Wansink has a good style for this kind of book, too. Breezy and humorous enough to keep you reading, but with enough depth and substance to provide credible guidance.
It doesn't take too much time to finish the book; a moderately quick reader will probably take most of a weekend. The chapters and sections within them also make it easy to read this in sporadic chunks. (less)
Update: The Wilson Quarterly provides a very nice slideshow of Polyface Farm, in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, which plays a key role in Pollan's exam...moreUpdate: The Wilson Quarterly provides a very nice slideshow of Polyface Farm, in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, which plays a key role in Pollan's examination of sustainable agriculture.
• • • • •
I thought when I started this book that a review would be superfluous—after all, it was published many years ago and has been reviewed thousands of times. But the material is provocative, and some reviews on this and similar books induce yet more thinking.
There’s certainly a lot to talk about when it comes to food. I suppose that has always been the case, but two relatively new topics have shoved their way onto the bestsellers list. Well, perhaps “two” is too limited, but it's a good if arbitrary start.
First, the health angle. There are quite a few books exploring how and why today’s food is so bad for us. Here the general idea is to examine how what-we-eat isn’t quite what-we-should-be-eating. This discussion goes in two directions: backwards, into our evolutionary development, to ask why is it we so enjoy food that isn’t good for us; and currently, looking at our consumer “preferences”: why is it our national (and, increasingly, global) diet is even less healthy than even our natural inclinations have historically made it?
The other hot topic examines the many ways in which feeding the human race has become very bad for the planet and its inhabitants, especially those we eat. Again, this can be split many ways: how simply feeding so many billions of humans taxes the planet’s resources and health; how the diets of the developed world exaggerate that effect; and how the industrial food production system further exacerbates the problem.
Threaded through both of these is the ethical problem: what should an enlightened human being be eating, anyway? And if that diet includes meat, how should we treat our meat?
Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma certainly fits within the scope of all of the above, but isn’t really central to any of them. In an important sense, Pollan has written a very different book, one that very gently deals with a deeper problem. One of his few failings is that he doesn’t make this distinction evident enough: most readers will notice the similarities to the avalanche of other food-reform books, and not the differences.
After all, Pollan does investigate the factory farm system, and its horrors are quite evident. And he shows that even “organic” farming can be captured and compromised by the industrial paradigm.
But the title of Pollan’s book hints at the difference: he isn’t delivering a polemic or jeremiad; he is troubled at how the original dilemma faced by everyone has changed and sharpened in our modern world. Carnivores and herbivores don’t have any options regarding what they eat. Our dilemma, in a nutshell, is that unlike many other creatures, we are forced to choose what to eat and what not to eat. We have the advantage over other omnivores that our decision can be informed by culture and education; but we also have the burden that our decision has ethical and cultural consequences.
Pollan divides his book into three meals.
The first is how the industrial “food system” gathers raw materials and manipulates them into “products”, such as a typical McDonald’s Value Meal, or a Weight Watcher’s frozen dinner. Corn, it turns out, plays an astonishingly larger role in this process than one might expect; so much that even a meal that notionally contains no corn might still actually draw the vast majority of its original caloric energy from that heavily domesticated tropical grass. He illuminates the effects of such a factory system on the welfare of cattle, for example, or political and economic distortions induced, or the amount of petroleum required, but he doesn’t come across as preaching — just informing.
(My favorite tidbit from this section was a reminder of the astonishing way corn becomes the source of so many of those other ingredients in processed food: “Natural raspberry flavor” doesn’t mean the flavor came from a raspberry; it may well have been derived from corn, just not from something synthetic. Only a tiny number of additives are actually derived from petroleum—so far...)
The second meal is derived from a small farm that depends, as far as can be managed, solely on solar energy via plants. Specifically, grass plays the central and foundational role in an integrated and carefully orchestrated ecosystem of farm animals. Every “output” is transformed into an “input” elsewhere; cow manure left in a field, for instance, becomes the growth medium for insect larvae (yeah, fly maggots) that are eaten by chickens, whose droppings then become fertilizer for yet more grass.
The bucolic atmosphere and almost complete lack of industrial inputs makes us consider this form of pastoral farming pre-modern, but the ecological management is so information-intensive that it is also post-industrial. This is clearly an approach that is better for people, for animals, and for the environment... but had its own share of problems. This kind of farm is called a “Management-Intensive Grazing” operation, and the orchestration is almost overwhelming, and requires such a high degree of daily commitment that it is difficult to imagine this becoming more than a niche player in the globe’s food production. Furthermore, getting the food to consumers is another task that has found no easy solutions. Direct farm-to-consumer connections can be found in some areas, but not many. Farmers markets, CSA and the like are exciting developments, but don’t easily scale up to support large and widely distributed populations.
The final meal described is definitely pre-modern; in fact it is an attempt to recapture a pre-industrial mode of eating. Pollan did his best to personal gather all of the ingredients for a meal, including gathering wild mushrooms, harvesting produce and fruit, and hunting wild boar. That last effort brought the omnivore’s dilemma back to the fore again, as he struggled to consciously reconcile his meat eating with his liberal culture and modern critiques of the ethical treatment of animals. He reluctantly abstained from eating meat while he dealt with this, even going so far as to discuss the issue via email with Peter Singer, the contemporary philosopher most associated with animal rights and veganism. In the end, he concluded “What’s wrong with eating animals is the practice, not the principle.”
In examining the vegan choice, he points out that even there the practice can get in the way of the principle. Harvesting grain — even organic wheat — is typically done with a combine: a large machine that will frequently shred field mice and other small critters that get in the way. Modern agriculture is problematic for everyone, not just liberal omnivores.
Pollan never solves the dilemma for us. None of these three approaches will solve the problems we face in our attempt to both feed billions of people and keep the planet and our consciences happy. What differentiates The Omnivore’s Dilemma is how Pollan personalizes the problem. We can eat better—we almost can not eat worse—and we must eat better. But our personal choices create our food culture, and none of these choices are simple. Unfortunately, almost all of us prefer to avert our gaze and let “the market” decide for us.(less)
I'd lost track of this book. I knew I'd read a neat book about caffeine, but thought it was called Cafiends or something.
Get it? Cafe-Fiend? I'm pret...moreI'd lost track of this book. I knew I'd read a neat book about caffeine, but thought it was called Cafiends or something.
Get it? Cafe-Fiend? I'm pretty sure there was a great all-night coffee shop in Christchurch, New Zealand, somewhere near Cathedral Square, with this name, way back in 1992. I might have the name wrong. I'd just come down out of the mountains, practically running downhill with the thrill of being as healthy as I ever had after three months of on-and-off backpacking in the South Islands gorgeous mountains.
But little did I know skipping down a mountain trail whilst wearing a 50lb pack can do nasty things to your knees. And immediately trying to catch up all night on all the coffee drinking I'd missed over the past six days looping around Arthur's Pass... well, that apparently is something that really makes irritated joints more angry. So the next morning I discovered I couldn't walk, or at least not without hobbling on the needles that unaccountably were inside my knees.
A nice doctor in a local clinic asked some insightful questions, set me straight on joint stress and stimulants, gave me some pleasant drugs, and I was back in the hills a few days later, good as new. I've since bought a french press insert for a backcountry water bottle, so I don't have to go without the daily buzz anymore. Although it's a bit of a pain. I'm considering ordering pure caffeine crystals and mixing them into a batch of rice crispie treats, so each treat packs the punch of a big cuppa joe. But those treats take up a lot of room, and a bear cannister can't fit too many.
Pediatrician and former head of the Food and Drug Administration David Kessler says the U.S. food industry has manipulated American consumers into unhealthy eating habits. In his book, "The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite," Kessler describes how chronic overeaters might resist artificially induced food cravings.
Kessler is a pediatrician and was a commissioner of the United States FDA (Food and Drug Administration) during the 1990s. He became very active and aggressive in the war on tobacco (see his A Question of Intent), and more recently has gradually turned his attention towards the war on obesity.
How does this book differ from Eric Schlosser'sFast Food Nation, or Michael Pollan'sIn Defence of Food or The Omnivore's Dilemma? The radio interview linked to above gave me a clue, which I checked by searching for the word "dopamine" in each of these books. This is the neurochemical that mediates the reward system in the brain, including addiction behavior. Amazon and Google both tell me the word is used 37 times in Kessler's book, but not at all in any of the other three. The obvious conclusion is that this book is not redundant, but actual investigates the neural mechanism in which food—especially sugar and fat in combination—can act as an addictive drug. Perhaps the other books asserted as much, but Kessler seems to be delivering the goods. (less)
Late breaking addition: Want to read the micro-version of this book? Check out the editorial, Math Lessons for Locavores in the New York Times, August...moreLate breaking addition: Want to read the micro-version of this book? Check out the editorial, Math Lessons for Locavores in the New York Times, August 19, 2010. It doesn’t get into the complexities that McWilliams does, but it encapsulates the first chapter of this book quite nicely.
• • • • • • • • • • • •
In Just Food, James McWilliams goes all heretical on his former fellow-travelers in the food-reform-movement cabal. He looks a bit deeper into the global political realities that are so easy to ignore when arguing for a 100-mile food production horizon, and doesn’t particularly like what he sees.
As Lena points out in her excellent review, his subtitle is misleading. The first half, “Where locavores get it wrong” really only applies to the first chapter here, although it is a note McWilliams returns to several times as a former fervent locavore himself. But the real story is the second half of the subtitle: “How we can truly eat responsibly” – and he will argue that much of the received wisdom in the reform movement isn’t fundamentally responsible.
The faithful might well be very discomfited by his lessons, although those so ideologically committed to their current trajectory probably wouldn’t read this anyway, since it might threaten their trajectory. Those willing to examine his arguments will find many of them very plausible, especially the ones that cast as villains those we are accustomed to putting in those roles. Agribusiness as a recipient of government largess comes in for a spanking, as does the American legislative machine that rewards agribusiness and distorts so many markets.
But quite a bit of McWilliams’ story will still be hard to swallow, although my perception is that in his research he has examined the evidence more carefully than most readers or writers could: he is probably correct on all counts to a great extent.
The first chapter, as mentioned, covers the locavore movement. By this point, many of us will have heard the counterarguments: production efficiencies in some parts of the globe are so much higher than in others that it is still better for the planet that some food is produced far from where it is consumed. I’m lucky: I live in San Francisco, and within one hundred miles almost everything I might want to eat could potentially be grown. Bananas and mangoes, no: but that list is pretty short. Unfortunately, much of the world isn’t so fortunate and would find an intolerably dull and perhaps even unhealthy diet. Countering these climatic and geographic limitations can be done with hothouses, for example, but for most of the year it is actually much more resource efficient to produce green beans in Kenya and ship them to England than to grow them locally. The truth is that transportation of the final product is a small portion of the amount of energy that goes in. Other energy costs are often overlooked, such as the cost of irrigating deserts, or of shipping feed for livestock. McWilliams returns to this point in the final chapter as he discusses how “perverse subsidies” make this worse – creating incentives for ranchers to raise cattle on subsidized grazing land and then ship subsidized corn (or soya) (raised with subsidized fertilizer) to fatten ‘em up. The message Mcwilliams’ seems to understand is that while local production is excellent when it makes sense, there are more circumstances where it is irrelevant and quite a few where it is counterproductive.
His second chapter is more reminiscent of the story Pollan tells in Omnivore’s Dilemma: it’s really, really hard to solve the food problem with organics. First, going organic introduces problems. Pesticides and fungicides can prevent food from decaying after it is harvested, but organic producers often have to use energy-intensive refrigeration instead. When herbicides can’t be used, other techniques to keep weeds from destroying yields have to substitute, and some of those, like deep tilling, have nasty environmental consequences of their own. But one aspect that I hadn’t been aware of is that today’s “poisons” are much more targeted and less toxic than they had been decades ago, and we consumers often don’t pay attention to that distinction. One study that he cites noted that “the natural chemicals that are known rodent carcinogens in a singe cup of coffee are about equal in weight to a year’s worth of ingested synthetic pesticide residues that are rodent carcinogens” (p. 64). The author of that study concluded that, effectively, “pesticides lower the cancer rate” by increasing the supply of cancer-fighting fruits and vegetables. It bears remembering that plants have been evolving their own pesticides, herbicides and fungicides for billions of years and we ingest many of those without blinking an eye. Caffeine, anyone? Capsaicin? Allicin? Diallyl disulfide? Maybe some bioflavonoids? We might be guilty of enforcing a distinction between “natural” and “synthetic” toxins that has less than we think to do with our health or the health of the planet. The third chapter is similar, but deals with genetic modification instead of chemical applications. A gene that creates a highly targeted pesticide within a plant generally means much less of an equivalent pesticide would need to be applied externally — where it will also be sprayed on soil, into the air, and on non-targeted insects and other creatures (and recall, once again, that plants have long been fighting this battle on their own as well). For example, a pesticide created within the plant’s tissues will only be directly consumed by the insects that attack the plant, not the many other insects — some of them beneficial, such as bees — that happen to be in the vicinity.
Chapters four and five really hit hard at meat eating. Most grain is grown just to feed animals; reduce the amount of meat in the planet’s diet and many problems would simply go away. This is, really, the key point the whole book is oriented around: we already eat too much meat, and the trend is just getting worse with the changing appetites in formerly vegetarian-intensive parts of the world like China. McWilliams makes a strong case for eating fish if one has to eat meat, because fish are a more means of converting energy into human food. Yeah, there are plenty of problems with global fisheries, but there are some really good potential paths through that thicket, especially with fresh-water aquaculture and herbivore fish such as tilapia and catfish, especially when these are integrated with horticulture. McWilliams’ discussion of how well aquaculture and horticulture can be blended is more hearteningly optimistic than Pollan’s examination of Polyface Farm.
But finally, it bears repeating that one of McWilliams’ two central messages is expressed in the quote: “However close you can be to a vegan diet and further from the mean American diet, the better you are for the planet” (p. 153). Get your meat consumption down to less than a pound a month and you’re probably going to do more for the planet (and your own health).
The other message is that if the burden of feeding ten billion people can ever be done with the least damage to the environment, then we have to look beyond some of the more simplistic prescriptions. Pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, GMOs — all of these will probably be necessary. Reform of how these are used will also be required, but eliminating any of them probably isn’t in the cards.
• • • • • • • • • • • •
Susan Albert’s review of McWilliams’ book has some points that I kept an eye on while I was reading, and I want to touch on them.
Her first point is that the locavore movement is an important response to fossil-fuel depletion. McWilliams doesn’t address this head-on, but I think he is still on-point in his attack on the simplistic version of “locavore”. Industrial food production has huge energy inputs, and transportation typically isn’t one of the bigger drains. If the oil is available, it will often make more sense to use it to transport food from where it is most efficiently grown, instead of using it to force production in unsuitable regions. The prospect of near-term fossil fuel exhaustion Susan is concerned about would be catastrophic in so many ways that, frankly, people will automatically become locavores as the global economy crashes around us. Worrying about whether lamb comes from New Zealand or fifty miles away won’t be much of a concern at that point: it’ll be a struggle to keep billions from simply starving.
Her second point is that the use of genetic modification is fraught with problems, including low yields, gene contamination, and amoral corporations.
One by one: yields will change as the technology matures. Gene sequencing is still in its infancy: the state of technology is analogous to electricity back when Franklin was playing with kites, so expectations really shouldn’t be too high.
Gene contamination is more of a theoretical problem than a real one: in most cases, the genes we like are for our benefit, not the plants; if a gene adds beta-carotene to rice, that doesn’t make the rice more evolutionarily fit in its natural environment. If that gene were to contaminate other organisms, it would be an irrelevancy or worse, since any plant that expended energy on create superfluous (to the plant) compounds would be out-competed and doomed. Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc., would be a somewhat different matter, but recall that these are battles that plants have been fighting since before mammals arrived on the planet. We’ve been taking part in this battle since we started selective breeding of crops. GMOs are a new tool that should be regulated carefully, but the potential is there for a radical beneficial change as well. Consider the analog in cancer treatment: imagine using targeted anti-cancer viruses instead of cutting people open or dosing them with chemo or radiation. GMOs in agriculture could provide a more precise and much less toxic way of managing food production.
Amoral corporations are certainly a real fear in agribusiness — together with the oil companies, its hard to imagine companies that have a worse reputation. But when we discuss those nasty oil corporations we talk about reform and regulation — why aren’t these seen as adequate solutions with agri-tech? Furthermore, a great deal of GM-research could be done in the public interest if we funded research universities properly. The research leading to the beta-carotene-enriched rice, for example, was done at the Institute of Plant Sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the University of Freiburg. What if the funding for that research had come from governments instead of corporations? But even with corporate funding, the corporations involved (including Syngenta and Monsanto) quickly granted completely free “Humanitarian Use Licenses” to impoverished farmers. Of course, corporations exist to make a profit, not to benefit greater humanity, and so always should be regulated appropriately.
Finally, Susan points out that McWilliams’ book didn’t deal with how global climate change is likely to affect food production. That is certainly true, and it would have been a welcome addition. But I suspect that single topic is too big and important to include in a book that hopes to change how we eat here and now. And, ultimately, it would require too much guesswork and hypothesizing. We barely understand how the global system is gradually changing, and knowing how agricultural practices will adapt would require far more detailed knowledge of changes on the regional and subregional level. For example, California is one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the world but depends through its long dry summer on the snowpack in the mountains that ring the central valley. To what extent that snowpack will be replaced by rain (replacing the snowpack with too much flooding in the spring) depends on too many factors that are still unpredictable. And California is probably one of the best studied of the world’s agricultural regions. The information Susan asks is critical, but it is simply too early to know enough detail. (less)
Gary Taubes, the author of Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, wrote a moderately lengthy article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on April...moreGary Taubes, the author of Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, wrote a moderately lengthy article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on April 17, 2011, with the title “Is Sugar Toxic?” The evidence seems to be accumulating steadily that the amount of sugar that the average American consumes is profoundly unhealthy, and the article does a very good job explaining why.
I’m not sure if that article covers the same grounds as this book, but I can very briefly recap the article:
• Increasing sugar consumption is highly correlated with diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and some cancers.
• Granulated “table” sugar—sucrose—consists of one molecule of glucose bound to one molecule of fructose; that pairing is easily broken, leaving one molecule of each. High-fructose corn syrup (“HFCS”) consists of roughly half each of those same two molecules, and all the evidence is that there is no caloric or metabolic difference between the two forms. Plain corn syrup, on the other hand, is effectively just glucose—no fructose.
• Glucose can be metabolized by any cell in the body whereas, with few exceptions, fructose must be metabolized in the liver. Therein lies, apparently, a key difference. When the liver is presented with fructose, it preferentially metabolizes it, dramatically elevating insulin and related hormones.
• A high steady intake of fructose (either from sucrose or HFCS) means that insulin is elevated too often, leading to insulin resistance.
• Fructose is also sometimes thought of as the fruit sugar. Whole fruits still have fiber, which apparently slows down intestinal absorption so much that it doesn't overwhelm the liver the way a soda does. But fruit juices? Yeah, sorry — rip out the fiber and you’re once again sucking down nothing but sugar water with a bit of “health halo effect” vitamins.
• Insulin resistance is linked to heart disease (and other, related, disorders associated with a poor glycemic balance), and metabolic syndrome.
• A thickening waistline is the visible indicator of metabolic syndrome.
• Insulin is a growth factor in tumor production, which provides one likely explanation for why rising cancer levels have correlated strongly with the rise in sugar consumption for the past hundred and fifty years.
The video that Taubes links to, by the UCSF scientist Robert Listig, is also well worth watching, even if you don’t read the book. It presents the example that a teenage boy’s caloric intake, on average, has gone up in five years (from 1990 to 1995) a total of 275 calories per day. Where is that from? Not fat, so much — that represents only 45 calories out of the total. “In fact, it’s all in the carbohydrates.” That would be an increase of 228 calories per day. Where is that coming from?
Mostly soda. One can of Coca Cola or other soft drink is about 150 calories. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the other standardized container is the 20-ounce plastic bottle. Unless someone is addicted to the 44-ounce “Big Gulp” style. Or, especially disheartening: a “Texas-sized Big Gulp” is reported to consist of a 60-ounce Coca Cola, a Snickers bar and a bag of Doritos, all for 99¢.
Profoundly important, and profoundly depressing, since this trend doesn’t look likely to be reversed any time soon.
I hope the book goes into more detail on metabolic and biochemistry. I fondly remember the Krebs Cycle from my high school physiology class, and I really like knowing the science behind all this stuff.
For those of you just looking for the highlights, read the New York Times article, and then watch the video. If you can't be bothered to watch Robert Lustig's 90-minute long video, you could download a 52-minute interview with Lustig from KQED's Forum program: Sugar and Health.
Okay, yeah, I finished this eons ago. Then I bought a copy (I first read it as a library loan), with the intention of re-reading and writing a Big Rev...moreOkay, yeah, I finished this eons ago. Then I bought a copy (I first read it as a library loan), with the intention of re-reading and writing a Big Review. Now I'm behind by at least four (five?) Big Reviews. But this could change you life — even give you years more of health and life. Read it, even if I never get around to writing that Big Review.