We want food to be simple and honest, local and seasonal. We want it to be organic, ”natural”, free of preservatives and homemade. This, at least, is the message from food journalists and critics, celebrity cooks, recipe books and MasterChef.
It’s a vision of food-before-the-fall, when people had a relationship with what they ate. A lovely dream, but dream it in moderation.
For the most part, when it comes to food and agriculture, industrial is good. Corporate farming is good. Even processed is good. Natural food is an illusion. We wouldn’t want it if we had it. Our ancestors had natural food. It was awful.
The history of eating is the history of shaping, manipulating, preserving and trading our food into digestible shape. Only since the development of modern agriculture, reliable transportation and refrigeration – in other words, industrial society – has food been cheap, plentiful and safe.
In the 17th century, fruit was dismissed as ”unwholesome” and blamed for the plague. It was hard to grow and extremely susceptible to pests and the weather. Today, even the most organic, locally sourced, seasonal tomato is the result of hundreds of years of human manipulation.
And even the most dedicated foodie’s pantry is stuffed with items that are industrial.
Like soy sauce. Nobody makes it from scratch. One recipe warns: ”If you get bored easily … this project might not be the best for you. It can take up to six months to see the finished product.”
You can just buy half a litre for $2, shipped in great quantities from China and available from a corporate supermarket. Not local, not bought at a farmers market, but indispensable.
By far the biggest benefit of industrial food has been saved labour. The only groups who practice ”slow food” (regional cuisines cooked from scratch with local ingredients) are the extremely well-off with the luxury of time and the desperately poor who have no alternative. The rest of us can buy our way out of dreary kitchen work.
As the food historian Rachel Laudan has pointed out, Japanese women in the 20th century embraced white manufactured bread because serving that was a lot easier than getting up early to make rice. Prior to the 1950s, Mexican women spent up to five hours a day making tortillas. And when they became available, Italians eagerly bought dehydrated pasta and canned tomatoes. The potential for gender equality was immeasurably enhanced when women were freed from the kitchen.
Even much-maligned processed food is an advance on the past. The processing of bread has not only made bread safer and healthier but it stores longer and is more nutritious than much of the food eaten by our ancestors.
The nostalgia for a lost world of pure food is nostalgia for a world of nutritional poverty. Laudan describes it as ”culinary Luddism”. And increasingly it has policy implications.
The recent debate over cheap milk was at its heart a debate over how we think about food. Should governments protect family farms? Or accept that in most cases the cheapest and most reliable way to feed the nation is industrial agriculture?
Yes, agribusiness is less romantic than the small farm that’s been worked by a single family for generations. But it’s economically viable. The Senate inquiry into dairy pricing heard stories of independent farmers toiling 12 hours, seven days a week, earning less than they could get from unemployment benefits. That’s no pastoral ideal.
Specialisation and economies of scale are just as necessary in agriculture as any other industry. No wonder most organic food sold in Australia is grown by large agribusiness rather than small family farms.
Throughout history, and for all but the rich, the production of slow, natural food has been an arduous necessity. Making food from scratch was the marker of a life of subsistence. Eating local was a requirement. The family farm was no Arcadian idyll. It’s long been a site of hard labour.
So let’s embrace the higher standards of living offered by commercial, industrial food.