Dangers in the food movement

We all have things that drive us crazy.  People with cell phones in their ears blathering into the ether or folks who bring tiny children to really expensive restaurants and wonder why folks glare at them as the kids go nuts from boredom.  As I get older, I find myself with a much longer list such irritants, but firmly ensconced at the top of my list are people who consider themselves experts on an issue when judging by what they say and do, they’re sitting high in an ivory tower somewhere contemplating only the “wouldn’t-it-be-nice” aspects.

When it comes to the “food movement,” the penthouse of the ivory tower is still occupied by Michael Pollan, author of “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and related work.  Heck, if he continues to write the stuff he writes about the food industry and how to feed yourself – get out that bow and arrow, plant that backyard veggie garden – he’ll be the eternal leaseholder of that space.  However, his downstairs neighbor is “food luminary” Dr. Marion Nestle. Dr. Nestle is an academic – she’s the Paulette Goddard Professor (no joke) in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University – who just announced she’ll be in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan on Saturday, October 29, to join the Occupy Wall Street crowd with “Occupy Against Big Food.”

Says Dr. Nestle: “The food movement’s goal is to make the food system healthier for people and the planet.  That goal is entirely consistent with the goals of everyone else involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement.” It may be consistent, but it strikes me as a bit exploitive, but that’s a rant for another day. 

Nestle has written books as diverse as “What to Eat,” “Food Politics: How Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health,” and “Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety.”  She even advises on what to feed dogs and cats.  I’ve read none of these books – just being honest – but I’ve heard her speak and I’ve read her blogs.

Like Pollan, her opinions are predictable, and like Pollan, there’s a huge chunk of reality missing from Dr. Nestle’s academic approach to life. The missing bit is, quite simply, the answer to the following question: How do you feed 7 billion people today and 9 billion by 2040 through organic, natural and local food production?  The answer is you can’t, not without embracing mechanized and technologic food production, both apparent anathemas to the “food movement.”

I agree with Dr. Nestle; food production must strive to provide healthy sustenance in a way that does not do harm to the planet. But again, reality confronts us and Dr. Nestle prefers to turn away.  There simply isn’t enough land to raise the organic crops, fruits and veggies necessary to feed the world, even if you were to shut down animal production, not without technology and the efficiencies of scale necessary. 

It galls me that a premise of the food movement’s bloviating against modern, conventional U.S. farming and ranching is that big is automatically bad and efficiency of production is to be shunned.  However, it appears “big” is a relative term, apparently dependent on the production practice embraced. If you’re a monster organic or natural producer, selling at a premium to big city restaurants and Whole Foods within 500 miles, you’re the “local organic farmer,” and you’re to be esteemed and emulated.  If you’re a big conventional producer – even family owned – selling to big city restaurants, grocery stores, chain restaurants and others within 500 miles AND shipping across the country to meet demand, well, you’re bad, just plain bad. 

Most of the folks like Pollan and Nestle – “food movement leaders” – who contend we can feed this country and the world off of 50-acre hobby farms have never set foot on a real, live working farm of more than 150 acres in the middle of Iowa in February, nor have they worked calving or spent more than a couple of days “observing” how farming and ranching operate.  They do research, which by definition is a selective process. You get to pick what fits and supports your ideology.

While some find the “food movement” interesting or entertaining, I find it almost dangerous.  It misinforms and misdirects people to buy expensive foods for which the higher price is unjustified either by safety or humaneness. It plays off a naïve fantasy of a holistic lifestyle, and it’s generally promoted by those who can well afford to pay for that fantasy.   

Unfortunately, that’s about 1-5% of the population, the same group with whom Occupy Wall Street has a bone to pick.  How consistent is that, Dr. Nestle?


  • “I agree with Dr. Nestle; food production must strive to provide healthy sustenance in a way that does not do harm to the planet. ”

    I take your points of disagreement, even though I detect some bloviating of your own. But I don’t see where you say how to accomplish the above point of agreement. (It seems to me Nestle and Pollan have at least pointed out that we’re falling short on this goal.) Maybe Nestle and Pollan’s ideas won’t work. What are yours?

  • “I’ve read none of these books – just being honest ”

    That pretty much says everything I need to know about valuing your blather above. It’s blather. Misinformation is what’s dangerous. Nestle and Pollan’s opinions aren’t predictable, they’re backed up with research. They stay on message because the message is correct. Those inexpensive foods aren’t so inexpensive when you take out the government support. But then again, you probably don’t know this since you don’t read books. Shameful.

  • Mr Kopperud,

    The difference between your opinion and Marion’s is important to note. As an academic, Marion is paid to think and communicate knowledge and scholarship. Your opinion as a registered lobbyist (Policy Directions Inc.) is purchased by the American Feed Industry Assn, The National Renderers Assn, Nestle SA, and a host of other pharmaceutical and food processing corporations. So why exactly should your comments merit any serious consideration beyond that of an advertisement?

  • So you’re right and Pollan and Nestle are wrong. The reason their views are predictable is because they happen to be right. We can’t continue farming the way we’re farming here in Australia and there in America

    and as for your assertion that we can’t feed 7 billion people by farming sustainably, you’re wrong on two counts

    Firstly the problems of feeding the world are about distribution not production:v there’s plenty of food to go around if we fed it to the people who need it

    And secondly, read this:
    30 Years of the Rodale FST – Proves Organic Will Feed the World
    The Rodale Institute has just published a very useful booklet on the scientific outcomes of the Farming Systems Trial to celebrate its 30th birthday. The FST is America’s longest running, side-by-side comparison of organic and chemical agriculture. The DOK trial by FiBL in Switzerland is the oldest significant long term trial and there are several other long term comparison trials in Europe. The FST started in 1981 to study what happens during the transition from chemical to organic agriculture.
    After an initial decline in yields during the first few years of transition, the organic system soon rebounded to match or surpass the conventional system. Over time, FST became a comparison between the long term potential of the two systems.
    The FST Produced Many Key Facts
    Organic yields match conventional yields
    Organic outperforms conventional in years of drought
    Organic farming systems build rather than deplete soil organic matter, making it a more sustainable system
    Organic systems do not need toxic synthetic biocides
    Organic is better at capturing and storing rainwater
    Organic systems sequester the main greenhouse gas – CO2
    Organic farming uses 45% less energy and is more efficient
    Conventional systems produce 40% more greenhouse gases
    Organic farming systems are more profitable than conventional
    Throughout its 30 year history, the FST has contained three core farming systems, each of which features diverse management practices: a manure-based organic system, a legume-based organic system, and a synthetic input-based conventional system. In the past three years of the trial, genetically modified (GM) crops and no-till treatments were incorporated to better represent farming in America today.

  • We have been through lots of spring calvings on a large dairy farm 500+acres,run a working vineyard and olive grove all sustainable and certified as such here in New Zealand.We are producing sustainable,healthy food, realistically priced to meet the local market. We have to compete with pesticide laden imported foods from USA,China and Australia thanks to crazy global thinking that gave us “freetrade agreements” designed to knock us off our own supermarket shelves. Foreign produce all gets soaked in malathion to control fruitfly before it can be “allowed” into New Zealand to protect local producers from fruitfly infestation.Malathion now in the process of being banned by a slack food safety authority designed to keep big Ag happy and a Environmental Protection agency trained to US standards? Malathion is deemed carcinogenic but is to be replaced by radiationUV treatment of produce already swimming in undeclared agrochems from US, Australian and Chinese super producers before it reaches our supermarket shelves. That produce is then sold very cheaply by our duopoly[Australian] controlled supermarket chains. They sell $$cheap, inferior produce compared to the local product with no account taken of the cost of carbon emmissions,the high cost to human health of endocrine disrupting agrochems or any account taken of it’s water footprint.We are a country struggling financially but with sustainable,replenishing water and low environmental energy costs. We wonder how Steve Kopperlund can be so blinkered but then he is an American farmer who have always had a very limited view of the impacts of the U.S SUPERFARMS on the US environment,public health or the global farming picture.
    We are real working farmers on a 150+holding at present used to frost,rain and living with the elements.We are also used to working long hours but still absolutely agree with Pollan and Nestle. It’s a crazy world when you lose control of your own healthy,grass fed meat and produce in order to meet the demands of foeign banks and indulge the political whims of short sighted politicians sold on the American big farm and consume, consume consume dream.

  • I would like to challenge you to cite specific data stating why organic sustainable farming won’t work. Please tell us why huge operations are required to “feed the world.” When so much of land is being used for bio fuels made from genetically modified corn, and soy. Could this land not be more efficiently used? Would that not be enough land?

    Just like the food movement likes to say we have to be more sustainable, the big ag men say it’s just not possible. How is it not possible? What is that data? Of course, you say yourself that research is just picking at choosing what works for you (which isn’t really research at all). So, how then if research is so pointless do you quantify the need for mega-farming operations? What are your operational variables, and how do you quantify those?

  • Steve Kopperud writes: “There simply isn’t enough land to raise the organic crops, fruits and veggies necessary to feed the world, even if you were to shut down animal production, not without technology and the efficiencies of scale necessary.”

    I sincerely question with what authority you so blithely write such a statement. Most of the corn, soy and even a great deal of the cottonseed we produce today in the U.S. (well over 150 million acres) are devoted to feeding animals, with devastating consequences. It might have made sense in the middle of the last century, but by most scientific reports today, we can no longer afford this delusion that by feeding industrial animals we feed the world. In fact, numerous studies show that sustainable agriculture models are extremely competitive yield-wise with conventional farming, without the Dead Zones and polluted waterways, obesity epidemics, and agribusiness monopolies we have today.

    Don’t take my word for it. Read an article in the latest issue of Scientific American, “Can We Feed the World and Sustain the Planet?” You will find that not only are Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle not alone, much of what they advocate is supported by a growing body of scientific consensus.

  • You should pick up a copy of Food Politics. You may want to expand your argument after the read. If I’m not mistaken, it seems your biggest concern is with scale of production. I contend both technology, which you endorse, as well as organic farming methods can coexist in non-monoculture farms to generate high production. It is also a fact that diverse farms (vs monoculture farms) are more robust in crisis (flood, severe weather). I hope you contemplate this in your future musings on sunstainable ways to feed the world.

  • I’m sure you’re right and 30 YEARS of research is wrong. (Thanks @John Newton…was going to point out that study but you already did!)


  • Kopperud – “food production must strive to provide healthy sustenance in a way that does not do harm to the planet.” Those words seem insincere considering only a few months ago big ag sought to make it a crime in MN, Iowa and FL to document by camera or video even illegal agricultural activity. These bills supported by big ag (Monsanto specifically in Iowa) and were obviously unconstitutional, self-serving and though thankfully defeated. If big agriculture wants to win the “food movement” back, trying to toss people in jail for documenting even illegal dangerous activity where our food is made is not the way.

  • Wait, you’ve “read none of these books” and YOU are talking about these authors sitting in ivory towers? No – these authors are on the ground and in the field and YOU are the one isolated in YOUR ivory tower.

    Other responders to this uninformed and opinionated piece have already directed you to actual scientific and cited research that supports what you haven’t read about but so blithely criticize, so it saves me the time and effort of adding those links here. You aren’t doing yourself or your industry any favors by spouting off articles like this.

    Read. Become informed. And then I’d like to see you respond back here or write another article. It’s easy to blather on about things you have no grounded knowledge of, but a lot harder to practice actual journalism. Try the latter.

  • Yes, YOU don’t feed 7 billion people. You give then room to be susitance farmers on their own. You don’t have big ag taking every bit of land over, and as has been working for mankind since the dawn of agriculture, you allow and encourage local sales and consumption. You don’t set the stage for GMO promises…..India has a an international lawsuit as GMO’s are STARVING their people (thanks to to promulgation and sneaky entrapment of economic agreements). If big Ag or the gov’t is intersted in feeding people, let them follow the old proverb. ‘Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach him how to fish and feed him for a lifetime’. Just don’t monkey with his resources. Individual sustainabliluty is a good way to relive the burden of society.

  • How can you feed 7 billions of people without organic agriculture? You can’t!!! Because food from an industrial facility isn’t food! it’s junk. There is no nutrients left to feed people. Pesticides are making people sicker every day, with the raise of cancer and even obesity in Africa and india???

  • It sounds like you have not done enough research on these subject or were “educated” in a college ag course. A university or college education in agriculture only teaches about how to fit into the corporate agri business model. There are alot of good people who are ruined going thru that system. It’s really sad to see how damaging it is to a well intentioned mind. Just like the doctors…the ag schools focus on how to handle symptoms of poor quality plants and soils. The real farmers know to focus on soil fertility and they don’t have to worry about symptoms. Feeding the world is easy once your focus on fertility. It’s been done and shown so many times. Acres USA magazine is a good place to start getting a proper unbaised education.

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