in the news: faux fiber; HR 875 threatening organic farming?

"Dietary Fibber: Don't be fooled by polydextrose and other fiber additives" -- Slate.com covers the rising popularity of faux-fiber surrogates in foods from yogurt to sugar cereals. Unsurprisingly, food companies are attempting to capitalize on the health benefits associated with dietary fiber (the kind found in fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains), and are using processed fiber-like additives (such as polydextrose and inulin), which the FDA has recently approved in more products. The article's author, Jacob Gershman, points out how food producers are responding to increasing consumer attention to labels, and responding accordingly -- thanks to new FDA regulations, these processed/synthesized fiber additives can be listed as dietary fiber on nutrition labels, despite the lack of clinical research supporting such a claim.

In other news, there has been concern raised in various quarters over House bill HR 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009. HR 875 appears to be a response to recent concerns over food safety and contamination, but critics argue that it will undermine small organic farms and sustainable agriculture. I haven't seen any major news outlets cover the bill yet, and the critics include everyone from small farm advocates to anti-federalist libertarians. A number of different people have pointed out that the husband of the sponsoring Rep, Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), works for Monsanto, and that this bill will benefit big agribusiness at the expense of small farmers. Take a look for yourself, and contact your rep to find out their position.


Industrial models for sustainable food?

Edible San Francisco last week ran an article arguing in favor of eating sustainable pork from the Midwest, rather than pigs raised locally in California ("The Sustainable Pork Smackdown: Midwest vs. Bay Area Five reasons to think hard about that pork on your fork. [part 1]," by Samin Nosrat). Citing improved texture and flavor, and greener, more efficient production, the article lays out some compelling reasons to rethink the mantra that local is always better. Clearly, there are still some kinks to work out in the effort to localize food production in the US, given a large territory with densely populated urban areas dispersed unevenly with regard to the agricultural productivity of the land. Sprawling metropolises have been made possible in inhospitable climates by the history of expanded transportation infrastructure, such as railroads and refrigerated trucks, making possible in turn the massive industrial food system we have today. From the Southwestern desert to the long winters of the Northeast, many major metropolitan areas of the US probably can't sustain themselves on food grown within a 100 mile radius.

But back to pork. The core of Nosrat's argument centers on the particular food system that produces smallscale organical pork. According to Paul Willis of Niman Ranch, for instance, it doesn't make sense to transport large amounts of grain from the Midwest to California, when you can ship less weight in the final meat product in the other direction. In addition, Midwestern sustainable pork benefits from a better developed agricultural infrastructure -- there are more slaughterhouses adapted to humane killing, and an entirely industry for using pig by-products efficiently -- from hides to manure. Finally, Nosrat contends that the quality and flavor of California-raised pork suffers from an "inconsistent diet," compared to pigs fed the corn and soybeans so endemic now to the Midwest.

There are some merits to challenging the local-at-all-costs directive that has become a prominent feature of the sustainable food movement -- while in California, we might be able to eat good food grown locally most of the year, many parts of the country would require a large population shift to eat that way in all seasons. Moreover, the Slow Food movement has advocated the value of local foodways -- the idea that some foods are local specialties and should be enjoyed even if exported, from single-origin chocolates to Parmigiano-Reggiano. Furthermore, in the long run, the issue of emissions and carbon footprints must be solved through alternative energy sources, not only by reducing travel and transit.

But when I hear efficiency emphasized as a key organizing principle in food production, I can't help but be reminded of the logic of mass production and industrialization. The Midwestern hog industry is efficient precisely because it has been developed according to industrial principles -- centralize, standardize, rationalize. Corn and soybeans have been streamlined and modified to produce the most bang for the least fertilizer, and genetically homogenized to minimize diversity. I appreciate the value of using all parts of a slaughtered animal, but I'm skeptical of the idea that pigs can't be raised to taste good under other conditions. When I belonged to a biodynamic CSA in Massachusetts, they raised pigs as part of the basic operations of the farm -- along with vegetables, herbs, flowers, cows, and chickens. The farm advocated integrating animal husbandry and agriculture, relying on a single system of humans, plants, and animals to produce good food. The pigs roamed in a generous pen, rootling in the soil and consuming not table scraps, but the pumpkins and squashes left in the field after harvest.

At the end of the article, Nosrat concedes that perhaps pigs aren't suited to being raised in California, and that we might have to consider eating fewer foods that can't be grown effectively where we live. I tend to agree with this logic, even if I'm hesitant to part with any of my favorite cured pig products. Then again, I have yet to be disappointed by anything made from Range Brother's heritage pigs, such as the phenomenal (but difficult to acquire) salumi from Boccalone. But I think it's important to keep in mind the value of decentralizing food production -- even if it's less efficient. Challenging agribusiness sometimes requires challenging the underlying logic of industrialization in the first place.


eating dangerously

recently, i've seen a number of lists online detailing potentially hazardous foods, from mercury-laden fish to pesticide-coated produce. i suspect that in small quantities, toxins in our food pose only minimal risk to us (at least, as fully-grown adults), though i do wonder about the cumulative effects of being exposed to so many different kinds of chemicals every day, from pesticides to PCBs, bisphenol A, and phthalates. From Sprig.com comes a list of the top "10 Most Dangerous Foods" that you might want to avoid, including farmed salmon, Chilean seabass, and conventionally-grown strawberries. there won't be anything surprising in their report to anyone already dedicated to eating locally grown, seasonal, and organic food -- but it is a good reminder of why it makes sense to avoid industrially-produced meat and produce, and to try to stick to what's in season (which, i'm afraid, means a lot of cabbage, kale, and potatoes all winter long!).

in somewhat more detail, FoodNews.org has published in-depth data on the levels of pesticides found in many common fruits and vegetables, in part to highlight which items you should buy organically if you can't afford to stop buying conventional produce altogether. i would argue, though, that at least much of the year you should be able to find many good fruits and vegetables available locally and in season, particularly at farmer's markets -- which are often pesticide-free if not certified organic. given the price of certifying farms under the USDA's current organic program, many farmers use organic techniques but can't label their produce officially so, which means it's always worth asking the farmer directly if you can.

vegetables in their season are more likely to taste better and not need to travel from as far away, even if that means no fresh tomatoes or asparagus in the winter months. i tend to solve this by stocking up on canned and dried goods, and focusing on dishes made with dried beans, cured meats and fishes, whole grains, and hardy winter vegetables (or fall vegetables that store well). fortunately, the one thing that does come into season this time of year is citrus, so enjoy all the blood oranges, tangerines, and grapefruit!


new trends, old anxieties

fads in health dieting are nothing new, but since i first heard about raw foodism in college, i've noticed how even disparate trends can speak to similar anxieties about food and physical well-being. while i often share the concerns that motivate people to seek out new ways of eating, particularly those that challenge industrialized food, i remain skeptical of any proseltyzing that insists on a narrow eating regimen to promote health. of late, i've noted both the growing interest in fermented foods and the "paleo" diet, which continues the low-carb trend.

part of what i find interesting is how these different dietary practices make similar appeals to a set of related issues, invoking historical or traditional ways of eating over "modern" ones, while insisting on eating habits as the key to health and well-being. frequently, these diets argue that the high incidences of heart disease, cancer, and so forth in industrialized countries are linked to contemporary food practices, and can therefore best be countered by making different alimentary choices. this is the same logic that has fueled health-conscious vegans and vegetarians for decades (and often supported by research -- at least, that eating a lot of vegetables is good for you). food journalist Michael Pollan has added momentum to the local and organic foods movement by advocating a similar position -- "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Pollan defines "food" as what your ancestors from a few generations back would recognize as such, and appeals to "traditional food cultures" for guidelines on what to eat.

these latest trends in fringe eating, then, rely on history (as we remember it) for a roadmap to food-derived health. like many earlier fads (and some established ones), there may be merit lurking within the questionable rhetoric (raw foodists, for example, speciously claim that cooking destroys necessary enzymes, but their diets succeed in increasing consumption of fresh produce, nuts, seeds, and similarly beneficial fresh, organic foods). the fermented food fad, for instance, capitalizes on the benefits of consuming live yeast cultures which help us digest certain foods (which feminist science studies scholar Donna Haraway would call "companion species," organisms that have evolved in a symbiotic relationship with us).

certainly, many different human cultures have been consuming fermented foods for millenia, from Egyptian bread and beer, to sauerkraut, yogurt, and tea. people used to rely on catching wild yeast for their bread to rise (although yeast could be coaxed into inhabiting bakeries and wineries, making it easier to cultivate the right kinds in the right places). myself, i'm generally on board with eating cultured foods, and experimenting with making my own at home (this summer, we turned a head of cabbage into a tasty crock of homemade sauerkraut, and i am seriously curious about making my own sourdough starter). but i remain suspicious of the claims made by some fermented food enthusiasts, for example, that such food can treat autism or singlehandedly fight off infection and disease. there are many factors contributing to the rise of certain ailments in the industrialized world, some of which may be linked to environmental changes, while others may be rooted in different ways of conceptualizing and classifying illness.

the "Paleo" (paleolithic) diet, by contrast, appeals to a different (but related) set of assumptions about eating and health, principally the idea that we can improve our well-being by returning to the foods eaten by hunting and gathering peoples (usually known by anthropologists as foragers). this line of thinking relies on the notion that human bodies evolved to eat certain kinds of foods, presumably those consumed by the earliest hunter-gatherers, and that we should eat similarly to our prehistoric human ancestors to avoid disease and maintain optimum health. there may be some truth to these claims, that our bodies are adapted to process certain kinds of foods, and that we haven't evolved much physically since prehistoric days. however, there are some serious limitations to this approach, which depends on being able to ascertain what, exactly, those early ancestors were eating -- long a subject of debate among biological anthropologists.

the contemporary Paleo diet, however, is premised on a number of assumptions that have already been challenged by anthropologists. first is that modern foraging peoples must live like our early hunting and gathering ancestors. the reality is that no contemporary peoples can be considered "primitive" -- regardless of how they live, all humans today have the same millenia of human history stretching back before them to truly prehistoric times, and their cultures may have changed as much since then as ours (even if they haven't produced similar technologies or "civilization"). the very idea of the "primitive" has been countered by anthropologists as reflecting an evolutionist logic that all humans will ultimately move from more to less civilized, and that Western modernity is the end goal of such cultural evolution.

furthermore, the Paleo diet may say more about how we imagine paleolithic people lived than they actually did. this introduction to the Paleo diet (comparable to others I've seen) suggests that we should eat more lean meat and fish, but avoid grains and dairy. for evidence, the article turns to islanders off the coast of Papua New Guinea (presumably Melanesian peoples like the Trobrianders, famously studied by a father of cultural anthropology, Malinowski), and claims "[t]heir food is the same kind of food that human beings ate during the Paleolithic era, the kind of food our bodies are still made for." ironically, however, most Melanesian islanders are horticulturalists, small-scale farmers who cultivate gardens for their staple foods, including taro and yam, which are then supplemented by fish, vegetables, and occasionally pork. starchy tubers remain the cornerstone of their diet, contrary to the Paleo diet's claims. but moreover, it's quite likely that prehistoric people actually ate wild grains and a lot of wild tubers, and that meat was a rarity, since it's rather difficult to kill an animal with early weapons (especially a large one). finally, there are a few other flaws underpinning this diet. first is that consuming contemporary farmed meat (factory- or pasture-raised) cannot really compare to eating wild game, from differences in animal breed, level of exercise, and and what we feed them. in addition, one of the keys to human evolutionary success has been precisely our adaptability -- our ability to make our environment suit us, and to cultivate it so we can flourish.

whatever may be the benefit (or detriment) of this ecological flourishing, it seems overily hasty to look to (imagined) historical food practices to solve our modern health problems. those problems are rooted in many complex factors, which include the advent of factory farming and commercialized food engineering, but cannot be divorced from how we have transformed and damaged our physical environment, nor can we necessarily distinguish their genesis from conceptual shifts in how we imagine and experience health and illness. food, finally, cannot be reduced to a simple relationship between consumption and promoting health, but must be understood as insperable from a broader set of cultural beliefs and practices that shape our experiences of eating and health.


in the news: action against BPA, curbing rice consumption

this first item is a couple of weeks old now, but the Canadian government appears to be preparing to take action against the use of bisphenol-a (BPA) in plastics. according to The New York Times, Canada's health department is planning to declare BPA toxic, based on research showing its effects as an endocrine disruptor, even at small amounts of exposure:

"Canada Likely to Label Plastic Ingredient 'Toxic'"

hopefully this move, besides encouraging the government to ban BPA in certain products, will also furnish further support for more careful investigation of its safety in the US, where plastics manufacturers have been avidly defending its harmlessness. for more information on BPA in household products, see my past post, "avoiding bisphenol A." the Green Guide also offers a useful overview of which plastic numbers are which resins, and what common products are made with, "Plastic Products at a Glance." of course, trying to reduce plastic consumption will both limit your exposure to toxic plasticizers and reduce non-biodegradable waste.

secondly, the San Francisco Chronicle today reported on how worldwide grain shortages are having an impact on the availability of rice in the US:

"Global rice squeeze hitting U.S. consumers"

apparently, droughts in many rice-growing countries are contributing to the shortage of long-grain rice, and these countries are responding by restricting exports to protect the price of the grain for their own domestic consumption. American wholesalers have responded by limiting sales of rice to consumers and restaurateurs per visit. the article goes on to discuss briefly Raj Patel's work on the "world food system" and the negative effects of global climate change, rising fuel and fertilizer costs, and increasing meat production. Patel describes how growing demand for meat is linked to economic development, reminding us how much more grain is required to raise a pound of meat than to feed a human being. but Westerners should be careful not to blame the developing world for food production excesses we've promoted at home for over 50 years, including factory farming and industrialized agribusiness. instead, we might think about why meat retains its status as desirable and privileged food, and how we can promote (or lobby the government to do so) a more sustainable balance of smallscale, humane meat production alongside decentralized grain and produce farming.

what's most clear, however, is how a confluence of modern food production and transportation practices are engendering an untenable set of conditions, in which increased oil consumption has contributed both to global warming through fossil fuels and poor soil quality through reliance on nitrogen fertilizers. centralized, industrialized food production has provided us both with poor nutrition and an unstable world system, which puts many people in a vulnerable position when a monoculture crop is threatened or transportation costs spike up sharply. it's unfortunate that Western countries have established such an unsustainable model for food production, and it may be that the weaknesses of the system only force us to change our ways under great duress.


in the news: spraying pesticides over urban areas?

according to the San Francisco Chronicle last month, California's agricultural department has been receiving more attention than they expected for a plan to spray urban areas in northern California with a pesticide to prevent a threatening moth infestation ("State plans Bay Area pesticide spraying," Feb. 15, 2008). i don't mean to be alarmist, because the preventative measures appear to be less frightening than the steps the state might take if an infestation takes hold, and i doubt the moth would be any better for organic farming than conventional. the pesticide currently in use primarily contains a moth pheromone, along with other ingredients, but if the moths become widespread, they may be harder to manage without stronger pesticides, or significant crop (and profit) loss.

what concerns me more broadly, however, is the ubiquitousness of toxic chemicals in our everyday environments -- while each compound may not be a huge risk by itself, or in small quantities, the reality is that we are surrounded by many different chemicals (plasticizers, pesticides, preservatives, solvents in household products, etc.), few of which are actively managed or strongly regulated in either their use or their disposal. in the article on the moth pesticide, the Chronicle describes how patients in Santa Cruz county reported multiple symptoms after their neighborhood was sprayed while people were outside and directly exposed to the chemicals. given the high rates of asthma among children today, it's disturbing that officials aren't more concerned about continuing to increase the levels of industrial and other pollutants. additionally, when it comes to the toxic load of chemicals in our environment, educating the public is necessary but not sufficient, as toxicity, health, and environmental exposure are complex issues requiring in-depth study and understanding of the multiple factors involved.

i respect that a widespread pest infestation could present an enormous threat to both small and large farming operations and local food production, but perhaps we need more public involvement and discussion over how best to respond, and in general, greater oversight when it comes to adding potentially dangerous compounds to the physical environment.