by Marion Nestle

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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

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.


Dec 28 2018

Weekend reading: a kids’ book about cooking—in French

Hélène Laurendeau and Catherine Desforges , illustrated by Stéphanie Aubin.  Je Cuisine Avec Toi.  Edito, 2018.

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Here’s a way to teach kids French and cooking at the same time.  The book is about cooking as a fun activity for kids, but without recipes.   The authors explain:

You get to play with tools, measure ingredients, get dirty, and even lick the spoon at the end…We wanted to teach kids to persevere and to know that the important thing is to enjoy the process, not just the result.

It’s witty and entertaining for parents as well as kids.

The authors are looking for a way to get the book translated into English.  If you have any ideas about who can help with that, contact


Dec 21 2018

Weekend reading: Soy Milk

Jia-Chen Fu.  The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China.  University of Washington Press, 2019.

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Here’s my blurb for this one:

The Other Milk tells a fascinating story—how nutrition science transformed the place of soybeans in the Chinese diet from humble components of traditional cuisine to instruments of physical and social development, only to be replaced by dairy foods as markers of modernity.  This book is a superb example of how cultural history, cuisine, science, and globalization intersect around one food–soybeans.

Here is a small taste: Fu, an assistant professor of Chinese at Emory University, explains that the use of soybeans in Chinese cuisine dates back to 500 B.C. or so, but she begins her analysis in the early 1900s with an account of Li Shizeng’s promotion of soy milk—in Paris, of all places.

Li’s soybean experiment in Paris proved short-lived, but his insistence that soybeans offered a key to a modern, industrial China did not fail to impress his compatriots.  Popular accounts celebrated the soybean’s many industrial and gastronomic uses and as late as 1920, highlighted Li’s foresight and ingenuity in promoting an indigenous product, doujiang (soybean milk), as both more nutritious and sanitary than cow’s milk, on the world stage.

If the soybean could signify modern, industrial development, could it also challenge perceptions of Chinese physical and nutritional precarity, of China as “the sick man of Asia”? When coupled with a newly emergent discursive concept of the Chinese diet as a thing scientists and social scientists could measure and adjust, the aspiration grew for soybeans to change not just Chinese history but Chinese bodies.

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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.

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.