I have been reading a lot recently on the ways our food system has changed during the second half of the 20th century and the destructive consequences of these changes for human health, societal and environmental well-being. Quite a few fascinating books have been written on the subject, including those by Michael Pollan, Felicity Lawrence, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, etc. Among those I have not yet gotten to Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (rather surprisingly!), so I’ll comment on this one later. This review will cover Pollan’s Omnivore Dilemma, Nestle’s Food Politics and Lawrence’s Not on the Label – now this is going to be somewhat long but there is a sound reason (see the end of the post) as to why I grouped these books together. So here we go – the order of books is absolutely random and does not reflect neither the chronology of reading nor my preferences of one over another.
Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma made quite an entertaining reading while providing extensive descriptions of the US current agricultural system (industrialization, mass production, growing divorce from consumers are only few things that arise in mind) and how it has transformed the way foods are produced, processed and distributed to American eaters. In an attempt to solve the centuries-old omnivore’s paradox Pollan undertakes several journeys in quest of the perfect meal. He first tries to trace the origins of the products sold by a modern American supermarket – his trip across the States, purporting to follow the industrial food supply chain, is full of revelations about contemporary ways of raising animals, producing, processing and distributing food. He then tries to embrace organic farming and in doing so he debunks some of the halo around organic foods, juxtaposing so-called industrial organic agriculture, whose benefits hardly go beyond those of conventionally produced food, with a true grass-based farming, connected to the land and powered by the Sun. He finally seeks to understand what self-sustainment may mean in the modern age and what it would take to produce his own food and personally compose a perfect meal from exclusively natural, locally sourced and grown ingredients. This last part, where Pollan describes his adventures of boar and mushroom hunting, was of less interest to me personally, but will still make an informative reading for those interested in the forest biology, for example.
Felicity Lawrence’s Not On the Label offers quite a similar description of the realities of modern food production, put into the UK context. To me, this is an exceptional example of truly brilliant investigative journalism – the author has spent three years exploring industrial food system, travelling around the world, working undercover and doing secret filming from a chicken factory, a vegetable pack house and sandwich making facilities (you will hardly want to buy another sandwich on the street, I promise) to expose dirty realities of modern food production. She provides extensive accounts of the industry’s deceptive and often illegal practices ranging from meat and bread adulteration to human labour exploitation. She raises serious questions of human rights and fair trade, as well as food miles and animal welfare, all of which have recently become buzzwords with increasingly environmentally and socially responsible consumers easily buying into product labels and claims – yet just a mere handful of people really know what stands behind the concepts and what the real truth of the matter is when it comes to animal welfare and human rights in the agribusiness. What is so specific about this book is how it makes you feel connected to a distanced coffee grower in Kenya, selling his crops for cents to provide for a dismal living for his family, through a morning cup of Starbucks coffee you buy on your way to work without investing a thought into what social relationships and values stand behind it and what toll it has taken on the other side of the globe. And yet despite all the disturbing descriptions of industrialized agriculture and food production, the book does leave room for optimism – Lawrence finishes it by providing suggestions on how to remedy our seemingly mortally sick food system and describes her own food buying practices as a guide for consumers on how to shop with respect to both our health and the environment.
Food Politics, written by a nutrition expert Marion Nestle, provides detailed history of the evolution of US nutrition policy and food industry’s active part in shaping government dietary guidelines and hence, public health. Nestle is explicitly critical of the industry’s unethical marketing and advertising techniques and profit-driven product selling strategies aimed at securing every food dollar spent by American population. She discusses the reasons behind current uncertainty and confusion about what a proper diet should look like and links it back to the industry’s goal to make people eat more, not less. One thing in which this book is different from the first two is that it contains a sheer amount of facts, numbers and historical facts, and although this may not always make the most entertaining reading, it sets a background for the kind of the food environment we currently find ourselves in. One thing the book is frequently criticized for is that Nestle builds a lot of her argument on the assumption that fat, and saturated fat in particular, is what makes our diet unhealthy and that we should mainly rely on carbs, and for many this is a dietary misconception, although quite a common and popular one. Now I do not question the validity of nutritional science behind the book, what I found it useful for is getting a better understanding of the role of the food industry in shaping public health policy – something I was aware of but could not clearly conceive of all the strategies and techniques food companies are prepared to use to secure their position (lobbying, soft and hard money, revolving doors – you name it).
Generally speaking, all three books are similar in their first-hand accounts of modern food system’s truly disgusting food production and marketing practices, their adverse and often irreversible effects on human health and environment. Political and societal processes and forces that are accountable for the transformation of our food supply are discussed by all three authors. At the same time, each of the books is unique in its specific approach to the issue – Pollan’s writing is clearly one of a botanist and a naturalist, for whom ecology and environment are always at the heart of the discussion (corn is the cornerstone of the book), to Lawrence human factor and social relations seem to be an inherent part of the problem, while Nestle’s writing is informed by her background in nutrition science and policy (US FDA Food Pyramid is her reference axis). I would never say that one of these books can substitute for another or that it would be enough to just read one of them to form a view on the issue. Instead, I would encourage all interested in the topic to read all three as they complement each other to help get a deeper insight into the issue – my understanding of the current state of the world food production and its global societal, environmental and public health consequences has certainly been informed by each of these three engaging pieces of food writing.