The most remarkable thing about Time’s recent cover story, “Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food”, isn’t the information in the story itself. The figures about overuse of antibiotics in livestock, environmental damage from chemical fertilizers, the subsidizing of corporate agriculture and the ultimate health costs to the country of our current agriculture system are nothing new. The most remarkable thing about the story is the reaction it’s getting.
In case you haven’t read it (and I have only just finished it, intending to get around to it all week but being distracted by too many other things I have to read in the meanwhile), the story is – essentially – a reduction of all the books, essays, and documentaries critical of American food production over the past decade or so. The gist of the story is that American agriculture is in trouble, and that current large-scale farm practices will result, eventually, in collapse. As I said, in that sense the story offers nothing new. What it does offer, however, is a new voice in the call for food reform and that voice is arguably the most mainstream of American media, Time magazine.
The story, written by Bryan Walsh (who has written a number of controversial pieces about environmental and food issues), is being talked about in a wide number of web sites and publications, garnering excitement from those who support overhauling American agribusiness, and scorn from those who have a great deal at stake financially. A typical example from critics comes from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which Walsh had contacted as he was writing his story. The organization, which supports lobbying efforts and public outreach on behalf of the beef industry, gave him several names to contact.
"Unfortunately Mr. Walsh chose to completely ignore every word, every fact offered to him by these experts and actual producers on the front lines," laments Daren Wiliams, NCBA’s executive director of communications.
“And better yet, Walsh doesn’t fall back on that tired journalistic trope of the ‘third party fact,’” countered Grist.org, a self-described “beacon in the smog”. “‘Experts’ don’t ‘claim’ nor do ‘critics’ ‘observe’ nor even does ‘Michael Pollan’ ‘relate’ this or that fact of industrial ag’s excesses: they are instead plainly stated as established, if awful, truth. How refreshing.”
If Walsh’s story has accomplished anything, it’s moved the debate about the need for agricultural reform to an entirely new level, from the backrooms of the legislatures and lobbyists’ offices and environmentalists’ web sites, to the coffee table, right between the recliner and Monday Night Football.
It’s about time. Ahem.