Are you looking for a summer read? Check out these recently published books on a range of sustainable food and farming issues. Questions about nutrition and how we eat and farm stand front and centre. Take a look and let us know what you think!
The Way We Eat Now sets out to make sense our “bewildering” food system, as author Bee Wilson describes it. The scope of the book is vast and the research meticulous, yet it never feels dry. It’s a vital and essential read, connecting the green revolution and new technologies, the morality (or lack thereof) of big food companies, health and our complicated modern lives. We snack, we binge and we diet like never before.
Wilson describes the transition in what and how we eat that has taken place since the 1960’s. Traditional diets have been largely abandoned in favour of a global diet that is high in calorific, ultra-processed food and low in nutritional value. Of 7000 edible crops available, 95% of what we eat comes from just 30. Alongside the environmental and sustainability issues this creates, it’s also wreaking havoc on our gut.
In 2006, the number of obese and overweight people in the world overtook the number of people that are underfed. “The same food that has rescued us from hunger is also killing us,” Wilson says. Type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancer are on the rise and not just in the developed world, their increase has been explosive in middle and lower income countries like Mexico, India and China where the rate of change has been significant. Conversely in the UK and Germany, despite all the excess food, there are still people going hungry.
What is particularly fascinating is that it’s not just what we eat that is damaging our health, but how we eat it. Wilson refers to a 1969 study looking at the health of Japanese men when they moved to the West. Predictably these men came out with a higher rate of heart disease than those still in Japan, but not because of their diet. Surprisingly, it was because they were not eating in the same ritualistic way that they might have done in their home country. Wilson notes that, “Our health is affected by the rhythms and rituals of eating as much as it is by the content of our diets.” In a world where Deliveroo is king, we need to be careful.
There is, perhaps, no more contentious area in the discourse on food, than nutrition – what defines ‘healthy’ and what we should or shouldn’t be eating. In an era of corporate food production, what should be simple and straight-forward is anything but. The eminent nutritionist, Marion Nestle, writes that “Basic dietary advice is so constant and so simple that the journalist Michael Pollan can summarize it in seven words: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’ Advice like this, alas, does not sell food products. Influencing nutrition professionals does.”
Unsavory Truth reveals the endemic conflicts of interest that are myriad through the diet and nutrition sector – so rife as to make identifying what is nutritious almost impossible. It is no surprise why: the processed food industry has a lot at stake. In the face of debates about what’s healthy (and what’s not), they need to convince consumers that their product has nutritional value.
The tactics that the food industry uses to convince people to buy their food comes from a ‘playbook’, designed to avert criticism about the ‘health’ of their products. Key is undermining scientific independence by infiltrating academia through funding, gifts and “consulting arrangements” that enlist scientists in the support of their cause. The result is research skewed to meet the needs of corporate food companies, some of it outrageous – such as a study aimed at evidencing that consuming hard cheese reduces blood cholesterol levels, where the comparator is butter.
Industry influence is so profoundly corrupting throughout the sector that one wonders if it will ever be possible to agree the sensibility of Pollan’s statement. Organisations such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics are enthralled to Big Food in ways so obvious as to be embarrassing – in 2015, they developed a labelling scheme called ‘Kids Eat Right’ and Kraft Singles (a commercial cheese ‘product’ rather than cheese) was the first to be endorsed.
Nestle’s book ends with a call for stakeholders to take action and an analysis of how we reform the sector. Reform is desperately needed but realising it could be a very long way off.
Nourishment is a fascinating and wide-ranging book, that looks closely at flavour, nutrition, the food we eat and health. Provenza is a behavioural ecologist, with an enduring interest in what and how animals eat and nourish themselves, which he takes as the starting point for the book. Their eating behaviours illustrate the seamless and instinctual way that they ensure they have all the nutrients they need. Faced with illness, deprivation, overabundance and other challenges, they naturally balance their diet to optimum effect.
This, as is widely apparent, is not what humans do – at least not what we do now. When humans were hunter-gatherers, this instinctual eating was more deeply innate, but we seem to have unlearned it. Provenza’s discussions of the impact of vitamin supplements is one example of how we have unbalanced our nutrition – we are far better off getting our vitamins by eating a diverse range of whole foods, instead of popping a pill.
Provenza makes a passionate argument for flavour in food – it creates interest in phytochemically rich food and draws animals to the foods they need, encouraging food preferences linked to nutritional value. Unfortunately, most of our food has become dominated by three ingredients – salt, sugar and fat – and these overwhelm the flavours of fruits, vegetables and other whole foods that offer more delicious and nutritious vitamins, micronutrients and antioxidants.
Embedded in Provenza’s discussion of nutrition and health, is a plea to recognise the importance of ‘terroir’ – the link that animals have to the land they inhabit; for most humans this link has been broken. “Through terroir the cells and organ systems of all creatures that inhabit a landscape are linked…we have lost contact with those life-sustaining energies now that we no longer participate physically and spiritually in the landscapes we inhabit, when the foods we eat are grown anywhere but where we live.”
What is most engaging about Nourishment is the deeply personal narrative woven through it. His research is coloured by how he has lived, and his life and work are embedded in each other. The lack of separation between the two reminds us how much eating is also about living.
Kurlansky’s new book, Milk: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas, looks at all things dairy and provides an interesting and memorable social history of milk. Just like he has done in his previous books on cod and salt, he delves into a common foodstuff to uncover the ways in which humanity’s relationship with it has evolved through the centuries. He moves effortlessly between discussions on the origins of milk in Greek mythology and parallels to Indian religious traditions, to the impact that the European colonisation of the Americas had on dairy consumption and how the unique geography of Iceland led to the creation of Skyr.
Kurlansky clearly outlines the problems caused by industrial dairying in terms of ever-declining farmgate prices and significantly damaging environmental impacts. He even quotes SFT CEO Patrick Holden (whom he described as a “zealous organic farmer in Wales”) who says, “Most farms are like airports, with fertiliser, feeds, everything coming in from all over the world.”
However, Kurlansky’s comment on the tensions in milk production offers an assessment of organic dairy that is not particularly nuanced. He implies that the only reason why a dairy farmer would go organic is the price differential. While clearly, there is a price premium on organic milk, many farmers choose to make the switch to organic because of the myriad of environmental benefits that organic production can bring.
Kurlansky also reveals a lack of knowledge around how and when antibiotics are used in organic practice – USDA organic standards don’t allow antibiotics, but in organic practice a sick animal would receive them if they were needed, and on recovery the animal would be moved to a conventional herd. Better animal husbandry and higher welfare standards are key principles of organic production and as a result, disease doesn’t spread as quickly due to lower stocking densities and smaller herd size.
The issue of animal welfare and antibiotics in dairy cows is not their absence within organic dairy, but the excessive prevalence of them in industrial dairy. Intensive dairy production packs a huge number of animals into indoor units, where disease can spread rapidly. As a result, industrial dairy farmers routinely use antibiotics prophylactically, despite the fact that the overuse of antibiotics in farming undermines our ability to cure life-threatening infections by creating an army of dangerous bacteria resistant to them.
With a public growing increasingly interested in how their food is produced, Kurlansky’s lack of distinction between conventional and organic practices is something of a failing in what is otherwise a lively and thorough read.
Bob Quinn and Liz Carlisle
In this compelling story of American agriculture, Bob Quinn traces the changes that have taken place on many family farms during the post-war ‘agricultural-industrial complex’ which saw the intensification and mechanisation of farming expand.
Quinn points to the steady rise in the percentage of the US population with diagnosed diabetes, in conjunction with increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, recognising that this correlation is by no means a coincidence. Instead, Quinn argues, it is symptomatic of a system of producing and consuming goods that has gone horribly wrong.
As an advocate of truly sustainable and regenerative farming systems, Quinn’s tale is a condemnation of chemically intensive agriculture and the monopolisation of the food system by global corporations. But it is also a testament to progress and a growing number of farmers and consumers who favour local markets and regenerative practices.
As owner of an ancient-grain business, Quinn sees cheap, modern grain as an example of how a nutritional deterioration caused by genetically modified crop varieties, along with an increase in the use of chemicals in farming and the processing of foods, has not only antagonized our digestive systems, but devastated rural farming communities.
Despite food companies describing products such as processed bread and cereals as ‘value-added’, Quinn prefers to call them “value-subtracted” – in recognition of the fact that we would never have needed nutrient fortification had we not removed so many of the nutrients during industrial breeding, production and processing. The supposed benefit of these products is that they are cheap and abundant. But for whom, asks Quinn? When you begin to tally the real cost of many commodity products, taking into account externalities such as environmental damage, the treatment of chronic diseases, the number of farmers forced to abandon their farms and the poorly paid people in agricultural supply chains, this ‘value-added’ food is suddenly not so valuable.
Quinn invites us to reconsider our understanding of ‘value’, so that the foods produced from regenerative agricultural systems are considered the most cost-effective and nutritionally beneficial, given the benefits they bring to soil fertility, rural livelihoods, climate stability and human health.
For Quinn, it’s not just farmers who can help regenerate the food system – ‘eaters’ too have the power to affect change. It’s about asking where our food comes from and considering how it’s grown. “Are we paying the true cost up front, or are there hidden costs?” Everyday interactions such as these can go a long way in rebuilding a healthy and sustainable food system, both for people and the planet.
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