The Politics of GMOs

As made evident last week by Congress’s failure to pass a bill that would require background checks for firearms owners–a bill with over 90% approval by the general public–money and influence arguably play a larger role than public interest in passing legislation. This stands true for legislation regarding food labeling as well: according to dietician Carole Bartolotto, she was dismissed from the highly powerful Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) for pointing out that two of her co-members had strong ties to Monsanto, one of the largest producers of genetically modified seeds.

Considering the fact that the academy is currently in the process of deciding its (highly influential) position on the ethics genetically modified foods, this raises a red flag for anyone who is even slightly conscious of what goes into their mouths. The academy claims that Bartolotto was dismissed for failing to disclose her “Healthy Eating Consulting” business, which was found on her blog during an alleged internet search of each of the academy’s members. Bartolotto claims that her consulting experience was limited to advising one friend’s wife over a year ago.

The irony of the situation, which would be amusing were it not such a sobering insight into the corrupt nature of American politics, is that Bartolotto was officially dismissed for “failure to disclose conflict of interest.” Her dismissal came about a month and a half after her email to academy executives questioning the impartiality of two of her co-members, one of whom is a prize-winner of and test farmer for Monsanto and the other of whom is a senior vice president for the International Food Information Council, which is “financed by food, beverage and agriculture businesses, including companies like DuPont, Bayer CropScience and Cargill, companies that were among the biggest financial opponents of the California labeling initiative.”

[The academy executive] responded to Ms. Bartolotto’s concerns about Ms. Schmidt and Ms. Smith Edge with an e-mail that included the academy’s conflict of interest policy. “Conflict of interest will not eliminate a candidate from an eligible appointment,” it says in part.

Clearly, there are factors that influence the decisions of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics other than consumer safety and impartiality. What does this mean for the general public? The academy plays a huge role in state and federal conversations over labeling policies; whether or not food producers will be required to disclose the presence of genetically modified ingredients depends greatly on the official opinions of institutions such as the AND. Surely we cannot be expected to undergo our own review of genetically modified foods; we are forced to rely on historically trustworthy institutions such as the academy.

Regardless of what the academy ultimately constructs as its “official” policy on GMOs, the fact remains that the mere legality of genetically modified food symbolizes the current disconnect between industrial agriculture and nature. The fact that food can be mass-produced and standardized may ostensibly seem like a positive step towards further modernizing our society, if we consider Max Weber’s definition of modernity as controlling nature for the benefit of human welfare, but I argue that not everything can be viewed positively in terms of humankind’s ability to influence nature. The food industry’s constant manipulation of natural produce into corporate food byproducts has transformed societal expectations of what food “should” be and, in turn, threatens our ability to get the proper nutrition we as humans have evolved to need.

gmo-tomatoIndustrial agriculture is, by definition, a commercial practice, and in our capitalist society it makes sense that industrial agriculture companies strive to produce consistent products as quickly and efficiently as they can. Yet in the process of commodifying the food industry, we have lost the ability to really understand what we are eating and how it affects our health; the fact that we can reliably purchase identical products from a company over the course of many years numbs our desire to read the nutrition labels. A majority of foods grown and cultivated for industrial farms become unrecognizable by the time they reach supermarkets, due to artificial additives and systemized mixing techniques, and lacking in nutrition when compared to their organic counterparts. Yet the sad truth is that because our government allows these products to be produced time and again, many Americans do not consider the possible health risks of consuming processed foods.

The industrial transformation of natural food into standardized, super-processed food further separates nature from the public food conscious. Just last week, during a class trip to a garden in a public housing complex, I heard stories of residents who were “grossed out” at the thought of eating some imperfect vegetable that came out of the dirt. Americans are so used to pre-packaged and reliably consistent foods that they are unwilling to consume the natural, more nutritious substitutes. GMOs serve to only further the expectation that all foods should look a certain way in order to be desirable, and the fact that their health effects are not yet known does not exactly ease my conscience.

If GMOs remain legal and do not have to be disclosed on labels, how can a nonpartisan study on their effects ever be accurately conducted? As I see it, the only reason for not requiring companies to disclose the presence of GMOs is to make sure those companies keep up profits and productivity. As a consumer, it is a cold reminder that the industrial agriculture sector is focused on business over food. The academy’s ultimate position on GMOs will be indicative of the scope of Monsanto’s influence on the food industry, although at this point, I would say there is no hope for an impartial position without a complete overhaul of our food industry.

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real.food.fast

Over the weekend, I made my first trip to b.good, a Boston-born restaurant chain that offers a fast food-inspired menu made from local and organic ingredients. I ordered house-ground burger with locally made gouda cheese and a side of house-cut “air fried” french fries. As I waited for my food, I was able to read a bio on the farmer who supplied the meat I was about to consume, including where the farm was located, what the cows were fed, and animal living conditions.

The food was modestly priced and delicious, just as I’d hoped. However, I took away more from my visit than just a full stomach. After reading The Taste of Place last week, I have been paying closer attention to the way local and organic food is represented around me. For the most part, I’ve been noticing how “real” food–a.k.a. local and organic food–is marketed as being for a healthier and more sophisticated palette. Restaurants and markets that sell “real” food are often more expensive and geared toward the yuppie–read: young urban professional–population.

This generalization of the “foodie”–and I use that term for simplification purposes; it can certainly be pejorative–movement comes from both sides. The “average” American is generalized as not caring too much about where their food comes from. The foodie is generalized as having an image of herself as one with more refined ideas of taste and food and as one who has both the time and the money for fresh meals. The foodie movement normally conjures up images of pricey organic summer squash and locally made cheddar cheese–far from a cheap burger, fries, and shake.

Yet b.good obviously problematizes this stereotype. It marks the intersection between America’s foodie movement (the new) and our love of fast, familiar food (the old). Interestingly, the crowd I found at b.good was not the young, earthy crowd that one normally finds at eateries touting fresh and local ingredients (and higher prices to match). Instead, this group was much more eclectic and representative of the local population as a whole. It represented both the foodie and the non-.

It would seem that b.good attracts a more diverse bunch because it produces traditionally cheap food with a sophisticated label. I cannot know whether the restaurant’s customer based is rooted more in its focus on local ingredients or its focus on great tasting, recognizable food. What I do know is that regardless of a person’s motive for eating at b.good, they will get access to learning about the pros of local, organic food once they are inside. They will read about where their meat is coming from, who cut their fries that day, and why the chain’s founders are dedicated to making food the “real” way. The idea that local, organic eateries exist for a class of people with a higher food conscious could potentially go by the wayside.

The fact that b.good serves traditionally fast food–rather than the haute cuisine local-centric cooking is often associated with–gives this form of local food activism exposure to a new wave of Americans. It gets people thinking about where their food is coming from and why fresh is better. It also relocates the farmers and chefs into the discusion of food chains. And it does all of it deliciously.

Food Philosophies

Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

–Michael Pollan

In class, we’ve been discussing personal food philosophies like Michael Pollan’s listed above. My personal food philosophy, if I had to sum it up into a few sentences, would be:

Eat nothing you can’t make from scratch. Have as colorful a plate as possible. And easy up on the carbs.

I would not say that my personal idea of nutrition is the be-all-end-all of healthy eating. I obviously try to live by these rules, but I do not think that following them is necessary to healthy living. However, I do think that having a set of food guidelines is a good idea for anyone in order to establish good nutrition.

First and foremost, having a personal food philosophy makes someone more conscious of what they are eating; if a person strives to stay away from dairy, for example, you can be sure that they are checking the ingredients on everything they eat for milk products. By consciously seeing what is going into your body, you have a better idea of the micro/macronutrients you are getting as well.

More than that, though, having solid food habits can affect you for years to come. By having a simple philosophy that you can remember, you will be able to set up eating patterns for yourself and those around you.

This article on the portrayal of obese people in advertising shows an advertisement from the National Obesity Forum in the UK (#11 on the list) that states, “The eating habits you give your children can last a lifetime.”

 

 

 

 

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The picture is quite shocking, showing the angelic faces of two babies superimposed on the near-naked bodies of an obese man and an obese woman. It certainly would grab my attention, though it would not necessarily make me want to read more.

But it brings us back to my point: the habits you have, and thus the habits you teach your children, can stick for a lifetime. By following a personal food philosophy that is as healthy as it is simple, you are changing your life and the lives of those around you for years to come.

The Taste of Place

In Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir, Amy B. Trubek explores the multiple connotations of terroir, a French word loosely translating to “the taste of place,” in both France and in the United States. The author uses stories from France, California, Wisconsin, and Vermont to examine how perceptions of a food’s taste and value change depending on particular cultural myths, meanings, and memories. Trubek begins by delving into the notion that food and wine in France can often evoke feelings of a romanticized French identity and agrarian nostalgia in an era of increasing globalization. The author ascribes this discernible difference in taste to the idea that how a food is perceived is dependent on the cultural value it is ascribed in addition to how it is produced; French food and wine are understood as being produced with traditional French values.Through the association of local foods and other culinary practices with “a certain time and place, and then creating value for [them],” French food is understood and experienced as different from other food (53).

While the ever-changing definitions and concepts of terroir did get tiring, I enjoyed reading Trubek’s analysis of the taste of place and how the United States has reappropriated the French importance of local foods. As someone who is fascinated by the interconnectedness of culture, politics, history, and consumption, I was enlightened by the author’s connection between French nationalism and American entrepreneurialism with regard to valuing food. 

In the United States as in France, food is often touted as being local to certain regions—such as cheese and maple syrup to Vermont or wine to California—which would seem to produce the same phenomenon as French food in France. However, Trubek argues that unlike the French and citizens of other “Old World” countries, Americans do not have strong culinary or agricultural roots to the United States and thus restaurants, artisanal food producers, and farmers have to create a sense of value in certain region-specific foods. Trubek explores how this American terroir becomes more of an urge for food sophistication in a culture historically based on abundance. By looking at the “foodie” movement and food activism that idealizes locally grown food, Trubek demonstrates a growing correlation between place and taste in the United States. Trebek’s analysis of cultural values with regard to taste in France and the United States demonstrates a fascinating connection between culture and food perception. 

While I found the comparison between terroir in France and that in the United States interesting, the association was not entirely helpful for me when considering the importance of food being “local” in the U.S. The author posits that American culture “relies on external information, not personal knowledge” and that “taste is defined chiefly in relationship to status” (37). She argues that American food values are driven by the idea that “authentic” foods from certain places–foods that are processed in the traditional fashion–taste better than those that are mass produced. Yet while Trubek addresses this cultural desire for sophistication, she fails to properly place the need for “local” within this need for “countercuisine,” despite touting it as the basis for this. Moreover, Trubek does not adequately examine how home cooking and domestic farming–the ultimate “local” with regard to food production–relate to the taste of place.

Instead of focusing on how a certain locale can affect a food’s perception in pop culture, Trubek focuses on how the representation of a food as “authentic” can give it cultural value. For example, she shows how labeling a bottle of maple syrup as from Vermont makes it more valuable because it implies a certain process was used to create the syrup. Yet she then shows that she and a team of scientists and syrup connoisseurs tested to see if they could tell the difference between different syrups, implying the average American–who consumes syrup far less consciously–did know immediately know, either. Thus she reaffirms that the value of Vermont maple syrup is not in its place of origin, but rather in its brand.

While interesting, this analysis does not fully mesh with the author’s analysis of French terroir, which is almost entirely contingent on specific location. Trubek does note that the concept necessarily differs between cultures; however, the fact that she failed to adequately outline the importance of location in American food values with regard to taste left me wanting to conduct my own investigation into localness. In general, I enjoyed learning about the association of taste and place, and I would certainly recommend the book to anyone remotely interested in food culture or culinary heritages. However, I would suggest readers keep in mind that valuing a food’s origin is quite different from valuing its social worth.

            

Fad Diets

While browsing a food blog the other day I came across this list of 200 calories worth of many different foods. Most came as no surprise (obviously celery has very few calories, and I knew jelly beans were not good for me) but some caught me off guard: only 34 grams of peanut butter? Only 33 grams of nuts? And then seeing 50 grams of Splenda sweetener. Maybe I am naive, but I feel so misguided by the message certain food companies seem to send. Splenda touts itself as so much better for you than real sugar, but it really isn’t that many grams (50) of Splenda that equals 200 calories. It takes fewer grams of Splenda to reach 200 calories than gummy bears.

Why does our society have this defined idea of what is “good” for you? How do we determine it? To me it seems like even if contrasting information comes out, like how certain macro/micronutrients matter more than caloric intake in terms of obesity or that what kind of calories you eat doesn’t matter at all, we just believe what we think is easiest to believe. We have this societal notion of what we are supposed to eat that seems to be really hard to change.

Check out this article on the history of dieting in America: trendy diets virtually always come into popularity with pop culture. We see a famous person “succeed” with a certain eating pattern and copy that, such as the cigarette-instead-of-snack diet that became popular in the 1920s via Lucky Strike. In retrospect, this does not seem like sound medical advice. Obviously that fad has been proven to have negative effects (to say the least), but our society is still continuing the pattern of listening to ads and celebrities instead of scientists. Even today, we see Jessica Simpson, Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Hudson, and others influencing people (mostly women, but men too) in their eating habits. But the emphasis is rarely on health: it’s on losing weight.

It seems like the obsession our mainstream society has with food is less about what we believe is good for us and more about how we think we should relate to food based on what the media tells us. This becomes more evident when we look at other cultures: in the Netherlands it’s perfectly normal to put mayonaise on nearly everything; in France they emphasize huge meals with many fats and meats; and in Russia they endorse starch-y, carb-y foods that are often served with butter. Our idea of good eating is heavily influenced by our culture.

But back to my point: why do we simultaneously tout low-calorie diets and not always know how many calories are in many of our favorite foods? Why do we insist on less fat, more protein, less calories, more working out if we do not even know where these theories come from? Because food directly relates to our culture and how we see our relationship with food is not based on biology. I’m very interested to read about Terroir and the idea that food has a certain meaning in different cultures later in the year, because it seems to have a larger effect than I had originally thought.