Friday, 3 August 2012

Eating our way to a better world?

Fresh Asian greens at a farmers' market - how much difference can such local initiatives really make to changing the global food system for the better?

A guest post by Andrea Brower, originally published in Scoop Media on 15 June 2012. Andrea is from the island of Kaua'i in Hawaii, where she was the director of a local food regeneration project, Malama Kaua'i, before returning to academic studies and also producing a report on the context of the project - Diversified, Localized, and Sustainable Agriculture on Kaua`i:Assessing Opportunities and Addressing Barriers. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Sociology department at the University of Auckland, with plans to write a thesis on some of the issues she canvasses in this article.

Eating our way to a better world?: 
A plea to local, fair-trade, organic food enthusiasts

My belly is full. It seems no matter how hard I try to “eat my way to a better world”, that world never materializes. The organic and fair-trade industries are booming, Farmers Markets are the new norm, the word “locavore” was added to the Oxford Dictionary, and Michelle Obama even planted a White House garden. But agribusiness continues to consolidate power and profit, small farmers worldwide are being dispossessed in an unprecedented global land grab, over a billion people are going hungry, and agriculture’s contributions to climate change are increasing. It’s not just that change is slow, but we actually seem to be moving in the opposite direction than alternative food movements are trying to take us.

What is going on? How are we to understand this apparent paradox, and the seeming failure of our food activism? While the answers are not clear or easy, we can start by considering the main form our political action is taking, and where it is (and isn’t) getting us.

The slogan “vote with your fork” has become the hallmark of food movements. From Michael Pollan and Food Inc. to the vast majority of non-profit materials circulating on the internet and in grocery stores, we are empowered by the belief that we can change the world every time we take a bite. This idea of “ethical consumption” stems from classical market fundamentalism, which tells us that the market is a democracy where every dollar gives the right to vote. According to this logic, the social makeup is a result of interactions between billions of individual decisions, where markets simply respond to consumer desires and consumption is the primary arena of citizenship. Thus, to consume is to be political -- to be good, participatory citizens.

Yet, buying “ethical” food does nothing to address the basic political economic structures that underly the destructive global food system. It doesn’t challenge corporate power, just re-orients it towards new niche markets. It doesn’t address the trade and subsidy policies that create inequality and hunger, or the privitization of our common genetic wealth, or the massive wave of farmland enclosures. While it may be an attempt to opt-out of supporting that food system, our vote of no confidence doesn’t do much to actually change that system. To illustrate further -- even if we tripled the purchase of organics overnight, we will have done nothing to address the industrialization and corporatization of organics, or the erosion of standards to allow for all sorts of ecologically destructive practices in what is supposed to be a sustainable form of agriculture. Further, the majority of farmworkers will still be exposed to agricultural chemicals that we know are sentencing them to cancer, as we all continue to drink those chemicals in our water.

The logic of market fundamentalism that underlies much food activism essentially obscures socioeconomic structures and deflects responsibility away from the state and other regulatory institutions. Furthermore, it individualizes activism by making it about personal consumer choices. This can have the dangerous effect of starving collective political action and identities built upon common struggle.

In its worst forms, the idea of ethical consumption renders the unjustifiable gluttony of developed-world consumerism justifiable. It’s OK that we drive hummers, because we are driving to the farmers market! People can continue to consume with pleasure from a “guilt-free menu”, leaving untouched uncomfortable questions about how our lifestyles contribute more broadly to vast inequalities. In some instances, the idea of ethical consumerism does more to comfort and accommodate the individual eater, and thus solidify the structures of the current food system, than to actually challenge it.

Most of us are aware that alternative food movements have created a plethora of niche marketing opportunities that have been skillfully capitalized on by corporate food giants -- that organics and fair trade have been largely coopted (often to the determinant of more pure organic farming and small-scale direct fair-trade schemes), and that even Wal-Mart is profiting from “local” branding. But we still seem to be relying on the mechanisms and logics that are implicated in the problems we are trying to correct -- namely, markets and capitalism.

Capitalism prevents corporations from prioritizing anything above profit. Capitalism always tends towards the concentration of wealth and power. It requires dispossession and ever-expanding markets, and the subordination of all aspects of life to capital. While our efforts to develop local economy alternatives may be based on a desire to re-embed economies in systems of social and moral relations, we need to remember that exploitation is the prevailing logic of capitalism. Until we start actually talking about capitalism, and defining and creating alternatives that directly confront its logics, our alternatives will always be constrained and shaped by it. Let me re-state this a little differently -- while we need to imagine and build alternative ways of producing and distributing food, if they do not subvert the logics of capitalism, they will be subsumed by them.

This necessarily means challenging structures and forces that do not reside at the local level. The local has become the predominant space of action in alternative food movements largely because it is seen as the site to try alternatives, and to counter trends towards globalized, industrialized, commodity-trade oriented agriculture. While this is an important aspect of resistance, we also need to be mindful of tendencies to use questions of scale to sidestep the more fundamental matters of power and capital. Further, if we confine our action to the small-scale, the most we can hope to achieve is small isolated ponds of fresh food for privileged consumers in an ocean of food injustices.

On the topic of capitalist exploitation, something needs to be said about food system workers -- the people who grow, process, transport, sell and serve our food -- and their striking invisibility in alternative food movements. While we talk a lot about “supporting farmers”, we rarely ask questions about farmworkers, and much less about the people working in dangerous and sweat-shop like food processing factories or the underpaid grocery clerks. It’s estimated that 86 percent of food system workers in the US don’t make enough to live, and that they use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the country’s workforce. By failing to put food system workers at the center of the conversation about sustainability and justice in the food system, the movement effectively marginalizes working-class, non-white and immigrant groups, as well as the half of humanity that produces 70 percent of the world’s food through “peasant agriculture”.

Of course, there are strands of the food movement that are clearly challenging the logics of capitalism, and that have put workers, justice and equality at the forefront of the political struggle. Some excellent examples include Via Campesina’s articulation of the connection between food sovereignty and land rights, trade regimes, and gender relations; consumer-labor alliances based in struggles for worker justice like the Immokalee Workers Coalition; Food Not Bombs example that large networks of people can work cooperatively by consensus and without leadership to provide essential needs; and the occupation of Gill Tract in Berkeley, which is calling attention to the need for direct action to reclaim space for urban agriculture. Even “ethical consumption” is a response to feeling implicated in ecosystem crisis and networks of exploitation, and more importantly, a desire to contribute to something different. In a culture that preaches self-interest, this in itself is hopeful. Furthermore, there is a tremendous amount of creativity and energy behind the countless emerging experiments to “re-embed” agriculture, and the movement has done a lot to present positive and pleasurable alternative visions of the future. Along with other social movements, we are part of a re-orientation of values that sees joy and satisfaction in greater connection to both other people and the non-human world, implicitly or explicitly questioning the fulfillment of consumption-driven lifestyles.

But we can’t stop here. When we fail to position our strategies in a larger project of transforming the capitalist food system, we risk erecting new barriers of privilege and inequality. If justice and sustainability are truly our priorities, then we need to start having conversations about capital, individual rights and property relations that challenge our very core beliefs. We need to de-naturalize and cease to tolerate extreme power and wealth inequities. We need to get beyond the idea that politics is what we choose to put in our mouths. And we need collective action for a collective world. Our reality is not made in an individual bubble contained within the market -- we are shaped by our social relations, and must change them in order to change the world.

Do I still buy local and have a garden -- absolutely! I’m just not under the illusion that these actions alone will change the food system. And I am not disheartened by this either, because the hope for me lies in what we have so far failed to imagine -- in the possibilities of a radically fairer, more democratic and truly sustainable world.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

the (demented) brain on industrial food

Blackberries gathered on a long walk charge up the brain as well as the body.

I recently read 100 Simple Things You Can Do To Prevent Alzheimers and Age-Related Memory Loss by Jean Carper (see her website for more on the book and its message). Carper used to be a journalist specialising in medical matters, and is familiar with searching medical databases and interviewing health researchers. In the book she assembles the results of studies that have looked at what causes the damage associated with Alzheimer's and similar brain diseases, and made suggestions or recommendations for how to prevent them accordingly. A lot of the evidence is circumstantial rather than experimental, as experiments on humans in this area are very hard to conduct, but Carper has selected only the best work.

In this regard I was most interested to learn of the extent to which industrial food can cause as much damage to the brain as it does to the body. This is not surprising, given that the brain is made up of cells just like the rest of the body, and those cells depend on what the rest of the body does by way of nutrition, exercise and so on for their health and longevity. It may not be surprising, but it is probably not the sort of damage most people anticipate when they tuck into a double cheese burger and wash it down with a thickshake. They may know that too many of these will make them obese – but do they know that such a diet will also hasten senility?

Carper devotes several chapters to the worst parts of the industrial diet – foods that should be avoided for the sake of a healthy brain that works well long into old age. She starts with the bad fats – the saturated fats in animal foods and the transfats (artificial fats made from plant oils) used in industrial baked goods, margarine, salad dressings and other processed foods. Animal experiments have shown that rats eating the same percentage of saturated animal fats as the typical American diet develop severe brain and memory dysfunction, to the point of being unable to learn anything new. One study of elderly Americans found that those who ate the most transfats were four times more likely to develop Alzheimers than those who ate the least, while those who ate the most saturated fat were twice as likely to become demented as those who ate the least.

The other problem with eating these fats is that they dispose you to insulin resistance, a main feature of Type 2 diabetes which is also linked to Alzheimer's. Type 2 diabetes is in turn linked with gross overweight or obesity – a condition caused by too much energy in, too little energy out. Fats contain twice as many calories, weight for weight, as protein or carbohydrates, so the best place to start cutting calories is with fats. (With the exception of the good fatty acids found in extra virgin olive oil, flax seed oil and fatty fish.)

Saturated fat is found in all animal products, but some of those products also hold other dangers. Too much meat, even lean meat, is bad for the brain in itself. One study showed that meat eaters were 20 per cent more prone to dementia than strict vegetarians, while another study reported that heavy meat eaters were more than twice as likely to develop dementia as vegetarians. How does this happen? There are various reasons, including the way in which meat causes inflammation in the brain as well as the rest of the body which leds to the destruction of healthy cells. Then there are the toxic chemicals which form when meat is cooked, plus the fact that meat is rich in iron – and too much iron is bad for the brain. Processed or cured meats are especially dangerous because they contain nitrosamines, which are implicated in causing cancer as well as dementia.

Sugar is something else to give a swerve if you want to stay smart into old age. It has a bad effect on the brain in itself, and of course it promotes fat and weight gain. The worst kind of sugar in this regard is the most industrial one – high fructose corn syrup – which has been shown to be much more effective than regular sucrose for piling on belly fat and promoting insulin resistance.

The other major damage that industrial foods do to the brain is not thanks to what they have, but what they don't have – the multitude of micro-nutrients (vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, fatty acids, etc.) which are essential to brain as well as body health. A lot of the chapters in the book are devoted to the best sources of such micro-nutrients. Some of these – berry fruits, apples, cinnamon, dark green leafy vegetables, deep red or orange fruits and vegetables – it would be hard to impossible to eat too much of. Others, such as dark chocolate, red wine, coffee, nuts, olive oil and fatty fish could be over-done, but have protective effects if taken regularly in moderation. Note that these foods are either eaten raw and/or unprocessed, or have had only the processing required to make them edible. Note also that they are all traditional foods, that a giant food industry is not required to produce them, and that although there are now mega-industrial versions of some of them (e.g. coffee, wine, olive oil, chocolate) these are the poorest quality products, and will not promote health in the way that properly-produced foods will.

Industrial food is bad for the brain and body for another reason, which has nothing to do with what is actually in the food. It is that we don't have to expend any of our own energy to get it. Pushing a trolley around the supermarket and unloading food bags from the car requires very little effort, while ordering and picking up fast foods requires even less. All this conservation of human energy comes at a price. Since Homo sapiens first evolved some 200,000 years ago we have had to work hard (often walking many miles in one day) to find our food, and in the past 10,000 years to grow it as well. It is only in the past 100 years that a disconnect between working and eating has occurred, as increasing fossil fuel energy use has allowed (or in some cases forced) millions of people out of food production and into other occupations. Those who lead sedentary lives now find that they can't have their cake and eat it too - or as Barry Commoner's Fourth Law of Ecology puts it - There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.

The price of the industrial food lunch is very high – thick bodies and thick heads. Sadly, with more and more of us forced to live in concrete jungles, the opportunities for closing the energy circle between food production and consumption at the personal level become fewer and fewer. However, those who are lucky enough to have their own patch of earth, or access to an allotment or community garden, can still enjoy working to produce a high-quality lunch, and stay smart longer as a result. And if you don't believe that gardening can be as good as a gym work out, check out my post on aerobic gardening over at The Eco Gardener.

Friday, 27 April 2012

The cancer or the beetroot?

 I made this home-grown 
1 kg beetroot into a big 
pot of borscht -
nutritious and delicious.

I once saw a German postcard which showed a class of rather mutinous-looking early twentieth century school children, inscribed with the words (my translation) “Teachers are the people who help us solve the problems we wouldn't have without them.”

I was reminded of this when reading a story in my local paper about yet another scientific attempt to make industrial food slightly less dangerous. Researchers at the University of Aberdeen are investigating including an extract of beetroot in hamburger patties. This is part of a wider Scottish Government funded project being undertaken at the Rowett Research Institute of Nutrition and Health, investigating the potential health benefits of Scottish produce.

According to the university's media release on the subject the Rowett researchers believe that beetroot (which contains antioxidants) stops the body from absorbing the ‘bad’ fat found in burgers. The lead researcher, Professor Garry Duthie, says that “Processed food forms a major and increasing part of our diet. Consumption of high fat convenience foods in Scotland increases year by year. We are looking to identify if adding a vegetable extract to processed food can actually protect the body from absorbing the ‘bad’ fats which exist in these types of products.”

Those fats contain compounds which contribute to causing cancer. Other carcinogenic compounds are formed when meat is cooked, or preserved using the common preservatives, such as nitrites. This is the reason why the second expert report on food, nutrition, physical activity, and the prevention of cancer produced by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute of Cancer Research in 2008 (The Second Expert Report on Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective) recommends that the public health goal for meat consumption should be a population average consumption of red meat of no more than 300 g (11 oz) a week, very little if any of which should be processed meat. For adult individuals the recommendation is to eat less than 500 g (18 oz) of red meat a week, and very little or no processed meat.

There are other reasons why reducing meat consumption is good for your health – many of them documented by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which focuses on improving health by improving nutrition. One wonders whether the scientists at the Rowett Research Institute of Nutrition and Health are aware of these reasons, or of the studies on how to improve adult diets effectively. It certainly does not look like it, if Prof. Duthie can so sanguinely accept that high fat food consumption in Scotland is already a major problem, that it will continue to increase, and that the 'solution' to it is technological tinkering with rubbish foods.

Even if this particular bit of tinkering proves successful and it is possible to create a non-carcinogenic hamburger patty by lacing it with beetroot extract – what then? Is the Scottish government going to make it mandatory for all patties sold in Scotland to be so laced? How will the multinational burger chains like that? The more one thinks about it, the sillier it gets. Also, if this is supposed to be part of an investigation into the health benefits of local produce – where's the produce?

Health comes in whole foods, not in medicinal extracts. In comparison to meat, fresh whole beetroot is highly nutritious, fat-free and safe to eat in amounts well in excess of 500g per week. Cooking it does not create carcinogenic compounds. It can be made into salads, soups, main and side dishes and even cakes. I am sure that it is served regularly at Henderson's, the outstanding vegetarian restaurant in Edinburgh, which is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The majority of Henderson's regular customers are not vegetarians – they go there because the food is so good.

The Scottish government needs to note from the Henderson's example that Scots will eat their veges if they are properly prepared, and from American intervention studies that if they are taught how to do vegetable selection and preparation for themselves they will make significant nutrition and health gains. If I were the Scottish government and wanted the Scots to eat better, I would not be wasting money on the food fiddlers at the Rowett Institute, who are doing nothing that will help the public eat less meat and more fresh produce. Until governments are prepared to study and fund what really works in improving diets, and/or take notice of existing research that provides evidence on what is already working - this includes more/easier access to fresh produce, higher taxes or other disincentives on 'bad' foods, targeted education interventions, free fresh fruit in schools, stopping the sale of junk foods and drinks in schools, bans or heavy restrictions on junk food advertising and sponsorships, fresh food gardens and kitchens in schools, and urban/peri-urban agriculture - the Scots and other nations will continue to get fatter and sicker.

It took more than thirty years from when the role of tobacco smoking in causing cancer and other diseases was proven for governments to start acting to protect the public health by banning smoking in public places, banning or restricting tobacco advertising and sponsorships, restricting tobacco sales to minors, and so on. Tobacco-related deaths and disease rates are now starting to fall in all countries which have taken these measures.

It took so long to get action because the tobacco industry fought back in all sorts of ways, from hiding the truth about the dangers of its product to fiddling with cigarettes to make them 'safer'. This 'deny and fiddle' phase is the one we seem to be in now with regard to the industrial diet. Big Tobacco was very generous to politicians then; Big Food is very generous to them now. Some multinational corporations (e.g. Philip Morris) cover both products and both eras, and were and are working against the public interest on both fronts.

To ensure that you are still here when good people fighting for good food win out – eat the whole beet, not the dodgy meat.