by Marion Nestle

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Dec 14 2018

Weekend reading: food animal ethics

Christopher Schlottmann and Jeff Sebo.  Food, Animals, and the Environment: An Ethical Approach.  Routledge, 2018.

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The authors are colleagues at NYU.  They asked me for a blurb which, after reading this book, I was honored to do.  Here’s what I said:

Schlottman and Sebo have produced an utterly superb analysis of the ethics of eating animals, brilliantly distinguished by crystal-clear thinking, accessible writing, and plenty of insight into values and sources of bias.  Every eater will have much to learn from this book.

The book goes from theory to practice and takes on all of the tough ethical issues involved in food production, food consumption, and food activism (legal and illegal).

The authors’ approach is impressive:

We designed this book to provide readers with both the critical thinking tools and basic concepts and information necessary to analyze the many challenges and values concerning food, animals, and the environment.  This includes explaining how to make clear and consistent arguments, how to assess the relationship between facts and values, how to assess the relationship between theory and practice, and how to think rigorously and systematically about the empirical impacts of food systems and the ethical questions that these impacts raise.

This is exactly what this book does.

Whether or not you choose to eat animal foods (and I do), the environmental, health, and moral issues raised by animal agriculture deserve serious discussion.  They get that discussion here.

Nov 30 2018

Weekend reading (OK, many weekends): David Katz’s “Truth About Food”

David Katz.  The Truth About Food: Why Pandas Eat Bamboo and People Get Bamboozled.  Independently Published, 2018.

I greatly admire David Katz for his courage to say what he thinks in his weekly blog posts, such as this one defending nutrition science against recent attacks:

The contention that we are clueless about diet and health, that all measures are bereft, all knowledge suspect, all research questions however seemingly inane admissible- is the rubbish it seems. It is a pop culture myth…The entire nutrition narrative has been hijacked so that:

A)  Silly (I’m being kind) questions are posed and tested

B)  Uninformative, conflicting, confusing, contrarian answers ensue

C)   Great academics and intellectuals, generally of the sort that opines from some lofty sacred perch but who doesn’t actually DO nutrition research, or clinical care, or much of anything of practical value to the world- swoop in to tell us how hopelessly shabby the field and overall state of our understanding are

D)  The media propagate all of the above

E)   Massive pseudo-confusion prevails

That leaves just one important question as yet unanswered: why?

That answer is obvious. Profit.

If only he didn’t write at such length to get to that point—this new book is 752 pages, a doorstop.  It is, as far as I can tell, a compendium of his published articles in Huffington Post and other places, organized into two main sections of three chapters each: Lies (Lies, Statistics, and Damned Lies) and Truth (The Truth, Nothing but the Truth, and The Whole Truth).

The Lies section deals with nutrition science.  You can recognize lies about nutrition science, says Katz, because they are

  • Generally supremely certain, leaving no room for doubt or challenge
  • Generally revolutionary, intended to replace all that was known before until they, in turn, are replaced by newer lies.

In contrast, truth is

  • Generally very modest, leaving ample room for doubts about details
  • Generally evolutionary, intended to add to and modify all that was known before.

Much of the book expands on those concepts.  Reading the Lies section will teach you a lot about how science works in theory and practice.  The Truth section will teach you a lot about nutrition.

With that said, I wish this book had been edited, and firmly.  It reads as if the online articles were simply reprinted as they appeared online, but with references added (the underlining of the former hyperlinks remains).

The Table of Contents lists just the six main chapters, but chapter 1 is more than 200 pages long.  The list of Lies is given on page 42 but it’s hard to know what they cover, as they are organized by fallacy (e.g., false equivalence fallacy, ripple-free pond fallacy).

The topics covered in Truths are listed on pages 311-313; these cover matters you might want to know about such as cholesterol, cooking oils, lectins, and Paleo diet, in alphabetical order.

I mention these organizational details because—and I can scarcely believe it—this 752-page book has no index.

If you want to find Katz’s well-worth-reading thoughts on specific nutrition studies or commentaries on nutrition science (the Lies), you are out of luck.  You might be able to guess that his critique of Gwyneth Paltrow’s nutrition advice can be found under what he calls the “celebrity equals expertise fallacy,” but if you want to read his analysis of research on low-carb diets, for example, you will have to read through a lot to find it. This is a shame, because his analyses are often spot-on.

The proceeds from this book go to the True Health Initiativea nonprofit that Katz founded and now heads.

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Nov 9 2018

Weekend reading: Farming While Black

Leah Penniman.  Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land  Chelsea Green, 2018.

This is the second copy of this book sent by the publisher.  The first was snapped up off my desk by a colleague who was desperate for this book, not even knowing it existed.

For good reason.

This book is way more than a how-to guide, although it does that part splendidly.  It thoroughly integrates farming basics with necessary elements of supportive community, grounded in Penniman’s experience with Soul Fire Farm near Albany, New York.

Every section emphasizes the importance of community.

  • On finding the right land: make sure it is geographically accessible to a community where you feel you can belong.
  • On mission statements: train and empower aspiring Black, Latinx and indigenous growers; advance healing justice.

Every section emphasizes resources for Black farmers—scholarships, training programs, university programs, food hubs—and the contributions of traditional African and modern African-American farmers to what we know about how best to conduct sustainable agriculture.

The book is firmly grounded in history.  I particularly appreciated the annotated timeline of the trauma inflicted on Black farmers induced by racism.  This history begins with slavery, but continues through police brutality, convict leasing, sharecropping, Jim Crow laws, land theft, USDA discrimination, real estate redlining, and today’s mass incarceration and gaps in income, food access, and power.

Karen Washington wrote the Foreword:

We sat with pride as we went around the circle introducing ourselves, talking about our frustrations with not being represented at food and farming conferences.  I sat in awe as this young Black woman [Penniman] engaged us in conversation about race and power…this masterpiece of indigenous sovereignty [Farming While Black] sheds light on the richness of Black culture permeating throughout agriculture.

From Penniman’s chapter on keeping seeds:

Just 60 years ago, seeds were largely stewarded by small farmers and public-sector plant breeders.  Today, the proprietary seed market accounts for 82 percent of the seed supply globally, with Monsanto and DuPont owning the largest shares…Beyond simply preserving the genetic heritage of the seed it is also crucial to our survival that we preserve the stories of our seeds…our obligation is to keep the stories of the farmers who curated the seeds alive along with the plant itself.    It matters to know that roselle is from Senegal and tht the Geechee red pea is an essential ingredient in the Gullah dish known as Hoppin’ John.  In keeping the stories of our seeds alive, we keep the craft of our ancestors alive in our hearts.

Penniman offers suggestions for white readers who might want to help:

Adopting a listener’s framework is the first step for white people who want to form interracial alliances  Rather than trying to “outreach” to people of color and convince them to join your initiative, find out about existing community work that is led by people directly impacted by racism and see how you can engage.

This is an important book for everyone who cares about farming and agrarian values, regardless of color.

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Nov 2 2018

Weekend reading: Supermarket USA

Shane Hamilton.  Supermarket USA: Food and Power in the Cold War Farms Race.  Yale University Press, 2018.

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I did a blurb for this one:

Who knew that supermarkets, of all things, were key elements of U.S. free-enterprise, anti-Soviet, Cold War propaganda.  Hamilton fully explains how “farm wars” led directly to today’s international industrial agribusinesses.   This superb book is a must-read.

Oct 26 2018

Weekend reading: The Poison Squad

Deborah Blum.  The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.  Penguin Press, 2018.  

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I already had received my copy of this book when Felicity Lawrence reviewed it in Nature along with my new book, Unsavory Truth.  What I loved about the review was Lawrence’s comment that I “could make a fair claim to [Harvey] Wiley’s mantle today…The book is a remorseless dissection of the corruption of science by industry.”

But enough about me.  Blum’s book is a clear, wonderfully written account of the political opposition faced by Harvey Washington Wiley, the head of the USDA’s Bureau of Chemistry (later, the FDA) who relentlessly lobbied his bosses, presidents, and the public to insist that food companies produce food safely.

If you cannot understand why there are still so many outbreaks of foodborne illness and why so many foods are still having to be recalled, this book is a revelation.

Blum, who directs the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT, is terrific at explaining the complex politics that affected Wiley’s work.

I particularly appreciated her chapter on the food safety laws passed in 1906.  Their passage came about, in part, as a result of Upton Sinclair’s publication of The Jungle, a book that exposed the horribly unsanitary and dangerous conditions of the Chicago stockyards.

Try to imagine something like this happening today: the book came out early in January.  By July, Congress had passed food safety laws.  Blum’s chapter explains how that happened.  Those events were news to me.

Much else in the book will also be news, even to people who follow food safety issues closely—the intensity of the opposition to everything that Wiley was trying to do.

Wiley was watching out for the disenfranchised, and in moral terms:

Wiley added that food quality and safety represented not only good science but also moral decision-making.  The wealthy, he pointed out, could easily afford fresh food and well-made condiments.  The trade in cheap, chemically enhanced imitations catered to the poor.  If the country could work to standardize good food, then it also would be promoting good health for all.  “Whenever a food is debased in order to make it cheap, the laboring man pays more for any given nourishment than the rich man does who buys the pure food,” he pointed out. [p. 195]

We need leadership like that today.

I especially like the way Blum ends the book:

Of we are to continue moving in a direction that preserves what’s best in this country, we need not romanticize the past but we must learn from what it tells us about our earlier mistakes.  The people who fought to correct those long-ago errors still have lessons to share.  The story of Harvey Washington Wiley, at his fierce and fearless best, should remind us that such crusaders are necessary in the fight.  That the fight for consumer protection may never end.  lBut if it does, if that long-awaited final victory is achieved, it will be because we, like Wiley, refused to give up. [p. 291]

Amen to that.

 

 

Oct 19 2018

Weekend reading: Fruitful Labor

Mike Madison.  Fruitful Labor: The Ecology, Economy, and Practice of a Family Farm.  Chelsea Green 2018 (short at just 164 pages).

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Every now and then, Chelsea Green sends me a book this publisher thinks might interest me.  And right they are.  This book is a perfect example of why I’m so impressed by what Chelsea Green chooses to publish.

Fruitful Labor is a conversational how-to manual for anyone thinking about doing small-scale, sustainable farming and wondering whether it could be fun and provide a decent living.  Madison’s optimistic yet realistic outlook makes it clear that both are possible.  He raises 200 or so vegetables and fruits on his own farm of 20 acres or so near Sacramento.

The book covers the specifics of what equipment and tools you need and what you need to do to raise animals, take care of the soil, and, yes, make a living.  Madison philosophizes about such matters as spacing of trees, what to do about wild animals, water quality, care of tools, the cost of electricity, and other such details.

He provides a copy of his IRS profit-and-loss statement and explains what it means to have enough income.

Dianne and I have never been motivated to be rich in terms of money.  We live in a beautiful place, we have many friends, we’re healthy, we have meaningful work, and we have wholesome food to eat and good local wine to drink–what would we want with more money?

Later, he explains the reality:

The increasing price of farmland in this area has far outstripped the rising prices of other assets, most notably labor, to the extent that a young couple starting out today has no possibility of replicating our experience….the price of farmland reflects not only its agricultural value, but also its value as an instrument of financial speculation and a place for a homesite; it is the latter two that primarily drive the price….In this context, our farming system is not sustainable.

This is a thoughtful, useful book, a pleasure to read and an inspiring plea for what used to be understood as agrarian values.

More than ever, we need such values.  Thank you Mike Madison, and thanks also to Chelsea Green.

Oct 12 2018

Lucky Australians: Sandro Demaio’s The Doctor’s Diet

Sandro Demaio.  The Doctor’s Diet.  Pan Macmillan Australia, 2018.

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I don’t usually say anything about diet books or cookbooks, and this is both, but Demaio is someone I know, the book is worth reading for its food systems approach to eating, and the proceeds go to charity:

Author royalties from the sale of this book will go to th Sandro Demaio Foundation to fund public health and nutrition projects across Australia.

What I like about the book is his straightforward, tell-it-like-it-is commentary on today’s food environment.  Here’s what he says about snacks, for example.

A concept invented in the 20th century by the food industry simply to get us to eat more food and boost sales, snacking isn’t a natural part of a healthy diet,  Snacking between meals is a major source of unwanted sugars, additives and calories for adults and kids alike…Avoiding snacks will improve your appetite for your next meal.

The book is full of tips for navigating the hazards of ubiquitous food marketing and his invitation to “come cook with me” demands a yes.  

The book reminds me a lot of Sam Kass’s terrific Eat a Little Better.

Let’s hope there’s a U.S. edition soon (although he tells me it can be ordered here).

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Sep 28 2018

Weekend reading: Elliot Coleman’s New Organic Grower

Elliot Coleman.  The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.  30th Anniversary Edition.  Chelsea Green, 2018.

The first edition of this book came out in 1989 and it has been an essential tool for organic farmers and home gardeneres ever since.  Coleman’s goal is to make everyone want to farm organically.

“Small farms,” he begins, “are where agricultural advances are nurtured.”  And, he says, “I write only about those things I know.”

Fortunately, he knows a lot.  He knows about soil fertility, pests, weeds, crop rotations, agricultural craftsmanship, land, labor, marketing, and the economics of all of this.

His philosophy?  A pleasure to read.

Humans cannot imagine a world where they are not in charge.  As a biological farmer, I work in partnership with Nature, and I’m a very junior partner.  Given the limited amount of hard knowledge available, I often refer to my management style as “competent ignorance,” and I find that a very apt description.  But my level of trust in the design of the natural world and willingness to be guided by it is discomforting to those who think we should exercise total power over Nature…The reality of today’s world is that the practical success of the many farms managed on biological lines coexists with the striking lack of interest (antagonism actually) from scientific agriculture in exploring why these farms succeed.  The foundation upon which our Maine farm operates—a sense that the systems of the natural world offer elegantly designed patterns worth following—appears to be an indecipherable foreign language to most of agricultural science.

 

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