by Marion Nestle

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Apr 5 2019

Weekend reading: Movable Markets

Helen Tangires.  Movable Markets: Food Wholesaling in the Twentieth-Century City.  Johns Hopkins Press, 2019

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Why did Paris destroy Les Halles?  Why did New York City move the Fulton Fish Market to the Bronx?  People who remember these places still mourn their loss. 

This book explains why such moves were inevitable.  They happened as a result of concerns about sanitation and crowding, the introduction of trucks, the need for parking, and the high cost of inner city real estate, and that’s just for starters.

I did a blurb for this one:

In investigating the social, economic, and political forces behind the removal of beloved city food markets—Les Halles in Paris, New York’s Washington Market, for example—to more efficient but far less colorful out-of-town locations, Helen Tangires has given us a refreshingly new take on the history of twentieth-century food systems.

Mar 29 2019

Weekend reading: Introduction to food sociology

Anne Murcott.  Introducing the Sociology of Food & Eating.  Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.

I read an early draft of the manuscript of this book and recommended publication.  The publisher used my remarks as a blurb (with my permission, of course):

An interesting approach by a well-qualified and experienced author.  The book takes on controversial issues of great interest to students using an entertaining writing style.

This is a textbook that aims to teach critical thinking about current food issues.  By “interesting approach” I was referring to the way Murcott structures the chapters.

The chapter titles state some common idea about food—for example, “The family meal is in decline.”  The chapters examine what the issue is about, describe the methodological and other biases that led to such conclusions, and then go on to explain how sociologists think—theoretically and practically—about each issue, and how they approach studying such issues.

Murcott says she wrote the book to encourage readers to think differently about food issues with which they are already familiar, “and to continue thinking differently.”

This works well for that purpose.

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Mar 22 2019

Weekend reading: Gandhi’s dietary aspirations

Nico Slate.  Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet: Eating with the World in Mind.  University of Washington Press, 2019.  

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Let’s start with my blurb:

Nico Slate’s fascinating account reveals Gandhi as an evidence-based, self-experimenting nutrition guru who tried one diet after another—vegan, raw, calorie restriction–in his quest for physical and spiritual health.  Above all, Slate explains Gandhi’s use of fasting as a political means to inspire India to achieve independence.

Gandhi, it seems, was a food faddist well ahead of his time.  The author says:

As his commitment to vegetarianism deepened, Gandhi grappled with whether he should also forgo eggs and milk.  Ultimately, he became convinced that he should become vegan, and renounced all animal products.  Living without eggs was relatively easy.  Doing without milk, by contrast, proved to be one of the greatest challenges of his life.  He experimented with almond milk, peanut milk, and other vegan alternatives.  In 1914, he vowed to abstain from all dairy products.  But after contracting a serious illness, he decided that his pledge did not include goat’s milk. [p. 47]

The book explains how Gandhi’s dietary choices were tightly linked to his politics.

The social potential of a raw diet led Gandhi to explore the cheapest source of sustenance for the poor: wild food…The greatest ethical challenge stemmed from the limitations of wild food as a remedy for poverty.  If the goal was to end hunger, changes in diet would be insufficient if they were not linked to changes in land ownership and the distribution of wealth—change that seemed as impossible as eating ginger nonviolently. [ p. 97]

And one more:

In a world marred by inequality, charity could only do so much.  Ultimately, Gandhi did not want to help the poor; he wanted to end poverty.  Over time, he developed a deeper understanding of the link between famine and imperialism.  “India suffers from starvation because there is dearth not of grain,” he explained, “but of purchasing power.”  The absence of purchasing power was, in turn, a direct result of the economic structures of British rule…Recognizing famine as a result of empire inspired Gandhi to demand India’s freedom. [p.127]

Mar 15 2019

Weekend reading: The Grand Food Bargain

Kevin D. Walker.  The Grand Food Bargain and the Mindless Drive for More.  Island Press, 2019. 

I did a blurb for this one:

A former USDA insider’s account of what our Grand Food Bargain—a system focused on ever-increasing production of cheap food—actually costs Americans in poor health, environmental degradation, and loss of agrarian values and community.  Walker’s views are well worth reading for his insights into how our food system needs to be transformed

Some snippets:

  • Early farm bills, sold to the public by promising more food with less uncertainty, were designed to stabilize food prices and increase farm income.  Eight decades later, new farm bills are still being enacted despite average farm income long ago surpassing non-farm income and continuing food surplus.  Each new bill is an increasingly costly grab bag of subsidies and protections, which invariably attracts more interest groups and lobbying.  Other than loose connections to agriculture, no coherent policy direction exists (p. 91).
  • Narrow [scientific and technical] expertise alone, for example, does not address the connections among rising rates of obesity, exhaustion of fossil waters, escalating nitrous oxide in the atmosphere, noxious weeds immune to legacy pesticides, growing antibiotic resistance—all the result of how the modern food system operates and how society now lives (p. 114).
  • As sophisticated financial strategies are grafted onto the modern food system, more mergers and acquisitions by ever-larger multinational companies follow.  Food is no longer valued for its ability to sustain life, but only for its ability to generate profits.  Whether higher returns come from squeezing farmers under contract to grow pigs or poultry, creating a monopoly on seeds that can be doused with chemicals, or selling food laden with cheap calories makes no difference (p. 141).

Walker’s remedy?  Let food be our teacher.  It’s worth reading what he means by this.

Mar 8 2019

Weekend reading: The Perils of [Corporate] Partnership

Jonathan Marks.  The Perils of Partnership: Industry Influence, Institutional Integrity, and Public Health.  Oxford University Press, 2019.

I blurbed this one:

Jonathan Marks is the go-to expert on the hazards of public-private partnerships.  His account of the perils reads easily, is well referenced, is clear and to the point, and applies to partnerships with drug, food, and any other corporations.  Anyone who cares about the ethical implications of such partnerships for public health will find this book invaluable.

The book is about industry partnerships in general, but Marks uses food-company examples such as the American Beverage Association’s gift to the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania in what seemed to be a direct exchange for the city’s dropping a soda tax initiative, and the USDA’s promotion of cheese.

Marks concludes that

Public-private partnerships, multistakeholder initiatives, and other close relations with industry are premised on a positive conception of consensus, compromise, and collaboration.  But the “three C’s” are not inherently good.  On the contrary, tension between regulators and corporations is ordinarily necessary to protect public health.  And achieving common ground with industry may put off the table measures that might promote public health.  The default relation between industry and government should be arm’s lengths relations involving institutional tension, “struggle,” and direct conflict.

The point: the agenda of corporations is to promote profit, not public health.  This creates an inherent tension, not easily resolved.

Mar 1 2019

Weekend reading: Krimsky’s GMOs Decoded

Nestle M.  Foreword to Sheldon Krimsky.  GMOs Decoded: A Skeptic’s View of Genetically Modified Foods.  MIT Press, 2019.

You might notice that I wrote the Foreword to this book.  Here’s what I said:

GMO’s Decoded is a gift to anyone confused about genetically modified foods.  In this latest addition to Sheldon Krimsky’s prolific output of books about how societies interact with new technologies, he takes on a formidable challenge–to examine the science of GMOs as a basis for dealing with the ferocious politics they incite.  I use “ferocious” advisedly.  Positions about GMOs appear polarized to the point of outright hostility.  Krimsky wants détente.   If we understood the science better, we might be able to achieve more nuanced views of the risks and benefits of GMOs and of the genetic techniques used to create them.

To anyone familiar with Krimsky’s previous and ongoing work, this book may come as a surprise.  Trained in physics and philosophy, Krimsky is a sharp critic of the role of technology in society with particular interests in the ethical implications of genetics and biotechnology and in risk communication.  I have long admired his work for its firm grounding in science and its clear delineation of the ways in which political, cultural, and other societal factors color perceptions of the safety and other risks of new technologies.

In GMO’s Decoded, Krimsky takes a deep dive into the science of food biotechnology on its own, separate from issues related to how the science is used by the companies producing and profiting from GMOs, or is interpreted by proponents, critics, or the general public.  An attempt to discuss the science of GMOs distinct from its politics may appear foolhardy, if not impossible, and Krimsky deserves much praise for taking this on.

I speak from experience.  My book about food biotechnology, Safe Food, first published in 2003, began with a reference to C.P. Snow’s two-culture problem—what Snow called the “gulf of incomprehension” between scientists and nonscientists over matters of technological risk.  To greatly oversimplify: scientists argue that if GMOs are safe, they are fully acceptable and no further criticism is justified.  But to nonscientists, safety is only one of many concerns about GMOs and not necessarily the most important.   Holders of this broader view argue that even if GMOs are safe, they still may not be acceptable for reasons of ethics, social desirability, unfair distribution, nontransparent marketing, or inequitable and undemocratic control of the food supply.

What I observed in discussing those issues, and continue to observe, is the discounting of anything other than safety by extreme proponents of GMOs who perceive even the slightest question about nonsafety issues as an attack on the entire industry.  This has forced critics of GMOs to focus on safety issues rather than the far less quantifiable issues of social desirability, pushing critics into positions that deny the possibility of any benefit of GMOs.  The result: Snow’s gulf of incomprehension.

Is the gulf bridgeable?  Krimsky argues yes.  From the perspective of the science, GMOs can either benefit or harm society.  It behooves us all to try to understand what the science is about as a basis for coming to more informed opinions about the uses, value, and risks of GMOs—the politics.

But before getting to what Krimsky does in this book, I want to make one point about GMO politics: the GMO industry brought the polarization on itself.  As I explained in Safe Food, the first GMO food, the FlavrSavr tomato, was intended to be marketed transparently as a triumph of American technological achievement (I still have itss label in my files).  British supermarkets sold tomato paste prominently labeled as genetically modified without opposition.  That changed under industry pressure for nondisclosure.  I was a member of the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee in 1994 when the agency ruled against labeling GMOs, despite evidence that trust requires transparency.  The GMO industry fought labeling then, and won, and continues to spend fortunes fighting labeling.

The industry also promised that food biotechnology would feed the world and create new foods that would solve problems for the developing world, such as those able to withstand poor soil conditions, excessive heat, and limited water.  But instead, the industry concentrated on far more profitable insect- and herbicide-resistant first-world crops, a strategy criticized for the effects on society of its monoculture, patented seeds, heavy use of herbicides, herbicide-resistant weeds, and destruction of beneficial insects.  The potential for foods with consumer benefits remains, but has been largely unrealized.  Trust requires fulfilled promises.

As readers of Krimsky’s previous books surely know, he cares about such issues and others related to the politics of GMOs and their societal impact.  But in this book, he wants readers to realize that the risks and benefits of GMOs depend on understanding the state of their science.  Here, he takes on the scientific questions, one by one, clearly and dispassionately.  This must have taken courage and a great deal of work.  The science of GMOs is complicated and occurs at the level of molecules–DNA, RNA, and protein, of course, but also a host of less familiar molecules responsible for making genetic modifications work.

Fortunately, Krimsky writes clearly and succinctly about such things, his descriptions are easy to follow, and he defines terms as they are needed.  He begins by asking whether GMOs differ from foods produced by traditional breeding and if they do, whether the differences matter.  He wants to know how GMOs affect health and the environment, whether they really are more productive than conventional crops, and whether they use fewer pesticides and herbicides.  He asks whether they GMOs have nutritional or other benefits for consumers, and whether and how they should be labeled.  He deals with these questions in short chapters, along with others, that examine methods and risk assessment, review what expert committees say about such matters, and use Golden Rice as a case in point.

Krimsky’s presentation of the divergent viewpoints about what the science means is exceptionally fair and even-handed.  He insists that:

“This book is not about taking sides.  My experience in studying scientific controversies that have public policy implications is that there are often truths, falsehoods, exaggerations, assumptions, fear-mongering, and uncertainties in the claims found on multiple sides of an issue.  This book will succeed if it…demystifies the science and shows where there is consensus, honest disagreement, or unresolved uncertainty. ”

I think it succeeds admirably.  Krimsky is straightforward about his own assessments.  For example–spoiler alert—he concludes that evidence supports a qualitative difference between traditional and molecular breeding of food plants.  On other questions, when he assesses the science as inconclusive, he says so.  He wants readers to understand the complexity of the scientific issues, to be skeptical of arguments from either extreme in the debates, and to adopt nuanced positions on GMOs.  Some aspects of GMOs may be worth opposing, but some may well be worth promoting.  We all need to know the difference.

Krimsky tells us that in researching this book, his own positions became less polarized and more nuanced.  Reading it, mine did too.  Now it’s your turn.

–Marion Nestle, New York, August 2018

Feb 1 2019

Weekend reading: The Farm Bill

Daniel Imhoff with Christina Badaracco.  The Farm Bill: A Citizen’s Guide.  Island Press, 2019.

I wrote the Foreword for this book, a revised, updated, and even more fabulously illustrated version of the previous editions.  Here’s what I said:

In 2011, I had the bright idea of teaching a graduate course on the farm bill to food studies students at New York University.  As happens every four years or so, the bill was coming up for renewal and I thought it would be useful for the students–and me–to take a deep dive into what it was about.  I knew help was available.  Dan Imhoff had laid out the issues with great clarity in his first book about this bill in 2007.  I used it as a text.

I wrote about this experience in “The farm bill drove me insane” (Politico, March 17, 2016), which it most definitely did.  The farm bill is huge, encompassing more than a hundred programs, each with its own acronym and set of interested lobbyists.  The bill is unreadable, consisting mainly of amendments to previous bills; it is comprehensible only to lobbyists, a precious few congressional staffers, and occasional brave souls like Imhoff willing to take it on.  It costs taxpayers close to $100 billion a year; most weirdly, 80 percent of this money covers the costs of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) which is stuck in the farm bill for reasons of politics.  The farm bill represents pork-barrel, log-rolling politics at its worst.

Imhoff explains the bill as a fully rigged system gamed by Big Agriculture in collusion with government.  The public pays for this system thrice over: at the checkout counter, in subsidized insurance premiums, and for cleaning up the damage it causes to health and the environment.  Despite these scandalous costs, the mere mention of the words “farm bill” makes eyes glaze over.  Why?  This is a forest-versus-trees problem.  The bill—the forest–is far too big and complicated to grasp.  We try to understand it by looking at the programs–the trees–one by one.  Hence: insanity.

Imhoff’s approach to the forest is to focus on the overriding issues that farm bills ought to address.  A rational agricultural policy should promote an adequate food supply while protecting farmers against uncertain climate and price fluctuations.  It should promote the health of people and the environment and do so sustainably.  And it should provide incentives for people to farm and ensure a decent living for everyone involved.  But instead the farm bills encourage an industrial agricultural system incentivized to overproduce corn and soybeans to feed animals and to make ethanol for automobiles, to the great detriment of public health and environmental protection.

Nowhere are these problems more obvious than in the debates about the 2018 farm bill.  As I write this, the House is working on a bill that seems less protective of health and the environment than any previous version.  To cut costs while maintaining support of Big Agriculture, the House aims to reduce SNAP enrollments, eliminate conservation requirements, and cut out even small programs that support small farmers or promote production of fruits and vegetables—“specialty crops” in USDA parlance.

At this moment, the outcome of the 2018 bill is uncertain, but The Farm Bill: A Citizen’s Guide has a more generic purpose—to introduce readers to the big-picture issues.  Imhoff relates the history of farm bills, their origins and subsequent growth.  Imhoff describes the system: how Big Agriculture works, how food stamps ended up in the bill, what all of this means for farming and food assistance, and what kind of legislation is needed to promote a healthier food system.

We should, Imhoff insists, rework the farm bill to promote public health by supporting an agricultural system that grows food for people rather than animals and cars.  We should legislate that crops be grown sustainably so as to reduce agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, soil losses, and water pollution.  Imhoff suggests twenty-five solutions to current agricultural problems.  These should be required reading for anyone who cares about what we eat, today and in the future.  It is too late to fix the 2018 farm bill, but there is plenty of time and opportunity to make the next one a true citizens’ farm bill.  To quote Imhoff: “it’s time to question whether the industrial mega-farm model is the only way to feed a growing global population, or whether it’s even possible for such a system to survive without costly government supports and unsustainable environmental practices.”  His book should inspire better, smarter solutions.  Get busy.

–New York, May 2018

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Jan 18 2019

Weekend reading: Halal Food

Febe Armanios and Boğaç Ergene.  Halal Food: A History.  Oxford University Press, 2018.

I reviewed a book about the regulation of Halal Food in September last year, and its politics continue to fascinate me.

This book covers anything and everything you would want to know: the rules, the slaughter issues, what the rules say about alcohol, and how delicious Halal food can be and is.

Its has great illustrations (alas, in black-and-white) and the Appendix comparing Kosher, Christian, and Halal food rules is a model of clarity.

This is an academic book, but full of tidbits I found fascinating.  To pick one example, “Haute Halal.”

Beyond street or fast food, halal eating in France has also transformed into a gourmet style dubbed “French-halal fusion” or “haute halal.”  Some young Muslims born and raised in France grew up unable–bit yearning–to taste some of France’s most iconic dishes, like foie gras and magret de canard, and several of them have long blogged about these frustrating barriers.  The barriers began to fall in 2007, when two brothers of Algerian origin…opened Paris’s (and possibly that country’s) first gourmet French -halal fusion restaurant, Les Enfants Terribles….The restaurant, moreover, serves no wine or alcohol, which the owners admitted was a “turnoff” for some French customers.

Responding to this drive to make halal food more chic, gourmet, and even decadent, in 2015 the first halal cooking school, “L’Ecole de Cuisine Halal, opened in Paris.

This book is fun to read, and has much to teach.