In a New York Times Magazine cover story, food author Michael Pollan labels America “the Republic of Fat” and blames our over-hyped “obesity epidemic” on “a veritable mountain of cheap grain.” Without talking to a single consumer or considering how most people make their food decisions, Pollan argues that food is just too darn cheap.
Pollan calls inexpensive corn “the building block of the ‘fast-food nation’,” complaining that “cheap corn, transformed into cheap beef, is what allowed McDonald’s to supersize its burgers and still sell many of them for no more than a dollar.” If you’re wondering what’s so bad about that, you’re not alone.
Agricultural technology like “mechanization, hybrid seed, agrochemicals and now genetically modified crops” have led to “abundant and cheap” raw materials for food, Pollan notes. As a result, “the number and variety of new snack foods in the supermarket have ballooned.” The horror!
Pollan is by no means the only author who believes food should cost American consumers more. Big Brother Kelly Brownell and food cop Marion Nestle think so too. Speaking at a public health conference last year, Nestle insisted: “[F]ood is too cheap in this country.“
Pollan titled his article “The (Agri)Cultural Contradictions of Obesity” — an intentional riff on The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, which argued that the success of capitalism will be its downfall. By the same misguided token, Pollan suggests that our present cornucopia of food options at relatively low prices is actually a bad sign.
One explanation for Pollan’s counterintuitive thesis that food should cost more is his bias in favor of small, local, and (small and local) organic farms. In a May 2001 article for the Times Magazine, Pollan wrote:
[T]here are values that the new corporate — and government — construction of “organic” leaves out, values that once were part and parcel of the word but that have since been abandoned as impractical or unprofitable. I’m thinking of things like locally grown, like the humane treatment of animals, like the value of a shorter and more legible food chain, the preservation of family farms, even the promise of a countercuisine.
Pollan opposes large-scale agriculture and modern farming techniques for sentimental reasons like “the promise of a countercuisine.” If he gets his wish and agriculture becomes less efficient, conventional food prices will rise — making Pollan’s favored products more competitive. While Pollan should feel perfectly free to pay through the nose for food, most consumers find no joy in spending more than they have to.