Sunday, March 29, 2009

Food Fights in Boston

What a week! It went like this:

  • On Tuesday, Michael Pollan spoke at Tufts, presenting a serious challenge to the western nutritionist paradigm;
  • On Wednesday, Friedman faculty, staff, and students discussed his visit at a school-wide forum (bringing him down to earth a little);
  • On Thursday, MIT hosted a panel discussion on the locavore (Oxford Dictionary's 2008 word of the year) movement that featured a veteran locavore chef as well as distinguished scholars of food-systems and sustainability, including Cornell University's David Pimintel, grand-daddy of life-cycle analyses and carbon foot-printing;
  • And finally on Saturday, the highlight of the week was the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy's 3rd annual Student Research Conference.

With over two-dozen students and researchers from Friedman and beyond gathering to present their work and debate the issues, there was plenty of food for thought. The topics ranged from revitalizing industrial wastelands in San Francisco by converting them to food corridors, to analyzing consumer preferences for bioengineered food products in China (where labelling is required). Equally fascinating was the keynote panel discussion, which focused on "new approaches to feeding the world." A lively discussion was inspired by the panelists, all of whom had interesting and insightful remarks on the future of food production and consumption.

Unfortunately, the discussion was quickly framed by the ubiquitous and increasingly tiresome juxtaposition of techno-industrial agriculture against organic agriculture as mutually exclusive approaches to solving the questions of sustainability, nutrition, and hunger that plague current food-systems.

As an aside, though the classic debate posits organic against 'conventional' agriculture, I personally reject the notion that the dominant food production methods practiced today can be generally characterized as conventional. In fact, vast and highly-productive agriculture geared towards producing bulk commodities and industrial feedstocks is an outcome of technological advances and deliberate policy initiatives that have been enacted in the last fifty to seventy-five years. Conversely, the assumption that 'organic' is inherently non-industrial is a false notion.

To be fair, and thanks in part to audience questions and astute moderation by Friedman's Parke Wilde, the panelists partially withdrew each of their Hobson's choices, admitting that there is no single method of farming that is going to meet the challenges we face. Predictably, as the discussion drew to a close, the technocrats and the grass-roots food justice advocates all threw their hats in the same ring. The final remarks all merged into a recognition that everyone in the room was striving towards the same goal: improving the livelihoods of all humans while producing food in an ecologically sustainable manner.

While virtually impossible to oppose, this position is nothing 'new,' as the title of the panel alluded to. To take it a step further, I would say that only vaguely were actual 'approaches' even discussed:
  • Robert Paarlberg of Harvard University and Wellsley College gave some level of detail on the availability and application of the 'precision agriculture' (a euphemism for agriculture dependent on industrial-scale technology and synthetic inputs) of which he is in favor;
  • Susan Roberts presented a basic outline of the potential for organic practices to save the day;
  • Mark Winne of the Hartford Food System offered some prescient insights on the post-production aspect of food justice, but he was sidelined by the aforementioned debate of production practices;
  • Even at the MIT panel, David Pimentel was hard-pressed to depart from his allegiance to 'capital-O organic' as the way to go.

Interestingly, at Saturday's event as well as the MIT panel there was little discussion of actual policy mechanisms that we might employ to achieve the implementation of any or all of the panelists' favored approaches. This, to me, is a grave oversight of the fact that politics and policy have shaped the food-system we have today, from farm to fork. In the US, for example, government programs (from outright subsidization to technical assistance programs to the USDA nutrition guidelines) have incentivized the commodity-based agriculture that dominates producer and consumer behaviors. It is odd to me that only Michael Pollan made a point of suggesting that we need to overhaul our policy framework in order to shift to sustainable agriculture. Paarlberg did mentioned a fertilizer tax, and Roberts referred to UN policy recommendations, but in no great detail.

While I point the finger at past and current regulatory frameworks as a key source of the problems we face, I am hopeful that we can work within these frameworks to put us on a path to sustainability. As my colleague Asta Schuette pointed out in a discussion about water scarcity and emerging technological responses (read: GMOs), there are some relatively low-hanging fruit we've yet to pick from the sustainability tree. Optimizing and expanding on the host of existing conservation programs that strive to implement best management practices at the farm-level can take us a long way towards our goals without resorting to wholesale, exclusive adoption of either techno-industrial agriculture, agroecology, or locavorism. All we need are networks of scientists, farmers, activists, and advocates dedicated to implementing these policies in good-faith and insisting upon integrity and tranparency from all stakeholders. That, and a few other things:
  • We need to supercharge the Conservation Reserve Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program;
  • We need to reorient EQIP;
  • We need a chunk of that stimulus money to fund research and extension in sustainable agriculture;
  • We might consider converting Chrysler's facilities into centers for manufacturing eco-friendly farming equipment for small, diverse farms;
  • We need the authors of the Farm Bill to recognize the important role - negative and positive - of fruit and vegetable production in the US.
  • We need to face up to the global dimensions of our domestic and international policies.
(I'll stop there.)

Go figure: Just as reducing our greenhouse gas emissions will involve a diverse portfolio of geographically and socially appropriate sources of renewable energy, creating a sustainable food-system will require a suite of policy mechanisms to shift producers, processors, and consumers away from the ecologically impractical bind we find ourselves in today.

There are solutions for some of the (many) problems discussed in Boston this week. Effectively employing those solutions is the first step towards greening our food-system. What we lack is the political will to implement them with sincerity and integrity. Slow-foodies, engage yourselves in active citizenship, but quickly!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Michael Pollan at Tufts

So, the ubiquitous Michael Pollan spoke this evening at the Cohen Auditorium on the main campus of Tufts.  It was thrilling to be there and it continues to be thrilling being part of this growing movement toward healthier food, bodies, and lives.  He talked about how he was flattered and even intimidated (!!) to be at the institution where Friedman is housed, and recognized that the work being done here is shaping the future of food, nutrition and public health.

Mr. Pollan had a lot of moving and inspirational ideas he shared with the audience; he talked about urban gardening in Milwaukee, the need for more integrated research on lifestyle choices and health, about pseudo-food, school nutrition, farm biodiversification and giant agro/food industry's grip on regulation, but what had the most impact on me were his criticisms of us as nutritionists -- the researchers and idea-generators who have taken on the responsibility of helping people figure out what they should eat.

He spent a lot of time discussing the ideology of nutritionism, compared with real nutrition science and loss of traditional cultural food knowledge.   He compared our understanding of nutrition to surgery in the 1600's, and while everyone laughed, I was struck by that truth.  We as nutritionists are so far from knowing or beginning to understand all the functions of nutrients in all their myriad metabolic processes; Western medicine along with agro/food industry seeks to isolate and encapsulate nutrients to "enhance" our health or banish them from our diets, under the guise of countering disease and promoting wellness, and meanwhile endocrinologists can't even tell us how to diagnose something as seemingly straightforward as a zinc deficiency.

Our perspective as nutritionists must turn back toward the health of whole foods, whole meals, and whole food systems.

The criticism of the dietary guidelines was also deserved; the general public should get a clear, understandable message about healthy foods, and the guidelines shouldn't be slick ways of incorporating the interests of corn & soy, sugar, big pork, big dairy and big beef. The guidelines I linked to above are from 2000; a quick reading reveals clear ties to industries like dairy, oilseeds and livestock. The most recent guidelines are contained in an 80-page publication that I doubt even most dietitians have taken the time to read thoroughly. I hope that our esteemed Tufts faculty members who are involved in forming the 2010 dietary guidelines will be able to take an objective standpoint, removing themselves from their industry-backed daily research, their focus on nutrients and nutritionism, and their reductionist approach (there's a chapter entitled "Sodium & Potassium") to generate suggestions that are honestly meant to guide people's everyday choices and improve public health.

I think Mr. Pollan couldn't have gone far enough in his criticism of the incestuous relationship between industry and research.  Research says olive oil is good for you -- industry goes "Hey, let's capitalize -- we can make mayo out of olive oil and call it health food!"  Research says too many carbs make people gain weight  -- industry is THRILLED because now there's a new, perfectly engineered market with a gaping hole for low-carb "food" products.  Labeling processed, industrially-manufactured "foods" with logos and icons indicating health benefits is misleading, confusing and disingenuous.  Who cares if vaguely butter-esque spreads are made with heart-healthy Omega-3's when it costs us the end of small local dairies, the loss of age-old knowledge of making a preserved food product oneself, the dietary lack of a naturally balanced whole food, petro-based fertilizers being dumped on farms growing only soybeans as far as the eye can see, running off and contaminating watersheds and foodsheds and keeping us chained to this dysfunctional industrial food system?  Not to mention, of course, perhaps the greatest loss nutritionism has brought about -- simply enjoying naturally rich, smooth, creamy real butter?

This is, to me, a major part of why Americans have the unhealthy relationship to food that Pollan called "orthorexia" -- the unhealthy obsession with eating healthy.  We've lost our ancient foodways that tell us how to eat balanced, whole foods in ways that will keep us happy, satisfied and healthy, and we're searching blindly for a replacement.  Right now there are two movements filling the space: the one of fast, standardized chains providing food-like edible products, filled with McDonald's, Chili's, Applebee's, Tastee Delite, Krispy Kreme, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut -- the list keeps growing -- and quickly spreading both their pseudo-food items and the diet-linked diseases that come with them, and what we're striving for: the return to farm-fresh local foods, seasonal eating habits, understanding what real food is and how to prepare it, savoring the knowledge and tastes of nature's edible bounty, cultivating healthy food systems that rely on nature (including biology, biochemistry, and all the ag sciences) to guide them, and food markets that act responsibly and don't treat edible/agricultural products the same as television sets (let's not even get into markets and price-driven farm production, that's another dysfunctional ballgame).

Obviously there's a cultural shift happening; we are up against some of the biggest and most powerful forces I can imagine, and I don't want to call it war, but that's kind of what it feels like.  I hope we win.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

On easy Slow Foods at home

Winter doesn't seem to be letting up, and for that reason (& cuz they're delicious) I've been focusing on "larder" items more than ever -- not butter or bacon, but other delectable, fatty food items I can prepare myself. I definitely try to "waste not want not" in my kitchen, but since I don't compost, I often have food scraps.

This past weekend I made the last of the meat I'd bought from Blood's Farm Slaughterhouse in the fall -- a butterflied leg of lamb. After trimming all the fat off the outside & some from the inside, I had probably a pound or more of lamb fat - mmmmm. I've read various studies touting the benefits of brown fat over white/yellow beef or chicken fat, and it's delicious, so I didn't want to throw it out. All it took was a quick glance at a google search, and I was rendering my lamb fat in a medium saucepan over a very low flame. It cooked slowly for about 3 hours, and I had to stir it every few minutes so that the chunky parts wouldn't burn. Although my entire kitchen smelled like boiled sheep fat, my finished product - a jar of pure, pale brown lamb tallow - will last me a LONG time, and only a tiny bit will add amazing flavor to pilafs, stews and casseroles.

My other fatty homemade delicacy is real crème fraîche (fresh cream, a fermented french dairy product similar to sour cream), made from heavy cream. Just like yogurt, crème fraîche is made by adding live bacterial cultures to fresh dairy. I happened to have a small bit of leftover crème in my fridge, so I added that -- approximately 2 tbsp -- to a pint of heavy cream. I mixed the two in a heat-safe glass bowl and left in in the oven set to warm for about 3 hours. I left the oven door open just a tiny bit so it wouldn't get too hot, since my oven is unpredictable. Then I removed the bowl from the oven, stirred the cream, and left it overnight. This afternoon I'll check on it and pop it in the fridge if it seems palatable.

The major recommendation I have for either of these slow foods is to use the freshest and most pure ingredients possible. Animal fat can be very rich in fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids, but if you don't know where the animal came from or what it ate, the final "purified" product could taste or function very differently from how it traditionally should. Likewise with cream, conventional brands of heavy cream are often adulterated with mono- and diglycerides, carageenan, and god knows what other stabilizers/emulsifiers/etc. (the stuff that leaves a waxy coating in your mouth -- NOT natural). This means that the crème fraîche you end up with will also leave that weirdness in your mouth and have a different taste than a product made from organic, unadulterated, non-UHT pasteurized heavy cream. Crème fraîche is really versatile and doesn't curdle with acid or heat. You can eat it with fruit or desserts, or add it to pureed vegetable soups, gravies, or sauces for an enriched flavor and super-velvety texture.

Just to quickly add a nutrition perspective -- these foods aren't exactly every day staples, but can definitely be part of a healthy, balanced diet. I don't eat a lot of junk food, sweets, or fried foods -- I prefer to include these kinds of indulgences in my diet. They're high in fat and cholesterol, but also rich in vitamins and nutrients that everyone needs to be healthy.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Welcome to Slow Food Tufts!

We are now an official group at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy.  Our first event, a Food Trivia Night, is currently in the works!

Please contact the executive board with any questions or comments.


Administrative officer


Web Coordinator