Not Much Has Changed Since 1977

It’s 1977 and I’m wearing silk shirts, bell bottom pants, and attending my first rock concert: Electric Light Orchestra’s Out of the Blue tour.

All pretty happy and wonderful, though little did I know what was going on with food.  In January of 1977, the United States Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs released its Dietary Goals for the United States, also known as the “McGovern Report.”  They recommended eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and less high-fat meat, egg and dairy products.  What was the response from agribusiness?  Here’s Michael Pollan from In Defense of Food,

Within weeks a firestorm of criticism, emanating chiefly from the red meat and dairy industries, engulfed the committee, and Senator McGovern (who had a great many cattle ranchers among his South Dakota constituents) was forced to beat a retreat.  The committee’s recommendations were hastily rewritten. Plain talk about actual foodstuffs–the committee had advised Americans to “reduce consumption of meat”–was replaced by an artful compromise: “choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.”

As Wendell Berry documents in The Unsettling of America, the consumer and agribusiness have conspired to create a diet which wastes and kills.

Thus the estrangement of consumer and producer, their evolution from collaborators in food production to competitors in the food market, involves an oversimplification on both sides.  The consumer withdraws from the problems of food production, hence becomes ignorant of them and often scornful of them; the producer no longer sees himself as intermediary between people and land–the people’s representative of the land–and becomes interested only in production.  The consumer eats worse, and the producer farms worse.  (37-38)

Now it’s 2015 and I’m wearing a black suit and purple tie while standing and shouting at a Nick Cave concert.

So, my musical taste might have darkened a bit, but what about the state of food?  Mark Bittman let us know one month ago in an editorial in the New York Times, Let’s Address the State of Food.

The state of the union, food-wise, is not good. The best evidence is that more than 46.5 million Americans are receiving SNAP benefits — formerly food stamps — a number that has not changed much since 2013, when it reached its highest level ever.

So does the establishment of a national food policy, something on which we can hope the new White House senior policy adviser for nutrition policy, Deb Eschmeyer, can focus. Because the issues that confront most Americans directly are income, food (thereby, agriculture), health and climate change. (And, of course, war, but let’s leave that aside for now.)

These are all related: You can’t address climate change without fixing agriculture, you can’t fix health without improving diet, you can’t improve diet without addressing income, and so on. The production, marketing and consumption of food is key to nearly everything. (It’s one of the keys to war, too, because large-scale agriculture is dependent on control of global land, oil, minerals and water.)

In fact. as Sam Bliss points out in Grist, it’s just as bad as 1977.  Here’s an excerpt from his article Federal diet guidelines won’t mention food’s environment connection. Ugh.

In case you haven’t been following: The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the group charged with writing new eating instructions for the U.S. every five years, wanted to acknowledge that yes, food is produced on Earth and what we choose to eat plays a role in determining what food is produced and how. A few months back, Tufts University professor Miriam Nelson, a member of the committee, said to her colleagues, “In general, a dietary pattern that is higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods is more health-promoting and is associated with less environmental impact.” That language was included in the draft report that the DGAC voted to submit at its Dec. 15 meeting.

Predictably, Big Meat wasn’t cool with mixing advice on what’s good for eaters with facts about what’s good for ecosystems, since large quantities of animal products are unhealthy for both. So the meat industry’s lobbyists saw to it that congressmembers attached some directives to a spending bill imploring that the new guidelines make clear that food has nothing (nothing!) to do with that thing out there called the environment.

Thirty seven-years since 1977 and I’m not wearing silk-shirts and bell bottoms (good thing), though I still like to blast Mr. Blue Sky through my iPhone speakers, and the American government still can’t talk straight about food, health and the planet.  At moments like this, I like to turn to an old document and remember the importance of language.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Except of course if the beef industry doesn’t like the word “environment.” Bon Appétit!


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