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Food Fight

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“When it comes to food,” writes Robert Paarlberg, “everyone is interested.” This understatement captures the restraint of Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know. It also suggests why the book will drive food activists half nuts.

Yes, everyone is interested in food. But we’re more than interested. We’re rabid about it. Epic battles play out in frothing rhetoric; entrenched dichotomies prevail. Free trade or fair? Organic or conventional? Farmed or wild? Local or imported? Grass- or grain-fed?

Paarlberg’s concise volume transcends these categories to summarize the main (and sometimes mundane) issues driving global food policy. Followers of matters culinary will surely bristle at the author’s refusal to endorse the sanctified categories of analysis. The defining buzzwords of the day—“Eat Local,” “Buy Organic,” “Support Farmers’ Markets”—are by no means bad ideas in Paarlberg’s estimation. They’re just peripheral to a broader set of concerns that include obesity, famine, biotechnology and food aid. To these issues (and many others), Paarlberg applies the cool logic of a political scientist (he’s at Wellesley College) rather than the impassioned advocacy of an activist.

It’s hard to overstate the novelty of this perspective. The “Food Movement”—a relatively recent revolution led by writers such as Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver—has done a remarkable job of raising popular awareness about where our food comes from, who grows it and how it’s made. It has inspired a response—an uprising, really—that encourages outraged consumers to drop out of the industrial food system, live “beyond the bar code” and cultivate gardens. As emotionally and ideologically appealing as this reaction might be, it has tended toward isolationism and elitism. Paarlberg nudges us back to a neglected reality, one in which billions of people in the developing world lack regular access to an affordable, abundant and healthy food supply. It’s not a sexy issue. But amidst the increasingly localized discourse of sustainable agriculture, it pleads for our attention.

Paarlberg, who previously has proven himself unafraid of a good food fight, has no time for partisan bickering in Food Politics. Through an “on-the-one-hand-on-the-other” analysis, he systematically disentangles the complexities of subsidies, global food prices, monoculture, animal welfare, agribusiness and fast food. This approach may not sell millions of books, nor will it likely inspire a movement, but it does something that, in a decade of following food and agriculture, I’ve rarely witnessed: It asks readers to take on greater complexity and, more admirably, to see the myriad pros and cons of controversial issues without darting to the fringes.

Regarding obesity and whether “the food industry is to blame,” Paarlberg notes that “modern food companies are in part to blame for our overeating because they design foods for irresistibility, delivering tastes and textures that hit an intentionally addictive ‘bliss point.’ ” The food companies shouldn’t be saddled with all the blame, though. There’s individual choice to consider. “Over the past two decades,” he writes, “the share of Americans age 40 to 74 who eat five servings of fruit and vegetables a day has dropped from 42 percent to 26 percent.” Our expanding waistline can only be attributed to “multiple factors,” such as our decisions to exercise less, sit in front of screens more, remain indifferent to food labels and neglect those fruits and vegetables. Nobody is forcing that Ho-Ho into our mouths.

A similarly measured tone characterizes Paarlberg’s discussion of food aid. The practice of supplying surplus grain to developing countries began in the 1950s. On the surface, the aid appeared altruistic. It wasn’t long, though, before critics began to portray food aid as a subsidized corporate gambit designed to hook poor countries on cheap calories. Paarlberg acknowledges that agribusiness anticipated the development of such dependence—but things didn’t work out as planned. “America’s largest food aid shipments in the past,” he writes, “have gone to Peru, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Jordan, Egypt and the Philippines, and none of these later became a leading commercial market for agricultural sales.” America continues to send food aid to places it has no chance of reducing to agricultural serfdom.

Paarlberg has scant tolerance for today’s knee-jerk blaming of “agribusiness” or “industrial agriculture” for everything that ails food and agriculture. He recognizes that the consolidation and, in some cases, near-monopolization of global food production, has detrimental consequences. But—refreshingly—he refuses to see the agrarian world in black and white. He reminds us that big agriculture and retail multinationals produce and distribute vast quantities of safe food for a growing population that’s been living “beyond the bar code”—and suffering malnutrition and starvation—for centuries.

How can we create a global food network that integrates local and global agricultural systems? How can we maintain the expansive infrastructure of big agriculture while imbuing it with a more eco-friendly ethos? In implicitly addressing these questions, Paarlberg’s balanced approach turns out to be radical. His work offers a much-needed corrective to a clanging bandwagon of culinary protest that asks well-off consumers to drop out, stay local and go green while the rest of the world worries about its next bowl of rice.

James E. McWilliams is a professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos and the author of Just Food.