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.


trading profit for food

According to a recent article in The New York Times, grain prices, especially wheat, are rising sharply, ostensibly as global demand grows ("A Global Need for Grain That Farms Can’t Fill," March 9, 2008). The Times largely paints a picture in which developing third-world economies are driving increasing demand for greater food production, exacerbated by global consumers acquiring a taste for Western goods like bread. And yet, like so much media coverage, the article invokes some problematic assumptions about food production and population growth, and conveniently minimizes the role of neoliberal economic policies in cultivating monoculture cash crop farming and the global food commodity market, and in encouraging reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers over longterm sustainable methods.

A choice quote from the article illustrates the implicit view that the "third world" is out of control, with explosions in population size threatening the supposedly stable use of resources attributed to those in the industrialized world: "[i[n recent years, the world’s developing countries have been growing about 7 percent a year, an unusually rapid rate by historical standards." Interestingly, though, a world population chart by percentage according to continent shows that current population distribution is returning to roughly mirror the distribution prior to the Industrial Revolution -- except, unsurprisingly, in the Americas. Political economist Amartya Sen has suggested that the growth rate in places like Asia and Africa is in fact quite similar to that in Europe following the Industrial Revolution, rather than some out-of-control imbalance.

The articles goes on to quote an agricultural consultant as saying "'Everyone wants to eat like an American on this globe... But if they do, we’re going to need another two or three globes to grow it all.'” Unquestionably, global industrialization is going to require increased food production, but perhaps how Americans eat is also part of the problem.

Lastly, the article completely overlooks the possible negative effects of the so-called "Green Revolution," in which conventional agriculture was brought to developing countries to boost yield and focus on growing certain energy-rich crops, noting only that "[e]xpenses for the diesel fuel used to run tractors and combines and for the fertilizer essential to modern agriculture have soared." But ultimately, relying on chemical fertilizers depletes soil, and pesticides both harm local ecological systems, and appear to reduce plants' own capacities for fighting insects (a number of studies over the past few years have shown that organic produce tends to have higher levels of antioxidants, as reported in New Scientist and on OrganicConsumers.org).

All of which leads me to wonder if it wouldn't be better to promote diversified, decentralized, and sustainable food production methods in the developing world, to meet world food demands without relying on economically and ecologically vulnerable cash crops. By ramping up grain production in the US, we reinforce global trade networks in which staple crops are grown in industrialized nations and exported to poorer ones, while local economies in the developing world remain dependent on luxury cash crops (like coffee, sugar, cotton and bananas) sold to first-world consumers, despite falling profits and high financial risk. Perhaps we should focus instead on developing agricultural self-sufficiency and diversity to address these issues, rather than exacerbate the global trade which capitalizes on profit rather than sustainability -- and possibly prevent repeating the environmental and nutritional disaster wrought by the industrialization of agriculture.


in the news: beef recalls and dairy labeling

  • this second headline from the AP is a couple of weeks old now, but describes Monsanto's efforts to restrict labeling dairy that's hormone-free:

    Ben & Jerry's in fight over labeling

    Monsanto is apparently backing a new farmers' group, American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology, which is trying to ban companies like Ben & Jerry's from labeling their products "rBGH-free." notably, rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) is produced by Monsanto and sold to dairy farmers in increase milk production. such hormones are not permitted in organic dairy, but are another means used in conventional factory farming to boost yield. the safety of such hormones remains indeterminate, but this statement gives me pause for thought from from a physician and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health. certainly neither the USDA nor the FDA are known for protecting consumer and environmental health over the demands of big business.

    Monsanto, interestingly, is trying to frame this as a question of protecting farmers' "technology," nicely sidestepping issues of health or humane animal practices. Regardless, this debate is another reminder of the advantages of small-scale organic dairy farming over industrialized agribusiness. You can keep up with the pro-organic side of things over at OrganicConsumers.org, including the latest statement from Oregan Physicians for Social Responsibility.


sustainable seafood watch guides

the Monterey Bay Aquarium has released their yearly Seafood Watch guides, including regional guides to consuming seafood in the US, and downloadable pocket-sized ones to print out and take with you. the guides recommend which fish and shellfish are caught and managed sustainably, and which to avoid, in terms of both conservation and health concerns (such as overfishing and mercury levels). the guides include information on which fishing methods are preferable, such as farmed vs. wild caught, environmentally responsible (hook and line, harpooning, trolling) vs. damaging techniques with a lot of bycatch (e.g. dredging, trawling, purse seining).

fish is often touted as a good source of lean protein, low in saturated fat, and fatty fish in particular provide needed omega-3's (like salmon, mackerel, and herring). but of course, between rising levels of mercury, PCBs, and other organic pollutants, and conservation issues, commercial fishing is not a particularly sustainable enterprise. overfishing and marine habitat destruction are particularly damaging consequences of the seafood industry.

for those of us who still want to include seafood in our diets, the guides recommend wild Alaskan salmon, farmed catfish, farmed shellfish, striped bass, and sardines (among others), while discouraging the consumption of farmed salmon, Chilean seabass, Atlantic cod, orange roughy, shark, and imported sturgeon. the recommendations for some fish, like tuna, vary according to where they're caught and by what method -- farmed US sturgeon are fine, but not wild-caught Caspian, tuna as long as it was caught by trolling, but not longline, American farmed tilapia but not Chinese.

like most foods, it requires more than changing consumer habits to rein in an industry and protect environmental resources, but this kind of information is incredibly useful in allowing us to make informed decisions. i've been including more herring and sardines in my diet, as they're high in calcium and omega-3's, low on the food chain, sustainably caught, and really tasty.

last week, i experimented with a bastardized take on the traditional Sicilian pasta con sardine, using diced canned tomatoes, garlic, onions, and fennel seed (rather than the traditional fresh fennel, dried currants, and pignoli). this recipe is more of a cross between the traditional recipe and pasta puttanesca (another favorite with anchovies, olives, and capers).

pasta sauce with tomatoes, sardines, and fennel

1 cup onion, sliced or diced (about one small onion, or 1/2 a large onion)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tsp fennel seed, whole
2 whole sardines, cured and packed in oil (you could use fresh too), lightly rinsed
1 28 oz. can diced organic tomatoes
1-2 tsp olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
fresh-grated parmesan (optional)

heat the oil over medium-high heat, and sautee the onions until translucent. sprinkle on a little sea salt to release the liquid faster, then add the garlic and fennel seeds. sautee for another minute or two, then add the sardines. mashup up the sardines with a wooden spoon -- they won't entirely dissolve but they should disintegrate into smaller pieces throughout the pan. once the sardine pieces have broken up evenly, add the tomatoes. bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer on low for 15-20 minutes. you can mash the tomato chunks with the back of your spoon to break them down faster. when the sauce has reduced somewhat (it should be thicker but not a paste), add salt and freshly ground pepper, and serve over al dente pasta (such as spaghetti, linguine, or fettucine). add grated cheese if desired (i never eat parmesan over puttanesca, but it was good with the sardine sauce).

i actually made this to accompany baked polenta cutlets, as polenta is supposed to complement fish. it was good, but perhaps slightly better with pasta. you could also try making it with crushed tomatoes, or even tomato sauce for a quicker cooking time. the flavor of the fennel really enhances the sardines, but you definitely have to like the taste of cured, briny fish!


cheap corn and the lure of ethanol

yesterday's news drew attention to two new studies in Science on the problems of biofuels as a panacea for the damage wrought by reliance on fossil fuel energy. i don't find it that surprising that burning more biomass isn't a great way to reduce carbon emissions, even if the plants' growth is supposed to offest their greenhouse impact by absorbing CO2. by taking into account the effect of converting existing cropland to biofuel farming, one of the studies found that "corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%." both studies suggest that to offset greenhouse gases (GHG), biofuels will have to come from waste products and abandoned agricultural land: "[i]n contrast, biofuels made from waste biomass or from biomass grown on abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials incur little or no carbon debt and offer immediate and sustained GHG advantages" (Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt, Fargione et al).

it's unfortunate that even a hardy cover crop like switchgrass might not be as promising a solution as it looks (though the studies do suggest that integrated properly, such perennials could provide efficient biofuel with low carbon impact), but i also take this as a reminder of the negative consequences of enormous federal corn subsidies. corn-based ethanol has been an attractive fuel alternative because it creates a potential new market for all that cheap corn grown in the midwest, which has long outpaced demand. ethanol offers American agribusiness a new market for their undervalued product, while promising the political expedience of claiming to reduce our "dependency on foreign oil." but unless biofuels can be shown actually to reduce carbon emissions, they only people they'll benefit are big corporations, at the expense of the rest of us.