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.

Nutrition in the Media

supermarketThe Nutrition section of Boston.com has recently been advising Bostonians on how to lead healthier lives, last week focusing on how to eat less salt. According to the article, the average American consumes over seven times the amount of sodium our bodies need to perform every day. In order to help the average American consumer less sodium, author Joan Salge Blake takes the reader step-by-step through the grocery aisles, recommending that consumers check the labels of their processed foods for sodium content and offering alternatives to salty marinades and dressings.

Interestingly, nowhere in the article does Blake suggest buying organic or shopping at local markets for unprocessed foods, despite her claim that “over 75 percent of the sodium we consume sneaks in from processed foods.” Instead, she suggests ways to reduce sodium intake that allow consumers to still eat prepackaged and factory-produced foods, and all the while still shopping at corporate supermarkets.

I find it odd that Blake does not advocate organic foods at all, but instead tries to work within the industrial food system to get Bostonians to eat healthier. I understand that local markets are not accessible to all, but increasing awareness about the health benefits of local foods cannot hurt. Those who are reading these article on Boston.com are already conscious about eating healthier. Thus would it not make sense to suggest local markets to the masses, subsequently creating a higher demand for local foods and hopefully (eventually) lowering prices?

This week’s article does, in fact, recommend starting a vegetable garden at home to all who are able to do so. Yet I had several issues with the 320-word piece:

1) it lists cost-saving and taste as the reasons for starting a garden, never mentioning nutrition or the health benefits of organic food

2) it does not explain how to start a garden, or which fruits and vegetables to plant in a New England climate, and

3) it lists no alternative for local foods if a person does not have the time or space to start a garden

If a person had no previous knowledge of the nutritional benefits of organic foods and were unable to start a garden of their own, she would see no reason to buy locally; the “cost-saving” factor would be irrelevant, as would be the idea that produce tastes better if you cultivate it yourself. The combination of this article and last week’s, which gives pointers on how keep a clean conscience while still shopping at a corporate grocery store–despite hinting that it is impossible to do so (Blake herself says processed food “sneaks” in extra sodium)–does not really advocate local and organic food.

Instead, the underlying message is that you should create a vegetable garden yourself to save money, and regardless of that, there is a perfectly fine way to stay healthy by intelligently shopping for processed foods. So while the intentions behind these pieces are certainly good, the reader is given no real reason to stop shopping at supermarkets. And considering the fact that those who have the time, space, and money to invest in a vegetable garden are already more likely to be more health-conscious, I cannot see these articles really changing many people’s food philosophies.

Food Security

Food Security

A new study done by the University of Connecticut compares each of the state’s towns on their “food security.” According to the article, food security means “whether there is easy access to a variety of healthy foods and whether residents are sufficiently taking part in food assistance programs.” As a native of Connecticut, I was interested to see where my town, Norwalk, fit on the map.

As it turns out, Norwalk is pink. Interestingly, it is a “pink” town–aka greatest risk of food security–surrounded by only “green” towns–aka lowest risk of food security (you can see it on the southwestern tip that jets out from the rest of the state). When people think of access to health food, the conversation always seems to generate around the idea of “low-income areas” not having enough access. Yet this graph shows how access is not determined by geographical location; Norwalk is surrounded by all towns in the lowest risk level, and it certainly would not take more than 20 minutes to drive or take public transit to one of these locations.

In my experience, “access” to healthy foods has a lot to do with class; local and organic food is valued much more heavily by the white, upper-middle class neighborhoods of the surrounding towns. It is in these towns that farmers’ markets travel to, and these people to whom they advertise. Norwalk, by contrast, is made up of many immigrant and first-generation American families who differ immensely in both culture and income. There are more ethnic markets and affordable corporate grocery stores in Norwalk than in the “green” towns.

It is seen as sophisticated and classier to be more interested in consuming healthy foods, and this association affects both sides. Identifying one type of food philosophy with yuppies certainly would make it less attractive to anyone who might not fit into that social group.

The article quotes Connecticut Food Policy Chairman John Frassinelli as saying “the Food Policy Council will be meeting with local food councils over the next year to help them make decisions about improving access to healthy foods.” Yet this risk of food security cannot be reduced to simply a lack of supermarkets or farmers’ markets. Rather, it must also address differences in food philosophies: citizens must learn to appreciate healthier and organic foods if they are going to buy them. In order to do that, education is important.

It is also necessary to debunk the idea that the healthy foods movement only applies to wealthy whites. Geographical proximity to healthy foods can only go so far in increasing access. The rest is up to the people.

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 FDA Fails… Again

If I unknowingly consumed those extra calories every day, in a week I would put on an extra pound of body weight.

Once again, I find myself reading an article about the shortcomings of the FDA and its ability to do what it says it will. Apparently, the somewhat controversial New York mandate for most chain restaurants to post calorie count is regulated by nothing more than the honor code. Basically, restaurants can post any number they like until someone decides it sounds wrong and has them audited (not very likely).

Again… why do we have the FDA? It’s seeming more and more that the Agency’s job is to come up with regulations and rules that it has no intention (or means) of enforcing. Neistat, the writer of the NYTimes article, spoke to the representatives of five chains that listed calorie values less or much less than their actual count. Responses from the chains varied, each having one excuse or another.

If this is a problem in New York, a state with some of the strictest nutritional regulations, then I can only imagine how bad the mislabeling is in other areas of the country. According to the article, the older method of calorie counting is far less accurate than the way we currently do it in a lab. Yet many companies base their values on the old system and old “set” counts for many ingredients. And no one seems to notice!

Especially not the FDA.

Live Unconsciously.

Panera Bread has a new commercial about their approach to “the right way” of preparing food through the use of foody buzzwords like “trust,” “community,” “farmers,” “humble,” and my favorite quote from the title, “live consciously”. By using these words, Panera attempts to conjure up an image of the company as one with a set of morals that prioritizes natural, local, and sustainable food systems. Its target audience is certainly health- and food-conscious consumers (again, see the title of the video), and yet that is the exact audience I think this ad alienates. Panera’s entire goal in this commercial is to convince consumers that by eating Panera products, they are living up to some set of unspecified ethical eating standards, yet the company provide almost no information on how eating freshly baked breads makes someone more moral.

Panera’s idea of providing “food you can trust” is extraordinarily vague: the entire text of the commercial is only 116 words long, spoken over a distracting Rube Goldberg-esque contraption that involves wooden chickens and a plastic tomato garden with a watering can. The commercial does not mention tomatos. The only examples given of the company’s “right way” of preparing food are 1) baking fresh bread from fresh dough, which the commercial notes has been done since Panera first opened, and 2) using antibiotic-free chicken in recipes.

We are supposed to believe that by buying Panera products we are living more “consciously.” Yet what does Panera what us to be conscious of? Obviously not where Panera’s vegetables and fruit come from, or how their soups are made. There is no mention of how far these antibiotic-free chickens and the ingredients for this fresh dough have to travel to get to each Panera location. Does “food you can trust” only encompass trusting that the bread is fresh? What about trusting where it comes from? Is Panera more trustworthy than local cafés and restaurants because it can afford artsy commercials? Brand recognizability is not synonymous with trustworthiness.

That decision made us wonder: what else could we do the right way? So we talked to our farmers and our chefs.

This quote invokes the image of Panera cooperating closely with its suppliers and its employees, humbly working together in harmony to create the ultimate moral and virtuous menu for hardworking Americans. The funny thing is, Panera was actually sued for failing to comply with the California Labor Code in 2009 and 2011. While they did not admit to any wrongdoing, the company still put aside $5 million to settle claims that it failed to allow food and rest breaks as well as termination payment for some of its workers. The company was also sued for racism in the workplace in 2011 with the claim that one store was placing attractive white women at the registers and keeping African American workers in the back room only.

So, Panera, what exactly should we be conscious about? Perhaps the way that the commercial attempts to trick consumers into thinking the company said more than it actually did. Decidedly vague references to morality and consciousness make it seem like Panera is in tune with the “foodie” crowd, and yet provide little to no evidence of supporting local farmers or operating with a food-centered business plan. Should we tune out the ethical implications of poor labor conditions to eat fresh bread? I do not want to ignore the good Panera has done with its Panera Cares outreach or its innovative “Pay What You Want” system that has helped feed thousands, but the idea that we are somehow living at a greater moral standard by eating Panera is ridiculous.