****Update for those of you who don't read my facebook or Chev's: Chev is totally fine and safe, the Peace Corps volunteers are only being evacuated from the Northern regions of Burkina Faso, and so they will be reassigned to southern villages that are safer. Yay for good news!
Dear Mr. President,
I have a soft spot for certain "celebrity" chefs. Jamie Oliver. Molly Wizenberg and, perhaps ironically, given his position on all things vegetarian, Anthony Bourdain. While at work, I glanced through a few passages from Bourdain's latest book, Medium Raw, in which he expresses his inexplicable mix of dislike and respect for Alice Waters. Bourdain, who himself insists upon fresh, organic food for his own family, has several problems with the way Waters has advocated these practices for all Americans. His first problem is with the reality of modern farming, which he, perhaps correctly, insists could not be simultaneously organic, sustainable, and affordable. His next contention, that few Americans want to do the hard work that kind of farming requires and must therefor rely upon immigrant labor or machines to do it for them, reminded me of two articles I'd stumbled upon lately. The first was a Freakonomics piece by James McWilliams on fair trade coffee and economic reality, and the second was an interview with a United Farm Workers of America VP Erik Nicholson discussing agricultural practices, in which Nicholson asserts that the convergence of sustainable small farms, labor and immigration issues make any real progress politically problematic.
Reading these pieces and contemplating the many ways that reality frustrates idealism, I realized that this issue is more than just labor and immigration and sustainability; it's healthcare and our energy future and our environmental policy. What we eat, how we produce our food, will involve and impact every major (and especially contentious) domestic policy issue we face. I was once again reminded of how overwhelmed I felt in Costco the other day, sure that all of my good intentions were for nothing. I don't see how we can possibly remake our entire agricultural system in the image of Waters' utopian ideal, but neither do I have quite so cynical a perspective as Bourdain. We may not have a surplus of Americans willing to return to agricultural labor, at least not the way it is now or has been done in the past, but it isn't as though all Americans are strangers to hard labor. I, for one, (and I doubt very much that I'm alone in this) would much rather have tended fields or picked fruit than toiled away as a food service employee for all the years I spent in unskilled positions. The problem is simultaneous change. We need more people to grow food that is safer and more nutritious, for themselves and for their communities, and to do that we need more people to work in agriculture, and to do that we need to have better wages and working conditions, which means the use of pesticides and factory farming practices would have to change. Immigration, food prices, import and export practices, the environment; everything would be affected. Everything would have to change at once for any of it to work, and I've lived too long to believe that we're capable of that.
So will organic, sustainably grown food continue to be a luxury for the rich, or favorably located, or fervently committed, forever subject to the economic realities that link scaling up these practices with the degradation of the very principles they were founded upon? I want to believe that we can reform ourselves, but I don't know that I, or you, or even Alice Waters, has the solution. In the last few days, I've seen major discussions on healthcare, immigration, energy and environmental policies from the White House, and so I know that your administration still has faith that we can make the necessary changes in all of these areas. For myself, I don't imagine that the solution lies in regressing to the practices that once sustained us; our society has become far too urban, far too disconnected from the land our food comes from to ever fully revert back to the kind of farming I associate with John Steinbeck's novels. I think our best hope is yet to be discovered, but that it will require us all to involve ourselves, however unappealing some may find it, in the sources of our food and to demand better conditions for the people who provide it for us.
Anyway, on Monday I'll be putting myself to the test and see how well my rhetoric stands up against reality. More on that, to come.