Being an agriculture reporter, I hear a lot of speeches, decrees and diatribes about why people eat organic, vegetarian, or vegan, when they started avoiding gluten or dairy, or how they got turned on to pickling or kombucha. One element that drives many of these food awakenings — people saying they “realized the need” to vote with their fork. That somewhere along their path, they learned that they personally could and must act as a change agent to make the American food system safer, more just, and more beneficial to farmers and the environment, and they took pride in doing it on every trip to the grocery store or their favorite local farm-to-table restaurant.
This idea is not new. For over two decades, the idea of “eating for change” has been floating around, with it’s greatest proponents being the likes of Michael Pollan, who summarized the idea in a 2006 NYTimes article:
“You can simply stop participating in a system that abuses animals or poisons the water or squanders jet fuel flying asparagus around the world. You can vote with your fork, in other words, and you can do it three times a day.”
If you don’t like something about the way a food/beverage/really any kind of consumer item is made/distributed/sold, just don’t buy, the movement says, and eventually the wrong will be righted and all will be well. Essentially, with knowledge, discipline, and intention, we can consume our way to a better world.
An idea that feels breathtakingly simple, fundamentally transformative, and utterly attainable.
But is also total nonsense.
On the individual level , sure, it works. You can tell yourself that you’re excused from any guilt for animal abuse by being vegetarian/vegan, or that you are shrinking your carbon footprint by only buying local. But personal vindication is not the claim the movement makes. The movement promises systemic change, eventually to be felt by all of society. Will making these consumptive tweaks make that difference to the larger system? Absolutely not, and there’s a few reasons why.
Most people can’t or won’t “shop ethically.”