by Marion Nestle

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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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Sep 14 2018

Weekend reading: Food Justice Now!

Johsua Sbicca.  Food Justice Now!  Deepening the Roots of Social Struggle.  University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

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This book is about how to turn the “eat-better” food movement into a movement for social justice.  It directly addresses the complaint that the food movement has no real power.

Sbicca, a sociologist at Colorado State, bases his analysis on three case studies of food justice activism focused on creating reasonably paid work for former prisoners and low-wage workers, many of them of color or immigrants.

He tells the stories of three programs, Planting Justice in Oakland, California; the San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project; and programs run by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770.

In writing this book, he investigates

the tensions between maintaining an “us” in the food movement and a “them” needed to keep the food system running.  This informs the prospects of a food politics that is capable of overcoming ethnoracial and citizenship boundaries…The ethnoracial and class makeup of food workers pushes labor organizers to challenge the race-to-the-bottom practices of food corporations.

He ends the book by calling for what is needed to create true food justice: land, labor, community development, health, self-determination, and environmental sustainability—exactly what is called for in food system reform.

This is an academic book but well worth reading for anyone who cares about building a movement with power to change food systems.

 

Sep 7 2018

Weekend reading: Kosher and Halal market regulation

John Lever and Johan Fischer. Religion, Regulation, Consumption: Globalising Kosher and Halal Markets.  Manchester University Press, 2018.

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This book is a comparative study of how two countries—Denmark and Great Britain—regulate foods labeled Kosher or Halal.  I did a blurb for it:

Anyone curious about how kosher and halal work in today’s globalized, secularized market economies will want to read this comparative study of food practices in the UK and Denmark.

The big issues dealt with here is whether these dietary laws permit animals to be stunned before they are slaughtered, and how the religious requirements relate to the demands of the secular communities in an increasingly globalized marketplace.

It is clear that kosher and halal markets have globalised and been subjected to new forms of regulation within the last two decades or so.  However, no matter how regulated these markets have become they are still fundamentally expressions of religion as taboos dating back thousands of years…kosher and halal fuel a whole range of debates among rabbis/imams and between religious organisations more broadly over what religion is or ought to be in the modern world…Comparing the UK and Denmark, we can say that Judaism/kosher and Islam/halal are less state regulated in the UK and that this allows for slaughter without stunning, for example  This situation has made the UK one of the largest markets for kosher/halal food in the world….As these processes expand and questions over what kosher is or ought to be intensify in a globalising context so greater numbers of Jews are becoming more Orthodox and strict in terms of their kashrut and shechita requirements [pp. 169-170].

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Aug 17 2018

Weekend reading: Food Trucks!

Julian Agyeman, Caitlin Matthews, and Hannah Sobel, eds.  Food Trucks, Cultural Identity, and Social Justice.  MIT Press, 2017.

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I love books about single food topics and how wonderful to have one about food trucks, seemingly ubiquitous these days.  But who knew they were a subject for research.

This book covers anything you might want to know about this phenomenon–from local regulations, to how safe they are, to the politics of who owns them, where they are allowed to park, their role in community development, and their adherence to the authenticity of ethnic and immigrant cuisines.

The editors asked the various chapter writers to discuss the motivations behind a particular city’s promotion of mobile food vending, and to explain how those motivations relate to broad goals of social justice.

The chapters address these issues from academic perspectives.  The book could have been titled “Food Truck Studies.”  From those perspectives, it’s a treasure.

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Aug 10 2018

Weekend reading: Cocoa

Kristy Leissle.  Cocoa.  Polity, 2018.

This book is flat-out about the politics of worldwide cocoa production: who holds power in the marketplace, sets prices, establishes the terms of trade, establishes and enforces standards of quality, and pays workers decently.

As for the sustainability of the cocoa industry, Leissle offers this definition:

sustainable cocoa is compensated well enough that farmers want to continue growing it as their primary employment, within a climatic environment that can support its commercial existence over the long term.  Compensation calculations must include the price paid for cocoa, but also how much it costs to grow—including costs of farming inputs; political social and economic costs associated with land ownership and crop sale; personal energy costs of farming; and opportunity costs of growing something else, such as food for subsistence.

She ends with this thought:

Though incomes for farmers and chocolate makers or company owners are unlike to equalize, we can still emphasize that all types of labor deserve attention and appropriate compensation….From there, the conversation begins.  For cocoa farmers to make a dignified living and for consumers to continue enjoying chocolate, sustainability must involve placing the highest possible value on cocoa at every step, from seed to taste bud.

If you wonder why food is worth talking about, Cocoa is an excellent illustration of how even something used to make candy connects to many of the most important social, economic, and political issues faced by today’s world.

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