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The Politics of the Pantry

Michael Mikulak

(London Times)

The great historical advocates of decent treatment of animals - from Michel de Montaigne to Jeremy Bentham to Albert Schweitzer - did not rest their case, even in part, on environmental considerations. Conversely, the early heroes of environmentalism, such as Henry David Thoreau and William Flew, showed no tender-hearted concern for the suffering of animals. Thoreau, indeed, - loved to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can afford to be sacrificed-, including tortoises and toads run over in the road. Several developments, including the accelerating disappearance of habitats and species, have helped to connect debates on our treatment of animals with discussions on our responsibility towards natural environments. They are found connected, notably, in the wide, amorphous discourse prompted in recent years by what Michael Pollan called the anxiety of eating. This anxiety extends to the effects on health of the Western diet, the obscure provenance of much of that diet, its blandness, the demise of traditional farming communities, the plight of factory chickens and pigs, the transformation of jungles into grazing land, the impact of cattle farming on global warming, and the threat of catastrophic food shortages.

The entanglement of animal issues in this anxious discourse is the reason why they are most prominently aired nowadays on programmes, like those of Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, dedicated to food and cooking. In those programmes, as in many books that confront the anxiety of eating - Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, for example, or Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - a broad consensus emerges on both the wider question of what constitutes a good culture of food and the narrower one of the accommodation of animals within this culture.

This consensus is sympathetically presented in The Politics of the Pantry, by Michael Mikulak, a young Canadian social scientist and small-scale farmer. While practices of animal husbandry are not his central concern, the book gives clear expression to what, for the 'alternative food movement' that the author defends, these should be. His main concern is nothing less than the survival of humanity, which is at imminent risk, he maintains, under modern capitalism. A profit-driven economic turn, whereby nature is valued only as a resource, creates an 'environmental crisis' - water shortages, falling crop yields, global warming - that no amount of 'techno-utopian' fixing can resolve. The solution, rather, is to abandon the current system of 'industrial food' production in favour of an alternative food culture capable of 'creating an exuberance and excess that feeds everyone'. Embraced in this alternative culture are Slow Food philosophy, the Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement in the United States, 'locavorism', farmers' markets, kitchen gardening, practical education in food skills, and the eating of animals that have been 'ethically raised'. 'Utopian pastoral' as this culture may sound, it serves to inspire a radical politics of the pantry that engenders 'trust, solidarity and pleasure' among those striving to create a better world.

Mikulak records that he was once a vegetarian but decided to 'go beyond' this. For him, as for other enthusiasts of Slow Food and locavorism, dining on ethically raised pigs and chickens is not only a gastronomic treat, but a principled rejection of vegetarianism. Since they are discounted by the mass food industry, vegetarians allegedly have no influence on its methods of production. Indeed, by consuming processed food that has travelled long distances, they are complicit, Mikulak argues, in the very 'agricultural-industrial complex' that he denounces. Moreover, with artificial fertilizers eschewed, animals destined for the table are essential to the whole ecosystem of the farm.

Certainly, these animals deserve sympathy and respect, but this is precisely what they get from followers of the alternative food movement. Unlike people who consume anonymous lumps of meat from the supermarket, Mikulak's cohort 'celebrate' the 'animality' of a local pig or chicken, in all its 'fleshly presence', when cutting it up, wasting none of it, and sharing it with friends at the table. Vegetarians, it is hinted, are guilty of a surly refusal to accept both the generosity of life and the close communion with earth, family and community that - to judge from Mikulak's 'visceral experience' with goose sausages and pig's jowl - only a sharing in the preparation and eating of meat can provide.

'How do we get from here to there?', Mikulak asks more than once, alert to the problem of how the message of locavorism and Slow Food - perceived by some as an 'elitist dinner club for lefties' - could be embraced on the demotic scale needed to transform the global food system. Doomsday scenarios of food running out have become too familiar to have an effect, as have nightmarish exposes of factory farms. This is one reason Mikulak emphasizes the alternative food movement's credentials as an 'alternative hedonism'. The carrot of convivial gastronomic pleasure is more persuasive than the stick of food scarcity.

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