With the garden currently shooting up, I’ve found myself again disposed to read gardening and food related books. I finished reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma last week, and aside from a few gripes in regards to Michael Pollan’s understanding of economics, I enjoyed it quite a bit. On the last run by the library, I picked up a copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. The idea of moving out onto acreage and growing much of one’s own food is something that I find interesting. I enjoy gardening, I enjoy cooking gourmet food, and I think there’s a cultural and psychological value to remaining in touch with the way that humans have gained food for themselves in past centuries.
However, Kingsolver is far more passionate (and less balanced) in her jeremiads against “industrial food” than Pollan, and more prone to denunciations of what “capitalism” has done to our food culture. Indeed, so much so as to crystallize for me a trend among those who denounce “capitalism” and its impact on Western Culture. Kingsolver had just reached the crescendo of a complaint in regards to large seed companies peddling hybrids and genetically modified strains, when she turned to the subject of heirloom vegetable varieties, and her joy at paging through lengthy seed catalogs full of heirloom seeds.
…Heirloom seeds are of little interest to capitalism if they can’t be patented or owned. They have, however, earned a cult following among people who grow or buy and eat them. Gardeners collect them like family jewels, and Whole Foods Market can’t refrain from poetry in its advertisement of heirlooms….
So you see, when large agribusiness firms sell farmers seeds for field corn which are genetically modified to repel pests,
that’s capitalism. But when catalog and internet businesses build a thriving niche selling heirloom vegetable seeds, and Whole Foods ad men wax poetical over $7/lb tomatoes, that’s… Well, it certainly can’t be capitalism, can it? Not if it’s good.
In some circles, “capitalism” becomes such a scare-word that people forget what it means. Free markets and private ownership allow the satisfaction of a variety of wants: both mainstream farmers’ desire for crops which are bug resistant, and organic gardeners’ desire for true-breeding, non-hybrid varietals with colorful lineages; both Wal-Mart and Whole Foods.
Indeed, what doesn’t allow for this kind of preference driven diversity is a centralized top-down system. For all that slow-food and local-food advocates rail against the “industrial agricultural complex”, there’s in fact plenty of room for buying local food from quirky, sustainable-practice farmers in our current “capitalist” system. Their real nightmare would be not capitalism, but the sort of central planning which briefly had its day in this country under FDR’s New Deal, when the Schechter Brothers served jail time for the horrific sins of following strict Kosher guidelines, allowing customers to pick which poultry to buy based on what looked healthy, and giving customers a good price.
A preference driven system such as free market capitalism does leave us to suffer the pangs of seeing people buy things we think they ought not (and the changes in the culture that result therefrom), but whose of us who are in any sense in the cultural minority should hesitate to rail against capitalism, when it is free markets which allow those of us with niche-y tastes to see our needs met as well as those of the mainstream culture.