Consumer demand can drive change—but only if everyone is hungry for it.

by Jane Black

 Jane Black is an award-winning New York food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community's struggle to change the way it eats.

Stone Barns Center invited Jane to be our guest columnist, taking on complex, timely issues in food and agriculture that are important to our mission. We welcome her perspective; the views and opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of Stone Barns Center.

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Consumer demand can drive change—but only if everyone is hungry for it.

If you happen to be shopping at a supermarket this summer, you may be lucky enough to pick up a melon called Melorange. It’s a cross of a cantaloupe and European heirloom varieties of melon known for their fruity and floral aromas. By comparison, tasters say, the flavor of a regular cantaloupe is uninspiring.

Who do we have to thank for this marvel of a melon? Wait for it—Monsanto.

Before you choke on your morning cup of Fair Trade coffee, you should know that the Melorange is not genetically modified. The company uses high-tech scans and computer models to speed up traditional plant breeding. According to an excellent piece in Wired Magazine, what might take nature 1,000 years to produce, Monsanto can do in just a few years—without splicing a single gene.

American consumers will happily eat processed foods made with genetically modified corn and soy. But they have made it crystal clear that fruits and vegetables are another story. There is still plenty to dislike about Monsanto—its strong-arming of farmers, its restricting the use of patented seeds, to name a few examples. But the Melorange proves that even Big Bad Monsanto listens when consumers speak.

The term “vote with your fork” was coined in the 1990s, and it has been used so often since that it has become a platitude, one unfortunately associated with wealthy elites who pay top dollar for heirloom tomatoes at their Sunday farmers market. But consumer demand also has pushed Big Food to become more sustainable, too: Walmart this month struck a deal to sell organic food at cut-rate prices. McDonald’s and others have forced pork producers to phase out inhumane gestation crates. Chick-fil-A announced it will transition to all antibiotic-free meat within five years.

It is certainly true that many of the problems in American agriculture and food production are systemic. But given the disheartening gridlock in Washington—all but guaranteed to continue thanks to recent Supreme Court decisions on campaign finance—sweeping political change will be slow. Building consumer demand for a healthier, more sustainable food system is the most effective—maybe the only—way forward.

The big question is how do we motivate a critical mass of consumers to demand change? To date, the food movement’s strategy has been to point to reams of depressing statistics that prove that our food system is environmentally unsustainable, morally indefensible and slowly killing us. Those arguments have successfully persuaded many wealthy, urban elites to buy organic and environmentally friendly foods. Where those arguments have failed, many food reformers have assumed that there must be something preventing people from seeing the logic in a new way of eating. Perhaps good food wasn’t easily available? Or maybe it was too expensive? To overcome these obstacles, reformers have helped to launch a series of projects aimed at putting new supermarkets in food deserts or supporting initiatives such as Philadelphia’s Healthy Corner Store, which incentivizes bodega owners to carry fresh fruits and vegetables.

Unfortunately, if you build it, they will not necessarily come. In 2011, my husband and I spent six months in Huntington, W.V., researching a book on how and if the food “revolution” can cross cultural and geographic boundaries. There, in the city that had recently been named the most unhealthy in America, we found plenty of supermarkets with generous selections of organic and fresh food. With only a tiny bit of help from the Internet, we managed to eat well—very well—for $2.63 cents per person per meal. And yet, we were the only people we knew who were eating that way.

Formal studies support our anecdotal findings. According to a 2011 paper, greater availability of supermarkets was unrelated to diet quality and fruit and vegetable intake. In 2014, an analysis of the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a statewide scheme that has opened 88 new stores in underserved communities, showed no direct impact on diets as measured by fruit and vegetable consumption or obesity. For some people, good food may be truly out of reach. But for most Americans, it isn’t that they can’t eat well; it’s that they don’t want to.

Indeed, there is a growing consensus among food-reform leaders that consumers who will be moved by the powerful moral and intellectual arguments that launched the delicious revolution are already well on their way. What the movement now needs is a message to convince everyone else that healthful and sustainably grown food is in their interest.

Or perhaps I should say “messages.” It is unlikely that food reformers will be lucky enough to stumble across another Michael Pollan to elegantly craft one message that inspires so many to do so much. For some people, especially in places like Huntington that are stagnating economically, community development will motivate support for small farms. In urban areas, a desire to preserve green space draws people in. As James Hill, the executive director of the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the University of Colorado, likes to say, we have to find the “why”—one that makes them hungry for change.

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