tomatoes ($3.50 a pound)–“we should support their ideals.” She then described the essentials of the modern foodie ethos: “Locally grown, seasonally grown, sustainably grown.”
Although this mantra is hardly news to the affluent urbanites who frequent farmers’ markets and giant health food stores with names like “Whole Foods” and “Wild Oats,” it is news to the large numbers of Americans who don’t. For these Americans–the poor, the working class, the struggling middle class, and even a good swag of the suburban class–food is an increasingly global, seasonless, and tasty phenomenon. At urban bodegas all across the country, one finds in May whole cases of mangos being hawked for a paltry $5. Outside my local Rite Aid, in December, a fellow from Seoul invariably sets up a stand selling Mexican strawberries for $4.50 a case. Today, on the freeway on-ramp, I even saw a Mayan guy selling bags of tiny finger plantains for a buck. In the grand pageant of millennial consumerism, it is six-pack Americans–Jos and Vikram and Mr. Kim and Billy Lee–who are the real moderns, not their striving Bobo counterparts.
Their delights come from around the world. Consider the role of Chile, international purveyor of low-cost tomatoes, nectarines, and other fruits. Ten years ago, that nation’s farmers knew nothing about growing food for the U.S. market. Today they sell 70 percent of their production here. The same goes for Peru and Ecuador, Mexico and Guatemala, China and Thailand–all now among our biggest agricultural trading partners.
The high foodie inevitably objects to such imports. As one audience member put it at a recent Chef’s Collaborative symposium, “These nations are wrecking havoc on the environment and infiltrating our food supply with toxic, bland vegetables.”
But that is an increasingly porous notion. Demand for sophisticated integrated pest management systems, which minimize but don’t eliminate the use of costly chemicals, has soared worldwide. Just as in the United States, foreign farmers have cut back dramatically on pesticide and herbicide use. Many have found, to the frank consternation of chemical companies, that a quarter cup of the herbicide Roundup, applied at just the right time, achieves what a quart does when applied indiscriminately.
One result is that foreign produce and domestic produce look increasingly alike. The most recent report from the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program, for example, shows that imports have quickly reached a quality near that of U.S. produce. Of all domestic fruits sampled by the department in 1999, only 0.6 percent had excess pesticide residues, while only 1.8 percent of imported fruits had excess residues. And while the USDA sampled twice as many imports as it did domestic farm products, both categories registered a growing percentage of food completely free of any residues. In 1999, the percentage of completely chemical-free domestic food samples was 60.2 percent. The percentage of chemical-free imports was 65 percent. Jos, in other words, was growing cheap clean food in Mexico for Juan, who had moved to L.A.
But I was making little headway with Evan Kleiman. The more I argued for supporting the globe’s grand bounty, the more she worried how such a world might affect the good yeomanry just outside our caf window, the heirloom-peach vendors and the heirloom-tomato growers.
“There’s a world of difference between ADM and organic,” she said, referring to Archer Daniels Midland, the enormous farming conglomerate. “That’s the world you see right in front of you. And, frankly, some of those guys out here aren’t 100 percent organic. But they are trying and barely making it. Which is why I can’t stand it when I see all these people bargaining with them!”
So I shouldn’t bargain? “Shame! Shame! Remember,” she said, an eyebrow raised with half-mock theatricality. “Before the famine there is always great abundance. But the famine … the famine always comes.”
The famine, if it’s coming, will probably not arrive first in Napa Valley, which today overflows with contemporary American abundance–hundreds of wineries, food boutiques, and world-class restaurants. On a boiling afternoon last summer I met with Shuna Lydon Fish, then pastry chef at Napa’s Bouchon restaurant and one of the valley’s upcoming culinary stars. (The restaurant is an offshoot of the famed French Laundry, also in Napa, which The New York Times critic Ruth Reichl called the “most interesting place to dine in America.”)
Fish did not go to culinary school, but instead worked her way through the ranks of various New York and Bay Area restaurants before coming to the attention of Thomas Keller, owner and chef of the French Laundry. Keller’s focus has always been on the perfect crafting of perfect ingredients–tiny, edible, fetishistic performances of, say, a single quail egg with a single spear of asparagus. Young Fish’s own sensibilities fit right in, and she took up the organic flag.
“Today, for example, my stone-fruit supplier was making me almost crazy.” She stopped for a second and brushed back a tear. “I’m sorry, this gets me emotional. But, anyway, she came by to tell me that she’s going to have to tear out her orchard because she can’t afford to maintain the operation without selling her cherries for $5 a pound. And you can’t believe these cherries! The other day I got some that were so good that I simply put them in a bowl and sent them out as a finished dessert. My staff came back and said, you know, shouldn’t we put a little cream on them or something? I said no–you couldn’t do anymore–God has done it all already.”
But doesn’t the customer expect a little more? I asked. That, she explained, was almost beside the point. “Every day I consider what I do as educating each person who eats here,” she answered. “Because in the end, that may be the most important thing I do. Especially in the United States, where we are heading toward a place where we will have no choices in the future. Americans are in denial that they are losing whole lines of fruit and whole geni of trees.”
I asked Fish what she thought should be done about it. “Well,” she said, weary just contemplating the matter. “We have to point the system toward sustainability–towards the ideals of organic. Because that’s what we know is safer and healthier. I mean, the other day, I ate–I mean, barely licked, when I think about it–an imported papaya. And the next day I was sick. Was it food poisoning? Was it the pesticide that was probably on it?”
Here, then, was a full exposition of another key assumption of the modern foodie ethos: Residues of pesticides on food can easily make one sick. It happens all the time. It must. Yet the most recent research–by the academy, industry, and the government–suggests an entirely different situation: Modern pesticides, and modern pesticide use, may well be safer than most of us realize.
To the average American, indoctrinated by a steady stream of food scares, such a notion may sound heretical. So deep is the belief that pesticide residues routinely kill, maim, and poison us innocent fruit eaters that the most important single fact, virtually uncontested, gets drowned in the alarmist mele. Last March the esteemed Journal of Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology put it this way: “During the past 50 years of regulating thousands of substances, there is no known case of toxicity in children from the ingestion of food additives or pesticides that were used in conformity with established tolerances. Accidental exposures, intentional abuse, illegal use, and exposure to applicators or to farm workers explain the entire inventory of cases of human toxicity to pesticides.”
Other recent studies have also begun to debunk fears about long-term harm to children from residual amounts of certain commonly used agricultural chemicals found on food. Of course, not all the studies come to the same comforting conclusions, in part because there are still many chemicals whose long-term effects have not been tested. Fortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency, beginning in 1996, adopted tougher testing and tolerance requirements for pesticides and other chemicals in foods. But it is fair to say that the trend in conventional agriculture, both here and abroad, is toward the use of fewer and safer chemicals. Moreover, crops are increasingly being genetically modified to preclude the need for chemical treatment.
So why are the chefs of America telling their diners that it’s dangerous to buy anything but organic? The many highly paid flacks of the chemical industry would assert (and frequently do) that said chefs are simply in the pocket of the organic-foods industry, the giant Whole Foods Corp., which, incidentally, holds a seat on the Chef’s Collaborative board. But that, I can’t help think, is just too easy. And irrational. It was time to talk to Alice Waters, the Cotton Mather of American cuisine.
Modern Berkeley resists most temptations of the flesh; the Temple of Gastrea, Brillat-Savarin’s mythical muse of gastronomy, it isn’t. Instead, Berkeley is the Ministry of Health. With dozens of food-activist organizations, a municipal council that favors organic foods in the school system, and a vegan on every corner, this well-worn city now stands as the capital of American food politics. If God doesn’t shine on Berkeley, it’s only because there’s a municipal ordinance against it.
But God definitely shines on Waters. Her restaurant, Chez Panisse, is one of the biggest single culinary destinations in the world. In her 30 years as a professional chef, she has been the recipient of every major award the profession has to offer. Her books become instant classics. She cooks for presidents and princes and queens and prime ministers. The French government–the French!–even asked her to run a restaurant in the Louvre, to which Alice said: no.
Waters has been preaching the benefits of local, seasonal, and sustainable foods for decades now; over the past few years, she has taken to educating inner-city school kids about how to grow, harvest, and prepare such food. But by far Waters’ biggest cause is her crusade against genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In her own kitchen she has ordered a complete vetting of all ingredients, so thorough that her pastry chef had to go on a worldwide search for chocolate that did not contain any soy lecithin, a miniscule but critical emulsifying element in all good chocolates. “We knew the soy could have been grown with GM soybeans, so we finally found an organic chocolate by Callebaut–$40 a pound!” Waters also put her beef supplier of 20 years on notice: Make sure your cows eat no GM corn or suffer the economic consequences.
But can’t reasonable people disagree about GM foods? I asked, as we sat and had coffee and beignets one cool morning. After all, the world’s leading scientists and agronomists have signed on to their use, and many of those scientists are pro-organic environmentalist types just like Alice. How had she become so dogmatic about it so early in the game?
She sighed a little, partly out of exasperation with a fellow like myself. “A lot of it boils down to what’s natural and what’s not,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with improving plants. [Horticulturist] Luther Burbank–he did that. But he didn’t violate nature doing it. This is something different altogether. I am convinced we are headed toward major trouble in the food system.”
Hear, now, another assumption of the modern foodie: GM foods, being unnatural, lead to further alienation from nature. Yet the moral certainty of this romantic belief fades when stacked up against much modern research, not to mention actual history. Consider the Luther Burbank equation.
It is true that Burbank, who worked about two and a half hours up the road from Waters some 80 years ago, accomplished all of his great feats, from the Satsuma plum to the Burbank potato, using traditional cross-pollination and grafting techniques. But it is unclear what Burbank would have done had he possessed the tools to craft a perfect potato genetically.
His autobiography devotes considerable time delineating his philosophy of plant improvements. “The plant hybridizer who consciously merges two different protoplasmic streams … participates in what must be considered the most wonderful of all experiments,” Burbank wrote. And later on in his life, Burbank was inclined toward the most wondrous–“naturalness” be damned. Such was the case in 1920, when he produced the first white blackberry, which was criticized roundly, both for its “unnaturalness” and its aesthetics. As one reviewer of his day put it, “the people do not want a white blackberry. The people want a black blackberry.”
More recently, “traditional” plant breeders have used techniques nearly as “unnatural” as that of their gene-tinkering brethren. Consider the Asian pear, the darling of many nouveau pastry chefs and a stalwart at any farmers’ market worth its heirloom veggies. The crispy, sweet-and-tart fruit we use today was altered by post-war Japanese scientists using a technique known as mutogenesis–they exposed pear trees to cobalt radiation rays. It made the tree resistant to devastating diseases and thus easier to grow. The result is that today’s ubiquitous Asian-pear strudel owes as much to nuclear pioneer Enrico Fermi, the great Italian physicist, as it does to the culinary experimenter Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the great New York chef and owner of the popular Vong restaurant.
Perhaps the single most compelling foodie argument against the “unnaturalness” of GMOs stems from their supposed ill effects on Third World farming. “GMOs do nothing but propagate more monocultures, and monocultures are the great enemy of food diversity,” chef Peter Hoffman, of New York City’s Savoy restaurant, recently decreed. Yet a considerable body of evidence shows that GMOs will allow for the survival of more plant and animal species by reducing the number of pesticides that ultimately concentrate in their habitat. And using herbicide-resistant soybeans dramatically reduces tillage, the soil-destroying practice of constantly turning over the soil to keep weeds down.
Those factors certainly account for the enormous popularity of GM seeds in such traditional famine areas as China and India. China, in fact, has stood many of the traditional environmental objections to GMOs on their collective head. Far from enslaving peasants to ever more expensive seeds sold by monopolistic Western corporations, GM crops have liberated generations of dirt farmers from both economic dependence and destructive agricultural practices. The wild card is the relative ease of pirating GM seeds. Farmers simply plant them in an isolated field to prevent arbitrary cross-pollination, harvest the crop, bag it, and then put it on the local market. In Hubei Province alone, some 33 million acres are currently planted with pirated Monsanto cottonseed, soybeans, and corn.
The consequences have been breathtaking. In Shahexin, near the Yellow River, GM seeds have eliminated the need to spray upwards of 30 times per growing season–a practice that has for decades caused respiratory problems among the region’s children.
What about the issue of “genetic drift,” the notion that GM crops will cross-pollinate with adjacent “wild” equivalents, thereby erasing crucial crop diversity? Such is the theory, and such is the gist of an endless parade of news stories, most notably last season’s scare about Star Link corn in taco shells (still not conclusively linked to genetic drift).
A study by plant scientists at three independent universities, recently published in the Annual Review of Ecological Systems, concluded that GM crops are “no more likely” than traditional commercial crops to cross-pollinate and dominate their wild brethren. Moreover, a recent study of herbicide-resistant seeds by the Department of Botany and Microbiology at Auburn University found that many GM crop genes are actually less likely to “drift” into the wild than conventional hybrids because they aren’t transmitted by pollen.
Not that these aren’t legitimate concerns. Crops with built-in resistance to Roundup might lead to the evolution of Roundup-resistant weeds. (Then again, such biological cat-and-mouse games are part of the dynamic of evolution.) There is also a legitimate worry about biotech genes spreading into the non-biotech food supply, both through inadvertent cross-pollination and through poor handling by grain distributors and food processors.
The point is not that GMs are the best thing to happen since mango crme brle. The point is that the GM jury, by most sensible measures at least, is still out. Reasonable people can disagree and find a middle ground. But that hasn’t stopped the chefs and their fans from trying to ban them altogether.
Americans with politics akin to that of the chefs were once great supporters of new food technologies. Jack London, a socialist dockworker from Oakland who reigned as one of the early 20th century’s most popular authors, was such a fan of Luther Burbank that he often collaborated with him on various plant-breeding projects, creating, for instance, a spineless cactus used for feeding cattle during droughts.
But then again, London knew something of hunger. He’d seen it in the wild. He’d felt it in his gut. This is not something that modern chefs (or for that matter, most Americans) have experienced. Cooking has instead become biography, its politically idealized ingredients a fetish to ward off an overly fecund world. Describing the psychic origins of his famous D.C. bote, Red Sage, chef Mark Miller writes that “its origin had nothing to do with food or a restaurant. It started with my first glimpse of the West in movies. These men of the West were performing important deeds and they didn’t take flak from anyone. … I wanted to escape my little life and be part of this fictional landscape.”
But it’s hard to see how denigrating imported foods with dubious claims that they’re “bad for the environment” and “hurtful to local farmers” falls into that fictional landscape. Ten years ago, after all, “imported” was the rage among these very same chefs. Why the big change?
Part of the answer can be summed up in one word: abundance. Ten years ago, a pint of cold-pressed, extra-virgin Italian olive oil would set you back about $20. It was scarce, and so it was the chef’s preference. Today one can buy a gallon for the same price. Today, of course, imported oil is not the chef’s choice. And here is where the real twisted thinking starts: To avoid sounding like an old-fashioned snob, the modern chef instead proclaims that imported oil from big foreign farms “wrecks the earth.” Or that its widespread availability will kill off good ol’ Farmer Joe over in Ridley. So the “correct” oil nowadays trickles from local boutique olive farmers in, say, Napa. They cost … $20 per pint.
In this sense, today’s menus and cookbooks have become the modern equivalent of the old etiquette book. They are simply prescriptions for socially acceptable snobbery. The snobfest itself flows from what the great historian Richard Hofstadter called “status anxiety,” the sinking feeling, often felt after, say, actually speaking to the maid or the gardener, that the world is changing, expanding, and in the process making one smaller, less important.
While once visited upon the wealthy only every generation or so, status anxiety now seems to strike with every tick of the Dow. The culprit is globalization. Only 10 years ago the world was still divided by formidable tariffs and restrictive trade rules. Everything was a fortress–Fortress Europe, Fortress Japan, etc. Consequently, what constituted status was exotic travel, striking off for Nepal, or buying a $20 cup of Italian olive oil. Such was the comforting Raj-like mentality, prissy and white, behind the early ’90s preference for Chilean sea bass and New Zealand blackberries.
Today we live in a world of unprecedented free trade. Peaches from Chile and mangos from Ecuador are as common as celebrities at an AA meeting. French goat cheese–it’s actually affordable. Everyone is partying, crossing over, dancing the rumba, and eating salsa. Predictably, the food snob, led by the chefs, blanches at all of this debauchery encroaching on his gated estate. He thus turns to the home-grown, to the pseudo-yeomanry of the local farmers’ market, to the long “taken for granted” local cheese makers and the “curmudgeonly” presser of Mill Valley olive oil.
Yet this social function of the cuisine of trepidation pales against its economic and cultural impact. This is because chefs have found a growing voice in public policy, which, despite all noble intentions, can negatively affect us all, organic-tomato lovers or not.
At the local level their influence arrives in the form of the growing “sustainable schoolyard” movement, founded by Alice Waters. Using both private and city funds, these programs have a laudable enough goal: to provide an alternative to the greasy fast food bacchanal known as “lunch” in the nation’s public schools. In practice, they teach kids about growing their own veggies and plug local farmers into the school nutrition bureaucracy. Kids have taken to it mainly because any fruits, picked ripe, taste better.
But that is not enough for groups like L.A.’s Urban and Environmental Policy Institute, a Waters-inspired organization that has successfully set up a number of farmer’s market salad bars in public schools. The right nutritional message, according to its own “food security” reports, is to “prioritize organic.” One consequence is “the kids take away a skewed–and in their economically deprived world–unattainable ideal,” one of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s nutrition directors told me. “They instead end up with the false notion that the only vegetables and fruits that are truly safe and conscionable to eat are organic.”
At the national level, the chefs helped bring about the USDA’s new organic labeling regulations. The new regulations detail exactly what organic means: no synthetic pesticides, no ionizing radiation, no genetic engineering, all signified by a new green-and-white food label. But mainly the regulations legitimize what no liberal chef dare speaketh: the historic creation of two official standards for American food, one for the rich envirophile, the other for we not-so.
And at whose expense? Even many liberal environmentalists now think that the pressure on the USDA to focus on pesticide policing has impeded the agency from fighting food-born illnesses. Food poisoning has become a growing–and much more immediately deadly–menace in the food supply, accounting for about 76 million cases a year. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 250 people a year die from a new form of E. coli bacteria found mainly in ground beef, and occasionally in organic produce, as the hearty bacteria is transmitted mainly through fecal matter, organic farmers’ primary source of fertilizer.
These trends can only be the beginning, and they carry troubling implications. What happens if the chefs and their fellow food purists continue to get their way? What would happen, for example, if cheap produce imports were curtailed because of more stringent pesticide regulations? One answer can be found in so-called “risk trade-off studies,” in which scientists weigh the cost of eliminating a pesticide against the risk of continuing its use. For years such studies were derided by environmental groups, who pointed out that they were usually the work of industry hacks.
No more. Writing in the March 2000 issue of NeuroToxicology, Wake Forest Medical School professor Darrell Sumner documented the potential for an increase in illnesses caused by fungi normally controlled by organophosphates. One such agent is aflatoxin, adeadly natural carcinogen often carried by insects and strongly implicated in human liver cancer. Sumner noted, “Loss of insect control would likely lead to an increased incidence of aflatoxin in the U.S. food supply.”
What if GM foods are flat-out put on hold? Even many environmental groups concede that the result would be disastrous. This is because everyone from the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) to the World Health Organization agree on a few key statistics. Global population between now and 2025 will likely increase by about 38 percent, from 5.8 billion to 8 billion. Most of that growth will take place in the developing world. Without dramatic increases in crop yields, vast new tracts of land–about the size of all tropical rain forests–will be required to feed these people. Many of these people want to eat meat, just like us. That will require even higher yields of grain to feed the cattle and chickens. Traditional high-yield techniques will not be able to meet that need. GM crops will.
Still, many chefs and foodies insist that indigenous, traditional forms of agriculture would serve China and India and Africa–or at least their environments–better. The idea may appeal to the postmodern hunger for authenticity, but as the Nobel laureate agronomist Norman Borlaug has noted, traditional farming practices are some of the most environmentally destructive. To wit: Subsistence truck farming makes for colorful ethnic tableaux, and for a devastating, very uncolorful loss of topsoil and minerals.
Koo Han Paik, last year’s president of the San Francisco chapter of Slow Food, an organization dedicated to “preserving artisan foodstuffs” and promoting a more pleasurable way of life, recently summed up why chefs and their followers feel so strongly about GMOs: “A lot of this attitude comes from a kind of Marin County liberalism. You hear a lot about zero population growth, but not a lot about actually feeding people what they want to eat. It’s almost as if the land is more important than the people. Listening to them, it’s like people, I don’t know, it’s like people get in the way.”
And there is the rub, no? Because–surprise!–the cuisine of trepidation is All About Me. It is about what it takes to make chefs and foodies feel superior to the uneducated masses. If that means weeping over an organic cherry, then they will weep over an organic cherry (and charge you $10 for doing so). If it means traveling to Belgium to find real organic chocolate, then they do just that (and bore you to death by telling you all about it on the menu). And if it means denying poor kids in India and Africa cheap and more nutritious GM rice–rice that might eventually prevent them from going blind–well, so be it. To paraphrase one of the nation’s better chefs: The famine will always get them anyway.