by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Books

Apr 30 2021

Weekend reading: the history of pigs in America

J.L. Anderson.  Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in America.  West Virginia University Press, 2019.

I saw this book in the office of my food historian colleague, Amy Bentley, and snatched it up.

I love the title.

The book is a well researched history of pigs, feral and domestic, in the United States, from colonial times to the present, from free-range to CAFO, from waste as fertilizer to waste lagoons, and from lard to lean.

The book is fabulously illustrated with dozens of reproductions of etchings, drawing, and photographs of pigs in all their glory, as well as their confinement and butchery.

If you want to know how pigs arrived in America, how farmers treated them, how their numbers grew, and their place in U.S. diets, this book has it all.

But for me, the title is the best part of this book.  I was disappointed in its lack of a more forceful discussion of how pigs exemplify larger issues of corporate power and capitalism in today’s society.  The index has not one listing for “capitalism,” “neoliberalism,” or “pig industry.”

Unless I missed others, only two sentences bear directly on “Pigs, Pork, and Power:”

What about the farmers who continue in the pig production business, including the large-scale enterprises, contractors, and independent producers?  While it is difficult to generate much sympathy for the corporate leaders and integrators who are more concerned about shareholders and the bottom line than about communities, it is important to remember that many farmers and farm wage workers care about the animals they raise and the communities in which they live (p. 220)

For a recent update on the politics of pig farming, see Charlie Mitchell and Austin Frerick’s The Hog Barons, on Vox (April 19).  This article focuses on Jeff Hansen, Iowa’s largest hog producer.

Hansen’s company, Iowa Select Farms, employs more than 7,400 people, including contractors, and has built hundreds of confinement sheds in more than 50 of Iowa’s 99 counties. Since they began to arrive in the 1990s, these sheds have provoked controversy. Citing damage to healthlivelihoodsproperty values, the environment, and the farm economy, rural communities in Iowa have campaigned fiercely against them.  While their efforts have yielded small victories, they have lost the war: The state’s hog industry, led by Hansen, has cultivated close relationships with state politicians on both sides of the aisle to roll back regulations, and confinements have flooded the countryside. The Hansen family’s charitable efforts have seemingly solidified these ties; it’s not unusual for a sitting governor to attend a charity gala thrown by the Hansens.

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Apr 23 2021

Weekend reading: Turning food banks into a community resource

Katie S. Martin.  Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries: New Tools to End Hunger.  Island Press, 2021.

After Janet Poppendieck’s Sweet Charity?, and Andy Fisher’s Big HungerI didn’t think there was anything new to say about private charitable food handouts in the U.S., but this book surprised me.

Reinventing is a how-to manual for people working in the food banking and food pantry system.  Katie Martin’s goal is to make this system more dignified, healthier, and politically focused for participants.

Martin recognizes that a volunteer-run system for distributing charitable food is unsustainable.  She wrote this book to encourage longer term solutions to food and nutrition insecurity.

What if our success is measured not simply by the pounds of food we distribute but by the reduction in people who need our services?  Or the number of people who are connected to additional services?  Or the number of people who make fewer trade-off decisions between paying for food, rent, or medicine.  Or the number of people who have improved health outcomes based on the food and services they receive? (p. 26)

The book provides step-by-step guides to talking about hunger in policy rather than individual terms, to making food pantries more hospitable and better connected to social resources, to providing participants with choices, to training volunteers, to evaluating how programs work, and to dealing with systems change.

Every chapter ends with actions steps and encouragement to take one step, make one change.

Yes!

Apr 9 2021

Weekend advocacy: The People vs. Big Soda

I’ve just received a copy of Larry Tramutola’s The People VS Big Soda: Strategies for Winning Soda Tax Elections.

Larry was involved in the successful Berkeley soda tax initiative, and this is his account of how they won an election wtih an astonishing plurality of 76%.  I consider this initiative to be a model of how to do food advocacy, and it’s great to have this practical guide to the details of starting a campaign like this or, for that matter, any other food campaign.

He covers such matters as:

  • Coalition building
  • Dealing with industry arguments
  • Framing the issue
  • Recruiting volunteers
  • Winning despite limited financial resources
  • Building power, step by step
  • Staying with it no matter what happens

These are important lessons for anyone involved in food advocacy.

I can’t find anything about this booklet online, which means that if you want one, you must contact him at:

Larry Tramutola
191 Ridgeway Avenue
Oakland, California 94611
PHONE510-658-7003
Mar 26 2021

Weekend reading: The Monsanto Papers

Carey Gillam.  The Monsanto Papers: Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption, and One Man’s Search for Justice.  Island Press, 2021.

Gillam, the author of Whitewash, a book for which I did a blurb (and who works for U.S. Right to Know) has surpassed herself and written what I can only descxribe as a blockbuster, right up there with page-turning thrillers by John Grisham.

I could not put this book down, and cannot recommend it highly enough.

It is the story of a school groundskeeper, Lee Johnson, who one working day set out to spray Roundup to kill weeds, but had an accident and got soaked with it.  He later developed a form of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma  (NHL) that has been associated with exposure to this weed killer.

Once Roundup’s main ingredient, glyphosate, was judged “probably carcinogenic” by the International Agency for Cancer Research, lawyers got involved and Johnson was chosen for the first case to try.

Gillam documents what the maker of Roundup, Monsanto, did to hide evidence of this chemical’s carcinogenicity, how it funded its own studies, ghost-wrote others, and established cozy relationships with EPA officials (hence “corporate corruption”).

She also tells the legal story.  Even though I knew the outcome before I picked up the book—I track such things—I found the details about the preparation of the case and actual trial riveting.

This is because this book is fabulously written—as I said, I couldn’t stop reading it—but also because she makes the characters in this drama come alive.  It reads like a novel.

It’s also an important book.  Monsanto is infamous for bad corporate behavior (“Monsatan”) but what’s documented here is truly shocking.  I shouldn’t have been shocked because I had written about Monsanto in my 2003 book about food biotechnology, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety.  I had written my own account of its bad behavior.

Gillam brings the story up to the point where the German pharmaceutical firm, Bayer, bought Monsanto for $63 billion, something I hope this company has regretted ever since.

Spoiler alert: The most recent development in this case happened just last week.

Mar 24 2021

My latest publication: a book review

I’ve just had a book review published in the American Journal of Public Health: “Public health nutrition deserves more attention.”

It’s for a textbook on public health nutrition but doing it gave me the opportunity to say some things I want public health professionals to know.  I started the review like this:

Public Health Nutrition deserves more attention

Food and nutrition deserve much more attention from public health professionals.  On the grounds of prevalence alone, diet-related conditions affect enormous numbers of people.  Everybody eats.  Everybody is at risk of eating too little for health or survival, or too much to the point of weight gain and increased prevalence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).  By the latest count, nearly 700 million people in the world do not get enough to eat on a daily basis, a number that has increased by tens of millions over the past five years and will surely increase by many millions more as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.[i]   At the same time, about two billion adults are overweight or obese, and few countries are prepared to deal with the resulting onslaught of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.[ii]  Beyond that, food production, distribution, consumption, and disposal—collectively food systems—are responsible for a quarter or more of greenhouse gas emissions; climate change affects the health of everyone on the planet.[iii]

The same social, behavioral, economic, and structural determinants that affect health also affect nutritional health, and it is no accident that food choices are flash points for arguments about culture, identity, social class, inequity, and power, as well as about the role of government, private enterprise, and civil society in food systems.   From a public health standpoint, everyone–regardless of income, class, race, gender, or age—should have the power to choose diets that meet nutritional needs, promote health and longevity, protect the environment, and are affordable, culturally appropriate, and delicious.

Nutrition in 2021

For people in high-income countries, dietary prescriptions for health and sustainability advise eating less meat but more foods from plant sources.[iv]  Optimal diets should minimize consumption of ultra-processed foods, those that are industrially produced, bear little resemblance to the basic foods from which they were derived, cannot be prepared in home kitchens, and are now compellingly associated with NCD risk and mortality.[v]  We now know that ultra-processed foods encourage people to unwittingly take in more calories and gain weight.[vi]

Agenda for 2021

Today, a book for researchers and practitioners of public health nutrition needs to emphasize coordinated—triple-duty—recommendations and interventions to deal with hunger and food insecurity, obesity and its consequences, and the effects of food production and dietary choices on the environment.  Such approaches, as described by a Lancet Commission early in 2019,4 should encourage populations of high-income countries to eat less meat but more vegetables, those in lower- and middle-income countries (LMICs) to consume a greater variety of foods, and everyone, everywhere to reduce intake of ultra-processed foods.  As that Commission argued, public health nutritionists must recognize that attempts to improve diets, nutritional status, nutritional inequities, and food systems face daunting barriers from governments captured by corporations, civil society too weak to demand more democratic institutions, and food companies granted far too much power to prioritize profits at the expense of public health.  Nutritionists need knowledge and the tools to resist food company marketing and lobbying, to advocate for regulatory controls of those practices, and to promote civil society actions to demand healthier and more sustainable food systems.[vii]

I then go on to talk about the book itself, which alas, did not have much to say about this agenda.

References to the first part of this review

[i] The World Bank.  Brief: Food Security and COVID-19. December 14, 2020. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/agriculture/brief/food-security-and-covid-19#:~:text=In%20November%202020%2C%20the%20U.N.,insecure%20people%20in%20the%20world. Accessed January 2, 2021.

[ii] WHO.  Obesity and overweight: Key facts.  Geneva: WHO.  April 1, 2020. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight. Accessed January 2, 2021.

[iii] International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems. COVID-19 and the crisis in food systems: symptoms, causes, and potential solutions. IPES-Food, April 2020. www.ipesfood.org/pages/covid19. Accessed January 2, 2021.

[iv] Swinburn BA, Kraak V, Allender S, et al. The global syndemic of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change: The Lancet Commission report. Lancet. 2019;393:791–846.

[v]  Monteiro CA, Cannon G, Levy RB, et al.  Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them. Public Health Nutr. 2019;22(5):936–941.

[vi] Hall KD, Ayuketah A, Brychta R, et al. Ultra-processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain: an inpatient randomized controlled trial of ad libitum food intake. Cell Metab. 2019;30, 67–77.

[vii]  Jayaraman S, De Master K, eds.  Bite Back: People Taking On Corporate Food and Winning.  Oakland, CA: University of California Press; 2020.

 

 

Mar 19 2021

Weekend reading: Michael Moss’s Hooked

Michael Moss.  Hooked: Food, Free Will,and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions.  Random House, 2021.

This follows Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat which was about how food companies used these ingredients to hook us on junk food.  The new book focuses on the “addictive” qualities of junk foods—what we are now calling “ultra-processed.”  I put addictive in quotes because his definition is looser than others I’ve seen: habits that are hard to quit.

By this definition, his book provides convincing evidence for what food companies do to make their products irresistible—remember Frito Lay’s “You can’t eat just one?”

The book starts by going into the physiology of addiction:

When we taste sugar, the taste buds on our tongue send the signal.  By contrast, the signal for fat gets transmitted by the trigeminal nerve that extends from the roof of the mouth to the brain.  Food that has both sugar and fat will activate these two different paths, sending to separate alerts, and thus doubling the arousal of a brain that appears to place a high value on information for information’s sake [62].

No wonder we like ice cream so much.

In speaking about how the food environment sets us up for overeating, he says:

…we simply haven’t had anywhere near the time we would need, vis-à-vis evolution, to catch up with the dramatic changes in food and our eating habits of the past forty years.  As a result, we are fundamentally mismatched to the food of today.  Small [Dana Small, an expert Moss interviewed] puts it this way: “It’s not so much that food is addictive, but rather that we by nature are drawn to eating, and the companies have changed the food [p. 99].

Moss is a terrific writer and tells a compelling story.  Even if you don’t have a problem resisting fast food, sodas, or chocolate, this book has a lot to say about why so many people have put on pounds during the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

Mar 12 2021

Weekend reading: Bittman on food history

Mark Bittman.  Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021.

This book comes with more than three pages of blurbs, starting with Al Gore and Leah Penniman and ending with José Andrés and Bryant Terry, so many and so glittery that I’m feeling a little left out that I wasn’t asked to do one.

I would have.  It’s a good book.  Bittman read a lot, is generous in citing sources (mine among them), and has done a thorough synthesis of the key events that transformed our food system from one that was healthy and sustainable (if hard on farmers) to today’s unsustainably industrialized system that is mainly set up to feed animals and fuel cars, and to encourage us to consume ultra-processed diets.   We pay the externalized costs of this system in overweight and chronic diseases that increase our vulnerability to COVID-19 and in environmental degradation and climate change.

Here are a few excerpts:

And while Deere & Co. [the tractor company] showed good will toward struggling farmers, its success in financially bonding those farmers virtually ensured that creditors remained profitable in the long run.  It’s also among the chief reasons why industrial agriculture is so difficult to change today.  Today, the company’s margins are almost four times as great from providing credit as they are from sales…Its 2019 profits were eleven billion dollars, a bit more than ten percent of the comb8ined profits of all two million-plus farms in the United States that same year [pp. 107-108]

In fact, the worse you were treated by American policy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the worse you were treated in the twentieth.  For example, the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards (sic!) Act of 1938 both excluded agricultural and domestic, thanks to influential southern Democrats who refused to protect the Black people working in those sectors.  This meant that the New Deal disproportionately excluded people of color from the most vital government protections….[p. 120].

You will hear, “The food system is broken.”  But the truth is that it works almost perfectly for Big Food.  It also works well enough for about a third of the world’s people, who have the money to demand and have at a moment’s notice virtually any food in the world.  But it doesn’t work well enough to nourish most of humanity, and it doesn’t work well enough to husband our resources so that it can endure,  Indeed the system has created a public health crisis (one whose effects have, in turn, exacerbated the deadly effects of COVID-19), and, perhaps even more crucially, it’s a chief contributor to the foremost threat to our species: the climate crisis.  The way we produce food threatens everyone, even the wealthiest and cleverest [p. 243].

Mar 5 2021

Weekend reading: Sustainability

Paul B. Thompson and Patricia E. Norris.  Sustainability: What Everyone Needs to Know.  Oxford University Press, 2020.

 

“Sustainability” is one of those terms that everyone uses but if you ask people to define it, you get a million different answers.  This book addresses that precise point, and I thought it was worth a blurb:

Sustainability is the hot buzzword these days.  Does it take a whole book to explain what it means?  Yes and how lucky we are to have it.  This is a book about how to think about what it takes to keep systems going.  The Q and A format makes difficult and contested concepts especially easy to follow.

As an example, here is an excerpt from the authors’ answer to the question, “Is sustainability just a passing fad?”

The solution to this problem [of thinking that sustainability goals are morally mandatory] is to recall the complexity created by interacting systems.  While an action can increase sustainability by making for efficient use of some resource, that action can have rebound effects that do just the opposite.  Sometimes the rebound is in systems (like the global climate system) that most of us do not understand in the first place.  Seeking sustainability requires you to remain faithful to the objective, even while you remain open to the possibility that any particular strategies might provide to be less effective than you originally thought, and sometimes they are just wrong altogether….”Sustainability is about being nimble, not being right”.  Put another way, we all, every one of us, still have a lot to learn.