Greener pastures

It was almost three years ago that I started this blog. In the time since then, I’ve learned a lot,  my thinking on food and agriculture issues has evolved, and I’ve come to think differently about the way in which I communicate. To make a long story short, I decided a while ago that this was no longer the blog I wanted to be writing.

These days, you can find me at Inexact Change. That’s not to say that I’m opposed to writing about Michael Pollan; my latest post is a review of his new book Cooked, and in the near future I’ll be posting a video of the exchange I had with Joel Salatin (which I paraphrased on this blog). If you’ve found this blog interesting, I hope you’ll take a look.

I also wanted to mention that last year, I was interviewed by Rhys Southan for his Let Them Eat Meat blog. Rhys asked some great questions, and we discussed animal ethics, my motivations for writing this blog, and more.

In the event that I’m made aware of errors in my work, I will post corrections here, but otherwise I don’t intend to update this blog further.

So long, and thanks for reading!

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The Proposition 37 campaign’s collateral damage

Is the food movement for real? In his contribution to The New York Times Magazine‘s latest food issue, Michael Pollan contends that we’ll find out on November 6. That’s when Californians will vote on Proposition 37, a ballot initiative which would require many foods to carry label language disclosing that they may contain genetically engineered ingredients. Pollan argues that this initiative is the food movement’s chance to prove itself. People have already begun to “vote with their forks” by opting for local, organic, and humanely-produced foods, he explains, but Proposition 37 will represent food activists’ first real chance to bring about political change. If the initiative passes, then “a new political dynamic will be set in motion.”

My view of Proposition 37 is less optimistic. Believe it or not, for much of this blog’s existence, I’ve identified with the food movement. The existence of this blog is a testament to the fact that I have felt that the movement’s leadership has not always been as thoughtful or informed as I would like, but I generally believed the movement’s basic contention that we should be eating organic food produced locally and on a small scale. In fact, I’m currently serving my third year as an unpaid director of a non-profit which operates a local and organic grocery store on co-operative principles (though I don’t speak for the organization). But over the last several months, as I’ve made an effort to learn more about genetic engineering and Proposition 37, I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with the broader food movement.

This post is not about the science related to the genetic engineering debate. I trust the scientific consensus that these foods are safe to eat, and I don’t know of any reason to believe that the process of genetic engineering is inherently environmentally destructive. My intention with this post is to explore the political implications of Proposition 37. That is, what are the ideologies behind the proposition? What will it change? How will it make that change happen?

Proposition 37 won’t give Californians a “right to know”

Echoing the rhetoric of one of the main organizations backing Proposition 37, Pollan tells us that the initiative is about “the consumer’s right to know.” Chris MacDonald has argued that consumers don’t have a moral right to an arbitrary piece of information about their food, and I agree. However, I want to point out that even if we believe that consumers have such a right, Proposition 37 won’t give it to them.

Why? For all the talk about a right to know, the initiative won’t really make much more information available to consumers. The initiative doesn’t require labels to state outright that a product contains genetically engineered ingredients. Instead, it offers a sort of middle ground, allowing for a label to say that a product “May be partially produced with genetic engineering.” This is, of course, exactly what you can conclude today when you see a processed food product with no labeling statement concerning genetic engineering. If companies just add that one sentence to their labels, you’ll know exactly the same things about their foods as you do now. For fresh produce and commodities, you’ll need to learn the short list of crops which exist in genetically engineered  forms, but you can still figure it out.

That means that if you have a bit of information, the main thing that Proposition 37 will change is not the information that is available to you but the process by which you deduce that information. Currently, you should assume that a processed food contains genetically modified (GM) ingredients unless you see an explicit indicator to the contrary. For unprocessed foods, you can watch for a short list of crops (corn, soy, canola, beet sugar, papaya, zucchini and yellow summer squash) that are available in genetically engineered form.  If Proposition 37 becomes law, you’ll be able to assume that a food is free from GM ingredients unless its label indicates otherwise. It’s the same information, but the process by which you infer it will be different.

That said, less-informed consumers will gain more information. If you did not know that there was no law requiring genetically engineered foods to be labelled, then obviously you would gain information from Proposition 37’s labels. Thus, the people who will gain information from the initiative’s passage are relatively disengaged and not informed about the issue of genetic engineering.

Why more information isn’t always better

Providing information to less-informed consumers can be a very a good thing, but information without adequate context is rarely useful and can even be misleading. For instance, a consumer who is concerned about the practice of giving synthetic hormones to farm animals might seek out meat labelled “no hormones added.” However, because federal regulations explicitly forbid administering hormones to pigs, it would be misleading to have this language on the label of a pork product. A consumer might be led to believe that this makes one package of pork “better” than the others, when, in reality, it is true of all of the pork in the store.  For this reason, USDA regulations prohibit the labeling of pork with claims like “no hormones added” except when accompanied by a clarification about these regulations.

The potential for confusion is particularly pronounced when the public is poorly informed about an issue, and research indicates that this is the case with genetic engineering: in a recent NSF survey, only 47% of Americans correctly identified as false the statement, “Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do.” If people don’t know that all plants contain genes, they probably also do not know, for instance, that genetic engineering is less risky than some traditional plant breeding techniques which do not require labels. Will telling them that their food has been genetically engineered really help them make informed decisions?

To make matters worse, Proposition 37 exempts several types of food products from labeling, including alcohol, restaurant meals, and foods derived from animals raised on genetically engineered feed. The last of these is particularly unfortunate. Suppose that Proposition 37 passes, and a consumer is concerned about the proliferation of herbicide-resistant weeds (a problem which is explicitly mentioned in the text of the proposition as a justification for labeling) and therefore wants to avoid purchasing genetically engineered foods. If that consumer is deciding whether to purchase, say, beef patties or Morningstar Farms veggie burgers, the veggie burgers will have a label indicating that they contain genetically engineered ingredients, but the beef patties will not. Of course, a typical beef patty requires more grain (in the form of cattle feed) than a soy burger, so the consumer would be incorrect to conclude that the beef patties will contribute less to the problem of herbicide-resistant weeds. By exempting from labeling the products of the livestock that eat the majority of the genetically engineered grain in our food system, Proposition 37 could conceivably increase the cultivation of GM crops.

Of course, a consumer who understood the nuances of Proposition 37 would be able to make a better-informed decision. However, a consumer today who understands the lack of existing labeling laws can also make that decision. Moreover, because the current policy is consistent and straightforward, there are fewer situations in which labels are deceptive to those who are less informed.

Should consumers be required to know?

Obvious though it may be, it’s worth pointing out that a right is not the same thing as a requirement. The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution gives people the right to bear arms, but nobody would accuse me of violating this by not owning a gun. People can choose to waive rights that they don’t care about.

If you want to avoid genetically modified foods, you already have the option of doing so. You can just buy foods marketed as organic or non-GM. Consumers who don’t care whether their food has been genetically engineered are free to waive this right by purchasing foods that have no such language. Proposition 37, rather than giving consumers a “right to know” would make it harder for consumers to waive that right. It would move us closer to creating a requirement to know that certain foods may have been genetically modified. Of course, nobody can make anyone read the label, but many consumers have other reasons to look at labels, and they are bound to find the genetic engineering language. In this way, Proposition 37 attempts to shift participation in the conversation about genetic engineering from an opt-in basis to an opt-out basis.

I think most people would agree that there are certain pieces of information that consumers don’t need to know when they’re deciding what to eat. Would anybody insist that before you eat a tomato, you need to know whether the farmworker who picked it was left-handed or right-handed? Even if some people wanted this information, it would be a big hassle to keep the tomatoes picked by left-handed workers separate from the tomatoes picked by right-handed workers. Instead of requiring this segregation all along the supply chain, we’d simply leave the people who wanted the information to buy from producers who were willing to provide it.

Of course, many pieces of information are not so frivolous. But the point is this: Encoded in a policy of mandatory labeling is the idea that a piece of information should be important to you or perhaps somebody else. The tomato example shows that we don’t just require labels for arbitrary characteristics in the interest of “transparency.” With that in mind, we need to ask why the information needs to be on everybody’s food labels, regardless of whether they want it.

Some supporters insist that labeling is needed because we don’t know whether genetically engineered foods are safe. For instance, the pro-labeling campaign has recently attempted to bolster its case by citing a French study which claimed to provide evidence that Monsanto’s GM corn causes cancer in rats. (The study has received criticism for everything from serious methodological flaws to a refusal to release data.)

While I trust the scientific consensus that genetically engineered foods are safe, the question I want to ask is this: If genetically engineered foods are unsafe, is mandatory labeling a good way to deal with that problem? Mandatory labeling would leave the consumers to educate themselves about the issue and to pay more for safer food choices. That means that it would make safe food a privilege for people with more time and money on their hands. Personally, I think a better approach would be to ban unsafe foods.

A concern for which mandatory labeling makes a lot more sense is food allergens. We wouldn’t ban the sale of peanuts just because a small segment of the population has an adverse reaction to them. But for those people who are allergic to peanuts, avoiding the consumption of peanuts can be a matter of life or death. Mandatory allergen labeling reflects a judgment that the needs of people with allergies are important enough to justify any additional costs in food production and any confusion on the part of consumers who don’t need the information. (Existing genetically engineered crops are not known to have any allergens not present in the non-GM varieties and new genetically engineered crops are tested for allergens.)

Is genetic engineering really the problem?

To Pollan, however, Proposition 37 isn’t primarily about food safety. He explains,

The fight is about the power of Big Food. Monsanto has become the symbol of everything people dislike about industrial agriculture: corporate control of the regulatory process; lack of transparency (for consumers) and lack of choice (for farmers); an intensifying rain of pesticides on ever-expanding monocultures; and the monopolization of seeds, which is to say, of the genetic resources on which all of humanity depends.

There’s a lot in that sentence, some of it related to real problems with modern agriculture. Yet if we’re going to try to address these problems using labels, it’s not at all clear that GM ingredients are the right thing to label.

If Monsanto is “the symbol of everything people dislike about industrial agriculture,” maybe the foods that should be labelled are the ones derived from Monsanto seeds. Alternatively, a more even-handed approach might require food labels to specify the companies that controlled the seeds from which the ingredients were derived. This would be better for a couple of reasons.  For one thing, not all Monsanto seeds are produced with genetic engineering. As the organic farmer Raoul W. Adamchak notes in the book Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, Monsanto controls many hybrid vegetable varieties popular among organic farmers. In addition, not all genetically engineered crops are controlled by large companies like Monsanto. For instance, the rainbow papaya, genetically engineered for disease resistance, was developed by publicly funded scientists, and seeds were distributed to farmers for free. How Monsanto’s misdeeds constitute an argument for special labeling of the rainbow papaya is entirely unclear.

We could further improve on this “Monsanto label” by requiring some additional information. Since “pesticides on ever-expanding monocultures” are of concern, why not also require food labels to disclose the amounts of different pesticides used in their production and indicate which ingredients were derived from crops grown in monocultures? Neither pesticides nor monocultures are exclusive to GM crops. Moreover, not all GM crops increase pesticide use. Indeed a recent study — heralded by organic advocates — offered evidence that crops genetically engineered for insect resistance have actually decreased insecticide use in recent years. If we’re also concerned about the monopolization of seeds, let’s add another requirement for labeling of ingredients produced from patented seeds.

Here it is worth revisiting the earlier point that providing information with insufficient context can be misleading. When somebody of Pollan’s stature asserts that Proposition 37 is a way to bring about change on all these issues, it would be easy to conclude that a genetically engineered papaya is a Monsanto papaya or that tortillas made from genetically engineered Bt corn are grown with the most intense “rain of pesticides.” Both of these conclusions would be incorrect.

Politics by transparency

Of course, there are reasons why we might not want to include all of those pieces of information on food labels. It would take up a lot of space on the label, for one thing. It would also require a lot of information to be transmitted along the supply chain, which might increase the cost of food significantly. So  one might argue that even if genetic engineering isn’t really the root of the problem, it’s a pretty good proxy for a bunch of problems, so labeling GM foods is a decent compromise. It’s not perfect, but perhaps the Hawaiian papaya industry is acceptable collateral damage in the struggle against Monsanto.

However, in discussing the merits of labeling as a means of addressing these systematic problems, it’s also important to consider how effective labeling will be as an approach to the issues. How will a label on genetically engineered foods lead to solutions to, say, the problem of monocultures in agriculture?

According to the food movement, the answer is something like this. First, consumers will learn (perhaps by reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma) that monocultures in agriculture are bad and that many monocultures are genetically engineered. Next, they will decide to pay more for non-GM foods to avoid supporting monocultures. Finally, producers will respond to the change in demand by diversifying crops.

Even ignoring that avoiding GM foods doesn’t guarantee that you’ll avoid monocultures, this pathway to change seems less than plausible. Not everybody wants to take the time to learn about agriculture before deciding what to eat for dinner. And some people are unable or unwilling to spend more money on food. To count on informed consumers making “better” buying choices to solve systemic problems is absurd. These are problems that will only be solved by changing policies. If pesticides are the problem, let’s improve our regulations on the use of pesticides. If Monsanto is the problem, we should revisit our laws governing corporations. (Indeed, for all the progressive interest groups that have rallied behind it, Proposition 37 essentially takes a right-wing approach to dealing with social problems, leaving the market to sort things out.)

Yet, as Julie Guthman has noted, the idea of informed consumerism as a path to change is a cornerstone of the food movement’s philosophy. One sees it, for instance, in encouragements to “know your farmer” or in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, when Pollan writes, “Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do.” The contention is that if people only knew what was going on with our food supply, they would choose to eat something “better,” and the problem would be solved. Strikingly, the food movement is so wedded to this model of social change that when they finally are asking people to vote at the polls, it’s for a measure designed to facilitate conscientious consumerism.

Pollan writes in the introduction to The Omnivore’s Dilemma that the pleasures of eating are “only deepened by knowing.” For those who agree with Pollan on this point, it might be hard to understand why anybody wouldn’t want to know more about their food. However, it’s a fact that many people don’t choose to spend time learning about food production, and in a society that has embraced division of labor, we should expect this. The existence of people who would make such a choice runs contrary to the food movement’s ideology. Accordingly, we are told that the absence of certain information on food labels is due to “the power of Big Food.” In this view, people who haven’t engaged in the conversation about food production are unknowing victims, and Proposition 37 is here to empower them to stop Monsanto.

The anti-genetic engineering misinformation machine

If you look at the Yes on 37 campaign’s list of endorsers, you’ll a number of organizations which seem determined to drive the GMO debate into the gutter. Among these is the “natural health” website NaturalNews.com, which regularly publishes thoroughly crackpottish conspiracy theories about genetic engineering and other topics. Take, for instance, an article titled “Bill Gates, Monsanto, and eugenics: How one of the world’s wealthiest men is actively promoting a corporate takeover of global agriculture.” If you read the article, you’ll see that the supposed connection to eugenics arises from Bill Gates’ father’s ties to Planned Parenthood, which is identified as a eugenics group.

To be clear, this article was published by NaturalNews.com, not the Yes on 37 campaign. Nor do I have reason to believe that the campaign agrees with the point of view of this particular article. Yet the campaign has not taken an explicit stand against these extreme viewpoints, even as it touts the endorsement of NaturalNews.com on its website and links to other NaturalNews.com articles on Twitter. Evidently, the campaign has no qualms with encouraging people to get their news from NaturalNews.

Over the summer, when the Right to Know campaign sought my organization’s endorsement, I told my fellow board members that while I personally planned to vote against the initiative, I was open to encouraging our membership to support it if the general sentiment were that it reflected our organization’s values. But I also expressed my belief that as an organization that aimed to educate people about food-related issues, it would not behoove us to give our support to a campaign that was, in turn, lending its credibility to purveyors of the sort of vile, bottom-of-the-barrel dreck that is all too common at NaturalNews. If we wanted to support the labeling initiative, I suggested that we do it in a way that stood for a higher level of discourse. (In the end, we voted to post balanced information about the initiative in our store, without taking a position.)

I have been disappointed to see that the labeling movement seems less interested in thoughtful discussion than in doing anything and everything to stop genetic engineering. While food movement leaders like Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan deserve credit for expressing skepticism about the aforementioned French study claiming a link between GM corn and cancer, they have been regrettably silent on the broader misinformation campaign from the Yes on 37 campaign and its allies like NaturalNews.com and author Jeffrey Smith, whose anti-biotech literature has been thoroughly debunked.

Conclusion

The fact that some proponents of Proposition 37 engage in what Dan Kahan calls “pollution of the science communication environment” in advancing their cause is not, in itself, a reason to oppose Proposition 37. Yet it should nonetheless raise some concerns about what might happen if Proposition 37 should pass.

As I have explained, the main immediate effect of Proposition 37 will be to make previously disengaged consumers begin to think about genetic engineering. The trouble is that because these consumers have already demonstrated a lack of interest in learning about the issue, they are liable to be swayed by the loudest, scariest, and most persistent voices, rather than the best-informed or most even-handed ones.

Perhaps that means that the shrill anti-genetic engineering advocates like Jeffrey Smith and NaturalNews will be the thought leaders of tomorrow. However, as we have seen, the biotech and food industries have plenty of money, and they have, regrettably, spread some misinformation of their own. The industry will certainly fight back, perhaps with an information campaign or a sustained effort to tie the anti-genetic engineering movement to its more extreme elements. If they are successful, things could go very differently.

Ultimately, what this suggests to me is that Proposition 37 is bad politics. Dragging ill-informed and uninterested consumers into a dirty political fight and expecting them to make “conscientious” consumer decisions is not the way to spur social progress. And spreading misinformation isn’t going to help that. If Proposition 37 is how the food movement will prove itself, count me out.

Recommended Resources

Updated 10/16/2012 to change the spelling of “labeling” throughout. Apparently my spell-checker is British.

Correction 10/26/2012: This post has been corrected to state that an NSF survey found that 47% of Americans correctly identified the statement “Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do” as false. An earlier version of the post stated that 47% of Americans incorrectly believed that the statement was true.

Correction 2/21/2013: Earlier versions of this post claimed that livestock eat “the vast majority of our genetically engineered grain.” Thanks to commenter Eric B. for pointing out that this is no longer true due to ethanol production.

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In Defense of Food: My Review

Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food might best be described as a book which fares best when judged by its cover. Below the title, a reader finds some dietary advice which is not a bad place to start: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” There are a few good ideas inside the book, too. It would be easy not to look much deeper, as Pollan’s prose is so lively that most readers won’t want to stop and give things a closer look. However, the reader who does bother to check the details sees that In Defense of Food is not a credible work of nonfiction. Pollan twists facts and misrepresents the way science works in the course of assembling exaggerated, false, and contradictory narratives.

Pollan’s central thesis is that introducing science into our food system has done more harm than good and that the best thing for all of us would be to go back to eating a more traditional diet. It’s fair to point out that nutritional science has led to some mistakes (such as recommendations to replace saturated fats with hydrogenated oils), but Pollan devotes too much of his effort to dismantling his own shallow caricature of science. Pollan’s chief criticism of nutritional science is that it adheres to the ideology of nutritionism, which he defines as the belief that foods can be understood by studying their constituent nutrients. He explains that nutritionism is rooted in the idea that foods are “decidedly unscientific things” (19) and that studying individual nutrients is “the only thing [nutritional scientists] can do” (62). He even puts forth the idea that the goal of nutritional science is to find an “X factor” (178) — a single compound that is responsible for good health — so that food processors can add more of it to their products.

But science — to the people who study it — isn’t defined by the consideration of certain “scientific” things with hard-to-pronounce names. The scientific method is a general process for improving our understanding of the world. It entails using observations to form a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis experimentally, and refining that hypothesis based on the results of the experiment. As far as the scientific method is concerned, oranges are as good a subject to study as vitamin C. And nutritional scientists tend to be aware that human nutrition is too complicated to be explained by a single “X factor.” After all, that’s part of what makes their jobs challenging!

As proof of the malignancy of nutritionism, Pollan points to the various sets of nutritional guidelines which encouraged Americans to reduce their fat consumption. As Pollan explains, these recommendations gave rise to products like the SnackWell’s cookie, which was presumed healthy on the basis of its being fat-free. He contrasts the low-fat guidelines with the theory (put forward by Gary Taubes and others) that weight gain results when the consumption of refined carbohydrates promotes fat storage and overeating. If that theory is correct, he explains, “there is no escaping the conclusion that the [official dietary advice] bears direct responsibility for creating the public health crisis that now confronts us” (59-60).

By the end of the book, he’s moved on to blaming that same public health crisis on overconsumption of cheap sweeteners and added fats, pointing out that Americans have added 300 calories to their daily diets since 1980 and citing a group of Harvard economists who “concluded that the widespread availability of cheap convenience foods could explain most of the twelve-pound increase in the weight of the average American since the early 1960s” (186-187). If both the dietary guidelines and the cheap convenience foods are to blame, then it must be that the guidelines encouraged Americans to eat those convenience foods, right?

Not exactly, as it would happen. For all his insistence that Americans have “an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating” (9), Pollan gives us precious little evidence that we’ve actually been following the official dietary advice. Indeed, a reader of the various guidelines would see that falling prey to the food marketers often meant going against the science-based dietary advice. For instance, the second edition of the 1977 Dietary Goals for the United States, one of the main sets of guidelines which Pollan criticizes, included warnings against overeating and recommended a decrease in consumption of both fats and refined sugars. So while the sugary SnackWell’s cookies might have helped to reduce fat intake, the dietary guidelines were hardly an invitation to eat them without restraint.

It should thus be no surprise that in his quest to fault science-based nutritional advice for our public health crisis, Pollan often misleads readers about what the dietary guidelines actually said. He tells us, for instance, that a literature review “found ‘some evidence’ that replacing fats in the diet with carbohydrates (as official dietary advice has urged us to do since the 1970s) will lead to weight gain” (45). It sounds pretty damning, at least until you look at the actual paper, which, in fact, reported “some evidence” that replacing dietary fats with refined carbohydrates leads to weight gain. Pollan, of course, had a very good reason to leave out the extra word: that little bit in parentheses would have been false if he’d included it. The government recommendations never urged Americans to replace dietary fats with refined carbohydrates. Truth be told, the official dietary advice could have done better here, but a reader of the recommendations would see encouragements to decrease our consumption of a major class of refined carbohydrate (sugars) and to eat more unrefined carbohydrates in the form of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

But some falsehoods can’t be made to look true just by neatly hiding the pesky details behind a missing adjective, and Pollan’s book contains some of these ideas, too. Indeed, the notion that nutritional scientists study nutrients to the exclusion of foods is incorrect; the ideology of nutritionism that occupies so much of Pollan’s attention is a straw man. A reader might get the sense that something isn’t quite right when Pollan refers to a few nutritional studies that considered whole foods. On the other hand, the reader might suppose, perhaps those studies are outliers. After all, Pollan tells us that (since 1977) the official dietary recommendations have always been expressed in terms of nutrients rather than foods. As an example, he gives us the 1982 report, Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer, in which the National Academy of Sciences “was careful to frame its recommendations nutrient by nutrient rather than food by food, to avoid offending any powerful interests” (25). The only problem is that it isn’t true. The report contains six “Interim Dietary Guidelines,” only one of which was expressed in terms of nutrients, and two of which were expressed in terms of foods. (Of the remaining three, two were encouragements to keep dangerous substances out of the food supply, and one was a reminder not to drink too much.)

The antidote to nutritionism, as Pollan explains, is “to entertain seriously the proposition that processed foods of any kind are a big part of the problem” (141) and  “escape the Western diet” (142) for a more traditional diet. That’s a bold declaration, considering that “processing” in the food system includes not just things like hydrogenating vegetable oils but also everything from chopping vegetables to slaughtering animals. Pollan reasons that science has made us unhealthy by encouraging us to eat in new ways, but a traditional diet must be healthy because “if it wasn’t a healthy regimen, the diet and the people who followed it wouldn’t still be around” (173). Unfortunately, he thereby misses the rather important point that a diet can be unhealthy without doing away with its eaters. Pollan’s line of argument would, for example, vindicate the diet of white rice that left so many with beriberi. And some day, it may well exonerate the American diet, whose worst health effects tend to show up well beyond reproductive age.

For all that Pollan gets wrong, there is a grain of truth to his message. Though Pollan errs in faulting nutritional science for giving us a license to eat every high-carb, low-fat food that processors might concoct, it is true that it would be a bad idea to assume that a low-fat food is a healthy food. Pollan is probably even right that some people reached that conclusion based on their interpretations of the official dietary advice. However, the lesson to take away from this is not that we should ignore nutritional science but that when we oversimplify our decision-making processes, we leave ourselves particularly vulnerable to cheap marketing ploys. With that in mind, the solution he offers is regrettable. Rather than embracing critical thinking and careful attention to detail, Pollan gives us a few simple rules backed up by the same sort of lazy thinking that he claims to have seen in nutritional science. It should therefore be no surprise that food companies have begun to take advantage of his rules for eating, with Frito-Lay advertising that its Lay’s potato chips have only “three simple ingredients” (less than Pollan’s recommended maximum of five ingredients) and manufacturers reformulating products like Gatorade, Hunt’s ketchup, and Wheat Thins to replace the taboo high-fructose corn syrup with other sugars.

To be fair, a few of Pollan’s rules, such as “eat slowly…in the sense of deliberate and knowledgeable eating promoted by Slow Food” (194) and “plant a garden” (197), will probably prove difficult for food companies to use for their own ends. For the most part, however, these reflect a level of privilege which many people do not have. This isn’t too surprising, as Pollan makes no secret of the fact that he writes for a well-to-do audience when he declares, “Not everyone can afford to eat high-quality food in America, and that is shameful; however, those of us who can, should” (184). That doesn’t invalidate his perspective, but there is nonetheless something a bit distasteful about a bestselling author lamenting the eating habits of people whose lives are worlds away from his own. Absent any indication of a good-faith effort to understand why people might choose to microwave frozen dinners instead of preparing a family meal from home-grown ingredients, Pollan’s work seems less likely to inspire positive social change than, as Julie Guthman puts it, to appeal to “those who already are refined eaters and want to feel ethically good about it.”

Michael Pollan remarks in the introduction of In Defense of Food that had he written the book forty years earlier, it would have been received as “the manifesto of a crackpot” (14). In light of the superficiality of the book’s merits and its loose relationship to the facts, that wouldn’t have been a particularly unfair appraisal. Alas, in the time since the work’s publication in 2008, our collective judgment has proven decidedly less sound. Thanks to its engaging style and appealing commonsense message, In Defense of Food has become required reading for thousands of college students, and its author now stands at the helm of a respected social movement. With the alarming rise in diet-related disease, the time was indeed ripe for someone to fill that leading role. It’s just too bad that it was somebody who mostly gives us the same kind of simplistic solutions and sloppy reasoning that helped to create the problem in the first place.

Also posted at Amazon and Goodreads. For more on In Defense of Food, I recommend the following posts:

You can also look at all of my posts about In Defense of Food.

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Should Americans be spending more on food?

Michael Pollan echoes a popular foodie talking point:

For the majority of Americans, spending more for better food is less a matter of ability than priority. We spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than any other industrialized society; surely if we decided that the quality of our food mattered, we could afford to spend a few more dollars on it a week–and eat a little less of it. (187)

This amounts to a textbook case of statistical abuse. When Pollan refers to the small percentage of income Americans spend on food, that doesn’t say anything about the majority of Americans at all. It is, instead, a statement about our collective income (as compared to the incomes of other societies).

To understand this distinction, consider somebody who makes a million dollars a year. To spend 9.9% of that income (a figure Pollan cites in the next paragraph), this person would need to buy $99,000 worth of food in a year. Even assuming this person supports a large family and buys the kind of food that Michael Pollan says we should be eating, that’s a huge amount of food! Thus, people with large incomes will tend to spend a small percentage of their income on food. Moreover, because these people make so much money, their spending patterns are weighted more heavily in the figure than a comparable number of people at the lower end of the income scale*. The point here is that when we look at the percentage of income spent on food, that number is pushed downward by income inequality. Since the United States has a relatively high level of income inequality, this distortion is particularly pronounced in our case.

To look much deeper into the statistics, it would be helpful to be able to look at some actual data. Unfortunately, Pollan doesn’t give a citation on this claim, but when foodies compare food spending among countries, if a source is provided, it’s the USDA’s data on “Expenditures on food and alcoholic beverages that were consumed at home, by selected countries.” This looks at food spending as a percentage of household final consumption expenditures (which is certainly not the same as income). I don’t know for sure that this is Pollan’s source, but since he’s given his endorsement to a similar use of that data before, I’ll say a few things about it here. One weakness of the data shows up right in the title: it’s referring only to meals eaten at home. That means it’s not even clear that it includes the same number of meals in different countries. Looking at the data for 2006, for instance, if (and this is strictly hypothetical because I haven’t seen any data on the number of meals eaten at home) Americans devoted 6.6% of their spending to 14 meals eaten at home per week at home and the British devoted 8.6% of their spending to 18 meals per week, the British and the Americans would actually be putting about the same percentage of their spending toward each meal. Again, this is hypothetical, but if foodies are right when they say that Americans eat too many meals in restaurants or at their desks at work, this could be important.

Another problem with the data lies with the way that household final consumption expenditures are defined. Americans tend to have lower taxes than Europeans and pay for some things out of their pockets that are paid for with taxpayer money in Europe. For example, things like health care, education, and transportation are more heavily subsidized by taxes in Europe than in the United States. This means that those expenses are largely included in household final consumption expenditures for the US, but less so for the European countries. This, in turn, serves to decrease the percentage of household final consumption expenditures which Americans spend on food.

None of this is to say that Americans are spending the ideal amount on food. Nor do I mean to defend everything on which Americans spend money. My point is simply that the comparison of the US to other countries doesn’t support Pollan’s argument very well because the data reflect many differences among the various countries. I don’t doubt that there are significant externalities in the production of food or that food would cost more if these were reflected in the price. However, I don’t see much to be gained by throwing around misleading statistics to overstate the extent to which people are able to pay those costs.

*To see why, consider a fictitious country with only two people, one making $10,000 and spending $3,500 on food and the other making $150,000 and spending $9,000 on food (these are approximately at the averages of the top and bottom income quintiles for the United States for recent years). One person is spending 35% of income on food and the other is spending 6% of income on food. The population as a whole spends $12,500 of its $159,000 income on food. That’s only 7.9%, much closer to the wealthier resident’s figure.

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Michael Pollan, X factors, and Weston Price

In In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan promotes the idea that nutritional scientists seek simplistic solutions to our dietary problems. He writes,

Oceans of ink have been spilled attempting to tease out and analyze the components of the Mediterranean diet, hoping to identify the X factor responsible for its healthfulness: Is it the olive oil? The fish? The wild greens? The garlic? The nuts? The French paradox too has been variously attributed to the salutary effects of red wine, olive oil, and even foie gras (liver is high in B vitamins and iron). (177)

It’s telling that he doesn’t bother to tell us who has attributed the so-called French paradox (the fact that the French people are healthier than Americans while eating a diet that goes against mainstream nutritional advice) to these foods. Is it nutrition scientists themselves? Journalists? Food marketers? Somebody on the internet? (The references provide a few scientific studies on related topics, but these, unsurprisingly, offer only modest, qualified conclusions.)

Pollan continues,

But the quest to pin down the X factor in the diets of healthy populations (PubMed, a scholarly index to scientific articles on medicine, lists 257 entries under “French Paradox” and another 828 under “Mediterranean Diet”) goes on, because reductionist science is understandably curious and nutritionism demands it. If the secret ingredient could be identified, then processed foods could be reengineered to contain more of it, and we could go on eating much as before. (178)

Of course, the purpose of nutritional science, even when based on the study of individual nutrients, need not only be to find the “X factor” to cater to food processors. The report Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer, which Pollan writes about at length (and, I’ve argued, misrepresents), provides a good example of this. Although the report identified some compounds in fruits and vegetables which seemed beneficial, the interim guidelines encouraged the consumption of fruits and vegetables (rather than, say, carotenes or vitamin C).

I can’t help but suspect that, of all the hundreds of PubMed results for “French Paradox” and “Mediterranean Diet,” none of them actually claimed to have found this “X factor” of which Pollan writes. In spite of any popular ideas about scientific progress being driven by mad scientists figuring everything out all at once, science tends to be a slow process of incremental progress on complex problems. If anybody knows this, it’s the people who have devoted their lives to the study of science.

Though scientists will rarely talk about finding an “X factor,” Pollan shows surprising sympathy for one researcher who claimed to have found something of the sort, the late Weston Price. Price was a dentist who gave up his practice in the 1930s to travel around the world to study the traditional diets of people who had not yet been exposed to the modern foods that he suspected were responsible for many of society’s problems. Price’s work has since become a favorite talking point of proponents of traditional diets.

Pollan, to his credit, acknowledges that Price “could sometimes come across as a bit of a crackpot” for his bizarre racial theories and tendency to blame all of society’s ills on diet. However, that doesn’t stop Pollan from dedicating five pages of the book to a discussion of Price’s work, which he says “points the way toward a protoecological understanding of food that will be useful as we try to escape the traps of nutritionism.”

Price didn’t use the term “X factor,” but he did devote an entire chapter of his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration to a substance which he called “activator X” (and which Price’s modern day devotees do call the “X factor”). Price argued that activator X, which is now more commonly known as Vitamin K2, was strongly protective against dental caries. He also provided data to suggest that the level of activator X in a society’s dairy products correlated negatively with mortality due to heart disease and pneumonia. Finally, he shared a single anecdote in which activator X appeared to have cured convulsions in a young child.

Whatever the merits of Price’s ideas about Vitamin K2, it is interesting that Pollan largely chooses to ignore them, mentioning the term “activator X” only in passing. It’s hardly surprising, though, as they wouldn’t fit so well with the idea that the only reason anybody might study specific nutrients is so that processed foods might be engineered to contain more of them. Price, after all, believed that the food supply was overly industrialized in the 1930s. He had no interest in seeing processed foods with more activator X, but he still chose to study the compound.

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The reductionism of nutritional Darwinism

Michael Pollan argues in In Defense of Food that we should ignore nutritional science and stick with traditional diets. He explains,

Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally much healthier than people eating a contemporary Western diet…I’m inclined to think any traditional diet will do; if it wasn’t a healthy regimen, the diet and the people who followed it wouldn’t still be around. (173)

This is the dietary philosophy which Daniel Engber called “nutritional Darwinism.” The idea behind the name is that people who eat unhealthy diets will be selected out (in the sense of Darwin’s natural selection) of the human population over time.

On the face of it, it might be an appealing idea, but nutritional Darwinism is reductionist in its own way. Namely, it reduces all of human health to the ability to reproduce and raise offspring who can reproduce. If we only know that a group of people has survived on a particular diet for generations, that doesn’t tell us much about how the people tend to die, how long they tend to live, or any non-fatal health problems they may experience. And as the story of beriberi shows, groups of people have survived for generations on traditional diets that had serious nutritional deficiencies.

However, to fully appreciate the weakness of this line of reasoning, consider what it might say about the “Western diet” from which Pollan urges readers to “escape.” Although Pollan contends that this diet is a relatively recent development, it’s not obvious that it can’t survive for a while. There clearly is no shortage of Americans at reproductive age. Moreover, the “Western diseases”–the conditions such as heart disease and cancer that Pollan blames on the Western diet–tend to strike later in life, so they don’t usually interfere with people’s ability to reproduce. This means that there’s no reason to believe that the Western diet will kill off its eaters any time soon. Therefore, if the principle of nutritional Darwinism is to be believed, the Western diet must be healthy!

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A radical simplification of our diet?

Michael Pollan argues in In Defense of Food that our diets are less diverse than they once were. He explains,

Today [corn, soy, wheat, and rice] account for two thirds of the calories we eat. When you consider that humankind has historically consumed some eighty thousand edible species, and that three thousand of these have been in widespread use, this represents a radical simplification of the human diet. (117)

This is a rather egregious abuse of the numbers. Yes, three thousand species is many more than four species, but these numbers are measuring very different things.

I’ll start with the smallest problem. As Pollan notes, much of the corn and soy is actually fed to animals to produce meats and other animal products for human consumption. Yet for some reason, he doesn’t bother to include the animal species in his count here.

A bigger issue is that when he refers to the number of species that have been historically eaten, he seems to be including species that have been eaten by various cultures across different time periods. This means, for instance, that it includes both the American bison eaten by the Native Americans of the Great Plains and the cassava that has long been a staple in South America. Of course, geographical considerations dictate that it’s highly unlikely that many people have regularly eaten both of these species, so the “eighty thousand edible species” is misleading because it tells us nothing about what any particular group of people have historically eaten.

It’s also deeply misleading to use the four species that provide most of our calories as an indicator of the diversity of our diet. The fact is that some edible species don’t have many calories. If you wanted to get more than a third of your calories from the leafy vegetables that Pollan argues we should be eating more of, you’d better be prepared to wolf down more than three pounds of greens per day. And we could easily add a few dozen species to the list just by visiting the spice aisle of a grocery store, even if there are very few calories to be found there.

So is the American diet unusually homogeneous? I don’t have the time or resources to make that determination, but the evidence certainly isn’t in the data that Pollan cites. However, there is evidence that we are not alone in our dependence on a small number of crops. For example, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that about thirty years ago rice alone contributed 68% of calories to South Asian diets.

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