Food For Thought

There is so much food for thought in Michael Pollan's "Unhappy Meals," an article about nutritionism appearing in the Sunday Times Magazine (28 January 2007), that I've re-read it several times, and, quite aside from Mr Pollan's sensible advice about what to eat, I find that the piece steals in a withering refutation of the proposition that free markets are always and everywhere beneficial. The rather important matter of food appears to be one in which unfettered free markets will eventually kill us all and waste the planet. I hope I'm not sounding too gloomy.

As usual, it comes back to the inordinate, profoundly undemocratic power wielded by the people who run big businesses. It is fact, not conspiracy theory, to observe that George McGovern's 1977 Senate Select Committee on Nutrition was forced by agribusiness to backtrack from its original conclusion, which was that we all ought to eat less. The Committee's final report simply counseled avoiding saturated fats.

The linguistic capitulation did nothing to rescue McGovern from his blunder; the very next election, in 1980, the beef lobby helped rusticate the three-term senator, sending an unmistakable warning to anyone who would challenge the American diet.

It is not in the interest of the heads of Archer-Daniels-Midland and Conagra, two name only two titans of agribusiness, to smack their foreheads in shock at the harm that their products are causing to Americans and their soil, or to resolve upon reform. It is in their interest to sell as much stuff as they can. Period. And they will take every advantage our desire and credulity that they can find of . If we lived in an honest society, all processed foods would bear the warning: "Caution: this product was designed primarily to maximize profits, and only secondarily with your well-being in mind." Free marketers will cry, "Everyone already knows that, surely." But in the atmosphere of today's supermarket - a bizarre but not unpleasant combination of cool hygiene and populist affability - even shoppers with advanced degrees are unlikely to weigh and consider the underlying economics. Homo economicus becomes homo esuriens.

the long view enables Mr Pollan to bring another thing that surely everybody knows into sharp focus:

It might be argued that, at this point in history, we should simply accept that fast food is our food culture. Over time, people will get used to eating this way, and our health will improve. But for natural selection to help populations adapt to the Western diet, we'd have to be prepared to let those whom it sickens die. That's not what we're doing. Rather, we're turning to the health-care industry to help us "adapt." Medicine is learning how to keep alive the people whom the Western diet is making sick. It's gotten good at extending the lives of people with heart disease, and now it's working on obesity and diabetes. Capitalism is itself marvelously adaptive, able to turn the problems it creates into lucrative business opportunities: diet pills, heart-bypass operations, insulin pumps, bariatric surgery. But while fast food may be good business for the health-care industry, surely the cost to society - estimated at more than $200 billian a year in diet-related health-care costs - is unsustainable.

Government's role here is not so much to educate the public as to compensate for the deleterious side-effects of an industrialized food supply. It must tackle the ugly correlation between low income and bad diet. One of Mr Pollan's nine points of advice is "Pay more, eat less." This is fine for affluent Americans. For those who aren't so well-off, however, it's an impossible maxim on both prongs. People will eat less if they're more satisfied, but the secret of most processed food (including all "snacks") is their deliberate failure to satisfy; to consume them is to crave more. If only as a form of disease prevention, good, fresh food must be made available to all Americans. Another government task is to oversee environmental health, something that it has not undertaken seriously in decades. Fertilizers are demonstrably great in the short run, but their long-term impact seems to get darker every day. Government must at least fund fully independent research into environmental hazards, consulting laboratories with no business connections whatsoever.

Have you got any good ideas? (February 2007)

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