If you’re interested in food politics, you’ve got to check out Michael Pollan’s book review in The New York Review of Books titled, “The Food Movement, Rising” and linked here.
The books under review:
- Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal: War Stories From the Local Food Front
- All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?
- Eating Animals
- Terra Madre: Forging a New Global Network of Sustainable Food Communities
- The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society
Pollan’s prose weaves in reviews of the books with a natural discussion of the food movement’s history and evolution and how, at this very moment in time, food politics is at the center of national debate (which is AWESOME). I’ve culled some of the quotes I found most interesting and what I found to be his key points:
- How did the Food Movement Get Here? In the 70′s, at a time of questionable agricultural practices and food cost inflation, key books like Diet for a Small Planet, and others, threatened to bring food politics to the center of national debate. The government was able, at the prompting of Nixon, to bring food prices down, to make food issues “disappear” in the sheer ubiquity of food: the govt. shifted focus from “supporting prices for farmers” to focus on high yield crops, which created cheap and ever-present food.
- Why this had hidden costs: “…although cheap food is good politics, it turns out there are significant costs—to the environment, to public health, to the public purse, even to the culture—and as these became impossible to ignore in recent years, food has come back into view.”
- What happened next. The 80s and 90s contained many highly publicized examples of these costs — e.coli break-outs, mad cow disease and a general bewilderment at the thought of seeing what was indeed behind the metaphorical curtain of our food production.
- How multinationals hijacked the ability to afford healthful food. “…companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s pay their workers so poorly that they can afford only the cheap, low-quality food these companies sell, creating a kind of nonvirtuous circle driving down both wages and the quality of food. The advent of fast food (and cheap food in general) has, in effect, subsidized the decline of family incomes in America.” (My note: See books like Fast Food Nation, Nickel and Dimed, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition, and Health, Revised and Expanded Edition (California Studies in Food and Culture))
- Defining the food movements. “Cheap food has become an indispensable pillar of the modern economy. But it is no longer an invisible or uncontested one. One of the most interesting social movements to emerge in the last few years is the ‘food movement,’ or perhaps I should say ‘movements,’ since it is unified as yet by little more than the recognition that industrial food production is in need of reform because its social/environmental/public health/animal welfare/gastronomic costs are too high. As that list suggests, the critics are coming at the issue from a great many different directions. Where many social movements tend to splinter as time goes on, breaking into various factions representing divergent concerns or tactics, the food movement starts out splintered. Among the many threads of advocacy that can be lumped together under that rubric we can include school lunch reform; the campaign for animal rights and welfare; the campaign against genetically modified crops; the rise of organic and locally produced food; efforts to combat obesity and type 2 diabetes; ‘food sovereignty’ (the principle that nations should be allowed to decide their agricultural policies rather than submit to free trade regimes); farm bill reform; food safety regulation; farmland preservation; student organizing around food issues on campus; efforts to promote urban agriculture and ensure that communities have access to healthy food; initiatives to create gardens and cooking classes in schools; farm worker rights; nutrition labeling; feedlot pollution; and the various efforts to regulate food ingredients and marketing, especially to kids.”
- We’re at our Breaking Point. “Viewed from a middle distance, then, the food movement coalesces around the recognition that today’s food and farming economy is ‘unsustainable’—that it can’t go on in its current form much longer without courting a breakdown of some kind, whether environmental, economic, or both.”
- Feeling the Food Movement in your Gut. “But perhaps the food movement’s strongest claim on public attention today is the fact that the American diet of highly processed food laced with added fats and sugars is responsible for the epidemic of chronic diseases that threatens to bankrupt the health care system.”
- Politics under President Obama and Michelle Obama might be paving the way to better health. “The political ground is shifting [my note: see Michelle Obama here], and the passage of health care reform may accelerate that movement. The bill itself contains a few provisions long promoted by the food movement (like calorie labeling on fast food menus), but more important could be the new political tendencies it sets in motion. If health insurers can no longer keep people with chronic diseases out of their patient pools, it stands to reason that the companies will develop a keener interest in preventing those diseases. They will then discover that they have a large stake in things like soda taxes and in precisely which kinds of calories the farm bill is subsidizing. As the insurance industry and the government take on more responsibility for the cost of treating expensive and largely preventable problems like obesity and type 2 diabetes, pressure for reform of the food system, and the American diet, can be expected to increase.”
- Monopolization of our Food is something to Fear. “Speaking in March at an Iowa ‘listening session’ about agribusiness concentration, Holder said, ‘long periods of reckless deregulation have restricted competition’ in agriculture. Indeed: four companies (JBS/Swift, Tyson, Cargill, and National Beef Packers) slaughter 85 percent of US beef cattle; two companies (Monsanto and DuPont) sell more than 50 percent of US corn seed; one company (Dean Foods) controls 40 percent of the US milk supply.’”
- When Food is More than Food. “The modern marketplace would have us decide what to buy strictly on the basis of price and self-interest; the food movement implicitly proposes that we enlarge our understanding of both those terms, suggesting that not just ‘good value’ but ethical and political values should inform our buying decisions, and that we’ll get more satisfaction from our eating when they do. That satisfaction helps to explain why many in the movement don’t greet the spectacle of large corporations adopting its goals, as some of them have begun to do, with unalloyed enthusiasm.”
- Where the Food Movement Hits Home. “Part of the movement’s critique of industrial food is that, with the rise of fast food and the collapse of everyday cooking, it has damaged family life and community by undermining the institution of the shared meal. Sad as it may be to bowl alone, eating alone can be sadder still, not least because it is eroding the civility on which our political culture depends.”
Is that not some amazing food for thought? And, since I forgot to congratulate him earlier, I’d like to link to the Time Magazine spread that featured Mr. Pollan himself as one of the thinkers who most affect our world (linked here).
The Cranky One
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