Food historian Rachel Laudan touched a nerve last week when a long ago published essay “A plea for culinary modernism” resurfaced on Jacobin magazine. The gist of her thinking is that the good food movement is unjustly ignoring the efficiency and bounty our industrialized food system produces. From an interview of Laudan by Washingtonian’s Todd Kilman:
Farm products are not food; they are the raw materials for food. Turning plants and animals into something edible is just as difficult, just as laborious as farming itself. Very few of our calories come from raw, unprocessed food.
Nothing could project the raw material idea into Imax 3-D more than recent news from agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. The company is the world’s largest corn processor. They’ve made plenty of money in recent years processing corn into ethanol to burn in American cars. But with ethanol profits sliding, what’s a smart corporation to do with all that corn? Shift into the increasingly profitable food ingredient sector. As reported by Reuters:
ADM’s corn business profit dropped 39 percent in the first quarter due to poor ethanol margins. Demand is flattening as government targets for ethanol use in gasoline have been reached and increasingly efficient vehicles consume less fuel.
But its ingredients business, currently just a tiny revenue generator for the $31.6 billion company, posted a 17 percent profit jump in the same period.
It invested $3 billion in that business last summer with the purchase of natural flavorings company Wild Flavors, ADM’s largest-ever acquisition.
And it turns out all you need is a keyboard to switch from liquid automotive fuel to Doritos.
It grinds about 3 million bushels of corn a day worldwide and produces about 11 percent of U.S. ethanol, so even a tiny change can resonate in the commodity supply chain.
The mills break corn into the oil-rich germ, high-protein gluten, fiber and the versatile starch which can be processed further with enzymes, yeast or bacteria.
At ADM’s Decatur, Illinois, plant, the world’s largest, computer operators in a tiny, air conditioned control room tucked among towering grain tanks, can tweak output in a couple of key strokes.
There’s a lot to agree with Laudan’s essay. Indeed, our industrial food system produces a bounty of choice, convenience and calories. What ADM’s state-of-the-art gloop glop factory does though is obliterate any provenance or connection to our food. Like one farmer told me about the marketing power of the global corn economy, once he grows it and takes it to the elevator “it’s like a drop of water in the Mississippi — you put it out there and it’s gone.”
Which ends up exposing cynical messaging by the food and ag lobby, who lament:
Food. Everyone buys it. Everyone eats it, and everyone talks about it. But, not everyone gets a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how food is grown, traveling with it as it goes from the farm to the plate. With more Americans growing up in urban and suburban areas, miles from farm life, there is an increasing disconnect between consumers and the people who grow their food.
And Steve Martin predicted this years ago.