Who is to blame for America’s unsustainable, unhealthy food system?
A. Big Ag,
B. Big Food,
C. Both of the above,
D. None of the above.
Robert Paarlberg had an answer to this question for the audience during the D.W. Brooks Lecture at the University of Georgia earlier this month. Read on to see that answer. Paarlberg is one of my favorite authors. I required his book Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know for a graduate class I taught. We discussed a chapter each session. I recently finished Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa. The title of this post was the title of his lecture. I added the question mark as I thought his resolution of the issue which he posed was incomplete.
Dr. Paarlberg is an Adjunct Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. His specialty is in global food and agricultural policy. He classifies his students as Foodies, and indicates that they have little understanding or appreciation of the Aggies who comprised a major portion of his audience at the lecture. These Foodies have “unrealistic expectations” from the food system, he claims. At a recent Harvard forum, members of the New Food Movement called for a system that was Organic, Local and Slow. The lecturer stated that such a food system was not realistic for America. Africa, which suffers from widespread hunger, has such a food system
- Organic because farmers can’t buy nitrogen fertilizers;
- Local because they don’t have decent roads to transport their crops to distant markets; and
- Slow because they have to start with grains from the field, hand grind them, and home process them into edible foods.
He indicated that solutions such as agroecology, ignoring simple scientific and technological solutions, and food sovereignty will not feed the hungry planet. It is particularly important that we don’t hold back the very part of the world which is most food insecure and experiencing the fastest growing population. We can’t go back to traditional agriculture in this country and should not force it on the struggling continent of Africa.
The industrial food system and sustainability
New England farms are primarily small, not industrial and contribute little to the nation’s food supply. Thus, his Foodie students display “unrealistic thinking about a realistic food system.” Their rejection of “industrialized farming” represents a “badly outdated understanding” of modern farming techniques. In the 60s American farms were “dumb and dirty,” but now farming is “smart and clean.” Precision farming has increased food production on less land while reducing chemical inputs. Greater sustainability, he contends, will be achieved by greater adoption of precision agriculture and not a return to subsistence, organic and local agriculture. Big Ag is being blamed for producing foods that are making us obese. Paarlberg counters that “What American farmers produce does not dictate what the American people consume.” So, his answer to the multiple-choice question I posed above, A. Big Ag is NOT to blame for America’s unsustainable, unhealthy food system.
Paarlberg did say that the New Food Movement has some points industrial agriculture needs to listen to such as criticisms about animal welfare and food labor. Europe is addressing some of the concerns on animal welfare, and American Aggies should be paying attention. Modifications will lead to less confinement and better quality-of-life issues for livestock. In the longer term he points to the development of plant-based milk and meat as well as lab-cultured meat. So, Big Ag is meeting many of the goals of the New Food Movement while not using the suggested ways of meeting them. He wishes that the movement would focus more on the unhealthy food we eat and not the way we farm food commodities.
Unhealthy eating in the United States
Paarlberg clearly blames B. Big Food—processed food companies and restaurant chains—for America’s unhealthy diet. Big Food adds sugar, fat and chemicals to processed food leading to obesity and chronic diseases. He does blame Big Ag for frequently siding with Big Food, but Aggie culpability seems to end there in his mind. At a Farm Bureau convention in Nashville the President and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association told her audience that “Your harvest becomes our product.” The lecturer suggested that farmers push back against these food manufacturing companies that are “taking the healthful commodities grown on farms and turning them into commercial products of dubious nutritional value.”
If reform of the food system was that easy, major farm organizations could challenge Big Food calling on its members to refuse to sell their product to large food corporations. Such actions would put many farmers out of business, however. Who is going to buy wheat if it doesn’t go into making bread, pasta, pastry and snack cakes? Who is going to buy other grains if it doesn’t go into processed products? Change on the farm with respect to animal welfare will come only as major fast food companies and supermarket chains mandate cage-free eggs and crate-free pork and not by farmer boycotts of food corporations. It is the corporate buyers who have the power.
Big Food should reformulate their products and change marketing strategies he suggests. Along with the lecturer, I have been very critical on this site of food marketing with respect to health and nutritional attributes. I must say, however that Paarlberg appears to be as outdated and unrealistic in his expectations of Big Food as his Foodie students are about Big Ag. If I might paraphrase his earlier statement—What food processors produce does not necessarily dictate what the American people consume. Yes, advertising does drive sales, but do food companies really manufacture demand or do they produce what consumers want? I contend it is some of both, but the trend towards clean labels is NOT being pushed by companies out of the goodness of their hearts and a desire to produce healthy foods. Rather, clean labels mask what chemicals are really in a food product to improve its sales. Likewise, the development of organic products or use of organic ingredients is a marketing ploy for many large corporations.
Also, forgive me, but I have heard much of this same refrain too many times with a slightly different tune. My three uncles were farmers, and my research involved more interaction with farmers and production-agriculture researchers than most food scientists. I have heard so many times that
- there is not enough money coming back to the farm,
- the middleman rips off farmers and consumers,
- food leaves the farm healthy, and
- it’s processing that makes it unhealthy.
Once again we hear that we need to do more cooking at home, but that gets back to the Slow part of Organic, Local and Slow called for by the Foodies. Unfortunately, Slow food was never really addressed in his lecture. Paarlberg makes a strong case that most Americans don’t really want to pay the price for a food system that is primarily Organic and Local. However, most Americans want convenient foods and are not willing to truly pay the price for truly made-from-scratch, Slow food. We want it fast, convenient, healthful and tasty. I think by calling for more home cooking, he is bordering on what Linda Civitello in Baking Powder Wars calls just another man wanting women to go back to the kitchen of their great grandmothers in the 1800s. Her main thesis is that consumers drive demand for convenient products and ingredients while advertisers ruthlessly pursue the consumer dollar to meet their demands.
Paarlberg’s vision is interesting, but it was not well sketched out in the lecture. He appears to wish to marry Foodie ideals with Aggie technology. In his world, a postindustrial agriculture will produce most of the food in a sustainable fashion, but we will still retain the heritage of small, part-time, hobby farms as a symbol of days gone by. The two groups will then press Big Food to produce healthier products. I am with him up to the farm gate, but it is the consumer (or at least the activist consumer) who force food companies to make rules that farmers must obey if they wish to sell their crops or animals. I commend Paarlberg for sketching out a middle-road between the Foodies and the Aggies, but the middle road needs to be between the New Food Movement and the powers that be in the current food system—Big Ag and Big Food. I offered an alternative vision in the book version of this blog:
Table 9.1 Three possible versions of the American food distribution and handling system ( reproduced with permission from In Defense of Processed Food).
This I believe
I generally agree with many of the goals of the New Food Movement but not with most of their solutions proposed to achieve them. We live in an overpopulated world. Too many children, women and men not have enough food to eat. The world population is too large to be able to feed it with subsistence agriculture as practiced a century ago. Greater sustainability of our food supply will be best achieved by a greater adoption of precision farming by richer countries like the United States and appropriate technologies in poorer countries such as many in Africa. Animal-welfare and food-system-labor issues will only be solved through public pressure and mandates by, governments, large food corporations, fast-food companies and supermarket chains.
Likewise, we will not be able to feed America by going back to the kitchens of our great grandmothers. Food scientists have the ability to design healthier processed foods that are both safe and easy to prepare, but consumers decide what they will buy and eat. Food manufacturers need to work within their supply chains to improve sustainability of their products. Unfortunately, the current nutritional marketing of food products and misinformation campaigns by self-styled nutritionists are getting in the way of a rational discussion of what constitutes a healthy diet. Not all processed foods are junk, and not all junk foods are processed.
My answer to the original question on whom to blame for an unsustainable, unhealthy food system will continue to be C. Both of the above if Big Ag and Big Food do not work together to meet the new reality of the 21st Century. By working together, however, and seeking common ground with approachable members of the New Food Movement, the answer could be D. None of the above. I envision an American food system that is at least more sustainable and healthier.
Next week: Best Before: The Evolution and Future of Processed Food