In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan and
Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System by Raj Patel
Is there anything that generates more collective exasperation, eye-rolling, and covering of one’s ears than some new study touting the health benefits of one food or the dangers of another? Michael Pollan, journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, empathizes with our plight, helps us understand how we got here, and makes us laugh while he’s doing it. He has some simple advice, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Then he promises to complicate matters just a bit, so that he can fill another couple hundred pages and turn it into a book.
Although Pollan stops short of accusing anyone of conspiracy, he shows us how the food industry has teamed up with nutritionists to undermine our confidence in food and encourage the purchase new products on the supermarket shelves, which he calls “foodlike substances. “ He says we have been successfully trained to think in terms of nutrients … vitamin C and potassium, for example, rather than oranges and bananas. The problem with this is who is to say, really, that a particular nutrient in a fruit or vegetable is all that it has to offer? By encouraging us look at food in this way, a nutrient can be packaged in a box with some other ingredients and a new profit making opportunity is born.
He talks about how a food – the egg, for example – is vilified for a period of time, creating the opportunity for new product development, and when just about everyone has accepted the fact that eggs are bad, the egg is redeemed, and we can all eat eggs again. He offers the reader guidance in navigating the supermarket, telling us to pretend we are entering the store with our great-grandmother, and if she doesn’t recognize something as food, it probably isn’t. Stick to the perimeter of the store, he tells us, and be very suspicious of excessive health claims on packaging. He points out the irony of the Coco Puffs bragging about their multi-grain goodness, while over in produce, the vegetables are as silent as stroke victims. His mantra is “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
Pollan criticizes the changes brought to us by corporate agriculture and does so convincingly. An Iowa farm which decades ago produced a range of agricultural products will increasingly be devoted to corn and soy, which have found their way into an increasing number of foodstuffs, because those are the crops that get the federal subsidies. Giving up the tradition of crop rotation and livestock grown on farms rather than in feedlots, makes us overly dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, the growth of monocultures… land that just produces one thing… diminishes the number of nutrients we get in our daily diet.
In a recent New York Times article, Pollan emphasized the health implications of how we eat. Four of the top ten diseases that kill Americans are related to diet: Type 2 diabetes, cancer, stroke, and heart disease. The foods that are marketed and sold to us -- highly refined grains, processed foods, products full of fat and sweeteners -- increasingly contribute to poor health. Our current demands for health care coverage for all should be made in conjunction with demanding food policies designed to generate good health.
As more people become concerned about the environment and national security issues tied to our dependence on foreign oil, Pollan informs us that after cars, our food system is in second place for its use of fossil fuels, consuming 19% of all that is used in the United States. The reasons include the long distances that food now travels. Why, for example, should New York City get its produce from California, rather than “the garden state,” New Jersey, which is next door? In addition, we rely heavily on chemical fertilizers that are derived from natural gas, and pesticides that are derived from petroleum. Even the plastic packaging comes from petroleum. Pollan offers us some startling statistics. In 1940, our food system produced 2.3 calories of food energy for each calorie of fossil fuel energy it used to produce, while today it takes 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food.
While Pollan has advice for us in how to navigate this system to the best of our ability on an individual level, like buying fresh, local produce whenever possible and not buying anything with more than five ingredients, particularly when those ingredients are things you cannot even pronounce, he realizes that this is not simply an individual responsibility. Government policies are needed to promote local, sustainable agriculture that, in turn, will promote good health.
Pollan increasingly talks about global issues with the food industry and pointed out in a televised interview that it was the passage of NAFTA, and the subsequent inundation of Mexico with cheap corn, that put a million and a half corn farmers out of business, farmers who either ended up migrating to cities or who became laborers on other people’s farms in California. He speaks of the federal policies that create a flood of immigrants, despite the fact that many of those immigrants would have preferred to remain in their home countries.
For a more in depth look at the international impact of food policy, I read Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System. Patel begins by giving us some dismals facts: one out of ten people in the world, or eight hundred million, is hungry. At the same time, another billion people are overweight, many of whom are low income, since the cheapest food available is often high calorie and low in nutrition.
After describing the growing despair in countries around the world, which are no longer able to provide food for their population and the epidemic in farmer suicides, Patel traces the evolution of the current food system from a time that agriculture was local to the present global system that now exists. He discusses the impact of that change from the perspective of those who least benefit from it.
He begins his history with the enactment of Enclosure Laws in Britain in the 15th century. Prior to that time, the poor had community rights to the land, both to grow food and feed livestock. The Enclosure Laws transformed this system into one of “private property,” as we understand it today. It was the beginning of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. The poor were left with the choice of selling their labor cheaply in the countryside or seeking work in the city. By the 18th century, the transformation had resulted in such efficiency and profit that there was the means to fund a growing national appetite for foreign food, particularly tea and sugar.
Britain had ready access to both with imperial domination in both India and the Caribbean. Over time that imperialism served to quell protests among the growing middle class and working class in the cities whose demand for food was largely met by food grown in European colonies. India, for example, supplied grain to Britain, at the expense of adequately feeding its own people. Even today, in the post-colonial era, we see the countries in what Patel calls the Global South forced into the economic choice of cultivating their land to produce products for export -- from coffee to coca – in order to survive.
However, over time, and concurrent with this continuing phenomenon, consolidation of farming in the industrialized nations has resulted in large surpluses. In the post World War II era, with the rise of the United States as the dominant global economic power, U.S. farm surpluses were donated around the world as food aid. By 1956, over half of all U.S. aid to other countries was food aid. While on the surface benign, and even caring and generous, food aid depressed the world price of grains, hurting growers. Countries in the Global South became dependent upon U.S. generosity. Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under both Nixon and Ford, observed, “Hungry men only listen to those who have a piece of bread. Food is a tool. It is a weapon in the U.S. negotiating kit.”
By the mid-1970’s, the era of food aid was coming to an end -- and the new era of food policy was ushered in, controlled through the fiscal debt of the developing world. Governments who had borrowed from the World Bank and IMF and could not repay debts, found themselves at the mercy of these organizations, and were required to comply with demands for change in local government. Farm policy was part of that. Local farmers, in order to obtain any type of assistance or credit, were required to cultivate particular crops or buy genetically modified seeds that were sold in conjunction with the fertilizers and pesticides that complemented them.
At home and abroad, we will need to return to a system by which food is locally produced and controlled. Our diminishing supply of fossil fuels depends on it, and conveniently enough, traditional agriculture is based on renewable energy -- sun and rainfall -- and crop rotation. We will need to relearn what it means to eat foods that are in season. And since so much of the grain that is produced in the world goes to feeding livestock, we will need to learn to eat less meat. But the benefits, both in terms of increased health and rediscovering a lost sense of community will be great. Pollan and Patel write of people who are moving us in that direction. Now if only we could redirect the money that now goes to subsidize the commodity crops of industrial agriculture, it would be so much easier to make this change happen.