Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

Alimentary Education

Two books take stock of the never-ending food crisis

Phoebe Connelly


To read about food is, increasingly, to read about crisis. There are the main-course-and-divorce memoirs of a Betty Fussell, the restaurant tell-alls of an Anthony Bourdain, and—most alarmingly—the tainted-food jeremiads, such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, decrying how global agribusiness is environmentally unsustainable and bad for our health. Producing a mood of crisis about our sustenance is apparently supposed to heighten our determination to overhaul the way we cultivate, prepare, and think about food. But would-be reformers never quite turn the corner into effective political agitation, largely because anxieties about food production are as old as the mass distribution of groceries—a crucial theme in Bee Wilson’s sobering (yet entertaining) new book, Swindled.

“Sometimes we gaze, bitterly, at the shoddy or overpriced food on our plate and wonder if there were older, simpler times, when honesty reigned and both food and its sellers had real integrity,” she writes. “Having researched the question for this book, I can only say that these idylls, if they existed at all, were very infrequent and short lived.” The reason for this is simple, she contends: For as long as foodstuffs have been marketed in consumer societies, they’ve been adulterated. The usual aim in compounding basic staples with additives has been to increase quantity or disguise deficient quality—and not surprisingly, human health hazards have often come in tandem.

Nor, as Wilson notes, has the food-adulteration business always been a seller’s monopoly. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century London, for instance, bakers would bleach bread flour with an agent called alum to accommodate popular tastes. But alum is toxic; Wilson quotes a contemporary bemoaning how shoppers prefer bread that appears “whiter than the meal of corn,” as well as the way popular taste means “the miller or the baker is obliged to poison them and their families, in order to live by his profession.”

Not much has changed in the basic logic of food production since then, Wilson observes—save for the gradual effort to research the threats that adulteration poses, and the still slower progress toward the effective regulation of food. In 1820, Friedrich Accum, a German chemist living in London, launched the first salvo in modern food crusades with the publication of the Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons. Meanwhile, the reform-happy America of the nineteenth century adopted a moralistic view of the food question—one that still tinges today’s high-end market in organic, raw, and “slow” food, all of which come with a distinct undertone of consumer self-congratulation. When margarine was introduced in the 1880s, American reformers leaped to denounce it as “ungodly, since it baffled ‘the four senses which God has given us.’ Being such a ‘promiscuous’ mixture, perhaps it would lead to moral promiscuity in those who ate it.”

Indeed, the consumer market, rather than addressing the chronic anxieties and health hazards associated with adulteration, mined them for fresh product lines—thereby midwifing the infamous nineteenth-century trade in exotic panaceas. Revalenta Arabica, a farinaceous food supplement for sale in England in the mid-1800s, promised to cure everything from heart palpitations to consumption to “involuntary blushing, tremors, dislike to society, unfitness for study, delusion, loss of memory, vertigo, blood to the head, exhaustion, melancholy, groundless fear, indecision, wretchedness, thoughts of self-destruction, etc.” What, no weight-loss guarantees?

Wilson is a food columnist for the London Telegraph and comes honestly by her skeptic’s view of both the food-marketing and the food-purity business. She was a winning contestant in the BBC’s MasterChef competition—an amateur reality show roughly equivalent to the Top Chef franchise on Bravo TV. But she grew up with a more rustic palette, thanks in part to her father, the critic-novelist A. N. Wilson, who, as she recalls, “took pleasure in making clever things that didn’t cost much.” Even as her pedigree affords her a jaundiced view of reformers’ excesses, Wilson remains sympathetic to their views.

Neither of these positions lands her squarely in debates over effective remedies to rampant food adulteration. Should the responsibility for oversight rest with the consumer? With the grocer? With the farmer or the manufacturer? In the United States, “it was impossible to discuss whether there should be better laws to protect the nation’s food without coming up against the old chestnut of states’ rights versus federal power.” It’s one thing, Wilson says, to decide a problem needs solving, and another to decide how to do so.

Class inequities complicate the question further. “The rich can eat unadulterated food without much bother,” she writes, “whereas for most of the poor, it is a constant effort.” It’s just not enough to chide people for eating processed meats without considering that those low-quality, hormone-pumped, chemically preserved cold cuts may be, in practical terms, all that’s available.

And as the global marketplace extends the reach of adulteration, the issue has been diluted with “endless discussion of food piracy, food scams, food fakes, food fiddles.” The newest furors, over genetically modified rice and corn, or vanilla flavoring synthesized from industrial by-products, occur higher up the chain of production and distribution than their forerunners did, with dubiously accountable global food syndicates, rather than local bakers, doing the adulterating.

Rowan Jacobsen monitors another distressing side effect of agribusiness consolidation in Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honeybee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis. Jacobsen, a US food writer who has contributed to the New York Times and Saveur, examines colony collapse disorder (CCD), which hit the United States’ beekeeping industry in 2006. The syndrome affected half of the nation’s commercial bee operations, wiping out about thirty billion bees.

The most puzzling thing about the CCD outbreak was the abundance of possible triggers. Commercial bee operations were overrun with mites and viruses, and bees were kept on the go—fed corn syrup to stay alive between gigs pollinating monocrop farms. Meanwhile, the crops we have Apis mellifera pollinating are awash in pesticides; in some cases, plants are even genetically modified to produce the chemicals themselves. What’s more, monocrop farming is not conducive to bee health—all pollen is not created equal, and some types offer greater nutritional value than others. Bees need a mixture of pollen sources to sustain their health.

After investigators ruled out some other possible culprits—an ostensibly new Australian virus that turned out not to be new at all, and a labored theory having to do with cell-phone signals disrupting navigation patterns—they finally settled on that most modern, and American, problem: overwork. Inquiries revealed without question that honeybees were being treated like machines instead of living creatures. Beekeepers were pushing their hives on a business model of endless growth, “but in the world of biological systems, nothing grows unstoppably except a cancer.”

CCD, like mad cow disease, had long been incubating in the everyday practice of industrial agriculture. “Bees are sick and have been getting sicker for decades,” Jacobsen writes. “The energy-draining stresses of illness and overwork reach a certain point, and ‘dwindling disease’ appears.” The prospective remedies he offers up involve undoing a good deal of the current methods of modern beekeeping. Among them would be introducing wild bees, which show greater natural resistance to the mites and viruses that appear to contribute to CCD, and restructuring the conduct of beekeeping so as to alter patterns of birth and size, all to the end of improving bee health.

In this respect, Jacobsen’s book, like Wilson’s, circles around to the same point for consumers: Get closer. Wilson notes that government intervention has always come later than needed, and that the most effective means of countering food swindles is for individuals to better grasp the basic differences between adulterated and unadulterated food. “Swindling flourishes,” she writes, “when people are ignorant of what a given food should really taste like.” Likewise, Jacobsen ends his account with a poignant description of a fall dusk descending on his farm. He’s ordered two “nucs”(the beginnings of hives) in order to take up beekeeping himself—a measure in keeping with the book’s other small-bore recommendations for consumers, such as cultivating bee-friendly yards to promote wild populations and purchasing local and sustainably raised produce.

It’s a start, to be sure. But as Wilson’s wider-ranging study shows, the challenge with food may well be to reconsider our relationship to it. From the moment societies began to treat food as a commodity rather than as a craft, the adulteration of food has been a given. And industrial-era food crises have played out in keeping with that theme—albeit with more grotesque and dangerous variations—ever since.

Phoebe Connelly is a writer based in Washington, DC, and the Web editor of the American Prospect.

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