Tag Archives: food policy

What counts as a “food dialogue”?

The US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance has decided to shift tactics from bunker mode to PR blitz, probably because they know Bittman and others are shifting the discourse, much as other front groups might try to intervene. The resulting Food Dialogues are trying to harness social media and to fight back against Meatless Mondays and other gradualist flexitarian programs. (If ever I’ve seen a sign that things like Meatless Mondays – or even meatless weekdays, for the more committed – are powerful policy tools, this kind of backlash would be it.)

The image above is from a study conducted by the USFRA, and I think this post by Civil Eats does a good job deconstructing it. Especially this: “While I believe the majority of our nation’s ranchers and farmers are respectful stewards of the land with the public’s best interest at heart—they’re working hard to reduce their environmental impact and address pesticide, artificial hormone, and antibiotics overuse—the USFRA clearly is not representing them. Instead, a look at the Alliance affiliates reveals that it is made up of, and funded by, the biggest players in the food industry, including those who profit most from toxic agricultural chemicals, polluting farming and food processing practices, and concerning animal welfare policies. No wonder, then, that that limiting protections from toxic pesticides and pushing back against antibiotic regulation are just two of the current policy priorities of USFRA affiliates.”

This response from La Vida Locavore is slightly more activist, but this passage gets at a core problem here: “Farmers, no matter how they actually farm, say they CARE about the environment and animal welfare. Which adds up to roughly nothing in reality, since the question does not ask what the farmers actually DO on their farms. But the last question is a loaded question.” Since environmental stewardship and good animal treatment are perceived as unmitigated goods by the public at large, only an idiot would say otherwise. Calling the Congo a “democratic republic” comes to mind — everyone wants the cachet of democracy, so they use the keywords and void them of meaning in the process.

All of which is unfortunate, because a real food dialogue would be a wonderful thing. Yes, Pollan et al can be disconnected from the concerns of the average producer and/or consumer, but to turn around and say that Monsanto has the answer? This Habermasian says thanks, but no.

(It should also be a red flag that this ‘dialogue’ is funded mostly by the checkoff programs, a.k.a. the people who try to figure out how put more cheese on pizza. Thanks to the schizophrenic mandate of the USDA, this is a program where following image, from the Onion‘s “World’s Fattest Town Makes, Consumes World’s Largest Mozzarella Stick”, would be right at home.)

Digesting the USDA food plate

So the food plate is replacing the useless food pyramid version 2.0, and everyone is having their say. The consensus opinion seems to be that it’s a definite improvement over previous iterations, most of which showed the stamp of the animal ag lobby. (For a visual example of food lobbyists at work: the CSPI’s work often needs grain-of-salting, but this video is an excellent example of the murkiness of the science-policy interface. Oh, and the embedded video above is…about vegetables.)

A brief overview of the impressions I’ve come across. Some bemoan the absence of exercise, which was visually represented in the otherwise baffling food pyramid. Some see it as a small but much needed step towards reclaiming government authority over food leadership in a Beck/Palin age of ‘hands off my food’. Some questioned whether the USDA, a federal body with the promotion of American agriculture as its core mandate, is really competent to chair this discussion. Others, mostly in the comments sections, tooted their low-carb horns. Vegan dieticians questioned the inclusion of the dairy satellite on grounds of redundancy. The use of a plate rather than a pyramid was generally hailed as a common sense transition. There was, of course, varying degrees of snarky skepticism over the role of government as food nanny. (I’m setting aside, for now, Reason‘s derisive use of the term ‘nanny’, which until its libertarian appropriation was unequivocally positive in tone–Martha Nussbaum addresses this issue in the film Examined Life here). And, as usual, the Atlantic Wire has a pretty good overview of various other positions.

Marion Nestle’s first impressions are worth reading. She is generally supportive of the change, although she acknowledges that these are small steps, and that US ag policy under Vilsack needs to be brought into line with these recommendations. Her main quibble: “Protein.  I’m a nutritionist.  Protein is a nutrient, not a food.  Protein is not exactly lacking in American diets.  The average American consumes twice the protein needed.  Grains and dairy, each with its own sector, are important sources of protein in American diets.

I see her point, but this is a case where a one-plate-fits-all food is problematic, and ‘protein’ may be the best middle ground available. Vegan.com’s Erik Marcus approved of the protein moniker because it’s sufficiently broad as to allow for non-animal as well as animal proteins, and because it takes up less of the plate than the fruit and veg portions. On the other hand, the nutrient protein is present in three of the four foods listed (vegetables, grains, and dairy), making it possibly redundant–especially considering that most Americans get way too much protein, but are too macho and meat-addicted to take this seriously.

Edit: Nestle has a follow-up barrage of links here.

The ethics of food choices: down the rabbit hole

Contemplating the omnivore's dilemma?

I told my sister I would write a layman’s post on “Animal Ethics 101″ soon, and was planning to make that my next post, but as you can probably gather from the title of this post, I’m putting that off for a bit. Tonight’s dinner–gnocchi with tomato and broccoli sauce and a side of mussels–got me to thinking about food ethics and whether something like veganism is necessarily deontological rather than consequentialist in nature. I don’t imagine many vegans would eat mussels, even if they don’t technically ‘have a face’, but the ethics of food choices are way too multifaceted for me to be able to put them in a single, convenient moral compartment. Let me explain what that means to me.

To start from the top: the second law of thermodynamics and the nature of ecological pyramids essentially guarantees that no trophically high-up omnivores (I’m using this in the biological, not normative, sense here) can have a truly guilt-free diet. There are just too many factors involved, especially for the now-majority of the world’s population that’s urbanized and increasingly ‘alienated from the means of production’ (I was just teaching on Marx…). This is not to say that some diets will have bigger or smaller ecological footprints–a diet that eats lower down on a food chain/web (whether sardines or soy, etc., depending) will, ceteris paribus, have a smaller net impact on the world’s biogeochemical systems, which are coming under increasing pressure as the world’s consumption patterns balloon. Rather, it’s just to point out the obvious fact that livings things keep living by converting other living things into usable energy. This will remain true until humans develop the means to become autotrophs.

More concretely, I want to return to two points from my previous post on Rorty. 1) that we live in a tragically configured moral universe, and 2) that the aesthetic private impulse and moralizing public impulse may not ultimately be reconcilable. Rorty would have us coexist comfortably with this uncomfortable knowledge–indeed, this is the main challenge for the liberal ironist–but the reason I bring this up here is to point out the disconnect between the foodie vocabulary and the vegan vocabulary, to the extent that both can be pinned down. In its most civic-minded manifestations, the former tries to bridge aesthetic-moral divide by embracing both food-as-pleasure and a certain kind of food ethics, while the latter is more specifically concerned with food as morals.

Food activists of an animal abolitionist bent would respond that ‘mere gluttony’ is not a sufficient ethical justification for what they perceive to be animal slavery, but I think there’s a problem here–food choices are deeply embedded in our social and cultural lives, and to dismiss them as gluttonous, full stop, is to drastically simplify a complex picture.

To return to the first point–Isaiah Berlin’s claim that we live in a tragically configured moral universe–the ethics of food choices are as complex as we’re willing to track the positive and negative externalities down the food supply chain. In my environmental studies class, I just had my students hand in a life cycle analysis paper (the assignment was to track the environmental costs of a given product from resource extraction through manufacturing through distribution through consumption through disposal, imagining improvements along they way wherever feasible). I’m not implying here that food activists–whether vegan, locavore, or other–don’t understand the moral complexity of their food choices. Many do. I’m just pointing out that the least harm principle gets very confusing very quickly, and the moral high ground can fade frustratingly into the distance.

To combat this risk of paralysis, different people inevitably prioritize different things to care about in there lives, and I think this is one of the reasons that there’s a lot of blowback about the moralization of food choices, at least in Tea Party-era America. For us to take seriously the idea that all of our consumption choices have ecological and ethical as well as economic impacts (broadly, these are the ‘three pillars’ of sustainable development: social, environmental, and economic) is to radically reconfigure what for many is a Lockean vision of property in which all this talk of ‘negative externalities’ is just more unwanted government interference.

For a case in point: the first comment I read on this recent post from The Oil Drum, “Beyond Food Miles”, misses the point entirely by writing “so much for the food miles idea.” Instead of denigrating locally produced food, this article could as easily be seen as a call to reduce at-home food energy costs (also keeping in mind that the study is only focusing on food energy, and not on the Nitrogen, water, or various other footprints). Similarly, one could look at a vegan diet comprised of soy products and vegetables and decry the murder of field mice killed in threshing machines, the deforestation of Amazonian rainforest and the resultant loss of animal habitat, and the human rights abuses of migrant laborers doing stoop labor all day. This would, of course, be an unfair caricature–one could look at the same scenario and see instead a Brazilian economic miracle that’s lifting millions out of extreme poverty. But caricatures are easy to remember, so they persist.