The Moderate Foodie Activist: Getting to Know Me

I was having a twitter interchange with Michele Simon the other day, in which she mentioned that she had expected me to disagree with something she’d written. It got me thinking about how people perceive food activists in general, and me in particular.

I am a foodie, and I am a food activist. I am also a food moderate.

Those statements don’t typically go together in the food movement world, especially the internet part of if, and it tends to really throw people who deal with other food activists and foodies regularly.  Many of the more vocal people in those fields are extremists, as tends to be true with the very vocal majority on most issues. But, it does make for some confusion when someone runs up against my view points, because they come into it with expectations that, while valid in general, don’t work for me specifically. There are lots of people that I wish would stop “helping” my food causes, because all their doing is making me look nuts by association, and making it difficult to be taken seriously.

A great example is raw milk. I drink raw milk, I advocate for the choice to drink raw milk, I believe that the science shows that raw milk can be perfectly safe and has some good nutritional benefits. This is where the confusions starts for people that tend to deal with raw milk activists most of the time, because they assume that if the above is true of me, then I also must fall in line with the rest of the “raw milk” party line of thinking raw milk is magic, wanting no regulation, and the complete elimination of pasteurization. In fact, I disagree with all of those ideals pretty strongly.  Raw milk isn’t magic–it comes from a cow, not a unicorn.* It is, however, a nutrient dense food that people should have the right to consume so long as they are, like all things, truthfully informed of risks (not fear-mongered into believing one sip is likely to kill them and their families). Reasonable regulation would be incredibly helpful for farms and consumers all around. Raw milk should be a choice where it’s feasible, but there are plenty of good reasons for pasteurized milk to be available, as well.

Another example, and the one that brought this post to mind, is animal treatment and longevity. In this case, the assertion was that more animal lives are saved by giving up eggs and milk than by giving up meat. In conventional farming, this is totally accurate. In what I’ll call “ethical” farming (local, humane, etc.), it’s actually often not accurate because animals generally have significantly longer lives. This was extrapolated to mean–and for many people in the local food movement, does mean–that everyone can eat all the animal products they want, as long as their “ethical, ” and that we should strive to parallel the production of the current US food system.

Again, I disagree with my more extreme counterparts.  Ms. Simon, in this article in the Grist, points out that designing a system that is “sustainable” which simply mimics the current food model–one that has demonstrably made the US fat and unhealthy and done incredible environmental damage–is part of where the food movement is getting it wrong. I agree, and I totally understand why she was surprised that I agree. Many local foodies and sustainable activists spend all their time pointing out how we can produce just as much, when what we really need it to produce less and in a better way. As I’ve said before, and as the WHO agrees, we already produce substantially more food that the world needs, and we throw much of it away (1/3-1/2, depending on which stats you use).

We don’t need to produce as much meat as we do now, and we certainly don’t need to be eating as much of it as we do now.** I realize animal products aren’t the only, or even the main, culprit in our national disease and obesity epidemics, but just because we could potentially produce as much meat ethically as we can in conventional farms doesn’t mean we should.  The nutrients those of us who are omnivores–and even those who are paleos–believe we need can be gotten from a fairly small portion of animal products, with the rest of the diet composed of vegetables and fruit.

Moving on. I am a firm believer in local food. It keeps money in the local economy, is key to food security and safety, creates community, is more nutritious because it can be picked at the peak of ripeness, and much of it has additional advantages like less environmental impact (depending on how it’s grown). I don’t, however, believe we need to get rid of all corporate agriculture. There’s a reasonable place for it, and the truth is that not everyone lives close enough to a rural area to get their produce from a local farmer. There are food deserts, there is poverty, there are transportation issues. What we do need is agriculture reform, where huge amounts of cash don’t flow into political coffers to keep subsidies coming, where poorly researched products aren’t legalized due to corporate pressure or funds, and rules aren’t made to encourage large agriculture at the expense of local producers.

I believe that eating too much grain, even whole grain, isn’t particularly good for you. I don’t believe eating a moderate amount of brown rice, whole grain bread, or pasta is a problem.

I believe that corporate agriculture is run by people who are greedy and don’t particularly care about the public health if it means hurting their profits, but I don’t believe there’s some secret collusion with the government to keep people sick.

I believe ethical farming is part of the solution to our environmental, security, and health problems in the US, but I don’t believe it’s a panacea.

I could go on and on. My point here is that not everyone who believes in better food, local food, and/or food freedom is extreme. There are lots of us in the middle, where reason, science, and freedom meet practicality and responsibility. Where idealism is great, but tempered with the reality we have to work with.

*I don’t remember who said this, but I loved it. If you know who it’s attributed to, please let me know.

**For total honesty, I was a lacto-ovum vegetarian for about 6 years in my 20s.

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