David Frum’s Read on The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Fum kicks off his NewMajority piece with a look at the Right/Left food divide:
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney often joked during the primaries: “Being a conservative Republican in Massachusetts is a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention.” Try that joke the other way around, and it doesn’t work, does it?
Meat-eating is right-wing, everybody knows that! We even describe a rip-roaring conservative speech as “red-meat.” Crunchy granola is correspondingly left-wing. Whole Foods is liberal fascist, according to Jonah Goldberg, while Wal-Mart is bad for America, according to PBS’s Frontline.
These stereotypes have a basis in reality, for sure. There are more Whole Foods stores in Massachusetts’ 617 area code than in both Carolinas; more in Chicago and Evanston than in all of Georgia. Meanwhile, the state of Alabama supports only one Whole Foods store, but three Ruth’s Chris steakhouses. Mississippi: 0 Whole Foods, 3 Ruth’s Chris.
But, says Frum, it could just as easily have been the other way around. Frum read The Omnivore’s Dilemma (“More exactly: as I listened to it on long bike rides with my wife through the farm country of Prince Edward County, Ontario.”) and he comes away from it with fain praise for Michael Pollan:
Pollan lives in Berkeley, teaches journalism, and used to edit Harper’s. That’s a biography demarked with with red flags for the conservative reader. Pollan cannot resist the occasional grand pronouncement about “capitalism” and its machinations. That’s an irritatingly unconsidered remark… Unconsidered remarks aside, however, Pollan’s work ought to appeal to the market-minded reader. Pollan does some of his best work identifying the wasteful externalities concealed by agricultural subsidies. The corn that feeds Walmart’s cows may be genuinely cheaper than the grass that nourishes the cows yielding my expensive milk. But it’s not quite so much cheaper as the Walmart shopper thinks. The price of a bushel of corn averaged $2.74 between 2002 and 2007. But the federal government guarantees a price closer to $4. The difference comes in the form of a check from the federal Treasury.
There are other externalities too in American agriculture. The one that worries me most is the as yet unexacted cost of the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed. As antibiotics are used more, bacteria mutate to defeat them. By some estimates, 18,000 Americans died last year from drug-resistant infections. The routine use of antibiotics to defeat the infections that arise in overcrowded and under-sanitary feedlots is an important accelerant to the evolution of drug-resistant superbugs. If milk at $3.79 saves you from untreatable illness, you might think it a more economical purchase than it looks at first.
Preventable suffering of animals could also be regarded as an externality. Americans care about the animals they know: It’s estimated that Americans spend some $40 billion a year on the care of their pets. Yet the cow or pig you eat is as intimate a part of your life as the dog or cat with which you live. If Americans understood what the lives of those cows or pigs looked like, I wonder whether they would begrudge the extra cents per pound it would cost to ameliorate these animals’ living conditions. As wealth increases and living standards improve, that price becomes easier to pay – and harder to justify not paying.
Frum says the Right should support policies that promote better public health and fight obesity:
The policy response to this crisis is not obvious. And yet there are some immediate steps that make sense. State governments should ban soda machines from schools. Local governments should adopt zoning ordinances that prevent the siting of fast-food restaurants within 1000 yards of schools. (Research suggests that the near presence of a fast-food restaurant causes a 5% increase in student obesity.) Impose a steep excise tax on high-fructose corn syrup.
Over the medium term, Congress should work to shift federal aid to agriculture away from supports for specific crops – corn, soy etc. - to subsidies for the use of land for farming of any kind.
In the end, however, the impact of public policy will likely prove modest. Conversely, the more responsible approach to food and nature recommended by Michael Pollan and his admirers is the very epitome of conservative individualism and personal responsibility.
Good for David Frum! I especially like his Pollan-inspired discussion, from the Right, of how government subsidies are screwing up our agriculture, with far-reaching results. But if you’ve followed the reaction to my crunchy-con stuff from my NR days, this excerpt from Frum won’t surprise you, either