Many years ago my stepmother taped this question to the refrigerator: “Would you rather be happy, or right?” When I remarked on the wisdom of this therapeutic reminder (she and my dad are both shrinks), I repeated the question, and she immediately answered it. “Right!” she cackled gleefully, tensing her hands into claws: “I must always be right!”
The point is, of course, that it’s human nature to become so entrenched in the task of winning a fight that you can lose sight of your larger goals. And the will to win is very, very powerful.
Which is why it’s so useful when someone is big enough to step back from the battle over minutiae and reassess the big picture. Mark Bittman recently did just that in a remarkable column in the New York Times.
Our national food fight has been waged over a couple of concepts that have now achieved talismanic significance, and come totally unhinged from reality. Those concepts, according to Bittman? Organics and GMOs.
These concepts are so massive, that — like super planets — they suck in any argument passing through their gravitational field. But if what we care about is improving the environment and feeding people healthy food, these things matter relatively little.
Of course there are a lot of amazing organic farmers, whose commitment to stewardship has vastly improve the environment in their area. But:
[W]e can improve industrial agriculture more quickly and easily than we can convert the whole system to “organic,” which is never going to happen. Unless, of course, we run out of cheap fossil fuel and have to stop moving chemicals and food around the globe willy-nilly.
Furthermore, there’s a very real difference between eating better and growing better. I can eat better starting right now, and it has nothing — zero — to do with shopping at Whole Foods or eating organically. It has to do with eating less junk, hyperprocessed food and industrially raised animal products. The word “organic” need not cross my lips.
When it comes to GMOs, again, people again have an inflated sense of their importance:
Someone recently said to me, “The important issues are food policy, sustainability and GMOs.” That’s like saying, “The important issues are poverty, war and dynamite.” GMOs are cogs in industrial agriculture, the way dynamite is in war; take either away, and you have solved virtually nothing. … Let’s be clear: Biotech in agriculture has been overrated both in its benefits and in its dangers. And by overrating its dangers, the otherwise generally rational “food movement” allows itself to be framed as “anti-science.”
Of course, I could quibble with a couple of Bittman’s points, but nah: The sentiment is pure, the thrust of the argument is sure.
So, in the bigger picture, what really does matter if not organic food and GMOs? If — instead of struggling to be right on GMOs and organics — we just wanted to be happy (or for our great great grandkids to be happy), what should we focus on?
There are two important struggles in food: One is for sustainable agriculture and all that it implies — more respect for the earth and those who live on it (including workers), more care in the use of natural resources in general, more consideration for future generations. The other is for healthier eating: a limit to outright lies in marketing “food” to children, a limit on the sales of foodlike substances, general encouragement for the eating of real food.
I can get on board with those big-picture goals — and I think most people could. Reset the focus like this, and you could form a genuine coalition that cuts across traditional political alliances. That’s not at all what we have now:
Near-hysteria or simple answers lead to unachievable situations and nonsolutions. More effective would be shifting the food culture, the relevant business models and public policies — a gradual and concerted movement toward making production and consumption simply “better.” That is what the good food movement should be about.
Preach it, brother Bittman. Amen!