As a former farmhand with a graduate degree in agriculture focusing on production + environment, this book is right up my very niche alley. I spotted it in Coach House Books’ fall catalogue and knew I had to read it. They were kind enough to send me an ARC and I dug in (get it? Sorry).
The farm I used to work on is not a typical North American farm, but it is a typical Maine farm. Maine is an interesting place because it has a history of fostering and supporting small-scale agriculture. It has the oldest state organic certification organization in the US, and an old and thriving farmers market scene. A lot of Mainers eat local out of both necessity and desire, and access to fresh local food is pretty decent, with most farmers markets accepting WIC and EBT (though due to its federal nature aka producers not being paid on time or the amount they’re owed, many small farmers have a complicated relationship with it). It’s not a utopia by any means, but it is doing alright, at least comparatively speaking. My agricultural education began on the small, food-driven farms in Maine and continued on the larger, commodity-driven farms of Denmark. I never made it to the vast corn/soy/meat/milk outfits that define a large swath of US agriculture, thank goodness. But my undergrad, work, and grad experience in farming is pretty diverse.
In my experience farmers are some of the most intelligent and pragmatic people on the planet, and even though they certainly have ideals and put so much heart into their work, it’s the foodie consumers who get dogmatic about food and put all kinds of value judgment on the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to eat. That’s the jumping-off point for Rebecca Tucker’s book, too.
A Matter of Taste is basically a long essay exploring some different facets of food systems from a consumer’s perspective. The consumer’s perspective is the dominant one in the discourse around food in North America (Rebecca Tucker is based in Canada but the book covers North America as a whole). That’s because there are way more people who eat than people who farm. And there’s a reason for that: technological innovation. Humans figured out how to manipulate land and other resources to grow a lot of food. That food helped us evolve and multiply. Therein lies one crux of the food/agriculture ethics conundrum: there are a lot of people, some would argue too many, and the resources have become concentrated. Technological innovation allowed for that, too. It’s not news to anyone that there’s a huge wealth/resources gap between the global rich and the global poor. But that gap has, among other things, created a new(ish) breed of food moralism, which is a major theme of Tucker’s book.
In my college days I was a Michael Pollan devotee and now find him insufferable, and he’s a big reason that locavorism exists the way it does. Locavorism, as Tucker writes, is inaccessible to most (she also lays out a lot of the reasons why). Tucker writes about Pollan and his ilk (Mark Bittman, Barbara Kingsolver et al) with skepticism that I agree is warranted, without attacking them on a personal level. Their brand of food moralism is, she writes, served with a “pretty significant helping of righteousness.” What is ostensibly a political movement meant to emphasize sustainability is actually extremely unsustainable because it excludes most people on this planet, including just in North America. It’s dogmatic, which is inherently a problem.
To be fair, the technology we’ve built to produce food the way we do now is royally fucking up our planet. But farmers markets themselves aren’t the solution to this problem. Tucker’s central argument is that agriculture is by its very nature extremely nuanced, and to produce food in a less damaging way requires a lot of changes in a lot of areas of farming.
Tucker gives a brief introduction to some history of innovation in food; for example, how the advent of readily available electricity made the Triscuit possible (“BAKED WITH ELECTRICITY!” was a positive marketing slogan, ha). While she doesn’t mention many previous technology specifics (i.e. tractors and their implements, black plastic/plastic in general, etc), a point she implies but never explicitly states is that agriculture itself is a product of technology. If sustainability is doing no harm, no iteration of farming is sustainable. Maybe if fertilization happened via humanure and animals which bear no resemblance to most farmed animals we’ve bred for meat and milk; and if we diligently used crop rotation and left land fallow to rebuild its soil structure and microbial health for longer periods of time; and/or if we were hunter-gatherers; then maybe humans could live on this earth “sustainably.” But reality doesn’t allow for that. Agriculture is at the root of a lot of our global problems. Not exactly the utopian ideal many locavores/foodies/food moralists see it to be, or hope it can be.
However, it doesn’t make much sense for humans to stop feeding themselves, lie down and die for the “good of the planet.” Because hi, that’s never going to happen, nor should it. Optimists are convinced that we’re kind of amazingly smart, and we can figure our way out of or into a lot of things – after all, we’ve done a lot of that already. So what do we do? That’s the question Tucker begins to try to understand in this book. It has no neat answers, as she concludes. But nothing in the attempt to feed the ever-growing number of people on this earth can be achieved through moralistic dogma.
Market hauls are pretty, but they won’t save the world
Some of the new technologies that farmers – and food producers who might not be recognized as farmers – are experimenting with now are high-tech, like hydro/aquaponics operations (mostly for lettuce and herbs, which on their own aren’t going to be sufficient food for anyone, though a cursory Google search tells me that more substantial things like root vegetables can be grown this way too… with the use of Perlite and other mined and/or manufactured resources, so do with that information what you will), are being used in cities. Urban gardens are definitely a thing and can help mitigate some community access to fresh produce, which can help mitigate health problems associated with eating the cheapest foods aka the most processed foods. Tucker briefly addresses the role government subsidies play in making these foods so cheap, but also makes a point to quote Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel, whose December 2017 column on this subject reports that “Produce is inherently more expensive to grow than grains, and that difference dwarfs the difference in subsidy levels.” This seems overly simplified to me, and I’m not sure I’d count feed corn because it’s not going to feed people but rather to ferment in the stomachs of animals who were never meant to eat it and create actual damaging amounts of methane, further contributing to climate change. I think it would help if our capitalist view of agricultural products didn’t necessitate seeing them as commodities, but I digress.
Other new technologies Tucker touches on are based around the idea of precision farming. This uses GPS, lasers, cameras, drones, and super accurate tractor implements to maximize production capacity in the interaction between land and machine. It’s just like a spy movie! In fact, privacy is a real concern in this type of technology, as is automation leading to loss of jobs. Agricultural jobs are different than pretty much any other job in that they are mostly filled by migrant, immigrant, or otherwise marginalized people who are chronically underpaid, underappreciated, and straight-up abused. So that complicates the automation question further.
When I was in graduate school at the University of Copenhagen studying agriculture, I saw a lot of precision agriculture tools up close. The Danes are a weird case because it’s such a homogenous country, though most of the workers on the farms we went to were Eastern European and I doubt they were treated much better than Mexican or Guatemalan workers are in the US. But Danes have a specific advantage that extends to everyone who’s not an immigrant, is white and culturally Danish: they all have money. Including the farmers. So this technology is a lot more accessible to them than to any of the farmers I know in Maine, and probably to most small-medium size farms across North America. I stood in fields in Denmark and watched drones fly over land to survey soil structure and nutrition; weeding tines the size of pencils perfectly knock out weeds around every seedling in a bed; and camera-driven tractors with no human in the bucket seat drive in a perfect line down the designated tire tracks, limiting compaction to a very small area of a field. I have to admit, it was impressive. I won’t be the one to write this off as part of the future of farming, but like anything, it cannot be a silver bullet. Not least because almost no one can actually afford it. That goes for things like lab-grown meat too, a single patty of which currently costs $330,000, according to Tucker. Welp!
As for the questions of human health as it relates to food production, Tucker does an admirable job of tackling this endlessly complicated issue in a small amount of space. When people talk about health in general, and especially in relation to how food is produced, it makes me tense up every time. It’s so easy to fall into black-and-white, one-size-fits-all, grandiose declarations about ‘healthy eating.’ And that is a fast, direct line to moralism and dogma, which, as I’ve expressed, I find unproductive and also just hate.
Tucker and I are generally on the same page about being anti-dogma, but some of the studies she cited in her discussion of nutrition gave me pause. The most troubling example is the findings from a September 2017 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The researchers found that cutting meat from the diets of Americans would result in nutritional deficiencies in “least-cost diets.” The conclusion that Tucker cites claims that people would have to eat too much in order to get enough nutrients. That seems like a really weak argument. Cost barriers and access are the main problem with choosing plant-based diets. This is driven on the farming side by subsidies for certain products (making processed foods cheaper than produce/whole foods); and on the consumer side by lack of living wage, racial and gender oppression, and the wealth gap built into the socioeconomic structures that drive our entire society. Welp again!
That’s not to say plant-based diets would be a great solution to climate change and health problems if they were just available to all. That ignores things like, as Tucker acknowledges, culturally important harvest and consumption of animals to Indigenous populations, the vital role animals can play in closed- or nearly-closed-circle farms in fertilization of land, etc.
Another piece of the nutrition/access puzzle is how we think about equitably distributing food. Tucker does a good job of pointing out that “food destined for a wealthy person’s garbage should not be considered the solution to the impoverished person’s hunger. The system needs to be rejigged so that no one is even hypothetically expected to live on someone else’s kitchen scraps.” In other words, food waste reduction programs that seek to redistribute second-hand food dehumanize people without access to food. The solution to this, Tucker rightly points out, is to separate the problems of food waste and food access. For example, Imperfect Produce, which is a company I have done recipe development for in the past and who I happily use, is a paid service. It increases access to fresh produce by selling it at a reduced price, but it doesn’t solve the problem of access (nor does it claim to).
Overall, there’s a lot packed into this little volume. It’s an exploration rather than a prescription, and as someone with a lot of base knowledge in this area I didn’t learn anything new, per se, but I do think this is a great overview of something that defies overview by its very nature. It’s also an easy read, not getting too bogged down in academic or technological jargon. I definitely recommend this book for anyone who’s interested in a thorough introduction to thinking about food systems.
Farmland: Denmark vs small-scale in Maine
I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Opinions are my own. Thank you Coach House Books!
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