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Finding the right diet for a world craving answers

Sarah Elton in front of her 2008 Prius

Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

Sarah Elton

Everybody's a foodie, it would seem.

You can't channel surf, stand in line for groceries, or enter a bookstore without encountering a barrage of food celebrities pictured alongside their latest creations.

Of course, it's not all about throwing fabulous dinner parties. So called "locavores" emphasize the importance of local production and consumption. Others insist that we conceive of food just as we'd think of any other commodity – to be produced industrially and traded liberally.

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To this, Sarah Elton offers a sustained response in her second major book, Consumed. The trouble, as she sees it, is that, while industrial food might well bring us cheap calories, we absolutely do not have a food system resilient enough to carry us into the future. Not resilient enough to withstand a possible two-degree atmospheric temperature increase by 2050 – the all-too-near temporal horizon towards which Elton's narrative arc and argument move.

Consumed's 14 chapters are arranged in three parts: "Target 2020: Soil," "Target 2030: Seeds," "Target 2040: Culture." Through 2020 and 2030, we've got to kick our industrial agriculture habit, and ensure a biodiverse seed stock.

Parts 1 and 2 rehearse a reasonably familiar narrative of industrial agriculture's failings. As Elton's quite right to point out, trouble's been brewing a while, and particularly since the Second World War.

Processors, manufacturers and retailers earn spectacular profits by squeezing farmers and, ultimately, the land itself. Rattled equity investors are hastening to massive land buy-ups. Meanwhile, government policies clearly serve the needs of the biggest farms and big business.

Elton's detractors will surely object to a handful of (admittedly) troubled dualisms – industrial-sustainable, local-industrial, and technology-knowledge. Moreover, there's a whiff of tautology that's sure to displease: "sustainable agriculture is simply better for the environment."

But I don't think Elton's all about casting off the "other side" with tidy dualisms. Indeed, she anticipates, even concedes, some of her critics' main arguments. She's aware that "conventional" agriculture tends to out-yield organic; she's heard about studies challenging the energy efficiency of local food.

Trouble is, so many studies supporting industrial agriculture simply don't provide a full-cost accounting. Yield, for instance, is clearly important; but preponderant evidence suggests that the total energy inputs of modern agriculture are not returned to us in calories. Not even close.

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But what might a post-industrial-agriculture world look like? To find out, Elton takes us to an organic bazaar in Aurangabad, India; an uplifting family operation in Lambton County, Ont.; and China's Yunnan Province, among others.

Where Elton's argument gets more troubling is in Part 3. She says that by 2050 we'll need to have educated the next generation "to embrace new food values, particularly those that…connect us to nature." Here's where we get a paean to the ineffables of food culture – terroir, Genuino Clandestino, authenticity. I'll take a carrot from the garden over a store-bought one any day, but there are conservative political implications lurking in the local food oeuvre that leave me unsure of the sustainability of its message.

Must we all adopt foodie talk to describe the act of cutting a tomato, à la the ecstatic Alice Waters, if our food system is to be saved?

I really hope not. In any case, political and cultural movements predicated on sensations to which others may not have access (for whatever reasons: financial, cultural, educational) have a way of ending poorly.

Further, our discussions around local food need to grapple with broader and more probing questions about the economic entanglements of western modernity. Will my investment portfolio suffer if teenagers eat less junk food in the mall's food court while shopping for cell phones? By how much, exactly, will our overall GDP decline if we appreciably reduce all the systems that extract, fuel, move, package, warehouse, insure our food?

It's easy enough to imagine how local-food markets might be redrawn to positive effect in places, like parts of India, that are drifting toward western modernity. But how does it work in places like Canada, where the food economy is already so utterly entangled with just about all other goods and services?

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The answers may be displeasing. However, when we're asking these questions routinely, and digesting the answers honestly, we'll be on our way to truly meaningful discussions.

Dr. John F. Varty has taught agricultural history and trade at McGill, Yale and McMaster Universities.

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