Natural Life Magazine

Overfed but Undernourished

Overfed but Undernourished
Re-inventing How We Look at Food
By David Wann

In this excerpt from his book The New Normal: An Agenda for Responsible Living, author David Wann describes the state of our food system and challenges us to do some heavy lifting to transform our non-sustainable food culture by transforming ourselves.

The food industry is humanity’s largest single system, and arguably, its most important. But there are many signs that this system needs repair and reinvention. As scholar and farmer Wendell Berry observes, “Industrial agriculture has proven to be immensely productive, but at the cost of destroying the means of production.” In the United States, the growth, distribution, preparation, and consumption of food uses more energy than all the country’s automobiles, planes, trains, and buses combined – about one-fifth of the nation’s overall energy use.

Including the global livestock industry – which now numbers about twenty billion animals – the international food industry contributes more than a fourth of total greenhouse gas emissions. It has the single greatest impact on water quality and directly exposes the greatest number of people to toxic chemicals. “It is enormously destructive of farmland, farm communities, and farmers,” summarizes Berry. “It wastes soil, water, energy, and life. It is highly centralized, genetically impoverished and dependent on cheap fossil fuels, on long-distance hauling, and on consumer ignorance. This is an agriculture with a short future.”

With a steady increase in international trade, and a market-driven focus on processed and packaged food, we pay far less attention to the quality of our food than we used to; we’ve become separated from its origins and its cultural significance, both geographically and psychologically. What key choices and decisions can we make to reconnect? In this article, I explore high-leverage changes that can shift the direction of the food production and delivery system, making it stronger and more responsive to the needs of both people and Nature.

When humans first learned how to cultivate crops about ten thousand years ago, a whole new way of life emerged, because a single tilled acre could now produce one hundred times the calories that a hunting and gathering lifestyle could. These efficiencies freed up time so that humans could build communities, create masterpieces of art, and explore the mysteries of science. Millennia later, efficiency is still the predominant goal, but largely in search of profit. Our current policies, research expenditures, farming methods, and technologies all reflect an obsession with “fast, cheap, and easy” quantities of food. It’s all about bushels per acre and per hour, and resulting profits. But the key question is, What is our food system doing to the land, water, climatic stability, and our health, the base of any economy?

Just fifty years ago, world population was a mere three billion; partly because of agricultural productivity, another billion people have been added every twelve or thirteen years, at the pace of seventy million more humans every year – the equivalent of adding the eight largest American metropolitan populations (New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, Houston, Miami, and Washington, D.C.) every year. Every single day, another two hundred thousand people are added to the planet. In a world where farmland is becoming extremely scarce, where will thirty-four thousand new farmable acres come from, each day? So far, from tropical rain forests and savannas, which, if left intact, are key ecological assets in the prevention of global warming.

The stark reality of human population necessitates a new way of thinking about food. The assumptions and goals that guided agriculture in a world of one billion (1800) or two billion people (1930) are no longer valid in a world that is suddenly pushing seven billion. Our primary goals now need to center on preserving the functionality of our farms, or else the system will collapse, as agricultural systems already have in empires of the past. Yield and profit are important, but so are preservation of soil and water, restoration of biological diversity, safety and healthiness of food, reduction of fossil-fuel energy and greenhouse emissions, and fit with an increasingly urban population.

“Our society is beginning to see diet as a moral decision, related to essential human needs like vitality, social connections, fairness, security, kindness, and even sanity. In a world of changing values, people of the near future may not respect us if we are mindless, self-centered eaters.”
Fortunately, the global food system can adapt relatively easily (though it won’t be a snap), for several key reasons. Agriculture has until recently been solar-powered, and it can be again, when oil becomes too expensive to prop up the industry. The supply-and-demand economics of the food system are accessible to consumers, who are becoming more aware of the overall value of food purchases. Because food affects the most important issues of our times – energy, health, security, biological habitat, and climate change – agriculture will come under increasing cultural and political scrutiny. The trend toward organic produce and alternative artisan products, grown in market gardens and on small farms, will continue, not just because it can be financially lucrative, but also because the work is satisfying to a certain green-thumbed sector of the population.

Increasingly, refugees from the global industrialized food system are hungry for alternatives, remembering that food connects. Food activists like Alice Waters are leading the charge toward “slow food” and mindful eating based on what humans actually need. “When we eat fast-food meals alone in our cars,” she writes, “we swallow the values and assumptions of the corporations that manufacture them. According to those values, eating is no more important than fueling up, and should be done quickly and anonymously.” Yet, food is far more than that, she believes; throughout human history, it was a way to come together, to express our identity, and be rooted in the earth. Food delivers not just physical health, but also social health. “At the table, we learn moderation, conversation, tolerance, generosity, and conviviality; these are civic virtues,” says Waters. “The pleasures of the table also beget responsibilities – to one another, to the animals we eat, to the land, and to the people who work it.”

Food is an issue that gets people’s attention and mobilizes activism. When food prices shot up in 2008 because of rising energy costs, there were food riots in dozens of countries. The demand side of the food market has incredible influence on the producers, processors, and distributors. When new research created markets for low-fat foods, organic options, less sugar, less salt, whole-grain carbohydrates, free-range meat, and so on, the food industry had no choice but to respond. Boycotts of certain brands of food and certain companies help keep corporate producers focused on quality. For example, because of public concern, McDonald’s requested that its meat suppliers cut their use of antibiotics.

A recent story on 60 Minutes reported that Masai farmers in Kenya were using the pesticide Furadan to poison lions, to reduce risk on their farms. That story resulted in manufacturers stopping shipments of the pesticide to Kenya. Concern about diseases like type 2 diabetes led to the banning of trans fats in New York City and California restaurants. When consumers demand certified organic fruits and vegetables, pasture-raised beef, sustainably harvested fish, and bird-friendly coffee and cocoa, even Wal-Mart, Costco, and Target begin to restock their shelves.

The overall direction of agriculture has been “bigger is better,” both in the size of farms and the produce grown on them. Tomatoes and apples are bigger now, but are they better? Several recent studies have documented that as produce gets larger and more flawless in appearance, vitamins and minerals decrease, on average, along with taste and aroma. In the last half century, plant scientists and crop breeders have doubled and tripled the yield per acre of most major fruits, vegetables, and grains, but the “almost single-minded focus on increasing yields created a blind spot” in nutritional content, says Brian Halweil, author of the Organic Center’s report Still No Free Lunch. The report documented examples like these:

  • The more a tomato weighs, the lower its concentrations of vitamin C, vitamin A, and lycopene, a natural cancer- fighting chemical that makes tomatoes red.

  • Sweet corn, potatoes, and whole-wheat bread show double-digit declines in iron, zinc, and calcium.

  • Milk from high-production dairy cows has lower concen- trations of fat, protein, and other nutrition-enhancing components than the milk from dairy operations of twenty years ago or more.

Other studies concur: Somehow, nutrition and flavor have taken second fiddle and even third fiddle to size and appearance in breeding. By examining United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) data on nutrient content spanning more than half a century, Donald Davis at the University of Texas discovered declines of up to forty percent in minerals, vitamins, and proteins. The focus on yield per acre and marketability has also resulted in decreases of anti-cancer and anti-toxin compounds known as phytonutrients.

The good news? Sometimes we consumers reap quality improvements by accident, as when breeding research accidentally results in healthier produce. When researchers bred for sexier- looking, bright orange carrots, their work yielded unexpected increases in vitamin A. Breeders seeking to make watermelons sweeter accidentally increased levels of vitamin C, according to participants at a meeting of the American Society for Horticultural Science.

But for the most part, nutritional decline continues. Washington State University researchers Stephen Jones and Kevin Murphy conclude, “You would have to eat twice as many slices of modern bread as you would of the older variety to get the same nutritional value.” How did this happen? “The breeders and growers never looked at whether the nutritional content stayed the same as the yield increased,” says Jones. He explains that food producers often call the shots, demanding traits other than nutrition, such as wheat that makes a good cookie, a fluffy loaf of bread, or pizza dough that’s easy to work with.

 The following key choices can help us change the entire direction of the food system – bringing health, wisdom, and natural balance back to agriculture and the food system. By choosing well-grown, healthy food, we are also choosing the kind of society we want. Do we favor an inclusive, community-minded, ecologically informed food system, or a system driven by profit alone? 

Elevating Food to a Higher Priority

Old Perspective: Food should be fast, easy, fun, and so cheap that it’s okay to waste it. Cooking does not fit these criteria because it requires concentration, “extra” time, and engagement, so processed food is superior. The origins and quality of my food are not as important as their standardized, predictable consistency.

New Perspective: Food connects the grower, distributor, and eater with the living system that it came from, in a chain of value that begins and ends in health and well being of both land and people.

The Heavy Lifting: Understand that what you’re eating is not just enjoyable (or not) but part of a bigger system that affects you and the planet. Observe how the food you eat affects your digestive system, endurance, and sense of well being. Good food equals good mood. Decrease your reliance on prepared dinners and fast food. Learn one new recipe a month. Learn to can vegetables and fruit. Learn how to freeze homemade dishes such as soups, casseroles, and sauces.

Food is the most universal symbol of America’s age of excess. The average American’s dinner comes from five different countries, with combined air freight and ocean freight distance often exceeding ten thousand miles. At least three-fourths of that meal is processed and packaged, its nutrients stripped away and replaced by texturizers, sweeteners, and flavor “enhancers.”

Let’s visit Homer Simpson for a few minutes as our “average American” proxy watches TV and snacks. From the research of people like Dr. Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, we know that Homer is thinking – in his colorfully primitive way – that if he has the chips ‘n’ dip, he’ll also have the friends, the laughter, the adrenaline rushes, the companionship, that he sees in the commercials and sitcoms. We know that unlike many Europeans and Asians – whose body wisdom directs them to stop eating when they’re full – Homer’s cue to stop will be when his beer is gone, the big bowl is empty, or the TV show is over. Homer will eat more M&Ms if they are different colors rather than just one color; more chips if they come in transparent packages so he can preview and crave them; and more fruit if it’s pre-sliced, even if it was sliced weeks ago and preserved in space-age packaging. In an age of excess, Homer forms a perception of how much food is “normal” to eat, then eats a little more because he feels he deserves it.

Unbeknownst to Homer, product wizards throughout the food industry strive for ultimate “snackabilty” that induces what one marketer, Barb Stuckey, calls “mindless munching,” in which the hand moves hypnotically back and forth between bag end mouth. These maestros of munch deliver an endless stream of products that don’t imply a portion size the way a whole apple or slice of homemade pie does, so there’s no obvious signal, or need, to stop!

“Be a consumer activist and request healthy, regionally grown food at your local supermarket.”

Is “fun food” what we really want? Though it may seem overwhelming to change eating habits that have developed over lifetimes, complete with recipes, symbols of identity, and memories, change we must, because our mainstream diet is sapping our personal energy and health, and stripping resilience from the biological systems we evolved with and the culture we built. When we remember that the human diet has evolved over millions of years, we begin to think of “normal” in a more appropriate way. So is Homer Simpson, a caricature of the average American, crazy? In a word, yes. Many of us are living in a candy-shop psychosis in which we consider it a sensible trade to let the ice caps melt and the tumors take root if the Whoppers and Pop-Tarts just keep coming. That illusion, however, is fading in a society that is beginning to see diet as a moral decision, related to essential human needs like vitality, social connections, fairness, security, kindness, and even sanity. In a world of changing values, people of the near future may not respect us if we are mindless, self-centered eaters.

If these ideas make our food choices seem like an overwhelming responsibility (and an intrusion on our personal freedom), we can keep it simple, as food system expert Michael Pollan suggests: Eat food (real food). Not too much. Mostly plants.

Following are a few guidelines that would lead to profound social changes:

  • Eat less meat to take a huge bite out of global warming and improve your health. A single meat-free meal a week times three hundred million Americans is not a deprivation, but a social movement!

  • Eat food that comes from your region – it is fresher and healthier, and requires less packaging and much less transportation.

  • Rediscover the pleasure of sitting down with family and friends and eating a meal together.

  • Avoid foods that contain or require the use of chemicals your grandparents never heard of. Let’s keep chemicals out of the living systems that preserve and maintain wilderness, clean the world’s air and water, and recycle wastes.

  • Get informed about food policies that affect your family, your community, and the country. You’ll find lots of important information on the Web and in local newspapers.

Mindful eaters avoid the empty calories of junk food in favor of high-value, high-energy food that makes each day go  more smoothly. Let’s bring our brains to the table and devise a few personal food strategies, such as:

  • Don’t bring junk food into your house. Save healthier versions of chips, ice cream, and cookies for special occasions, and store them only as near as the supermarket. When you have a snack attack, have some fruit or a handful of nuts, or pop some organic popcorn in olive oil. (Sturdy cast iron or stainless steel pots work great because the popcorn doesn’t burn.)

  • If you have thirty years left to live, that’s roughly thirty thousand meals! Why not make most of them satisfying, one week at a time? Identify a dozen or so healthy recipes and structure weekly menus. If it makes life easier, rotate your menus through the same days of the week, so you’ll know when to buy what.

  • Forget about soft drinks, even diet ones. Picture Homer Simpson’s belly every time you crave one. Since Concord grape juice provides many of the benefits of red wine and tastes great, keep a few bottles in the fridge. Combine with cranberry juice and dilute with tap water for an inexpensive healthy drink.

  • Give a higher priority to fresh potatoes and lower priority to French fries, often cooked in saturated fat and drip-dried. Fresh potatoes have only about one hundred calories per medium-sized spud and provide lots of vitamins C and B, niacin, iron, and copper – and six percent of the daily recommended amount of protein. They are great in breakfast burritos with “cage-free, natural” eggs, to get a good start. (Organic eggs are even better.)

  • Mass-produce healthy soups, sauces, salad dressings, and cooked, whole-grain cereals in your own kitchen. Can or freeze them to save time, energy, and money, as well as reduce packaging and greenhouse-gas emissions.

  • Allow yourself one luxury “treat” per shopping trip to avoid throwing in three or four.

  • Create a “car pack” if you spend a significant amount of time in your car – a lunchbox with raw nuts, fruit, and high-end, healthy snack bars. Even more convenient than the drive-in, your customized car pack can save money and energy, and eliminate all that packaging.

Shopping for Change, or Just More of the Same?

Old Perspective: A consumer’s best grocery store strategy is to spend the least amount of money to get the largest amount of food. Shop in the center aisles of a conventional supermarket, where the processed foods with the cheapest calories are displayed.

New Perspective: It’s important to save money on groceries, but good food has more value per pound, so it may be worth slightly more money in trade for better flavor, lower health-related expenses, lower dental bills, and fewer over-the-counter drugs and dieting programs. With healthy food as part of our routine, we perform better at work, at school, or on the sports field.

The Heavy Lifting: Be a consumer activist: Request healthy, regionally grown food at your local supermarket. Read labels when choosing brands, understand what’s in the food you’re buying, and, when you’re satisfied, stick with the brand you like. Send emails in support of your favorite products and, when appropriate, make suggestions: Ask the manufacturer if it will consider less packaging for one of your favorite items. Suggest an organic version of the cereal or frozen vegetable you use.

“Spend $10 on organic, shade grown coffee and you help protect songbirds like the Baltimore oriole, which migrates to Central America in the winter,” writes one advocate for rethinking our food system. Is this kind of message likely to change your choice of coffee? Do you care about the songbirds? Sure you do, especially when you find out that this particular bird eats insects in your backyard; but when you’re standing in the supermarket aisle, price wins out, especially in lean times.

Now, if there were a crowd of people (like a golf tournament gallery) watching every shopping choice you made, you’d drink nothing but shade-grown, and you’d probably discover it has better flavor, too. Food choices are beginning to change; we can see that when the mainstream supermarket chains debut their own store-brand organic breads, soups, and cereals, and when cities large and small organize weekly farmers markets.

In the book Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, marketing expert Martin Lindstrom re-creates the convoluted, interconnected thoughts that percolate in our brains as we make choices. Standing in front of the peanut butter display, Lindstrom’s shopper thinks:

I associate Skippy with childhood. . . it’s been around forever, so I feel it’s trustworthy. . . but isn’t it laden with sugar and other preservatives I shouldn’t be eating?. . . Same goes for Peter Pan, plus the name is so childish. And I’m not buying that generic brand. It costs thirty cents less, which makes me suspicious. In my experience, you get what you pay for. . . The organic stuff? Tasteless, the few times I had it. . . always needs salt, too. . . Plus, didn’t I read somewhere that “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean anything plus it’s almost double the price. . . . Jif. . . what’s that old advertising slogan of theirs: “Choosy Mothers Choose Jif . . . Well I am a fairly discriminating person.

This stream of consciousness illustrates that we make choices based not just on price, but on relationships, associations, emotions, memories, identity, and values. Using multifocus lenses, we fill our shopping carts with choices we hope are trustworthy, safe, comfortable, unique, healthy, green, and cheap – but not too cheap. (Wouldn’t hunting and gathering be easier?) We make many of these decisions quickly as we nervously consult our watches and, unfortunately, the food we bring home often results in obesity and diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart failure.

“Processed food is artificially cheap right now because energy has been cheap, and because our tax dollars subsidize the growing of crops like wheat, corn, and soybeans – primary ingredients in industrial food.”
The processed foods that now fill supermarket shelves are low in water and fiber (making them easier to ship) but packed with added fat and sugar, making them less filling, more fattening. Author and activist Bill McKibben observes, “The supermarket crammed with its thousands of brightly packaged offerings is a mirage: If you could wave a magic wand and break everything down into its constituent ingredients, a pool of high-fructose corn syrup would fill half the store.”

How can we escape? The only thing that will really work is a cultural movement that demands changes in what the food industry provides and how it provides it. Processed food is artificially cheap right now because energy has been cheap, and because our tax dollars subsidize the growing of crops like wheat, corn, and soybeans – primary ingredients in industrial food. As a society, we don’t charge ourselves for the many environmental and health side effects of food. We allocate less of our household budget to food than we ever have before and we don’t, as a nation, allocate enough capital to mentor new farmers. We need to spend more, not less, for food as a percentage of total expenditures. By rearranging both our household and our national budgets, we should give a higher priority to fresh, healthy food and a lower priority to electronic gadgets, mall booty, cars, lawns, and vacations. Our overall expenses don’t have to go up; they just need to be realigned with our changing values. By choosing higher-quality food and better ways of growing it, we also begin to reshape our culture.

In the meantime, here we are in the supermarket aisles, making the best choices we can. Although brightly colored promises on the boxes and packages (“all natural” “low-fat” “high in Omega 3!”) seem a little overwhelming, with patience and peer support, we can learn what these slogans really mean, step by step. For example, “free-range” egg-laying hens are typically out of cages but inside barns or warehouses. They have some outdoor access, but how much is not specified, and there is no third-party quality control. Here in the U.S., a higher level of quality assurance for eggs is “USDA Certified Organic,” which guarantees not only outdoor access, but also an organic, all- vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides.

The fact is, food labels like these are an agreement, an understanding, between producer and consumer for a certain level of quality, a certain set of core values. The labels not only help the buyer but also guide the grower, holding production standards higher. Rather than remaining Lone Rangers for truth, justice, and quality in food, many Americans are now opting to let Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, or the local food co-op prescreen food products for key traits like fair trade, organic, local, and ecological sensitivity. After learning what brands they prefer, they also learn which conventional supermarkets carry those products, often at slightly lower prices. (And they learn to request those products from conventional store managers.) Step by step, they are changing not only the household diet, but also America’s diet.

“You shouldn’t need a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry to go supermarket shopping,” says David Katz of the Yale Prevention Research Center, who wants to bring a “traffic light” labeling system to the United States. “The index, with green, yellow, or red labels, should take into account the quantity of calories, beneficial nutrients, and potentially harmful nutrients such as trans fat, in a serving of any given rood. Why shouldn’t even dummies wind up with a shopping cart filled with the good stuff?”

The website concurs with Katz that label reading should be easier, but maintains that a lot of important nutritional information is already on the labels, if you know how to scan them. Here are the website’s shopping suggestions:

Limit Products With...

  • Saturated fat: As low as possible; less than five grams per serving.
  • Trans fat: Should be zero (“hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils means trans fats).
  • Sodium: As low as possible. The FDA allows a “healthy” label on foods with less than 480 mg per serving for entrees, less than 360 mg for all other foods.
  • High fructose corn syrup: A cheap form of highly concentrated sugar (words ending in “ose” denote sugar).
  • “Enriched” or “wheat” flour (aliases for “white”). Choose whole-wheat flour instead.

Choose Products With...

  • The shortest possible ingredient list.
  • Fiber: Three or more grams per serving.
  • Whole grains: Preferably first or second in the ingredients list. “Liquid” or “high-oleic” vegetable oils: heart-healthy unsaturated fats.
  • Fruits and vegetables: Dried or fresh, in whole form.

Organic or Conventional Food?

Old Perspective: Organic food is appealing because it’s more natural, but the price is too high, and isn’t it really just an elitist, New Age fad?

New Perspective: We can’t afford not to eat organic food, since the health and environmental costs of industrial farming are too high. Humans have eaten organic food for 99.9999 percent of our history. The price of organic food will come down as farming practices change and market demand grows. Until then, buying organic food supports the regeneration of the industry.

The Heavy Lifting: Spend more of your budget on food and less on gas or gadgets. When considering organic brands, think about more than the price. Consider the health of your kids, the health of the world’s wildlife, and the quality of the soil we all rely on. Encourage community foundations, chambers of commerce, and local governments to train new organic farmers to meet the rising demand.

We undervalue organic food both on the table and on the farm, for similar reasons. As a culture, we don’t yet recognize the difference in quality between organic and conventional food, between organic and conventional growing. For example, we don’t recognize collectively that it’s more accurate to define the word “organic” by what it is rather than by what it isn’t. True, certified organic means that toxic chemicals and fossil-fuel-based fertilizers are not used, but the only way farmers can make that kind of agriculture work is by operating their farms as living systems – building the soil with organic, once-living material, which provides fertility, water retention, disease resistance, and good drainage all at the same time.

Rotation of crops prevents disease and maintains fertility; using cover crops like alfalfa pulls free nitrogen right out of the air; recycling “wastes” like manure, crop residues, and by-products of regional industries such as coffee roasters or fruit canneries makes full use of existing resources. This information-rich way of farming provides habitat for wildlife (which reciprocates with natural pest control), conserves water, and helps preserve family farms in rural and metro-edge communities.

The fact that average levels of nearly a dozen nutrients are twenty-five percent higher in organic produce translates to greater calmness, endurance, mobility, and allergy resistance, sharper senses, and a better sex life – a higher quality of life, not just prevention of heart disease or cancer. Those who associate organic food with hippies may not be aware that the White House chef has routinely served organic food to the Clintons, the Bushes, and now the Obamas. In fact, the world’s finest chefs prefer organic produce because it tastes better. The use of powdered fertilizers causes crops to take up more water, diluting the taste. In addition, conventional produce has fewer of the enzymes and minerals that enhance flavor.

Since only two percent of the country’s population now lives on a farm, we don’t think of ourselves as having a direct role in farming, yet each of us eats an average of a ton of food every year. Farms and ranches still cover more than half our land, and consume three-fourths of our water and seventy percent of our antibiotics. “If you eat, drink, or pay taxes; or care about the economy, the environment, or our global reputation, what happens on farms is a central if unseen part of your life,” says journalist Michael Grunwald. If this so, what kind of farm do you want?

David Wann is a writer and activist who is the recipient of various lifetime achievement awards for his work on sustainability. He’s been a passionate gardener for over twenty-five years and now coordinates a neighborhood garden in the cohousing community where he lives in Golden, Colorado. He is the author of many articles – including “Finding Real Wealth” in Natural Life – as well as books, including “Affluenza” and “Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle.” This article is based on his book “The New Normal: An Agenda for Responsible Living,” which was published by St. Martin’s Press. It is copyright © 2011 by David Wann.


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