The #foodthanks tag today trended today in twitter as users thanked the people who bring us our food. The effort, coordinated by the people behind @Agchat, provided a timely and often moving complement to the Thanksgiving holiday. It was interesting though just who was thanked. Based on my qualitative analysis of the data (OK - keeping half an eye on the stream over the course of the day) farmers are by far the most worthy of gratitude. Small processors got some love but the large ones (Monsanto and Cargill) none that I saw. Also unthanked were the lobbyists that shape the subsidies that shape farm production and the migrant workers whose cheap, invisible labor keep costs so low. Our food system, for all it’s flaws, is amazing and the people that make it work are worthy of our thanks. Just don’t forget the less “photogenic” parts!
There are lots of things I should be grateful for in my life and I’m not. I should be grateful there is an internet that allows me to share this message, I should be grateful that tap water is drinkable and that the toilet takes waste…somewhere. I should be but I’m not; I only notice when they don’t work properly.
So it is with the industrial food system in the developed world. I can eat pretty much anything I want whenever I want to and at remarkably little cost. My refrigerator is the apex of a complex food web spreading across the country and around the world. Conservation districts, extension agents, plant geneticists, commodities markets, truckers, food processors, inspectors, secondary ingredient processors, microbiologists, food engineers, chefs, salespeople and farmers brought my food to me. The number of actual farmers is tiny (~1% of US population) but the industrial system allows their efforts to feed the rest of us.
The industrial-agricultural system is so efficient you only notice the parts that don’t work or at least seem not to work. Different people can build different lists but most would include obesity, diabetes, cancer, mono-cultures, GMOs, watershed pollution, worker abuse, animal abuse, food borne illness, allergens, mechanically recovered meat, corporate greed and on and on and on. We must do something! My point isn’t that these issues aren’t important - they are; or at least they could be. We can have a better food system. I’m arguing for caution and thought before attempting a revolution, especially a food revolution. I’m arguing for science as a far better tool than intuition to understand the behaviour of complex systems.
It’s helpful to remember that other food systems have problems too and most people who have ever lived would beg for worries like ours. In the developed world intestinal parasites, deficiency diseases and actual acute starvation are mercifully rare. Convenient, cheap food allows us time to do things that previous generations never had. Change in complex systems often brings unwanted consequences that could leave us much worse off. Changes in the food system should be made cautiously and should be based as far as possible on dispassionate scientific analysis.
It’s OK not to be grateful for efficient systems like indoor plumbing and industrial agriculture. It’s good to be frustrated when the don’t work as you think they should and to demand change. It’s not OK to casually attempt that change with an axe.
In a recent commentary, Carlos Monteiro argues that the rise is obesity and diet-related chronic disease lies not with specific foods or nutrients but rather with the increased consumption of processed foods. At face value this seems classic Pollanism; a romantic, binary and often morally-based criticism of the food system. Good to make you think but not a great basis for policy. However on reflection, Monterio’s argument is more limited, nuanced and worth examining.
He starts by acknowledging that food processing is essential to render most farm produce edible and that processing is likely done at an industrial scale. He is willing to treat “organic”, “local”, and “artisanal” foods in the same way as their industrially processed cousins. His argument is based on the material properties of food and not on ethical or environmental considerations. Because he does not dismiss food processing as inherently bad, he is able to distinguish between different types of processing and make his case at that level. He proposes three classes of processed foods:
- Type 1 is the minimal processing needed to make farm produce edible and more stable. Processes involved include washing, chopping, blanching, freezing and drying. Type 1 foods are usually the basis of home food preparation.
- Type 2 processed foods are ingredients made for home or industrial food preparation. Processes include extraction, pressing, refining, crystallization, filtration and examples include salt, high fructose corn syrup and xanthan gum. Type 2 foods are rarely eaten alone but are combined with other foods to make a meal.
- Type 3 processed foods (ultra-processed foods) are formed from the combination of Type 2 foods with one another and with Type 1 foods to make shelf-stable, ready to eat products. Examples include bread, breakfast cereal, soda, cured meat, cheeseburgers and baby food. Type 3 processed foods are usually ready to be eaten immediately or with minimal home preparation. Type 3 processed foods have higher caloric density and are presented in a manner that encourages overconsumption.
Monterio’s main thesis is that increased consumption of Type 3 processed foods is responsible for increased rates of obesity and related chronic diseases. Any taxonomical classification is necessarily a simplification. The test is whether it is a useful one. Monterio is in effect arguing that “ultraprocessed” is a more useful characterization of foods than caloric density per se. Specifically, Type 3 foods are particularly unhealthy because they are more convenient, more palatable, and more heavily marketed.
Food scientists often argue (correctly) that there is no such thing as an unhealthy food. The most indulgent burger isn’t going to give you cancer, diabetes or even make you fat. Monterio acknowledges this, but goes on to argue that the societal and chronic effects of a food system saturated with Type 3 proceeded foods will have public health consequences and needs a public health solution. He advocates for laws and regulations to limit the consumption of Type 3 processed food.
Politically the type of public health intervention proposed is unthinkable. People choose Type 3 foods because they are convenient and tasty and leave more time to do other things. Companies make and aggressively market Type 3 foods because people buy them. At least in the US, no mainstream politician could currently advocate interfering with that relationship.