by Richard Oswald

According to National Public Radio, (1), the one thing vegans can’t resist is a slice of crispy fried pork. That makes bacon the gateway meat for wavering vegetarians.

Bacon lures us first through smell, which has a lot to do with the way tastebuds do their job. It has salt, protein, and fat—things human bodies crave. That’s why a scientist named Johan Lundstrom claims the bacon/human love affair happens simply because our brains are wired to want it. Arun Gupta goes Lundstrom three better by identifying six types of umami, or savoriness, (4) that elicit an addictive neurochemical response in omnivore brains.

Newspaper columnist Doug Larson summarizes the dilemma: “Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if vegetables smelled like bacon.” (3)

True, bacon can be fried in 10 minutes or less. It’s quick. On the other hand, the 18-hour maple cure makes it anything but fast food. When I read Mark Bittman’s first Food Manifesto column in the New York Times I hoped he’d leave bacon, the gateway meat, alone. I got my wish.

What Bittman wants is “sustainability” in our food supply. That’s been on the radar since eco-movements of the ‘70s. In the ‘80s the UN put it on their list of all that is good and righteous. Since then there have been attempts to link all our
food on a sustainable to-do list. Not much has happened with “sustainability” because up to now there’s been a wrestling match between big food and committed foodies over sustainable definitions.

The whole movement has slowed because corporations would rather burn breakfast than lose control of markets.

This is what the new New York Times food columnist seems to miss — the connection between who controls markets and what happens on the farm and at the retail level. If you miss the connection between the lack of competition in agriculture and the nature of food, then you’ve overlooked the whole game.

For instance, Bittman writes that he doesn’t like subsidies. But subsidies are linked to how agriculture has changed and what it has become.

The truth is that grain subsidies rose just as we allowed livestock production to be controlled by ever-larger integrators(like Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield) and by opaque markets (where farmers and ranchers were never sure they received a fair price). Now, the livestock that once ate the grain family farms grew has moved off the farm and is increasingly under the control of a handful of companies.

That means the only remaining reason to produce corn was handed to farmers in the form of a government check.

Just for the record, during the time U.S. livestock producers were losing money and consolidating in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, not once did Congress offer them a routine subsidy or floor price as they did with grains.

Grain subsidies for farmers amounted to feed subsidies for CAFO agriculture.

Grain subsidies came right along with corporate control of the livestock markets. But cheap grain policies and subsidies are more or less meaningless today as prices seek new lifetime highs among the many new uses for corn.

Stratospheric grain prices and falling dollars may have a silver lining. Food industrialists (whom Bittman doesn’t mention in his column) will have to cut back livestock production or do more work for less money. There’s a certain justice in that, because those are the same choices imposed on family farms during 40 years of consolidation.

Choice number three is that America imports cheaper foreign food at the expense of US markets and the health of our consumers.

Paradoxically our economic situation might be creating an opportunity for exactly the type of food we’d like more of (8), like home grown bacon, as the cheap grain subsidy for big agribusiness takes the cure.

The other problem with what Bittman advocates it’s that the definitions of sustainability are open to interpretation. When it comes down to sticking on the label, big packers and retailers of the world are there to smoke the rules. While guidelines will undoubtedly favor bacon in one form or another, they won’t do much to eliminate corporate gunk from human diets, especially if gunk can be defined sustainably, or possibly taco meat filler. (9)

The same thing happened not long ago when super retailer Wal-Mart tried a rewrite of organic rules (6). China was able to supply “certified organic” products (beyond sight of US inspectors), and Whole Foods found (10) the Chinese to be a premier (though doubtful) source of cheap organic supplies.

Now Wal-Mart may be moving toward perceived higher quality via a new private label. (5) Whether or not Wal-Mart delivers a truly healthful product or just a promise is up to consumers to decide, but the world’s largest retailer has identified a trend.

Spread across America, a number of foodies hope to grow the local food movement into a healthy sustainable cash crop for small farms that reap good consumer health in the bargain. But as these programs wind their way through state legislatures, we can only hope the markets favor farmers more than Safeway.

Mark Bittman wants to break up USDA and give more power to the Food and Drug Administration. For farmers, that’s like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

If people want truly sustainable food, the first order is to respect both the health of consumers and the realities of food production without watering down rules on safety AND competition. Historically those aren’t things FDA or USDA have been universally good at doing. In order to make sustainability real, real people will have to barricade the doors of the conference hall when final rules are written. Otherwise big business will be there in force with agendas of their own.

That’s what’s going on today, and it’s the reason a lot of farm and food groups are laying low on sustainability. Whether or not we truly achieve it relies on how it is defined.

In the end, that depends upon who defines it.

The battle is far from won. Intervention by bureaucratic executives on their way up the career escalator could end up writing sustainable rules for food Bittman abhors, food that looks, tastes, and is exactly the same stuff we’ve been eating for decades.

Except for the label.RO