Posts Tagged science

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.

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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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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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Nutrition science doesn’t claim to have all the answers

In In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan explains what he sees as one of the problems with science-based dietary advice:

When Prout and Liebig nailed down the macronutrients, scientists figured that they now understood the nature of food and what the body needed from it. Then when the vitamins were isolated a few decades later, scientists thought, okay, now we really understand food and what the body needs for its health; and today it’s the polyphenols and carotenoids that seem to have completed the picture.

One has to wonder, if the scientists have long been so confident in the completeness of their understanding of human nutrition, why do they continue researching the subject?

It is true that scientists have sometimes expressed undue confidence in an idea. However, the suggestion that nutrition scientists see human nutrition as a solved problem is patently absurd. These scientists continue doing research precisely because they understand that there are many questions remaing about nutrition.

One sees this, for example, in the 1982 report Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer, which Pollan discusses at length. In introducing its interim guidelines, the report explained,

It is not now possible, and may never be possible, to specify a diet that would protect everyone against all forms of cancer. Nevertheless, the committee believes that it is possible on the basis of current evidence to formulate interim dietary guidelines that are both consistent with good nutritional practices and likely to reduce the risk of cancer.

The authors of the report thus readily acknowledged that they didn’t “really understand food.” They issued guidelines anyway on the belief that useful recommendations could be made based on what they did understand.

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Polyunsaturated fats and heart disease

Michael Pollan concludes his attempted takedown of the lipid hypothesis in In Defense of Food by addressing the supposed role of dietary changes in reducing heart disease:

Even if we accept the epidemic of obesity and diabetes as the unintended consequence of the war against dietary fat–collateral damage, you might say–what about the intended consequence of that campaign: the reduction of heart disease? Here is where the low-fat campaigners have chosen to make their last stand, pointing proudly to the fact that after peaking in the late sixties, deaths from heart disease fell dramatically in America, a 50 percent decline since 1969.  Cholesterol levels have also fallen. Epidemiologist Walter C. Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health…cites the increase in consumption of polyunsaturated fats “as a major factor, if not the most important factor, in the decline in heart disease” observed in the seventies and eighties… And so it would appear to be: We reduced our saturated fat intake, our cholesterol levels fell, and many fewer people dropped dead of heart attacks.

Whether the low-fat campaigners should take the credit for this achievement is doubtful, however. Reducing mortality from heart disease is no the same thing as reducing the incidence of heart disease, and there’s reason to question whether underlying rates of heart disease have greatly changed in the last thirty years, as they should have if changes in diet were so important. A ten-year study of heart disease mortality published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1998 strongly suggests that most of the decline in deaths from heart disease is due not to changes in lifestyle, such as diet, but to improvements in medical care…For while during the period under analysis, heart attack deaths declined substantially, hospital admissions for heart attack did not. (60-61)

The referenced study is “Trends in the Incidence of Myocardial Infarction and in Mortality Due to Coronary Heart Disease, 1987 to 1994.” As the title suggests, this “ten-year study” is actually an eight-year study. That means that Pollan is attempting to debunk claims made about health trends over the course of a few decades by looking at a much shorter period. Moreover, Walter Willett’s claim applies specifically to the seventies and eighties, but a reader who did not bother to check the references would not realize that the period under consideration by Pollan’s “ten-year study” actually only had three years in common with this interval.

This becomes even more problematic when we look at what people were eating. Specifically, let’s look at the amount of polyunsaturated fats in the US food supply (page 65), which is most directly relevant to Willett’s claim.

Amount of polyunsaturated fat in the US food supply, per capita per day. The red lines indicate the beginning and end of the period considered by the NEJM study.

The data show that consumption of polyunsaturated fats increased from 26 grams per person per day in 1970 to 32 grams per person per day in 1985, with most of the increase coming from 1977 and 1985. However, in 1985 polyunsaturated fat intake more or less leveled out, and the net increase over the period under consideration in the NEJM study was only 1 gram. Thus, even if we were to suppose that Willett were right, it’s not clear that we should have expected to see much of a drop in the incidence of heart disease in the study.

Since dietary changes can have long-term effects on health, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Pollan’s argument is completely wrong. Indeed, the distinction he makes between incidence of heart disease and deaths due to heart disease is an important one. However, it’s just not clear how relevant the study he cites really is. The choice of intervals needs to be justified as a part of his argument, rather than hidden away in the references.

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Should communication between pea plants raise tough issues for vegetarians?

I was just about ready to get back into my review of In Defense of Food this week. That is, until yesterday morning, when Michael Pollan tweeted,

Cool piece on how pea plants communicate with one another, possibly raising some tough issues for vegetarians. p2.to/1jpp

The basic science in the blog post, I have to say, is genuinely interesting. The idea is this:

[A] team of scientists from the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University in Israel published the results of its peer-reviewed research, revealing that a pea plant subjected to drought conditions communicated its stress to other such plants, with which it shared its soil. In other words, through the roots, it relayed to its neighbors the biochemical message about the onset of drought, prompting them to react as though they, too, were in a similar predicament.

Curiously, having received the signal, plants not directly affected by this particular environmental stress factor were better able to withstand adverse conditions when they actually occurred. This means that the recipients of biochemical communication could draw on their “memories” — information stored at the cellular level — to activate appropriate defenses and adaptive responses when the need arose.

Stuff like this is fascinating to me, and I’d love to know more about it. However, I probably won’t look to the New York Times to further enrich myself because the Times seems to have a rule that requires all discussions of plant responses to external stimuli to include a discussion of the ethics of eating plants and its implications for vegetarians (see also this article from December 2009 and this one from March 2011).

I often hear vegetarians dismiss this argument as a disingenuous display of concern for plants, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that, at least when the argument is made well. Some animal rightists argue that killing animals is incompatible with generally accepted ethical principles. The “right” way to make the “plants like to live” argument is to argue that the very same line of reasoning amounts to an argument against eating plants. If the argument could be made soundly, it would present a problem for the argument against eating animals–unless the person making it were also willing to give up eating plants. The point is that an argument based on a need to be logically consistent doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously if it isn’t itself logically consistent. This an instance of the reductio ad absurdum, which I’ve written about in another context. Such an argument, it should be noted, has nothing to do with whether the person making the argument cares about plants or animals, and everything to do with proving that an argument fails to meet its own standards of consistency.

That said, I believe there are good reasons to give a pig more consideration than a pea plant. More than anything, I see this as an argument that arises from imprecision.

The New York Times piece asks,

Is it morally permissible to submit to total instrumentalization living beings that, though they do not have a central nervous system, are capable of basic learning and communication? Should their swift response to stress leave us coldly indifferent, while animal suffering provokes intense feelings of pity and compassion?

I find myself unmoved by this argument because my “intense feelings of pity and compassion” for animals do not arise from the simple fact of the animals’ capacity for “basic learning and communication” nor from their “swift response to stress.” Such an argument would be even more foolish than the New York Times‘s Michael Marder implies. Indeed one could easily envision computers or robots that had similar traits, but most people’s reasons for not eating these entities are entirely selfish. They probably don’t taste very good, they contain toxic substances, they’re hard to chew, they’re likely to scratch our throats and mouths, and they tend to be a lot more expensive than most foods. I doubt any vegetarian would argue that a computer deserves better than to be eaten.

More broadly, I would reject the idea that the existence of plant survival mechanisms is evidence that plants take an interest in living. Indeed, if one considers the process of natural selection, it shouldn’t be surprising that an organism that’s alive today has mechanisms that have increased its chance of survival. According to the theory of natural selection, those organisms with survival mechanisms should be more likely to have survived. That’s exactly how natural selection works.

The question, then, is what makes animals different? I would argue that the difference lies in the fact that animals tend to respond to stimuli in ways that we can relate to. When we watch a video of a pig writhing at slaughter, it’s easy to believe that we’d react similarly if we were exposed to similar stimuli. Because we associate both the stimulus and the reaction with pain, it’s not unreasonable to guess that the pig is experiencing something similar to what what we know as pain. But that’s not quite enough to draw that conclusion; one could envision a robot programmed to react similarly. The most important piece of information is that science tells us that the pig–unlike a robot–has the capacity to experience pain and suffering similarly to humans. The pig’s suffering is similar in all of those ways to an experience that we want to avoid, but it’s much harder to relate to the pea plant in dry soil. In that respect, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to give the pig more consideration than the pea.

I want to emphasize here that I’m not arguing that an organism should be considered based simply on its overall similarity to humans. Instead, I argue for consideration based on sentience and the interests that arise from it but that sentience can only be meaningfully understood by comparing certain traits (for example, nervous systems and responses to stimuli) to their human counterparts. This means that some traits (e.g. intelligence) are not directly relevant. (If anybody wants to propose an alternative, I’m interested to hear about it in the comments.)

Might this line of reasoning lead to a stronger argument for sparing a pig than, say, a chicken? Perhaps, but the issue is complicated by the fact that it takes many chickens to provide the same amount of meat as a single pig. In any case, I think there’s a good case for giving either more consideration than a pea plant. I’d feel less comfortable saying the same of an ant or an oyster, and that doesn’t particularly bother me.

Inevitably, some will say that this line of reasoning is anthropocentric. Perhaps so, but I don’t see that as much of a criticism at all. Specifically, insofar as it gives precedence to sensations similar to those that we know as humans, I don’t think it’s any more anthropocentric than making decisions based on what we know (and can know) as people. And I much prefer that to the alternative.

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Mike Gibney critiques “In Defense of Food”

In my dissection of In Defense of Food (which, by the way, hasn’t been forgotten, merely badly neglected for another project that has been eating up my time), I’ve tended to be conservative with my criticism. The reason for this is that I’m not an expert on the subject matter. I’m just some guy with an internet connection and access to a good academic library. While I consider myself qualified enough to point out when a document doesn’t say what Michael Pollan claims it does or make general comments on the nature of scientific inquiry, more nuanced points about the particulars of nutrition science are beyond me. So for the most part, I don’t engage in that kind of debate.

However, Dr. Mike Gibney is an experienced nutrition researcher, and he has just posted a criticism of In Defense of Food on his blog. He hits hard, arguing that the book is “peppered with half-truths, circular arguments and highly selective supporting material,” and he has far more authority than I could ever claim. Here’s an excerpt:

Pollen’s belief that health is the driver of food choice in the modern era is a cornerstone of his argument. Take for example the statement he makes: “That eating should be foremost about bodily health is a relatively new, and I think, destructive idea”.  As I pointed out in my blog of April 2nd, the interest in healthy eating is as old as civilisation and this obsession is the pursuit of a relatively minor section of society[1]. The vast majority chooses food that they plan to enjoy and, in making those choices, take care to get some level of balance as regards to their personal health. Every study that has examined the drivers of food choice have come away with the conclusion that the “go – no go” part of food choice is whether the consumer likes the food.  Pollan’s assumption that it is the pursuit of health that drives food choice is an opinion based his personal reflections and observations. However, our own research, published in peer-reviewed journals shows the opposite. In a survey of over 14,000 consumers across the EU, some 71% either ‘agreed strongly’ or ‘agreed’ with the statement: “I do not need to make changes to my diet as my diet is already healthy enough”.  Figure that Mr Pollan!

The putative obsession with food and health of modern consumers that Pollan puts forward arises from the dogmatism and doctrine, which he calls “nutritionism”. He argues that nutrition has reduced the food and health issue to nutrients. In his view, nutritionists see foods solely as purveyors of nutrients and summarises their view thus: “Foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts”.  He quotes his fellow food saviour and author Marion Nestle who says of nutrition: “…it takes the nutrient out of the food, the food out of the diet and the diet out of the lifestyle”. Eloquent, but utter baloney! This needs to rebutted along several lines. In 1996, I chaired a joint WHO-FAO committee that issued a report entitled “Preparation and use of food-based dietary guidelines”. The notion behind this was that many developing countries did not have detailed data on the nutrient content of their food supply, that they didn’t have nutritional surveys and that we should encourage the development of healthy eating advice in terms that consumers can understand. Indeed, statistical techniques such as cluster analysis are widely used to study food intake patterns and moreover, there are many examples of systems that score food choice for their nutritional quality. To write a book based on the impression that nutritionist see foods solely in terms of nutrients is simply daft.

I highly recommend reading the whole piece.

Finally, I owe a hat tip to Colby Vorland, who tweeted the piece yesterday.

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Some corrections and clarifications

March 22, 2012 at 12:24 am · Filed under Corrections, Facts, In Defense of Food ·Tagged , , ,

Last Friday, while working on my last entry, I came to the realization that two sentences in my piece in the Berkeley Science Review in September were not quite right. These sentences contained a number of claims which were either subtly wrong, misleading, or which simply could have been expressed more clearly.

The sentences in question came in my response to Michael Pollan’s assertion that “the dietary advice enshrined not only in the McGovern ‘Goals’ but also in the National Academy of Sciences report, the dietary guidelines of the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society and the U.S. food pyramid bears direct responsibility for creating the public health crisis that now confronts us.” I wrote,

However, McGovern’s Goals called for a substantial reduction in refined carbohydrate consumption and an increase in consumption of carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Americans collectively disregarded both of those recommendations, as well as a recommended decrease in daily energy intake.

These sentences have since been corrected. Here’s what I think deserves correction or further explanation (all data on historical consumption of foods are from USDA loss-adjusted food availability data):

While I should have been far more careful in writing these two sentences, I think that the point I was attempting to make was sound. Namely, considering that substantial parts of the dietary guidelines were not followed, it doesn’t make sense to blame the guidelines for health problems that have resulted. That said, it’s important to get the details right, and I should have been more careful. I’ll try harder to do both of those in the future.

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Dietary fat, weight, and the importance of context

March 16, 2012 at 6:42 am · Filed under In Defense of Food ·Tagged , , , , ,

In arguing against the low-fat campaign, Michael Pollan cites extensively a review out of the Harvard School of Public Health. The review focuses on the relationship between dietary fat and coronary heart disease, but it also addresses the supposed connection between low-fat diets and weight loss.

As Pollan tells it,

One other little grenade is dropped in the paper’s conclusion: Although “a major purported benefit of a low-fat diet is wieght loss,” a review of the literature failed to turn up any convincing evidence of this proposition. To the contrary, it 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)

The official dietary advice, instead of promoting weight loss, would lead to weight gain. Damning, isn’t it? But as is too often the case in Pollan’s writing, the actual study tells a more complicated story. Here’s what the review says:

A major purported benefit of a low-fat diet is weight loss. But long-term clinical trials have not provided convincing evidence that reducing dietary fat can lead to substantial weight loss. On the contrary, there is some evidence that a diet containing a high amount of refined carbohydrates may increase hunger and promote overeating, which can lead to weight gain and obesity. It is now generally agreed that total energy intake, whether from fat or carbohydrate, relative to energy expenditure, is a more important determinant of body weight than dietary fat per se.

You’ll notice that the review quite specifically implicates refined carbohydrates like sugars, white flour, and white rice as a cause of weight gain. As it happens, these were not the kind of carbohydrates that the official advice told us to eat. Senator George McGovern’s Dietary Goals for the United States encouraged Americans to decrease consumption of sugars and increase consumption of fruits, vegetables, and grains. The National Academy of Sciences’ Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer did not make an explicit recommendation with respect to refined carbohydrates, but it specifically recommended accompanying the decrease in fat intake with an increase in consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Pollan is correct to say that official dietary advice encouraged Americans to replace fat with carbohydrates. His claim that the review implicates carbohydrate consumption in weight gain is more of a stretch, but perhaps still arguable. However, when he puts these claims together to argue that the review claims some evidence that would link the official dietary advice to weight gain, he misses the mark badly.

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The Atkins diet and the “American paradox”

March 11, 2012 at 3:24 am · Filed under In Defense of Food, Science ·Tagged , , , , , , ,

Michael Pollan suggests that rather than talk about the “French paradox” we ought to confront the “American paradox” which he defines as “a notably unhealthy population preoccupied with nutrition and diet and the idea of eating healthily” (9). We’re to make a connection and believe that our preoccupation with healthy eating is making us unhealthy.

The evidence he provides for for this, however, leaves much to be desired. As I wrote at the Berkeley Science Review blog, Americans didn’t follow much of the dietary advice which Pollan argues “bears direct responsibility for creating the public health crisis that now confronts us” (60). (James McWilliams has also pointed out that Pollan even refers in In Defense of Food to Americans’ increasing consumption of junk food when it suits his point.)

One piece of evidence which Pollan brings to the discussion underscores the limitations of his argument. He tells us that “when the Atkins diet storm hit the food industry in 2003, bread and pasta got a quick redesign (dialing back the carbs; boosting the proteins) while poor unreconstructed potatoes and carrots were left out in the carbohydrate cold” (38).

A tendency to go on weight loss diets is hardly evidence of an obsession with healthy eating. Attempts to lose weight are often motivated more by aesthetic concerns than health concerns, a distinction made particularly clear by the case of the Atkins diet, which many doctors and dietitians warned was unhealthy. Moreover, even when motivated by  health considerations, a weight-loss diet is an attempt to change an existing condition which is perceived to be a problem. Pollan seems to want us to identify the diet as the cause of the problem, which gets the chronology backward. Although Julie Guthman has argued that we need to look beyond food to understand obesity, to the extent that food is to blame, it seems more plausible that the problem lies with the soft drinks, fast food, and other junk food that were the villains of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

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Does nutritionism preclude pleasurable eating?

March 3, 2012 at 10:52 am · Filed under In Defense of Food ·Tagged , , ,

Michael Pollan devotes a chapter of In Defense of Food to defining the notion of “nutritionism,” which we’re to distinguish from nutrition. Whereas the latter is a scientific discipline, the professor of journalism explains, “As the ‘-ism’ suggests, [nutritionism] is not a scientific subject but an ideology.” This ideology rests on the premise that “Foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts” and several other premises which flow from this first one.

Pollan argues that because we can’t see nutrients, in the nutritionist view, “it falls to scientists…to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. In form this is a quasireligious idea, suggesting the visible world is not the one that really matters, which implies the need for a priesthood.” The references to religion are a bit odd, given that Pollan will later take nutrition science to task for changing its mind. More importantly, though, the need for expert help doesn’t arise so much from the focus on nutrients as the decision to care about the health consequences of our dietary choices. If I wanted to know whether white rice or brown rice would make for a healthier meal, I suppose I could get all my friends together, assign half of them to eat white rice and half to eat brown rice and then record their health outcomes over the course of the next few years. No experts required! Of course, that would take a long time, I’d probably have a pretty small sample size, and people would stop being friends with me. So I’d prefer to direct the question to the “priesthood,” even though I’d be thinking about foods, which (unlike nutrients) I can see.

Another assumption of nutritionism, he explains, is “that the whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health.” Perhaps this follows if we interpret his definition of nutritionism in the most literal sense, but I would bet that only a tiny minority of people who think about nutrition in terms of nutrients actually believe that we can understand everything there is to know about a food by studying its constituent nutrients. Some might believe that we can understand the relationship between diet and disease in terms of the nutrients, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also see a place for less healthful foods in the diet now and then, perhaps for reasons of culture or pleasure.

Pollan further argues, “It follows from the premise that food is foremost about physical health that the nutrients in food should be divided into the healthy ones and the unhealthy ones–good nutrients and bad.” This is another consequence that doesn’t really follow. Though Pollan has criticized the campaign to reduce fat intake, you’d be hard-pressed to find a nutrition researcher or dietitian who didn’t understand that some amount of dietary fat is essential. The Manichaean view, then, is more a product of a lack of attention to nuance than to the ideology of nutritionism itself.

And Pollan, of course, will sound every bit as Manichaean as any supporter of nutritionism when he contrasts fresh and processed foods. Indeed, in the same chapter, he argues that “the most troubling feature of nutritionism” is that it does not allow for “any qualitative distinction between whole foods and processed foods.” Quoting Gyorgy Scrinis, he argues that in the nutritionist view, “even processed foods may be considered to be ‘healthier’ for you than whole foods if they contain the appropriate quantities of some nutrients.”

To find this idea troubling, one has to take a position that is perhaps more radical than it might sound. One has to reject, for instance, the idea that iodized salt has played an important role in reducing brain damage in infants (or, I suppose, one could reject the idea that brain damage is unhealthy). Elsewhere, David Julian McClements, César Vega, Anne E. McBride, and Eric Andrew Decker have argued that fortification of flour has played a critical role in reducing deaths due to pellagra. To be sure, there are ways to process food that are less benign, but if Scrinis and Pollan want us to believe that processed foods cannot be healthier than whole foods under any circumstances, then they need to be able to answer to these examples.

By the end of the chapter, nutritionism has become something so big and bad that it seems to encompass just about everything that’s wrong with our way of eating. Now the time is ripe for Pollan to save us from this ideology which threatens not just our health but pleasure, common sense, and even food itself.

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