Book Review: Food Politics

Food Politics

Food Politics by Robert Paarlberg is exactly what the title says. I thought I knew quite a bit about my food. I am a vegetarian. I read labels. I have seen the documentaries on our food. I am smart enough to know that meat is not neatly created in styrofoam and plastic wrapped packages. I also know that the long list of chemicals on a frozen burrito wrapper are not natural food stuffs. Furthermore, I know that international trade of food is a touchy subject between countries, small family farms are mostly a thing of the past,and feed lots are trouble in the making. Paalberg has much more to add. 

We start with Thomas Malthus who proposed that population growth would outpace food production and result in starvation. Population grows exponentially and compared to linear growth of increased production. Fortunately, technology allowed increased harvests and migration to urban settings slowed population growth. Mankind beat Malthus, at least temporarily. 

Paarlberg presents several cases for the cost of food. These included production, famine, speculation, and protectionism. Politics is intertwined in almost every aspect of our food. From subsidies, to tariffs and outright bans, politics controls food. No politician from Iowa would survive with out supporting a farm bill nor a Texan politician survive without supporting the beef industry. Whether or not these government programs provide any real value to farmers is a matter for debate. When the government tries to act in good faith to protect the environment against Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO or Feed Lots) it is met with heavy resistance from lobbies and threats of limiting campaign donations. Even when something positive like taxing junk food is proposed it is met by resistance from food processors to the convenient store owners. 

What is not pure politics, is in advertising. The food industry manipulates ingredients like fat, sugar, and salt to make irresistible tasting food. This also plays directly to children. The industry spends $2 billion a year advertising food to children. The average American child sees thirteen food advertisements a day. Healthy sounding “Whole Grain” usually means added fat and sugar to make it taste better. School lunches fall to food producers and lobbyists too. Pizza is considered a vegetable because it has tomato sauce. Potato growers fight for French Fries to be included as a healthy vegetable. Other producers fight for the inclusion of soda and junk food to be allowed in schools.

What have food politics gotten us? The Green Revolution provided huge increases in production. The newer battles between agribusiness and sustainability create controversy. Food costs have dropped 50% through the 20th Century and income levels rose 400%. Food is typical 10% of an average American’s budget. With that we also have genetically modified food, heavily processed food, high fructose corn syrup, and unprecedented access to a vast variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. We also have a growing obesity problem, but a pharmaceutical industry keeping us “healthy” despite ourselves.

Paarlberg goes into great detail about many more aspects of our food and the politics surrounding it. He presents very balanced arguments and supports them well. His book, however, is not aFast Food Nation or a Food Inc., or anti-Monsanto/ConAgra/ et al; he presents balance and reason. Food and the politics of food is a timely and important subject as we face increased trade, changes in our farming systems, and vocal groups from anti-GMO to others demanding their right to giant sized sodas in New York City. Food Politcs gave me more information than I thought possible on the subject. It is well written and easy to follow. The only complaint I have is that a more complete bibliography could have been included.

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