Hidden costs? Food perceptions explored at 'What's on your plate?'
It was one of those University of Virginia events where the panel discussion may have been trumped by the after-party. Certainly, the October 7 "What's On Your Plate?" symposium gained zest from free local food, free local wine, and free local opinions.
Richard Bean, the infamously disobedient pork-maker arrested in 2007 for misusing "organic" labels, asserted during the Q&A session–- when he wasn't mentioning destitute farmers killing themselves–- that instead of the approximately one percent of Americans making their career in agriculture, he'd like to see farmers constitute 25 percent of the population.
"We need 90 percent more cooks," opined Rowena Morrel, the publisher of In the Kitchen magazine.
Nancy Hurrelbrinck then strolled up to a group gnawing on local kabobs to ask, "Do you know any local sources of rabbits?"
"For pets or meat?" cracked a wiseguy in reference to the famous Michael Moore documentary Roger & Me.
"Mainly, I want the manure for my garden," explained Hurrelbrinck, citing frustration with the $30 per cubic yard price of Panorama Pay-Dirt, the Charlottesville area's best-known compost.
Enviro expert Tanya Denckla Cobb wheeled around to say there are better ways to find economical fertilizer than becoming a rabbit farmer. At which point UVA Community Garden manager Sara Teaster gushed that one of Denckla's books is a mainstay of the Teaster nightstand.
And so it went.
The panelist billed as the "contrarian agrarian," James McWilliams, never got around to mentioning one of his hotter articles, the one in last month's Atlantic suggesting that high fructose corn syrup–- the satanic ooze of all hard-core foodies–- constitutes no bigger a dietary problem than other sugars.
"A lot of food writing is pretty puffy," said McWilliams, noting that the Canadian couple behind the celebrated 100-Mile Diet has been portrayed as a pair of happy localvores even as their diet blasted down their libidos due to micro-nutrient malnutrition.
"That's where the appeal," Mcwilliams said dryly, "really disappears for me."
All this was happening inside one of the more controversial buildings in town, the new home for the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, a scholarship group that long operated out of a few rooms. It's now ensconced in a LEED-certified mini-campus, but it came at the cost of an architecturally significant mansion–- as well as about $21 million for 25,000 square feet of space. The scholarship group did donate the use of its auditorium and grassy courtyard for this event organized by an interdisciplinary group called the UVA Food Collaborative.
One panelist, Marian Burros, lamented the presence of ag subsidies for such thigh-padding staples as corn and beef. "Everything is backwards," said Burros, a former New York Times reporter who suggested ousting all politicians who'd vote for such government funding.
"The reason it's cheaper to eat meat is all the subsidies," said fellow panelist McWilliams. And though McWilliams refused to blast all large-scale food operations, he noted that making meat typically burns through energy, water, and other scarce resources.
"The vast majority of calories consumed in this country are not consumed by people," said McWilliams. "It takes 13 gallons of water to grow a tomato and 2,500 gallons of water to make a pound of beef."
The panelists talked of the hidden dangers of RoundUp-ready seeds, Chesapeake Bay-killing effluents, and a host of other "externalities" that hide the true cost of what many people consider inexpensive food.
Fellow panelist Tom Philpott, who writes a weekly column called "Victual Reality," points out that, for now at least, cheap food can still seem really cheap.
"You can go down to any McDonald's," he said, "and get an unspeakable amount of calories for only an hour's minimum wage."