The Politics of Food and the Historian's Work: When the Twain Shall Meet, Part 1 (*1)

Part One --- Part Two --- Part Three  This three-part rumination is prompted by a comment from Tim Beauchamp, who blogs at Open Fermenter and who I follow on Twitter. (He provides excellent Twitter content, by the way. None of this “I’m at the grocery store now” crap from him!) For some reason, today he complimented me in a tweet and ended with:

She may be the Upton Sinclair Jr. of today. (*2)

I was touched by his sweet words in the rest of his tweet (modesty prevents me from including those), but --- I gotta say something about the “Upton Sinclair” business. (Tim, this is NOT an attack on you. No way, no how.) He inadvertently hit a nerve. And proved a point that I’ve been wanting to comment on:

That the current “food fight” has become so heated, so contentious that people assume that because I’m writing about meat, I must have an agenda.

So, Tim, thanks for prompting me to get busy writing a blog series that I’d been putting off. (The next beer’s on me.)

I’ve mentioned before, I’m writing a history of meat in modern America (c. 1870-1990). I spend most of my days digging through primary materials, hunting for information, trying to figure out “what happened” and then writing about what I learn.

But as part of my research, I’m also learning as much as I can about current agricultural issues, our existing food system, government food policies, and the like. That’s been an eye-opener. I had no idea how politicized these topics were.

Sure, I knew there were recurrent debates over, for example, farm subsidies. Over food tariffs and export quotes. Yes, I knew about the conflict unfolding here in the midwest over land use: Should large feedlots be allowed to exist? What kinds of controls ought to regulate their wastes? How can we reconcile the rights of homeowners with farmers?

I was, however, more-or-less oblivious to the other food fight: The one between the nation’s food producers --- farmers and manufacturers --- and the people who want to dismantle the existing food production system and replace it with one that is more “sustainable” (preferably more “organic”). (*3)

Next: My "agenda" __________

*1: No pun intended. Honest.

*2: Upton Sinclair was a committed socialist whose intent with The Jungle was the reveal the misery of factory working conditions. As he himself said (and I'm paraphrasing), he aimed for the nation's heart and accidentally hit its stomach.

*3: More accurately: I wasn't completely oblivious to the issues or the debate, but I sure didn't know how, um, heated it had become.