In Praise of Industrialized Food

Check out this piece, by Rachel Laudan, in the Utne Reader: In Praise of Fast Food. (It’s worth noting right up front that the title of the piece is misleading. It’s not a defense of fast food, in the McDonalds and Pizza Hut sense. It’s more like a limited defence of modern, partially-industrialized food.)

Here’s a representative bit:

By the standard measures of health and nutrition—life expectancy and height—our ancestors were far worse off than we are. Much of the blame was due to diet, exacerbated by living conditions and infections that affect the body’s ability to use food. No amount of nostalgia for the pastoral foods of the distant past can wish away the fact that our ancestors lived mean, short lives, constantly afflicted with diseases, many of which can be directly attributed to what they did and did not eat.

Historical myths, though, can mislead as much by what they don’t say as by what they do say—and nostalgia for the past typically glosses over the moral problems intrinsic to the labor of producing food. Most men were born to a life of labor in the fields, most women to a life of grinding, chopping, and cooking….

Lauden’s point, basically, is that old-fashioned “natural” food isn’t uniformly marvellous, and modern mass-produced food isn’t all bad.

The comments section under Lauden’s article includes plenty of harsh criticisms. Most accuse her of some form of either straw man or false dichotomy. Maybe that’s fair. Maybe the so-called “culinary Luddites” she criticizes don’t exist. Maybe no one really thinks that all-and-only natural, artisan, organic, hand-made foods are good and nutritious and right. But if you take Lauden’s argument with a grain of salt, and allow for a good deal of rhetorical flourish, I think there’s something to learn from it.

I’ll make just a few quick points:

1) It’s worth noting why it is that so-called industrial food has become so popular. Industrial processes are efficient. They are good at turning a little input into a lot of output, quickly. Packaged foods are cheap (and no, not only because of subsidized ingredients) and are a busy parent’s dream at dinner time. There is genuine value there.

2) Industrial processes allow for customization on a very short time-scale. Breeding a better apple takes years of cross-breeding. Devising and manufacturing a healthier jar of salsa can can probably be done practically overnight. Recipes can be tweaked. Sugar can be subtracted. Vitamins can be added. You name it. Where there’s a will (i.e., consumer demand), there’s a way.

3) We shouldn’t allow the worst kinds of industrialization to define industrialization itself. We only think of industrialized food as crappy because so much of it happens, in fact, to be crappy. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s not part of the definition of mass-produced food. After all, think of industrialization outside the world of food. If you were to take Dickensian sweatshops and BP’s oilspill as emblematic of industrialization per se, you would be ignoring the good products of industrialization like laptop computers and antibiotics and mass-produced textbooks.

4) Values don’t absolutely have to travel in tightly-knit packs. A big part of Laudan’s real point, I think, is that words like fresh, natural, slow, handmade, traditional, and nutritious don’t absolutely have to go together, all the time. Food can be nutritious without being all-of-the-above. And food can be convenient without being nutritionally disastrous.

HT to Andrew Potter.

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
This entry was posted in agriculture, ethics, factory farms, fast food, health, industrial, junk food, labour, natural, science, values. Bookmark the permalink.

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