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What Michael Pollan Hasn't Told You About Food

As both obesity and hunger are on the rise, a new book shows why we shouldn't feel guilty about our food choices but angry with a corrupt food system.
 
 
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TV dinners were launched at a time when only a small percentage of Americans actually owned TVs. Thus, the meals, writes Raj Patel, "were what people ate while they dreamed of affording one." In the American dream, we imagine a bucolic Midwest, a place of bounty, yet the reality is that the breadbasket of America is rife with poverty and a declining life expectancy. The idyllic vision of quaint American farmland doesn't work like that "except in fiction," says Patel, and there is perhaps no greater fiction than the comforting hand of the free market -- particularly as it pertains to food.

Patel's new book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System makes visible the people behind the abstraction and reveals a global food system that, with our complicity, continues to alienate farmers and consumers alike, all while fattening the pocketbooks of a few middlemen.

To read Patel is to understand the logic behind the sweets company, Nestle, acquiring the weight loss magnate Jenny Craig or why Wal-Mart is free to raise prices in areas where they have already killed off the competition. In the language of markets, these problems are not "self-correcting." Only the profound failure of the prevailing metaphor of the Invisible Hand hampers us from seeing what Patel has spent years of research making visible. In an interview with AlterNet, Patel explains how "the way we choose food today comes from distinctly abnormal roots," how these roots connect us to farmers and consumers around the world, and why we should get angry, not feel guilty.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: Of the origins of the supermarket, you say: "Shoppers' freedom of choice was born in a cage. What we have come to believe in as 'unfettered freedom to consume' was always intended to be guided by chicken wire." Can you explain?

Raj Patel: The original supermarket was a cost-saving invention born around 1917, the same time as the U.S. was experiencing food riots. Retailers needed to be able to find a cheaper way of selling the same food to a public that demanded low prices because their incomes weren't increasing and the price of food was going through the roof.

There's a route through the supermarket that looks like an elementary rat in maze experiment where you enter one end of the supermarket and follow a path that takes you through everything that there is to offer. Saunders insisted that the store clerks not be allowed to talk to anyone. Their job was solely to make sure that things were filled high on the shelves. Instead, it was consumers who would do the assessment of goods and pile them into a cart or a basket and then pay for them at the end of this long maze. In other words, it was a very constrained and funneled environment.

OR: Can you point out some more of the ways in which the supermarket experience is such a constrained environment?

RP: The resemblance to rats in cages in laboratories is more than cosmetic. The way that we shop today in supermarkets is profoundly manipulated. Everything about it is the result of millions of dollars in investments and experiments. Everything about it: the lighting, the positioning of things, the reason that the milk is always at the back, all of these are ways in which we're manipulated. The profound irony is that we go into supermarkets and we are made to believe that we choose freely, but the moment we step through the doors of the supermarket, we have been made for our food. We are being crafted in that environment into people who will impulse purchase, will accept a range of fruits and vegetables that is very narrow, will think that when we pick between Coke and Pepsi, that that's real choice.

OR: Explain for whom the free market works and what "free market" means in the context of food.

RP: Free markets in food and certainly global markets in food are a very new thing. They are barely 200 years old and their origins have everything to do with colonialism. The world's first free market in grain was the market in wheat in the 1880s. This market was forged in imperialism and conquest, particularly by the British over the grain baskets of South Asia.

The social safety nets that existed in India under feudal society had been knocked away by the British. If people couldn't afford food, they didn't get to eat, and if they couldn't buy food, they starved. As a result of the imposition of markets in food, 13 million people across the world died in the 19th century. They died in the golden age of liberal capitalism. Those are the origins of markets in food.

We shouldn't be surprised, then, that in those markets today, there are basically just a handful of corporations that control the truck and barter of goods. In any major market, you'll see that it's basically four or five corporations that control upwards of 50 percent of the market. In tea, it's just one corporation, Unilever, that controls 90 percent of the market, and in coffee there are just a couple of firms that have 80 percent of the market.

OR: You use coffee as an illustration of how the free market tends to disadvantage consumers and farmers and benefit primarily a handful of middlemen.

RP: We've seen the price of coffee go up. You'd think that the people who would benefit from this must be the poor farmers who are growing the coffee. But if you look at the situation of coffee farmers, it's pretty precarious. In the book, I talk about a family that used to be able to sell dry coffee cherries for 69 cents per kilo. When I spoke to them, they were getting 14 cents per kilo. They are desperate because their land can't be turned to grow anything else. They either have to choose to walk away from their land and try and make a go of it in Kampala, the city, or they produce at a loss and hope things get better.

You can see the disproportion all the way up the food chain. The middleman will buy at 14 cents per kilo and sell at 19 cents. The mill will buy at 19 cents and sell at 24. Then it is bought by Nestle in West London, where it will cost $1.64 per kilo, and then it gets turned into instant coffee. By the time it comes out, it costs $26 per kilo -- more than 200 times the cost of what it was in Uganda. That transformation suggests that whenever there's a price spike the benefits of that tend to accumulate in the parts of the food system where the most power is concentrated.

OR: In the book, you write that these middlemen are frequently involved in price fixing. You refer to Archer Daniels Midland as "the cartel that fixed the price of lysine and citric acid." Can you talk about the role these food corporations have in affecting the market -- particularly in corn?

RP: It's an evolving scam. The fact that there is an American corn surplus was a strategic decision made by the U.S. government under some heavy influence from companies like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. But then we have this corn surplus and don't know what to do with it. Luckily, here are Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill who are prepared to turn it into high fructose corn syrup. Now, these companies have offered to turn the surplus into ethanol. They're convincing the government to part with billions of dollars to support a scheme that by any relevant scientific criterion is nuts. Biofuels take more energy to produce than they release and they produce more CO2 than they save.

OR: You talk about the origins of NAFTA in your book, specifically focusing on how ideology shaped the effects of NAFTA on migration.

RP: NAFTA was obviously pushed by the U.S. government, but they thought, quite reasonably, that exposing Mexican farmers to vast U.S. agricultural subsidies under free trade agreements was going to be a recipe for disaster. The weird thing is that it was the Mexican government that said OK to liberalizing agriculture. It's unusual because it is, in many ways, against the interests of the majority of people living in rural areas. You've got to ask why it is that even when they could have levied substantial import tariffs to the tune of millions of dollars a year to be able to generate revenue from the import of American corn, they chose not to. Even under NAFTA they were allowed to make those taxes.

OR: How has NAFTA affected eating habits?

RP: NAFTA has resulted in a vast influx of American consumerism. For me, the two startling facts are, firstly, that Mexico is the world's second most obese country after America. Also, the closer you get to the American border from Mexico, the fatter Mexican teenagers are likely to be. I don't think people realize quite how much food culture and body image really matter.

The example that comes to mind is Fiji. Anorexia and bulimia were virtually nonexistent before 1995, when television was beamed in. Within three years of predominately U.S. television, 12 percent of teenage Fijian girls were bulimic. That's batshit crazy, yet I think we are so inured to all the advertising and food culture that is around us that it feels normal. There's nothing normal about it.

The fact that it seems normal is a sign that the food corporations in many ways have succeeded in their project. They have managed to convince us that most of the shit that we eat every day is food when it isn't. It's a profit for them and too often a poison for us.

OR: You make the case that farmers around the world, including the U.S., are suffering. There has been a boom in food processing, but over a million jobs have been lost in the farming and allied industries. Statistical indicators of welfare are some of the lowest in the rural areas of the U.S.

RP: And in fact there was an article that came out in a biology journal just a couple of days ago that showed that in the heartland, particularly for women, life expectancy rates are now falling. It had always been the case that one generation of Americans would live longer than their parents. Now that's being reversed, particularly for women, particularly in the poorest rural areas in the United States.

This is correlated with disinvestment in small, sustainable agriculture and a shifting of investment towards huge megafarms. That means there is less money going to community schools, for example. It is almost always an augury of bad things when a rural school closes because, as a consequence, the rest of the rural community tends to fall apart. Rural schools have been closing hand over fist.

OR: Those of us who live in cities often have this imagery of rural areas and farmland as idyllic, bucolic places, yet you write about how these areas of food production may also have "food deserts."

RP: There is this idea of middle America as being The Little House on the Prairie . It doesn't work like that except in fiction. Food deserts are areas where fresh fruits and vegetables in particular are unavailable and the reason is because the people who control their distribution don't see a profit in making them available in particular areas. It shouldn't be surprising that the two areas that we see particularly characterized by these food deserts are areas of low-income people in rural America and in urban America. These people find themselves denied access to fresh fruits and vegetables through what is known as supermarket redlining. Supermarkets don't go into areas where there are communities of low-income people and often people of color.

OR: Can you talk about how the individualizing of obesity and health problems is problematic?

RP: The first edition of the Atkins diet had a long tirade against the sugar industry. Atkins was saying that we're being poisoned by the sugar industry -- they're putting sugar in everything. But then Atkins makes the turn that is very common in America: It's a problem of the industry, it's an economic problem, it's a political problem, and the solution has to be individual. The solution is not to confront the sugar industry, not to legislate, not to use government to change that, but to exercise an almost Puritan control over the will as a way of getting out of a situation that has everything to do with politics.

That's why the diet industry is so very big. It is a particularly American solution to the problems of obesity. Why is it that 20 percent of fast food meals now are eaten in cars? This is a figure that you get from Michael Pollan's work. He bemoans the fact. But when I explain to people outside America that 20 percent of fast food meals are eaten in cars, they are blown away. It's inconceivable to them. They wonder whether it's because Americans like their cars so much.

Here, we understand that this isn't some preference for the dashboard; it's because Americans work much harder than any other industrialized country to be able to have healthcare, to have the promise of a pension. In particular if you're from a working family, your income has been dropping in real time since the 1980s. Chances are you live far away from where you work because you can't afford to buy land or buy a house there. So you spend a long time commuting, and if you're in a community where people are of a lower income, you'll find less access to fresh fruits and vegetables, less access to green space. Is it any wonder that so many meals are eaten in cars? Is it any wonder that across the industrialized world, we're seeing levels of obesity in communities of poorer people going up so fast?

All of the reasons I've given for why people are forced to eat bad food have nothing to do with choice. Choice is almost entirely absent from any of these calculations. Yes, you can choose between Burger King or McDonald's, but you don't get to choose to have time to have a healthy meal. You don't get to choose to have time to sit down with your family and cook a decent meal, to really enjoy food, savor it, and connect with it. What we're left with is this poor simulacrum of choice -- constrained between two options that are equally bad for you. Individualizing this is a case of blaming the victim. When we say that it is your fault because you're choosing McDonalds rather than the Whole Food's salad, that's bollocks because people couldn't choose the Whole Food's salad. The choice is Coke or Pepsi, Burger King or McDonalds, either because people don't have the time or the money.

OR: I think that's such an important critique. To read your book is to see the infrastructure behind what Pollan proposes: to spend more time to have meals together, to grow more of our own food. I think it's critical for people who are middle class, upper middle class, and wealthy, who are trying to be conscientious eaters, to understand why they have the choices they have and why these may not be as readily available to others.

RP: The message that is so much harder to explain to Americans is that politics is necessary. People do need to get their hands dirty by getting involved in social change. There is a particularly American fantasy that we can together create a better world by shopping. It's absolutely a case of thinking we can go to Whole Foods, choose the right thing, shop here, pay for this and all of a sudden we will lift the righteous above the impure.

OR: Can you talk about how the GM industry has impacted farmers abroad?

RP: Until recently, the GM industry was always saying they could feed the world better by using genetically modified crops. Critics responded by saying that, so far, GM crops are really just designed to be resistant to an herbicide, or produce their own pesticides. In other words, this isn't about yield; it's about pesticides.

Golden Rice was going to be the poster child for how genetically modified food was a good thing for the poor. The idea with golden rice was that there are millions of kids who go blind every year because of a preventable deficiency of vitamin A. What golden rice was intended to do was to engineer vitamin A into rice, which is the staple of some of the world's poorest people. The trouble was that people wouldn't eat it because it was considered inferior. The kinds of rice people prefer in Asia are white rice, not brown, not golden. But even if there had been education campaigns, they still would have had to have 50 bowls a day to reach their daily recommended intake.

In the next generation of GM crops, they reduced that number to two bowls a day, which is much more manageable, but it never addresses the key issue: Why is it that these kids don't have a balanced diet? The reason the golden rice becomes necessary is because the only thing these kids can afford to eat is rice.

The issue for GM crop companies is they are trying very hard to represent themselves as friends of the poor. In the long term, as more and more studies show, these crops are patently bad for the farmers and they certainly won't help feed the world.

OR: Throughout the book, you cite the many farmers you spoke with around the world. One farmer who was incredibly articulate was Farmer Lee, who committed suicide. He wrote, "Some might say that this is the natural logic of competition, but if you're a human being with reason and conscience, then the WTO should be eliminated ... To live, people need to eat. You cannot commercialize this. It's such anti-human behavior. Not just anti-social, but anti-people."

RP: The trouble is that with a lot of the development industry, the game is to try and simulate what poor people think rather than actually listening to what they have to say. When I was a graduate student, I worked at the World Bank. The way the international development industry works is to basically transform poor people into puppies with tummy aches whose mute suffering is knowable only to those trained in the art of looking into those big brown eyes and feeling their pain. The idea that it takes a special level of expertise is just nasty.

OR: Having spent some time at the WTO and the World Bank, do you feel that there's any role for them in the future if they reform, or do you think we need to dismantle them and start from scratch?

RP: After the revolution I think that there will be a space for international organizations that make loans to democratic governments. I also think that there will be a democratically decided way of exchanging goods between countries that is respectful of and allows countries to sustain themselves, develop and become better places. But in the meantime, I think the World Trade Organization and the World Bank are actively hampering democracy, and they're actively getting in the way of some serious democratic change that needs to happen.

OR: As you've said, our notions of choice are often limited to what we can buy, what as a consumer we can control. What would you suggest as to how people can support more ethical eating and get more involved?

RP: Protesting against the World Bank and the World Trade Organization is very important as are fighting for workers rights and a living wage. But perhaps the hardest thing to do is, at the very individual level, we need to distrust our palettes because they have been so compromised by corporate food.

The other place I have heard people talk about this is in men's groups who are talking about feminism where they say, "I understand that all my life I have been saturated in patriarchy. Now what do I trust? I can't trust my trust. What do I rely on for guidance, for a new gut feeling?" I think it's the same with food: So much of what we think is food really isn't and we have forgotten how to enjoy food and connect with food.

OR: This gets into the Slow Food movement.

RP: It's interesting to me that when the Italian Communist Slow Food movement gets talked about in America, the first bit gets dropped off. But they are communist, and they have this very radical question: Why is it that only rich people get to have pleasure? Why is pleasure not the birthright of everyone? The rich and radical moment is when you take this idea that pleasure should be the right of everyone, and you go do something about it The slow food movement was responsible for helping to drive up agricultural wages and instrumental in creating a two-hour lunch break. They did this, not through individual shopping choices, but through concerted political action and working with people, organizing, being democratic, and then taking on power.

I think this emphasis on joy and reconnecting with our joy can actually be very political. Obviously, it's been derailed in some ways by the bourgeois circle jerk of olive oil and red wine enthusiasts, but it can be very radical. I think that should inform the kind of changes in the way we get our food. Staying out of the supermarket, going to your local farmers market, and getting involved in community food policy councils are all good ideas. The spirit behind it is not that "we must have the finest tomato" but rather, everyone has the right to good food. That democratic impulse is what needs to propel us to a better food future.

OR: I think that's so important. I know you say in the book that the fastest-growing packaged food on the market is organic food. Now Pizza Hut has a new "whole food pizza." Obviously, all of these companies are trying to jump on the bandwagon of whole food and organic food. So it seems like we really need to look at the spirit and the inherent politics of food beyond just the label.

RP: I think too often our guilt rather than our anger takes over, and the guilt points us to look at the right kinds of labels. But I don't think we should feel guilty; we should feel angry. That's definitely what I'm trying to get across in the book.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri is a San Francisco-based writer and editor. She has written for AlterNet, The American Prospect, Salon, Mother Jones, Truthdig, In These Times, Huffington Post and Women's eNews.