The following essay was written by my friend Sam Lipschultz, a student at Sarah Lawrence and organizer of the students of Real Food New York. Sam wrote The Real Food Fight for a class, as a review of Michael Pollan’s latest book, In Defense of Food.
1996 was a disturbing year for cows and the humans who ate them. That year like many before it, 100,000 cows were ground up and fed to other cows. Americans were eating cows that were eating cows. Inexplicably sick ones at that.
Britain’s cattle ranchers took a slightly different approach to feeding their livestock. They fed their cows ground up lamb that had fallen sick. But that didn’t last. In April 1996, the British government ordered the slaughtering of 4.7 million cattle after twenty Brits died of the human equivalent of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, which was thought to have its roots in their ranchers’ feeding practices.
Aware of this cross-Atlantic cattle connection, the Oprah Winfrey Show devoted its April 16th episode to exploring the potential of America’s own mad cow epidemic. Oprah’s guest, cattle rancher turned executive director of the Humane Society, Howard Lyman, sounded the alarm loud and clear. Lyman explained that if only one ground up cow was infected with mad cow disease, thousands of Americans would be made vulnerable to the disease. Oprah promptly turned to her audience and exclaimed that, “It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger!” The next day, the cattle industry’s beef futures experienced a fallout, which pundits deemed the “Oprah crash.”
The cattle industry was up in arms. Some of the biggest ranchers lost millions. A handful of them, led by billionaire Texas cattleman Paul Engler, filed suit against Lyman, Oprah, and Harpo Productions. The lawsuit alleged that Oprah and Lyman had violated a brand new Texas law, which forbade people from “knowingly making false statements” about agricultural business. The ranchers sued for $11 million, which they claimed to have collectively lost as a direct result of Oprah’s show.
The so-called “food disparagement” law, which the cattlemen filed suit under, had been enacted in Texas in 1995. Texas was only one of thirteen agricultural states that had enacted food disparagement laws between 1991 and 1997. In an attempt to silence food safety whistle-blowers who had been calling out industrial agricultural dangers like agri-chemicals, irradiation, and mad cow disease, industry lobbyists had been pushing all levels of government for protection. You could call it the beginning of a “green scare” reminiscent of the McCarthy era.
The lawsuit was finally settled in 1998. The jury found Oprah and Lyman innocent. But before the trial was even over, the USDA had banned animal-to-animal feeding. The cattlemen, however, did not stop there. They filed multiple appeals, which ended in 2002 with the original verdict standing firm. Oprah never spoke of beef again. Despite their losses in court, the cattlemen had made it clear: food dissidents beware—you won’t speak out without a long and costly fight.
The cattle industry managed to silence its critics for a time. But it didn’t succeed in cleaning up its practices. After a record setting 21 recalls of beef related to a deadly strain of E. coli in 2007, the cattle industry rang in the New Year with its largest recall of beef in history.
The American industrial food complex remains dysfunctional and dangerous. As the state of food in America has only gotten worse, a growing community of writers—including Eric Schlosser, Marion Nestle and Gary Taubes—has come forth to help us make sense of what we eat. With his 2006 bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan rose to the top of the ranks of the nation’s best food investigators by traveling through America’s food chains, drawing millions of Americans into the conversation around the American way of eating.
Pollan’s readers followed him on a trip to just about every source of food America has to offer. From a giant Confined Animal Feeding Operation to a small pasture-raised “beyond organic“ meat farm. From industrial corn to industrial organic. Pollan even tried his hand at hunting and gathering. But to his surprise, some of the most overwhelming feedback was that, over 400 pages and many food options later, readers were still left with the burning question of, “What to eat?” To answer that question, Pollan has written a new book called In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. The book’s mantra, meant to bathe his readers in much-needed tranquility, is seven simple words: Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.
But as Pollan so elegantly illustrates, those words are deceptively austere. In this era of ultra-industrialized food, beef is only one of the many so-called foods whose production has been so obscured that it now requires an education to understand what it is we‘re eating. It hasn’t always been this way. According to Pollan, a monumental shift took place three decades ago when the food industry joined forces with nutrition scientists, and aided by the U.S. government, launched a War on Food.
The story begins in 1977 when the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs chaired by South Dakota Democrat George McGovern investigated the alarming increases in chronic diseases related to diet, such as heart disease, cancer, obesity, and diabetes that had occured since World War II. The committee found that when meat and dairy products were rationed during the war, the rate of heart disease took a nosedive before rising rapidly after the war was over. Other cultures that ate traditional diets based mostly on plants had strikingly low rates of diet-related diseases. Meanwhile, a growing portion of the scientific community was linking the consumption of fat and dietary cholesterol, much of which came from meat and dairy products, to the rising rates of heart disease.
When the committee released its Dietary Goals for the United States with a call for reduced consumption of red meat and dairy products, the respective industries raised hell. Senator McGovern quickly bowed to his cattlemen constituents, instructing his committee to rewrite its recommendations. The straightforward suggestion to “reduce consumption of meat” was replaced with the more ambiguous, “choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.”
Even that wasn’t enough for the cattle industry. In the next election in 1980, the beef lobby succeeded in sweeping McGovern clean from his seat in Congress. It turns out the beef industry had been using their food disparagement tactics long before it was made law. But more importantly for us, as Pollan points out, “with these subtle changes in wording a whole way of thinking about food and health underwent a momentous shift… Speak no more of foods, only nutrients.” In Pollan’s words, “The Age of Nutritionism had arrived.”
Pollan defines nutritionism as an ideology based on the unexamined assumption that “the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient.” Instead of trusting our cultural traditions as humans have done for thousands of years, we are now told to depend on the constantly shifting consensus of what Pollan calls the “Nutritional Industrial Complex“ of scientists, food marketers and government officials.
Two more unexamined assumptions of nutritionism follow. The first is that “the whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health.” That is as opposed to, say, pleasure or tradition or celebration or community. The second assumption is that “the nutrients in food should be divided into the healthy ones and the unhealthy ones—good nutrients and bad.” Think antioxidants and saturated fat.
But as nutritionist Marion Nestle points out in an interview with Pollan, one of the main problems with this type of “nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of the food, the food out of the diet, and the diet out of the lifestyle.“ All of which contain infinite constellations of unknowns.
This ideology of nutritionism has resulted in an incredible oversimplification and industrialization of food, from soil to plate. Healthy soil makes healthy plants and healthy animals who eat those plants. It is said that there are over one billion living organisms in every handful of healthy soil. Over the past 80 years or so, industrial agriculture has destroyed that living structure of healthy soil.
Unlike ecological, or, sustainable agriculture, which fertilizes soil with manure, cover crops and compost filled with live, active organisms, industrial agriculture sprays inordinate amounts of chemical fertilizers made up of three of the basic building blocks of soil—nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, or NPK. Toxic chemical pesticides and herbicides sprayed in equally excessive quantities kill every living organism in the soil except for the crops themselves. With every spray, soil is degraded and becomes that much more dependent on the chemical inputs that have drained it of its self-sustaining organic matter.
Whole foods, like soil, are infinitely complex systems of nutrients. Just as industrial agriculture has reduced soil to its most essential known nutrients, so has nutrition science reduced food to its nutritional components. By isolating particular nutrients, food scientists are able to inject “good“ nutrients into just about anything. They can also extract the “bad“ ones, as in the case of low fat or low carb foods. Take a stroll down any supermarket aisle and you will see the results of such scientific manipulation.
As Pollan notes, “it’s a whole lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a raw potato or a carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over in Cereal the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming their newfound ‘whole-grain goodness‘ to the rafters.“
Supermarkets also make it seem as if it‘s a whole lot more affordable to subsist off of processed foods than whole foods. We have the government to thank for that. “The fact is,” Pollan writes in a blog for Amazon.com, “we have a food system (i.e., a set of agricultural policies) that encourages farmers to grow lots of corn and soy, the building blocks of fast food (in the form of high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated soy oil and all the other industrial ingredients teased out of those two remarkable plants) and effectively discourages farmers from growing real food people can eat.” Pollan is referring to the over $30 billion in subsidies—paid for by taxpayer money—that is annually shelled out to agribusiness and the feedlots and food processing plants it supplies. Meanwhile, fruits and vegetables get virtually nothing. “The result is that the unhealthiest calories in the supermarket are the cheapest, and the healthiest calories the dearest.”
The question remains: “What should we eat?“
In the final section of In Defense of Food, Pollan offers some of his own advice, or what he calls “eating algorithms.“ He writes, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.“ We should also avoid “food products with more than five ingredients and ingredients you can’t pronounce“ and steer clear of “food products that make health claims.“ Pollan also suggests circumventing the supermarket altogether, shopping at farmer’s markets in season instead. In essence, we should eat real food that has traveled through the shortest and most socially and environmentally responsible food chains.
But as Pollan later admits, “There’s no escaping the fact that better food—whether measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often corresond)—costs more, usually because it has been grown with more care and less intensively. Not everyone can afford to eat high-quality food in America, and that is shameful; however, those of us who can, should.“ This is the sole sentence in which Pollan addresses the fact that disparities in food access make it difficult for the majority of Americans to get their hands on real food. Pollan’s categorization of people who take dietary supplements begins to sound a lot like a description of his audience: “People who take supplements are healthier than the population at large, yet their health probably has nothing whatsoever to do with the supplements they take…Supplement takers tend to be better educated, more affluent people who, almost by definition, take a greater than usual interest in personal health.“
Michael Pollan is right. Those who can afford real food should buy it. We spend about half as much on food as a percentage of disposable income as we did half a century ago. Internet and television have consumed time and money that could be better well spent on a home-cooked meal of fresh, local, ecologically produced food. But to rely on the “trickle-down” effect—affluent people purchasing real food will eventually make it cheaper for folks less well off—is just plain lazy.
In many of his speeches and in some of his writing for the New York Times Magazine for which he is a contributing writer, Pollan pushes his readers to go beyond “voting with your forks” to “voting with your votes.” Indeed, Americans need to pressure the government to shift its support from corn and soy production, which supplies the production of processed foods and the factory farms that have wreaked so much havoc over the years, to smaller, ecological farms producing a diverse range of fruits and vegetables that supply their local and regional food systems and increase food security. But these shifts in policy will all be for naught if we don’t make them accessible to the majority of Americans.
Most inner cities lack not only farmer’s markets, but supermarkets too. Such food insecure neighborhoods are often aptly referred to as “food deserts.” In the last six years alone, New York City has seen one-third of its supermarkets close up and leave. Many supermarket chains choose to avoid low-income neighborhoods. Others have been forced out because of soaring real estate values. Supermarkets forced to close down are often replaced, like affordable housing, by luxury condominiums.
Some of the poorest neighborhoods in central Brooklyn and the south Bronx haven’t seen a supermarket for decades. This lack of supermarkets has caused the lowest rates in the city of consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and the highest rates of diabetes and obesity. This trend is not unique to New York City. Inner cities across the country suffer from similar trends.
In a passage that embodies Michael Pollan’s ecological approach to eating, he writes that, “when the health of one part of the food chain is disturbed, it can affect all other creatures in it… Our personal health cannot be divorced from the health of the entire food web.” But to attempt a truly ecological, or holistic approach, we must take into account not only the environment in which our food grows, but also the environment in which we grow. Our food web will not be healthy until every American has equal access to healthy food.