aTypical Joe: a gay New Yorker living in the rural South
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
Michael Pollan @ Google
You know the drill by now, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Watch for the Q&A.
Via Boing Boing
Saturday, April 05, 2008
The good news on food prices spreads
I’m fascinated to see the Dallas Morning News editorialize on the upside of high food prices. Recognizing that it means a healthier overall system, the editorial explains:
Prices for locally grown produce and locally raised (usually grass-fed) meat are becoming more economically competitive with factory-farmed rivals. Typically, consumers who buy meat and produce directly from local farmers do so because of taste and health â€“ and are willing to pay a premium. Now, though, best-selling food writer Michael Pollan tells The New York Times that higher bills for conventionally raised staples “level the playing field for sustainable food that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels.”
Mr. Pollan and other local food advocates argue that cheap petroleum and government subsidies have a profoundly distorting effect on the American diet and food system. These factors, they say, make food that is less healthy for us the easiest to afford. What’s more, they encourage an industrial agricultural system that dramatically stresses the environment. Their case is compelling.
It’s hard to dispute that creating a larger and stronger network of small farms that provide food for the local market is wise, given that the era of cheap oil is likely gone for good. Dallas consumers would be in a better position to weather future fuel price spikes if our food supply was less vulnerable to the oil market.
Nobody likes to see higher food prices. But if they unleash market forces that spur healthier eating and growth of a regionally self-sufficient style of farming, something good will have come out of our collective supermarket misery.
Pollan’s quote comes from this article in the Dining section of Wednesday’s NYTimes.
Friday, March 28, 2008
Dinner @ NOLA
Like a whirlwind, Emeril Lagasse has taken New Orleans dining to new levels ......... with his fresh adaptations of classic Creole cuisine.
Nola established its identity as a funky, informal restaurant whose menu features the fresh adaptations of New Orleans Creole and Acadian Cajun for which Lagasse is renowned.
A relaxed atmosphere and the signature personal attention of Lagasse’s staff lure his local following in the French Quarter. Nola’s location, innovative menu and personable service make visitors and locals alike feel at home.
Our hosts are apparently regulars so we were treated like royalty. Wine, appetizers, and dessert just appeared—and kept coming. A heavenly treat!
Friday, March 07, 2008
General Tso in China: known for war not chicken
Oh the things we learn on Colbert.... In China there is no General Tso’s Chicken!
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
Michelle Obama’s a natural
Lauren Collins has an 8,500 word profile of Michelle Obama in The New Yorker this week. I choose to highlight the food quote that would make Michael Pollan smile:
One morning, during a roundtable at Ma Fischer’s, a diner in Milwaukee, Elizabeth Crawford, a recently divorced caterer with two children, brought up the subject of the eating habits of American families. “I really, really hope that Barack will jump on that,” she said.
Then, having given thoughtful but boilerplate responses most of the morning, Obama suddenly departed from her script. It was the most animated I saw her on the campaign trail. “You know,” she said, “in my household, over the last year we have just shifted to organic for this very reason. I mean, I saw just a moment in my nine-year-old’s life-we have a good pediatrician, who is very focussed on childhood obesity, and there was a period where he was, like, â€˜Mmm, she’s tipping the scale.’ So we started looking through our cabinets. . . . You know, you’ve got fast food on Saturday, a couple days a week you don’t get home. The leftovers, good, not the third day! . . . So that whole notion of cooking on Sunday is out. . . . And the notion of trying to think about a lunch every day! . . . So you grab the Lunchables, right? And the fruit-juice-box thing, and we think-we think-that’s juice. And you start reading the labels and you realize there’s high-fructose corn syrup in everything we’re eating. Every jelly, every juice. Everything that’s in a bottle or a package is like poison in a way that most people don’t even know. . . . Now we’re keeping, like, a bowl of fresh fruit in the house. But you have to go to the fruit stand a couple of times a week to keep that fruit fresh enough that a six-year-old-she’s not gonna eat the pruney grape, you know. At that point it’s, like, â€˜Eww!‘ She’s not gonna eat the brown banana or the shrivelledy-up things. It’s got to be fresh for them to want it. Who’s got time to go to the fruit stand? Who can afford it, first of all?”
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Pollan & Mackey on The Future of Food
Why on earth would 2,000 people turn out on a rainy, blustery evening to hear a conversation between a reporter and a grocer? asked the former of the latter at a sold-out Zellerbach Hall Tuesday night (Feb. 27).
The answer has two parts. The speakers were not just any reporter or grocer, but Michael Pollan, best-selling science writer and UC Berkeley Knight Professor of Journalism, and John Mackey, founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, the world’s largest natural-foods grocery chain. And they have been carrying on a dialogue of sorts about the future of organic food ever since the publication last April of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Pollan’s investigation into the U.S. food chain.
In a chapter titled “Big Organic,” Pollan wrote “a few slightly unflattering things” about Whole Foods, he told the Berkeley audience - somewhat of an understatement.
Stung by Pollan’s criticism, Mackey replied with a 25-page, single-spaced letter, kicking off an exchange of messages posted online.
Pollan invited Mackey to come to Berkeley to continue the conversation in public. To which Mackey replied, in effect, “How crazy do you think I am?” recalled Pollan, alluding to Berkeley’s notoriously opinionated, anti-corporate contingent of “foodies.” But in the end Mackey agreed, which Pollan said showed a “willingness to engage with his critics [that] sets him apart from just about every other CEO.”
I started watching the two-hour webcast this morning. I’ll finish up tonight.
Monday, February 25, 2008
The future for Tuna is bleak
How ironic is that after waxing poetic about buying a cow and going on about confusing morality and science I go with our German visitors for their first ever experience with sushi right here in rural Georgia.
They came all the way from Germany to have sushi here? What about Bar-B-Q, collard greens and back-eyed-peas? We got that, too. But downtown these days we eat sushi.
From 60 Minutes last month:
[T]he Japanese have turned it into a multi-billion dollar international business. For them, tuna is an object of reverence, particularly when it comes to bluefin tuna, which they call the “king of sushi.” [...]
In the 1990’s a new vessel started fishing for tuna in the Mediterranean. It was called a “purse seiner” and it brought on a revolution in tuna fishing. Each of the vessels could encircle and trap some 3,000 bluefin in one go.
Before long, there were more 300 purse seiners working there and the new method proved so efficient that it made the mattanza look like some old relic left over from the Middle Ages.
It is high-tech fishing on an industrial scale. The purse seiners prowl the Mediterranean’s spawning grounds, waiting for word from spotter planes that are patrolling overhead. When schools of bluefin come to the surface, the planes relay the coordinates to the purse seiners, who then rush to encircle them.
The future for the poor Tuna is bleak:
These days, Roberto Mielgo spends his time tracking fishing boats and monitoring catches. And he’s found that the international quotas which limit tuna fishing are not being enforced. And those spotter planes? They’re officially banned, but are still hunting tuna. Illegal fishing is rampant.
“And if this trend continues?” Simon asks.
“All I can say, is that if we carry on like this, we are bound to catastrophe. I mean, it’s as simple as that. No more fish. No more industry. No more culture,” Mielgo predicts.
And no more mattanza. This may well be the last year that the weary fishermen of Carloforte raise their flag, telling their village that they’ve had a catch. The future of fishing in the Mediterranean is no longer in their hands - it’s in the hands of large fishing fleets, who are in a race to catch the last tuna.
I’ll get to farm-grown salmon in another post.
For a business school take (gag me with a spoon!) on this very same situation, here’s a fun excerpt from a Knowledge@Wharton review of Sasha Issenberg’s ode to globalization, The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy:
Sunday, February 24, 2008
How to avoid meat from factory farms
As you may have already read, yesterday I brought home half a cow (or, what has become, at this point, a side of beef).
I was lucky in that I got to meet and know the farmer, pick out the calf when he was young, then visit and watch him grow. This is grainy cellphone video of Doug hand-feeding him grass, and here are photos of our Italian Greyhounds who, oddly enough, enjoyed frolicking with the cattle.
We weren’t precisely inspired to do this by Michael Pollan—a set of fortuitous circumstances has it that in this small town I work with both the neighbor of the farmer and the live-in girlfriend of the owner of the abattoir—but Pollan’s writing has informed us all along the way.
I’ve written a lot on industrial meat production, and it’s very interesting to see how people react. Some people react by saying, “That’s it, I can’t eat meat anymore.” Other people look at this and they put it in a box. They don’t make the emotional connection between their 99-cent double cheeseburger and this process that we’ve seen in [last week’s Humane Society video depicting needless machine-like cruelty at slaughterhouses]. Still other people decide they want to still eat meat, but they want to eat meat they feel good about. They want alternatives. Luckily for us, there are some really good ones. There is meat produced in small batches, from ranchers that keep their animals not in feedlots standing in their own manure but in pastureland. They are slaughtered in small plants, just a few head a day.
He says even at farmers’ markets the only way to know for sure is to visit or to ask:
I think if you find meat at the farmers’ market, and it’s grass-fed meat, you are going to meet the rancher there and ask him. Ultimately, that’s the only real assurance: talk to the person who has raised the meat. I don’t know that natural or organic meat necessarily offers you any assurance that the slaughterhouse is humane. I think you really have to look at smaller slaughterhouses. It does tend to be more expensive, but you get what you pay for… Another thing people who are buying hamburger can do is buy hamburger from places that are grinding it themselves. You can go to your butcher or your supermarket and ask whether they are grinding the meat or buying it ground. If you are buying hamburger from someone who is grinding it themselves, it will [probably] come from just one animal, and that will lower the risk considerably.
SEE ALSO: A call for glass walls.
Saturday, February 23, 2008
On humanely killed animals
Not that I’m calling you out, but when you write “humanely killed”, um, what?
Well, while it seems abundantly clear to me, I completely understand that it’s certainly not to others (and for some, it never will be).
I think it’s noteworthy that this week we had the largest meat recall in U.S. history. The recall came as a result of a Humane Society video that caught what the USDA later called “egregious violations” of federal animal care regulations.
Here’s an interview with the CEO of The Humane Society on why this video captured the media’s attention when so many of their others do not (among the reasons, it wasn’t too awful to watch). Here’s an LATimes story on the man who shot the video.
For specifics, Temple Grandin has written on redesigning slaughterhouses to make them more humane. I assume my commenter will get the point that if we are going to kill animals for food, it should be done as humanely as possible.
But I gather his real point is to ask, should we be killing animals for food at all? For the moment it is clear where I come down on that question, though I may one day, still, become a vegetarian. It is indeed a very enlightening exercise to look the animal in the eye that you will one day eat. In that I have, in my way, followed Michael Pollan. This from his 2002 NYTimes Magazine piece, An Animal’s Place:
Except for our pets, real animals-animals living and dying-no longer figure in our everyday lives. Meat comes from the grocery store, where it is cut and packaged to look as little like parts of animals as possible. The disappearance of animals from our lives has opened a space in which there’s no reality check, either on the sentiment or the brutality. Several years ago, the English critic John Berger wrote an essay, â€˜’Why Look at Animals?’’ in which he suggested that the loss of everyday contact between ourselves and animals-and specifically the loss of eye contact-has left us deeply confused about the terms of our relationship to other species. That eye contact, always slightly uncanny, had provided a vivid daily reminder that animals were at once crucially like and unlike us; in their eyes we glimpsed something unmistakably familiar (pain, fear, tenderness) and something irretrievably alien. Upon this paradox people built a relationship in which they felt they could both honor and eat animals without looking away.
I don’t know that this one paragraph can capture it, but it can begin to suggest the idea, I think, that there may be an ethical construct for eating animals. From page 325:
To give up eating animals is to give up on these places as human habitat, unless of course we are willing to make complete our dependence on a highly industrialized national food chain. That food chain would be in turn even more dependent than it already is on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizer, since food would need to travel even farther and fertility - in the form of manures - would be in short supply. Indeed, it is doubtful you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production. If our concern is for the health of nature - rather than, say, the internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of our souls - then eating animals may sometimes be the most ethical thing to do.
Whether ethical or not, most Americans today—if not most of the people on the planet—eat living creatures. I’d like to see us improve the living standards of those creatures. And when the time comes, I’d like to give them, too, a more humane death.
SEE ALSO: How to avoid meat from factory farms.
#12: The cow’s come home
Just home from the abattoir, the cow’s in the trunk (frozen). Our dog, Baci, checks it out.
Last winter we had gone out to the pastuer and picked out the calf, #12. Last year we went in with three couples on a half cow; this time around the three couples bought a whole cow. We took half.
292.5 pounds of beef. $757.89. That’s $2.59 per pound.
Here’s the breakdown:
9 Large (huge!) sirloins
18 Rib steaks
2 sirloin tip roasts
5 chuck roasts
4 rump roasts
3 beef ribs (Doug doesn’t like them so most were ground up, the few we got are for the dogs)
390 burgers in patties (quarter pounders at least, I paid extra to have them made into patties)
9 boneless stew (packages of cut up meat for skewers on the grill, I’m thinking a package is good for 2 or 3 people)
Now, if that seems like a lot to you (and it does to most folks) let me just say that if it were to be eaten just by us, it would come to 1.87 pounds per week per person. BUT… it won’t be eaten just by us. We have people over. Often. And lots of them.
Further, this is grass fed, humanely raised and humanely killed, anti-biotic-free and un-processed meat. So, for example, where once we might have had a salt-laden highly-processed luncheon meat, now we will have a burger.
We had gone through last year’s sixth of a cow in four months and now we have my
big eatin’ super-buff nephew living with us. I’m guessing he and his friends will help us finish this new cow off in no time…
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Pollan: Don’t blame the workers
In another interview, this one from Newsweek, Michael Pollan says it’s not the workers who are to blame for the horrific conditions exposed in that Humane Society video of the Hallmark Meat Packing slaughterhouse in Chino, CA., that triggered the largest meat recall in U.S. history.
Pollan aims his criticism at the mass-production system of slaughter, which produces mistakes along with millions of pounds of beef:
NEWSWEEK: What are the dangers posed by letting downer cattle enter the food supply?
Michael Pollan: They are prohibited out of concern for mad cow disease. Cows with BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy], as it is officially known, lose the ability to walk, so as one of the several precautions we took, we decided no downers [should enter] the food supply, and we also changed the feed of the animals and decided no meat could be taken from near the spinal column or brain material. But the other thing to be alert to is that downer cows can be sick for other reasons. Whatever the risk, do you want to be eating meat from sick cows?
What is the economic problem?
The industry is eager to turn all cows into hamburger, basically, and they don’t want to exclude anything. I’ve never witnessed what we saw in that video, but we are dealing with production lines that are incredibly fast. In a modern American slaughter plant, as I understand this one was, they slaughter 400 head an hour. What is that, seven per minute? Anything that slows down production is a problem. If an animal falls, he or she slows down the line. The workers are told to keep that supply coming â€¦ Temple Grandin, [who] has written on redesigning slaughterhouses to make them more humane, has written essays on the dehumanization of slaughterhouse workers. You work that long in the presence of death, you get desensitized. You don’t see animals; you see production units and quotas.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association says it is rare for slaughterhouse workers to behave like this. The Humane Society, which says it targeted this plant at random, says it’s typical. How is a consumer supposed to navigate these opposing viewpoints?
I don’t know the answer to that. I find it really hard to believe it’s typical. But how much of this behavior is tolerable? There are rules. McDonald’s has rules that they tolerate a 5 percent error rate on the use of the captive bolt gun that slaughters the animals. That means 20 animals an hours are subjected to an imperfect kill, which is to say that they are subjected to a terrifying and brutal process. Is that typical? No, it’s only 5 percent. But that’s a lot when you are talking about this many animals. To see those images and think this is how our lunch is getting produced-if not every day, then sometimes-is very disturbing. It’s one of those episodes that peels back the curtain on how our food is prepared.
RELATED: From The Sacramento Bee, The Humane Society Shows it’s Tough Side in Beef Recall.
The roots of our nutrient fixation
Onnesha Roychoudhuri has an interview with Michael Pollan up on AlterNet. Here Pollan explains how we became fixated on nutrients:
In 1977, Sen. McGovern, who had convened this select committee on nutrition, was looking at why there was so much heart disease post-WWII. The thinking then was that people were eating too much animal protein. So his initial recommendation, quite plain-spoken, was to eat less red meat. Turns out the industry would not let the government say “eat less” of any particular food, so there was a firestorm of criticism. He was forced to compromise on that language. He changed it in a way that would prove quite fateful in many ways. He changed “eat less red meat” to “choose meats that will reduce your saturated fat intake.”
There are a couple noteworthy things about that. One is it’s a lot less clear and a lot of people aren’t going to understand it, which certainly suits the food industry. The other is, it’s affirmative. It’s saying “choose meats.” In other words, eat more of something that will have less of the bad nutrient—saturated fat. We’re no longer talking about eating more or less of a particular food; we’re saying eat more or less of a particular nutrient. That became the acceptable way for everyone to talk about food. It didn’t offend the food industry because they could always change their products to have more of the good nutrient, less of the bad. And I think it was very confusing to people: Foods are not merely the sum of their nutrient parts.
Monday, February 18, 2008
Largest Meat Recall in U.S. History
Under-reported and taken in stride, I’ll be interested to learn more. WaPo:
The Agriculture Department has ordered the largest meat recall in its history—143 million pounds of beef, a California meatpacker’s entire production for the past two years—because the company did not prevent ailing animals from entering the U.S. food supply, officials said yesterday.
Despite the breadth of the sanction, USDA officials underscored their belief that the meat, distributed by Westland Meat, poses little or no hazard to consumers, and that most of it was eaten long ago.
Uh, that’s good news???
The recall comes less than three weeks after the release of a videotape showing what the USDA later called “egregious violations” of federal animal care regulations by employees of a Westland partner, Hallmark Meat Packing in Chino.
For now I’ll say this…
I think we’ve come to understand that if a child is abusive to harmless animals it is indicative of problems likely to emerge in adulthood. It would not surprise us to learn later that the child grew into an abusive adult, say, or a criminal type.
What does it indicate of our modern civilization that we so wantonly treat the animals we eat with a callous and needless machine-like cruelty? I don’t think it says anything good. And I think that’s why the food industry does everything in its power to hide its practices from the American public.
If we knew what they did, we would not stand for it. We must open our eyes.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
The silence of the yams
I was glad to hear Michael Pollan do a commentary on Marketplace last night:
[T]he more processed the food, the less nutritious it typically is. Yet it’s the processed food makers who have the marketing budgets to do the research to support the health claims and then shout them from the rooftops. That’s not the same as actually being healthy. A scientist can find a crucial nutrient in any edible he or she is paid to study. And there isn’t a plant under the sun that doesn’t contain an antioxidant or two.
But here’s the thing. As everybody knows—or used to know before the proliferation of health claims confused us all—the hands-down healthiest foods in the supermarket are the unprocessed vegetables and fruits and whole grains. These foods sit silently in the produce section or the bulk-food bins. They don’t utter a word about their antioxidants or heart-healthiness, while just a few aisles over the sugary cereals scream about their heart-healthy “whole grain goodness.”
So next time you’re in the produce aisle, don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign they have nothing important to say about your health. They do. They just don’t have the money needed to say it.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Picking on scabs. And authors’ quandry.
Mark Evanier in the New Republic tells us all about scabs:
Jack London once wrote, “Judas was a traitor to his God, Benedict Arnold was a traitor to his country, a scab is a traitor to his God, his country, his family and his class.” That is among the nicer things that some have said about those who opt to work in defiance of a strike. As the Writers Guild strike enters its third month, with no future negotiations between the studios and the guild scheduled, and events like the Golden Globes’ awards show freshly cancelled, these ignoble souls have been given more opportunities to cross picket lines. But who are they? From beneath what rock do they scuttle? And what, if any, impact will they have on the strike? [READ ON]
For authors it’s a question of solidarity or sales. Andrew Sullivan went on to flack an article. Michael Pollan cancelled.
For authors, this week’s return of the Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is a case of good news/bad news. The good news is that authors once again have a shot at appearing on two of the most effective book publicity outlets on TV. The bad news-especially for the kind of left-leaning nonfiction authors likely to find a receptive audience on these shows-is that they’d have to cross a picket line of fellow writers.
Authors are split on whether to go on the shows, which started airing new shows on Monday without their writers after a two-month hiatus because of the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike. The striking writers have been picketing outside the Comedy Central studios in Manhattan since Nov. 5.
Michael Pollan cancelled a long-planned appearance on Colbert Tuesday to discuss In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, “because he didn’t want to cross the picket line,” said Penguin publicist, Sarah Hutson.
And Al Franken? “I would never cross that picket line. Not even for Colbert.”
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
Michael Pollan on Colbert tonight
I’ll be tuning in at 11:30. In the meantime, a couple recent reviews of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.
Pollan’s vigorous assault on nutritionism is based largely on looking at its dismal record over the last three decades. As the public and media focus more on nutrition, and as health claims proliferate on every supermarket shelf, we’re getting fatter and less healthy as a nation. Pollan spends much of his gripping narrative eviscerating the research methods of nutrition science, describing not only how this research consistently supports the agenda of the food industry but also how its methods of gathering scientific data are deeply flawed. Contradictory nutrition advice abounds. It’s not some “evil” nutrient that’s hurting our health, Pollan says, but the entire Western diet of processed and refined food-like products.
The smart thing to do, he thinks, is stay away from any food that trumpets its nutritional virtues, since “for a food product to make health claims on its package it must first have a package, so right off the bat it’s more likely to be a processed than a whole food.” Meanwhile, “the genuinely heart-healthy whole foods in the produce section, lacking the financial and political clout of the packaged goods a few aisles over, are mute.” (I’m sorry to have to add that he describes this situation as “the silence of the yams.") [...]
Take refined flour-which, like everybody else, I’ve been hearing since my hippie days is bad for you. Pollan lays out the reasons. Wheat was once ground between stone wheels, which successfully removed the bran from the kernel but couldn’t get rid of the germ, or embryo. The resulting yellowish-gray flour was rich in all kinds of nutrients; the downside was that it soon went rancid. The introduction of metal and porcelain rollers circa 1870 allowed millers to finally eliminate the germ and grind the grains down to the snowy powder we know today, extending their shelf life-"precisely because they are less nutritious to the pests that compete with us for their calories.” But not only is the resulting product nutritionally all but worthless; the removal of fiber and the finer milling also hasten the body’s conversion of the starch into sugar, making it “the first fast food.”
CORRECTION: Apparently my info was wrong. No Pollan on Colbert.
LATER: He refused to cross the picket line. Bravo!
Monday, January 07, 2008
“Vegangelical” I’d heard before. But where did “Retrovore” come from?
A Texan farmer by the name of Loncito coined this one, according to my fellow Kossack Jill Richardson (aka OrangeClouds115) who was chatting with Loncito and his son at an Austin farmers’ market. As Jill wrote in a dairy on Daily Kos yesterday, the son told his father "Dad, if you didn't raise animals the way you do, I'd probably be a vegan."
Loncito agreed that he probably would be, too. And that, Jill wrote, is when “they came up with the term "retrovore"-"one who eats food that was raised the way it should have been raised… like they used to do it before they learned how to ruin it.”
This word dovetails nicely with Michael Pollan’s edict "Don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." According to NPR’s Liane Hanson, “2008 will be the year of ethical eating; vegetarian and locally produced food will grace more tables; wines will be more than organic, they’ll be biodynamic; there will be servings of micro-greens you grow yourselfâ€¦” In other words, more of us will be breaking free from the conventional food chain and getting back to the garden. I guess it’s too early to nominate “retrovore” for 2008’s Word of the Year, but I thought I’d give it a running start. Better not look to the vegangelicals to help me spread the grass-fed gospel, though.
Retrovore would get my vote. I’m about to buy my second cow (pictured above). This one I’ve known since it was a young calf; the first one is chronicled here.
Saturday, December 22, 2007
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
The book follows up on last year’s New York Times Magazine piece, Unhappy Meals. In it he discussed how we’ve moved from a “food culture” to a “food science.” Once we received our guidance on what to eat from national, ethnic or regional cultures ("culture is really just a fancy word for Mom"). Today…
The sheer novelty and glamour of the Western diet, with its 17,000 new food products introduced every year, and the marketing muscle used to sell these products, has overwhelmed the force of tradition and left us where we now find ourselves: relying on science and journalism and marketing to help us decide questions about what to eat. Nutritionism, which arose to help us better deal with the problems of the Western diet, has largely been co-opted by it, used by the industry to sell more food and to undermine the authority of traditional ways of eating. You would not have read this far into this article if your food culture were intact and healthy; you would simply eat the way your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents taught you to eat. The question is, Are we better off with these new authorities than we were with the traditional authorities they supplanted? The answer by now should be clear.
It might be argued that, at this point in history, we should simply accept that fast food is our food culture. Over time, people will get used to eating this way and our health will improve. But for natural selection to help populations adapt to the Western diet, we’d have to be prepared to let those whom it sickens die. That’s not what we’re doing. Rather, we’re turning to the health-care industry to help us “adapt.” Medicine is learning how to keep alive the people whom the Western diet is making sick. It’s gotten good at extending the lives of people with heart disease, and now it’s working on obesity and diabetes. Capitalism is itself marvelously adaptive, able to turn the problems it creates into lucrative business opportunities: diet pills, heart-bypass operations, insulin pumps, bariatric surgery. But while fast food may be good business for the health-care industry, surely the cost to society - estimated at more than $200 billion a year in diet-related health-care costs - is unsustainable.
What to do? He opened his essay with a simple rule, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He closes with an elaboration:
...Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food… Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims… (The American Heart Association charges food makers for their endorsement.)… Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number… Get out of the supermarket whenever possible… Pay more, eat less… Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation… Eat mostly plants, especially leaves… eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture… Cook. And if you can, plant a garden… Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet.
The book is high up on my Christmas list…
Friday, December 21, 2007
Reuters: Top health issues of 2008
I think their headline is wrong. Or all of the top health issues they foresee in the year ahead are food issues. Here are 2 of the 8:
4. What’s Natural?
Rules for the labeling of organically grown meat are pretty strict in the United States, but when it comes to naturally raised, it’s something of a free-for-all.
As things stand, meat or poultry with a “natural” label must be minimally processed and mean what the marketer says it does. But nobody is really checking, and there is some debate over what constitutes “minimally processed”. Should injecting chicken with sodium solution or binding agents take away its natural status, for example? What about treating red meat with carbon monoxide in order to make it look fresher? The FDA will attempt to settle these and other questions in 2008 as it reviews the use of the “natural” label for fresh meat. The public comment period on the review ends Jan. 28. [...]
8. Fixing the FDA/USDA
It pointed to hand-written safety inspection reports, food plant inspections occurring as infrequently as once a decade and a full-time pet-food safety staff of two as signs of a widespread, serious problem at the federal agency in charge of regulating 80 percent of the food sold in the United States, as well as cosmetics, drugs, vaccines and medical devices—the products the agency oversees account for about a quarter of every consumer dollar spent by Americans, the FDA says. The agency has seen its responsibilities increase as its budget decreased, and the globalization of food has changed the playing field and added new concerns to its long list. To hear that the FDA is in trouble likely comes as little surprise: between contaminated pet food, meat recalls, warnings on the popular diabetes drug Avandia and accusations of politically motivated appointments, the agency has had a bad year in the court of public opinion. What remains to be seen for the year to come is whether the FDA will get the money it says it needs to fix itself—and if that will be enough to do the job.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Polyface Pigs (reprise)
Last summer we visited Polyface Farms. This is how pigs should live…
Sustainable’s not just another word for nothing left to lose
I know there are still skeptics - we’ve got plenty of them around here - but it seems we’ve reached something of a global consensus that global warming is a real and man-made phenomena.
So now I’m wondering, in a similar vein, how long is it going to take us to believe that pumping animals full of antibiotics is the way to grow super-killer-bugs?
Michael Pollan had a piece, Our Decrepit Food Factories, in the NYTimes Magazine Sunday. In it he tells two stories:
The first story is about MRSA, the very scary antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus bacteria that is now killing more Americans each year than AIDS - 100,000 infections leading to 19,000 deaths in 2005, according to estimates in The Journal of the American Medical Association. For years now, drug-resistant staph infections have been a problem in hospitals, where the heavy use of antibiotics can create resistant strains of bacteria. It’s Evolution 101: the drugs kill off all but the tiny handful of microbes that, by dint of a chance mutation, possess genes allowing them to withstand the onslaught; these hardy survivors then get to work building a drug-resistant superrace. The methicillin-resistant staph that first emerged in hospitals as early as the 1960s posed a threat mostly to elderly patients. But a new and even more virulent strain - called “community-acquired MRSA” - is now killing young and otherwise healthy people who have not set foot in a hospital. No one is yet sure how or where this strain evolved, but it is sufficiently different from the hospital-bred strains to have some researchers looking elsewhere for its origin, to another environment where the heavy use of antibiotics is selecting for the evolution of a lethal new microbe: the concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO.
The second story looks at Colony Collapse Disorder in bees:
In 2005 the demand for honeybees in California had so far outstripped supply that the U.S.D.A. approved the importation of bees from Australia. These bees get off a 747 at SFO and travel by truck to the Central Valley, where they get to work pollinating almond flowers - and mingling with bees arriving from every corner of America. As one beekeeper put it to Singeli Agnew in The San Francisco Chronicle, California’s almond orchards have become “one big brothel” - a place where each February bees swap microbes and parasites from all over the country and the world before returning home bearing whatever pathogens they may have picked up. Add to this their routine exposure to agricultural pesticides and you have a bee population ripe for an epidemic national in scope.
I imagine Pollan’s AIDS reference in that first story to be purposeful. I was at ground zero for the AIDS epidemic and read Randy Shiltz’s 1987 book, And The Band Played On, in which he describes a so-called Patient Zero, a gay flight attendant who had sex with men around the globe and was, for a time, considered by some to be the original source of the HIV epidemic among gay men.
While that’s no longer a credible theory, they do still say that HIV came to the US ”probably via a single person.” Now one of the things I thought then, back when everyone around me was dying, was that if anything good was going to come of this it would be that we were going to see huge leaps forward in medical research and our scientific understanding.
What I’m seeing in the case of those bees is that, instead, we act as if we’ve learned nothing and have to start all over again from scratch!
Pollan starts his piece by noting that “sustainability” is the word of the moment, but he wonders if we haven’t succeeded in defining sustainability down:
To call a practice or system unsustainable is not just to lodge an objection based on aesthetics, say, or fairness or some ideal of environmental rectitude. What it means is that the practice or process can’t go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends. It means that, as the Marxists used to say, there are internal contradictions that sooner or later will lead to a breakdown. [...]
We’re asking a lot of our bees. We’re asking a lot of our pigs too. That seems to be a hallmark of industrial agriculture: to maximize production and keep food as cheap as possible, it pushes natural systems and organisms to their limit, asking them to function as efficiently as machines. When the inevitable problems crop up - when bees or pigs remind us they are not machines - the system can be ingenious in finding “solutions,” whether in the form of antibiotics to keep pigs healthy or foreign bees to help pollinate the almonds. But this year’s solutions have a way of becoming next year’s problems. That is to say, they aren’t “sustainable.”
From this perspective, the story of Colony Collapse Disorder and the story of drug-resistant staph are the same story. Both are parables about the precariousness of monocultures. Whenever we try to rearrange natural systems along the lines of a machine or a factory, whether by raising too many pigs in one place or too many almond trees, whatever we may gain in industrial efficiency, we sacrifice in biological resilience. The question is not whether systems this brittle will break down, but when and how, and whether when they do, we’ll be prepared to treat the whole idea of sustainability as something more than a nice word.
Monday, December 03, 2007
Word of the Year: Locavore
The New Oxford American Dictionary announced its 2007 Word of the Year and Ben Zimmer of Oxford University Press went on On The Media to talk about it:
BEN ZIMMER: Yes. The Word of the Year is “locavore.” Locavore means someone who endeavors to eat only locally-produced foods. And, as you were saying, it’s a word that we know exactly when and where it was coined. In 2005, there was a group of four women in San Francisco who challenged Bay Area residents to eat only food that was grown in a 100-mile radius, and they called themselves the locavores.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, when I saw the word, I immediately understood, yeah, got loca - vore - got it - locally-grown produce. Does anyone actually use it?
BEN ZIMMER: Well, it’s being used quite a lot by the local food movement, either locavore, or there’s another variant form that’s often used - localvore, with an extra L in the middle. And at the moment, those two forms are battling it out a little bit. But the original form and currently the more popular form is locavore.
I vote no on the second “L.” Another word I expect we might here more about:
BOB GARFIELD: The next coinage, previvor.
BEN ZIMMER: Previvor is a word that is used to refer to a person who hasn’t been diagnosed with cancer but has survived a genetic predisposition for cancer or may have precancerous cells. So someone who doesn’t have full-fledged cancer but could possibly develop it becomes known as a previvor amongst this community.
And just how might it get to be word of the year?
BEN ZIMMER: Well, we would need to see these words being used more widely, also not so self-consciously, so not just talking about the word.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Cooking with Pooh. And eating it too!
The AJC’s Book Page had a squeaker in the vote for World’s Worst Book Title ever:
The winner was “Cooking With Pooh,” which is a real book from Disney. It barely beat out “Letting It Go: a History of American Incontinence,” “The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification” (which I think maybe some people did not realize is also a real book) and “Everything You’ll Need to Remember About Alzheimer’s.Ã¢â‚¬Â�
That title recalled for me a piece that ran in Slate a couple months back by Kent Sepkowitz, a physician in New York City who writes about medicine, titled Eat Crap: Why Americans should ingest more excrement:
Ever wonder why your dog can gobble, lick, and gnaw all he wants along the glorious buffet of a city street and (almost) never get sick? Your dog is used to eating shit. Americans, on the other hand, grow up eating almost no shit at all. Our food is hosed and boiled and rinsed and detoxified and frozen and salted and preserved. Recently, we have begun to irradiate it, too-just in case. As a result, when our bodies encounter the occasional inevitable bug, they’re unhappy. Our centuries-long program of winnowing out all the muck has turned us into sissies and withered the substantial part of the immune system mediated by our intestinal tract.
Kids have it worse than adults. Even with today’s near-sterility, adult intestines have learned enough tricks to ward off major trouble, albeit clumsily. In contrast, modern kids are near-bubble babies. Our mammalian disaster plan is a good one: A child receives antibodies against countless infections from his mother through the placenta and then from breast milk. With that protection, the infant can take his time to develop his own antibodies. But these days, mothers have scant immunity because they too were raised in America the Hygienic. (Also, breast-feeding may be skipped.) So, kids have zero experience with routine gut infections, and when they encounter one that has slipped past our pipes and filters, the result can be catastrophic.
The best response to E. coli and the other pathogens that cause food poisoning is to recognize, humbly, that we can get the food supply almost perfectly clean, but never completely. There’s just too much crap out there: human crap, horse crap, cow crap, pig crap. In the feces of these and other animals are trillions of infectious agents (bacteria, viruses, fungi, worms, and everything else that upsets the stomach). Try as we may to contain the mess, we can never win. Pig dung fouls rivers; cow crap seeps into water tables; human shit kicks back every time heavy rains overwhelm a sewage system’s filtration capacity… So, here’s a suggestion: Rather than frantically throwing money at new ways to eradicate the pathogens that reside in shit, we should fund the boring scientists who focus on untangling the intricacies of the gut’s immune system. Labs, answer this: How much shit can we safely eat and, as importantly, how much must we eat to remain healthy?
Via Crooked Timber.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Global Warming Threat to Farming and Food Supply
I fear this will be read as a permission slip for Right leaning American global warming skeptics to keep their head in the sand for a good while longer:
Several recent analyses have concluded that the higher temperatures expected in coming years—along with salt seepage into groundwater as sea levels rise and anticipated increases in flooding and droughts—will disproportionately affect agriculture in the planet’s lower latitudes, where most of the world’s poor live.
India, on track to be the world’s most populous country, could see a 40 percent decline in agricultural productivity by the 2080s as record heat waves bake its wheat-growing region, placing hundreds of millions of people at the brink of chronic hunger.
Africa—where four out of five people make their living directly from the land—could see agricultural downturns of 30 percent, forcing farmers to abandon traditional crops in favor of more heat-resistant and flood-tolerant ones such as rice. Worse, some African countries, including Senegal and war-torn Sudan, are on track to suffer what amounts to complete agricultural collapse, with productivity declines of more than 50 percent.
Even the emerging agricultural powerhouse of Latin America is poised to suffer reductions of 20 percent or more, which could return thriving exporters such as Brazil to the subsistence-oriented nations they were a few decades ago.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Imagine scrapping the Farm Bill
Annie Myers went to an NYU panel entitled ”The Farm Bill 2007: Understanding the Political, Agricultural, and Nutritional Impact” and came away wondering why we don’t rethink the Fram Bill from the ground up:
We who are up for it sludge through the Farm Bill, and the best of us - whether we’re organizations, institutions, or just crazy individuals - come up with proposals that cut subsidies, end subsidies, fund specialty crop research, or at least somehow cut down on this CORN production, that we’ve all learned from Michael Pollan is a major reason for why we’re stingy, fat, and hated.
What we DON’T consider, is scrapping the Farm Bill altogether. It’s demonstrably ridiculous, in and off itself. To address 3 million square miles of land with 1 Farm Bill simply doesn’t make sense. Agriculture is regional, for one thing. Not only are the culture and politics different in Iowa than in New York, but the land is too, and the climate. A bill with provisions for avocados in California should not be legislating the cows in Maine. Nutrition and Hunger and Agriculture and Trade may be much like adults playing Twister - mischievously intermingled, entirely inseparable, and always (somewhere) hurting - but these forces of the economy need not share the same budget and bed. Money to support agricultural research should not detract from Emergency Food Programs, and whomever pens provisions for popular exports should not simultaneously sign off on subsidies deemed illegal by the WTO… we need to think bigger than a Farm Bill proposal. We need to take the twister-playing issues in the Farm Bill and get them interacting through a different game: synchronized swimming, perhaps, or a maypole dance.
In response to my concerns, [NYU Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health professor Marion] Nestle said that election funding really has to change. As long as we have the Iowa Caucus, she said, no presidential candidate is gonna stick their neck out for truly progressive agricultural policy. Maybe she’s right. I’m not sure what we need. But we can at least take the new, trendy interest in the Farm Bill further than the “Buy this! Buy that! Vote with your dollar!” mantra, and foster some truly innovative, political thought. If people did it in the Ã¢â‚¬Ëœ30s, and the Ã¢â‚¬Ëœ70s, we can sure as hell do it now.
I think Nestle’s exactly right. And so long as Annie’s looking for a new hero - “with all due respect [to Michael Pollan] we need a new one,” she says - I point back to a hero of mine.
Eric Schlosser closed his keynote speech at last year’s Food, Ethics and the Environment Conference at Princeton with the same optimism expressed in Annie’s last sentence.
But on the way there he made a vitally important point of a kind with both Annie and Nestle’s:
I think that changing the world by what you buy is only going to go so far. And it only works to a point. And after that point I think it is delusion that as consumers we are going to change that system fundamentally or we are going to change the world.
Missing from the discourse, missing from the dialog over the last twenty-five years have been a couple of other phrases. One of them is “corporate responsibility” and the other one is “collective responsibility.” And I stand here honestly saying that I’m not pure, my purchases are not ideal, and maybe some of you in this room are pure but it’s hard to be pure in this country in the year 2006. But ultimately the problems that...I’ve tried to outline are not due to individual faults. They’re really not. They have been caused by big systems. Systems of belief, systems of production, systems of making a profit. And without looking at them from a systemic approach there is no possibility of meaningful change...what we do as consumers isn’t going to make a profound difference. And I think we cannot allow this movement surrounding ethical eating to focus only on our personal responsibility and on consumer power.
Emphasis mine. I’m with Annie! The only way to meaningful change is to take on and fight the system.