Canned revisited: The author and the blogger conclude their dialog

In the third installment of their discussion Anna Zeide the author of Canned and the blogger resume their dialog and delve deeper into the differences between the perspectives of food movement and the food industry. They conclude that it is better for people with sharply differing views on food in America to talk to each other rather than talk past each other. Would you care to join the discussion?


Dr. Anna Zeide: Referring to your second blog post specifically, I was delighted to read of your experiences working in the Green Giant plant. My research into the area of grading was fairly narrowly focused on the 1930s, so I’m not at all surprised to learn that there were significant shifts between then and later in the century. 

Dr. Rob Shewfelt: I never expected that experience to be so relevant 50 years on. It was the summer of ’68. I distinctly remember the morning I learned that Bobby Kennedy had been shot the night before in California. I am not sure much changes with any activity in the USDA. I think that there must have been some misunderstanding there.

Anna: However, I definitely didn’t intend to question the “the value of government paying for research and extension operations.” On the contrary, I think the role of the state in agricultural research is foundational, and critical. Instead, I was trying to shed light on how long-standing these relationships are, and to show the crucial role that the food industry plays in this relationship, one that is often perceived, in my experience, as a more direct one between extension and individual farmers. Showing that these agricultural research activities often benefited larger companies, rather than only individual farmers, felt like an important corrective.

Rob: I have heard that argument before, but it doesn’t mesh with my limited experience. I am not sure that large companies derived that much benefit from cooperation with agricultural researchers and extension specialists. Now the weeding out of farm operations by size, wealth and political pull is another matter. Early in my career at UGA, I worked with extension, individual growers and small local companies. Some of the small companies were subsidiaries of larger corporations, but their needs were essentially to keep that manufacturing facility alive. These processing plants were critical parts of the community. If they could not meet goals set by the parent company, the processing plant would not survive. I am not sure we were that much help as many of those plants no longer exist. Toward the end of my career, my work was with growers of fresh produce—specifically sweet onions and blueberries. I did work with larger corporations, but that work was grant-based to fund grad students.

Anna: Your vision of a potential future as imagined by some idealized member of the food movement in your 4th blog post was really fun to read–you have to admit there are some good ideas in there! Of course, changing something as entrenched as the American food system is never going to be a straightforward process. Of course, there would need to be many ideas tried on for size that may or may not work in practice. Of course, it is easy to imagine many potential drawbacks, or to recognize that these drawbacks may not be imaginable from this side of the fence. But these questions should not limit innovation, should not keep us from trying to make improvements. If you agree that “Twinkies, potato chips and other junk foods would be among the first to go,” why not start there, and worry about “beer, bread, coffee, etc.” later–not a ban on those former foods, but why don’t we make it harder to produce them, more expensive to get their basic ingredients? It’s clear that there is some sort of dividing line we can draw, even if it’s a fuzzy one. And yes, I do believe that there’s a humane way to treat an animal raised for food, or at least a more humane way. Why not aim for that? Incremental improvements are better than total inaction. 

Rob: My word! Most of that session was parody. I am not sure that I am more happy or sad that you found some of those ideas plausible. If any of the ideas were to be turned into viable initiatives, we would need rational people to work together to find reasonable solutions. Making processes or ingredients more expensive will not be as easy as you suggest. One solution would be to put a heavy tax on sugar–not sugar-sweetened beverages but sugar itself. And by sugar I also mean ingredients for sale in supermarkets that are primarily sugar such as white sugar, brown sugar, molasses, honey and maple syrup.

There were actually some innovative solutions developed for processed products and food manufacturing, particularly with respect to pollution, in the 70s during the Nixon and Ford administrations which were much more open to progressive ideas than they were ever given credit for. Activists during the Carter years pushed too hard eliciting a severe backlash by industry in general (not just the food industry) which was aided and abetted by the Reagan and GHW Bush administrations. Some progress has been made since then, but our country is so polarized now, I am not very optimistic that anything positive will be achieved. As I said earlier, real meat will probably only be available to the super-rich in twenty or so years unless we are satisfied with clean meat.

Anna: The other main question that remains in all of this is: what viable solutions do exist to the real problems of our food supply (an overabundance of cheap foods that contribute to unhealthful diets; a food system heavily depending on fossil fuels and intense water and pesticide/herbicide input; high rates of diet-related disease, etc.)? If processed food isn’t to blame, what is, and what solutions would you propose? 

Rob: OK, we do have an overabundance of cheap food that contribute to an unhealthful diet, but why don’t we single those foods out rather than lump everything out that isn’t a fresh fruit, fresh vegetable, raw egg, raw meat,  plain milk, flour, table sugar, or table salt as a moderately or highly processed food product? If we wish to make “unhealthy” food expensive, tax sugar at 50 cents a pound, but don’t limit it to commercial food products. Assess the tax on products that are essentially 100% sugar such as table sugar, honey and maple syrup. With respect to sodium, work on regulations that limit the amount of salt in products on a weight basis and set timetables for sequential reduction. Voluntary protocols have been proposed, but they won’t work unless they are mandatory.

As far as a food system dependent on fossil fuels goes, we are a country that with about 20% of the world’s population using 80% of the world’s fossil fuels. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels will take much more than modification of the food system. Efforts to get people out of the suburbs and less reliant on automobiles has not been very successful. Organic farming may be part of the solution in reducing reliance on fertilizers but where is all that manure coming from when we do away with farm animals? As far as pesticides are concerned, the organic ones are not exactly safe and parts of the world without access to them are still plagued by locusts–a problem that we had in the United States as late as the beginning of the 20th century. Processed food is in part to blame; but fruits, nuts and vegetables (the “healthy” foods) are among the most water-intensive crops to grow. If we decide to limit fresh fruit, nut and vegetable growing to small, local, organic farms; where are we going to find the people in the city or the suburbs to leave their cushy jobs to go back to till the soil?

Anna: I also think it’s important to note that there are many nutritionists, beyond those food reformers you list, like Harvard’s Walter Willett for example, who recommend very similar diets–whole foods, minimally-processed fruits and vegetables, restrictions on the high-salt, high-sugar, high-fat “junk foods” that people these days refer to as “processed foods” in ways. you don’t like. There is agreement among independent experts in the field that this way of eating can help address some of our diet-related in America.

Rob: Yes, there are dietitians and nutritionists (including one who wrote a guest blog on my site last month) who support these dietary recommendations. Many of these food professionals have written popular books. In Eat, Drink and be Healthy Willett almost eliminates meat in his recommended diet. He is so confident in his recommendations that he includes a daily vitamin/mineral supplement, just in case. Any diet that requires a supplement is not a nutritionally sound diet in my mind. It has been a while since I read his book, but, as I recall, he was much more moderate about processed food than many of the today’s authors. All commercial alcoholic beverages which represent the drink in his book title, by the way, are processed foods.

I agree that there are many voices speaking out against processed food, however it is defined. As you point out, though, there is still a widespread consumption of processed food. Voices like mine that are skeptics are not being listened to either because we do not represent a popular view or because we are considered shills for the food industry (a name I was called in a recent podcast interview). I admit that I may be wrong on some of my statements, but I do think I should have a voice. I suspect that most Americans would not be amused if numerous food products not named flour, table sugar, honey, maple syrup, or table salt start disappearing from the center aisles of their supermarkets.

Concluding remarks

Rob: I would like to thank Anna Zeide for agreeing to engage me in a civil discussion on food even if we come at it from very different perspectives. If we proved anything, we showed that we can talk to each other rather than talk past each other. As I look back at the discussion of the last three weeks, it seems that we may have drifted off topic in some areas. A main point of my book and my blog is that processed food is poorly defined by many of its critics. Most processed foods are not nearly as bad as they are portrayed in the media and can be consumed as part of a healthy, balanced diet. I hope that this discussion can start a dialog that will lead to a better understanding of food and its role in American life.

Anna: It’s been a real pleasure to engage with Rob Shewfelt about the ideas that animate both of our bodies of work. As a historian who is committed to interdisciplinary work and public scholarship, I was particularly honored to have Canned read and reviewed by such an eminent food scientist. It’s not every day that the walls among our departments and disciplines are so easily crossed, and I think there is much fruitful exchange that can come from this engagement. Although I don’t disagree with Dr. Shewfelt that the media can sometimes portray conversations around “healthy food” in ways that are too black and white and don’t do justice to the nuances at the heart of anything so complex, I think this issue is way down at the bottom of the list of problems that plague the American food system—among them an ongoing epidemic of diet-related diseases, environmental devastation due in part to the ways our food is produced and distributed,  and government institutions that are resistant to examining their complicity in the flaws in our food and agricultural system. I hope my scholarship can help shed light on these critical issues, and perhaps help direct us toward solutions.


Next week: Fifth Tuesday Smorgasbord

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