Category Archives: food policy

Review: The Story of Soy

 The Story of Soy. Christine M. Du Bois. London: Reaktion Books, 2018. 266 pp. + References and Index. ISBN 978 1 78023 925 5.

Jacket Image

Ellen Messer, (Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy and Boston University Gastronomy Program)

Anyone interested in global diet and agriculture should be interested in soy because it is by far the most grown oilseed and fourth most cultivated crop in the world (after the cereals maize, wheat, and rice) (p.223).  As a major source of plant protein, it sustains the diets of humans and livestock, and has contributed the world over to agricultural livelihoods and nutrition.  That said, this voluminously documented volume takes care to situate soy in its diverse historical and contemporary contexts. It shows how soy in each era paradoxically created conditions to sustain life, including fixing nitrogen for agricultural ecosystems, but also to destroy environments and societies through relentless and sometimes violent pursuit of food and wealth based on soybean cultivation, processing and distribution.

The opening chapter, “Hidden Gold,” introduces readers to the long-term history of soy, as a food, feed, and industrial crop, and to major flash points, like the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, which made soy loom large in political-geographic history. Chapter 1, “Asian roots,” speculates about soy’s original domestication and diffusion as a significant food that was processed to facilitate and extend its nutritional reach. Chapter 2 documents the European history of soy, including war-related developments that expanded soy’s nutritional potential to feed hungry populations that could afford little meat.  Chapter 3 turns to United States adoptions and genetic and agronomic improvements for food, feed, and industrial purposes. Chapter 4, “Soy Patriotic” returns to Asian soy as a war and post-war crop.  Here the stories include post-World War II innovations, like citric acid processing that removed off flavors, and utilization of stainless steel processing equipment that prevented contamination. These stories include how soy became implicated the development of the defoliant, Agent Orange, which drew botanists into ethical and political opposition to the Vietnam (American) War after military scientists used their basic research understandings of crop maturation to de-forest Vietnam and expose fighters’ hiding places.

Chapter 5, “Fattening with Feed” covers developments of inexpensive, soy-based animal nourishment, which transformed and enabled concentrated poultry and pig production the world over.  Like all the other chapters, this one opens with a human, personal-interest story, then opens out onto implications for larger scale economies, social units, and national, regional, and world diets.  In this case, the human-interest story tells how “chickens dramatically changed the destiny of a rural woman, thirty-year-old Amal Ismail, as well as the lives of millions of her fellow Egyptians:

“Since the 1950s, both beneficial and injurious aspects of the mass feeding of soy to animals have powerfully shaped our world, thanks to the export of American techniques for livestock production.  Mrs. Ismail and her chickens serve as a humble yet revealing entry into a far larger story.  Our survey of soy and livestock will include a chicken-blood cookbook, giant economic aid programmes, airlifted hogs, corporate treatment of animals, antibiotics, wild-bird diseases, obesity, fecal river pollution, drowned hogs and more.” (p.93)

Positive and negative consequences pile up, as the world population in aggregate gains greater access to healthy protein, either directly by eating processed soybean products or indirectly by consuming more and cheaper soy-fed animal meats.   But this expansion, particularly of the soybean feed industry has not been without environmental destruction, covered in Ch.6, “Soy Swoops South” which scrupulously documents deforestation, erosion of land and biodiversity, and violence against the people who were already living there.  Country by country, soybean livelihoods demonstrably increased soy-related household, provincial, and national incomes, but also pitted subnational private soybean interests against state desires to establish and use soybean taxes and revenues to pay for national infrastructure and human development programs.  All also proved vulnerable to multi-national (biotechnology) seed and chemical companies, which imposed their will as they sought ever greater control over farmers and national agricultural regulations. Ch. 7 continues these discussions of corporate control over seeds, toxic chemicals, and water and land use.  But again, outcomes need not prove pre-determined.  As the author summarizes in the conclusion to this chapter,

‘           ’Growing soybeans and other crops poses many actual and potential challenges to environments, including habitat loss, monoculture, genetic modification, toxic chemicals, climate change, erosion, and depletion of fresh water.  But fatalism is misguided: the destructive effects of farming can (emphasis in the original) be mitigated through careful research and ingenuity.  No-till cultivation, pest control through organic methods or chemicals with reduced toxicity, effective penalties for environmental rule-breakers and a reduction in meat eating that drives so much agriculture can each make a genuine difference. The question is how much effort we will put into protecting our natural world. This is our only world. There is no other planet for us. There is no ‘escape hatch’ from our responsibilities—or from the consequences of our actions.” (p.172).  Readers here get a sense of the author’s ambivalent sensibilities, which are also passionate, and draw on a complete range of pro- and anti- technology advocates.

The book could have ended here.  But wait, there’s more.  The two-sided approach continues, in subsequent chapters on nutrition and international business and trade. Ch.8, “Poison Or Panacea” discusses the positives (accessible protein) and negatives (anti-nutritional and allergenic factors) associated with soy nutrition, and also certain health issues, like relationship between soybean consumption, female estrogen levels and male sperm counts, and a range of possible risks and benefits associated with more extensive genetic engineering of soybeans for food and medicine.  There are also added discussions of soy in disaster relief and food aid. Chapter 9 examines “Big Business”, which is largely under the control of a few very large agricultural production, processing, and trading firms, like ADM.  In this chapter, readers can follow the journey from mid-western farm to global feedlot or food processor.  The author adroitly unpacks the abstractions and workings of commodities futures contracts, including the thought processes of hedgers and speculators, winners and losers. (There’s even a reference to the 1983 hit movie, “Trading Places” and FBI investigation of fraud on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (pp.226-232)).  There follow the dynamic mergers and acquisitions among leading seed (biotechnology) companies competing for markets, the politics of managed markets and subsidies in industrialized, developing, and transition countries; and finally, the land grabs that have characterized soy-growing areas especially since the world food price crisis of 2007-2008.

These business and environmental concerns spill over into Chapter 10, on “Soy Diesel”, which continues country-by-country discussions of soy strategies such as  efforts to recycle soy oil in order to cut down on pollution and waste in Brazil and Indonesia.  In all these developing country stories, however, the reader sees the downsides, as small operators inevitably lose access to food and energy resources when world prices rise beyond their control.  The book ends with an “Afterword” about Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, which harbors some 27,000 varieties of soy. This short chapter ends with a rehash of the individually grounded, cultural stories that show promise and peril inherent in soybeans, which are used as a “lens for new perspectives on our very selves.” (p.266).  Readers can decide whether they appreciate and want to use these reflections to structure discussions of additional, non-soy domains.

As I was preparing this review of Christine Du Bois’s comprehensive, The Story of Soy  (London: Reaktion Books, 2018) I happened to read an “early view” of Andrew Ofstehage’s (2018) “Farming Out of Place,” which describes “flexible farming” modes of production by a younger generation of mid-Western US farmers, who buy up and farm South American lands after they have been priced out of the land market in their home places of origin.  I also read and reviewed Gerardo Otero’s Neoliberal Diet, which covers some of the same territory from a quantitative, larger-scale agricultural and nutritional perspective, focusing in part on the huge growth of plant fats in global diets.  To cover community cultural and the “big” political economic picture, I’d recommend that readers and instructors in food-studies and anthropology of food, nutrition, and diet courses use all three sources together.

Finally, as someone who has followed Du Bois’ work on soy (Messer 2009, 2016), and also as someone trained in ethnobotany, I particularly appreciated Du Bois’ exhaustive dedication to exploring the entire range of relations between this economic and nutritional species and the human populations that have used and will continue to use it.  I look forward to reading comparative studies on other oilseeds based on the excellent research presented here.

References cited:

Messer, Ellen (2009) Review of: The World of Soy, by C. DuBois, T-C. Chan and  S. Mintz, Gastronomy 9,4:101-103. Access at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2009.9.issue-4

 

Messer, Ellen (2016) Remembering Sid Mintz. Food Anthropology, 4 January 2016. Access at: https://foodanthro.com/2016/01/04/remembering-sidney-mintz/

Ofstehage, Andrew (2018) Farming Out of Place: Transnational family farmers, flexible farming, and rupture of rural life in Bahia, Brazil.  American Ethnologist 45,3: 317-329

Otero, G. (2018) The Neoliberal Diet. Healthy Profits, Unhealthy People. University of Texas Press.

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Perspectives On U.S. Food Policy: Farm Bill 2018

 

Ellen Messer

An essay inspired by Amy Goldstein’s JanesvilleAn American Story (2017, Simon and janesville-9781501102264_hrSchuster).  What this account of economic decline and increasing social polarization in a post-industrial American town reveals about the limitations of local household and community coping strategies and the failures of government safety nets.

Introduction

At the June, 2018 annual conference of the Association for Study of Food in Society (ASFS) and Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS) in Madison, Wisconsin, some number of us SAFN members participated in an open forum on the 2018 Farm Bill and also took the opportunity to learn more about the history of the food movement in Wisconsin.

When I proposed this session, I hoped to involve food and nutrition anthropologists and other professionals in run-up and follow-up conversations, sharing information about how these professionals participated in Farm Bill related research, education, and outreach, including advocacy activities.  The round-table session would focus attention on the hot-button issues in the Farm Bill 2018 news, which from January through June included cut-backs and structural changes to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), reductions in conservation agriculture and community-food security initiatives that threatened to derail promising programs in urban agriculture and grants to support new farmers and ranchers, discussions of crop insurance and who should be able to collect benefits payments (only actual farmers or also non-farming family members), and overall discussion of environmental protection agendas, including permissible pesticides, organic regulations, and payments to users to encourage conservation practices.  The goals of this open forum were practical as well as research and policy oriented: to learn what ag/food/nutritional professionals were doing (and observing) with regard to the Farm Bill, and to learn what information and outreach formats work best to engage populations of farmers and non-farmers, including students and university faculty and administrators, to influence politicians responsible for the final form of this multi-faceted, “omnibus” legislation.  Finally, a question that cross-cut this Farm Bill and other food-movement discussions, concerned what are the most promising platforms for sharing information and perspectives, to generate ongoing exchanges of information.

At present (mid-July 2018), the final form of the 2018 Farm Bill awaits reconciliation of House and Senate versions that have now passed their respective chambers.  A key sticking point are major eligibility and funding-level changes to SNAP, the most important US government program protecting people from hunger.  At our Open Forum, colleagues shared various and sometimes contentious points of view they had witnessed among particular rural and urban populations regarding such government food programs.  Particularly in the midwest heartland, some of these professionals found considerable push-back against government income transfers targeted for food. Some of these hardworking folks (the particular example involved farmers) indicated they expected everyone to work harder and not have to rely on government-sponsored food entitlements at taxpayer expense.  For strong supporters of SNAP food-security benefits, including myself, these ethnographic observations were troubling, and revealed how much we who champion SNAP don’t know about the thinking or situations of opponents.  We read the household-level economic and nutritional studies and are confident that significant benefits are present and assume such results, in some sense, speak for themselves.  This situation, combined with a growing awareness of Wisconsin’s recent history, which showed Wisconsin state government and national electoral politics had shifted from “blue” to “red” raised the question: why do people vote against their own interests, and the well-being and future of their state, by reducing public spending for basic quality education and health care, which inevitably disadvantages everyone who has much to lose from an undereducated, underemployed work force that is also likely to be more sickly and threaten the public health of everyone?

As I pondered these questions, I looked for recent books and found two very recent publications on Wisconsin society and politics.  One was Amy Goldstein’s Janesville. An American Story (Simon & Schuster, 2018)Sometimes a book outside food and nutritional anthropology’s immediate, specialized area of interest provides important insights into science and policy issues that may be missing in studies that ostensibly more directly engage our targeted professional interests.  Janesville proved to be a case in point.  Although its evidence extended only through 2016, it offered a context to discuss proposed changes to USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps”), in the 2018 Farm Bill, which US legislators still hope to finalize by 30 September 2018 when the 2014 Farm Bill expires.

As we found out from participants in our Open Forum, most Americans don’t follow the specifics of this enormous (“omnibus”) piece of agriculture, food, and nutrition legislation. Nor do they realize that close to 80 percent of the Farm Bill’s roughly $800 billion expenditures go to food and nutrition programs, the largest of which is SNAP.

SNAP, as we food professionals know, is the most important US food-security program, an income transfer program targeted toward improving low income household access to food, which expands and contracts according to expansion and contraction of employment and incomes.  The most recent SNAP participation figures, which the government tracks monthly, yearly, and state by state, indicate an estimated 41,240,974 Americans, living in 20,467,521 households, relied in part on SNAP benefits to put food on their tables because their existing income did not suffice. Average benefits per person were $126.76 per month or $255.41 per household.  That said, numbers of participants have steadily declined year by year since 2015, when more then 45 million Americans accessed SNAP in what was then a lower-employment and lower-wage environment, although average monthly benefits remained relatively unchanged.

Key proposed changes in the House Farm bill, which passed in late June, are reductions in overall eligibility and benefits, additional bureaucratic burdens of monthly recertifications, and mandatory work requirements for all able-bodied adults.  These specifics, including financial and social welfare analyses that demonstrate these changes will increase food-insecurity among those eligible and newly ineligible, can be found on the updated Center for Budget and Policy Priorities website.  Instead, consistent with David Himmelgreen’s well-reasoned “In Focus” essay on hunger, which used anthropology to put a human face on hunger numbers, I use Amy Goldstein’s Janesville interviews, which tracked individual and family histories from the great recession of 2008 for five years through 2013 (with brief “epilogue” updates through 2016), as a kind of ethnography, to examine the implications of changing US Food Policy.

The Findings

This book tells a distressing story, a case study showing how post-industrial American cities have fared in situations where their well-paying manufacturing jobs have disappeared.  Janesville, Wisconsin was a General Motors town.  Most of the residents, male and female, worked for the automotive company directly, in their assembly lines, or indirectly, producing parts (e.g., Lear engines), accessories, or services that went into the finished vehicles or provisioned laborers and their families.  Some worked, alternatively, at the other signature employer, Parker Pen, which also ceased operations during the period of study (2008-2013).

The chapters, arranged by years, tell the story of the town institutions, politics, and people forced to adapt to these deteriorating economic times. Each year’s framings also include political anecdotes showcasing the most characteristic stances of leading politicians. These politicians included Barack Obama, who was elected twice over this period, and attracted heartfelt support in this largely Democratic, union (UAW) town.  His stirring promises and commitment to the American automobile industry as an icon of American culture and economy, proved to be largely empty, despite costly federal government bail-outs, which seem to have fattened management and investors, not the workers, who were out of jobs.

The other major political figure was Paul Ryan, descendant of a wealthy Irish “mafia” (a local term taken directly from interviews in the book), who represented the upper class in this increasingly polarized community.  Ascending to Republican leadership positions in Washington, Ryan voted to cut budgets and benefits alongside his fellow Republicans, including Governor Scott Walker, who somehow managed to get elected multiple times and defeat a grassroots effort to impeach (recall) him. Why? The reader never quite learns the answer to this conundrum, which saw the state of Wisconsin withdraw healing or life-sustaining health and education funds at exactly the point where they were most needed.

The book begins with some background on Janesville, which had a long and illustrious history of hard working, civic minded people, who took care of their own, and avoided the violence that sometimes erupted in other union towns fighting for labor rights against management.  The general public and union at first assumed they would weather this shut-down as well, but as weeks and months became years of unemployment, the return of high paying jobs became increasingly unlikely, and people had to find other routes to livelihoods—or lose their houses (many were foreclosed), other major equipment (repossessed—although there was not much discussion of this), or move to where there might be better prospects (a handful of men commuted to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where they (nicknamed “gypsies”) worked at the GM plant from Monday morning until Friday evening, then drove back to spend weekends with their families in Janesville.

The narrative is constructed out of household and individual life histories, which detail the disruptions in the lives of four autoworkers’ families; two workers from other local industries (which also shut down), two local politicians (Paul Ryan and Tim Cullen, former and Future Democratic state senator, who tried to negotiate across the growing economic chasm).  There were also three educators, whose efforts to protect homeless students left behind by struggling families, a social studies teacher at the local high school, who created a Closet to provide emergency supplies for students lacking food and sundries for minimally decent and dignified lives because their households’ economies had collapsed.  Two business leaders, who don’t seem to have accomplished very much for the vast majority of those down on their luck, grew in privileged status—self-described “optimists” who distanced themselves from misfortune and unfortunates. Additionally, there were two community leaders who reported on economic situations and tried to bring attention to possible solutions.

Food and Nutrition Implications

For me, a food and nutrition anthropologist, the most evocative vignettes were the descriptions of multi-generational households struggling to put food on the table, once the major wage earners had lost their factory jobs. In these situations, all able-bodied adults and responsible teenagers who worked two or three jobs per person in order to maintain the human dignity and nutritional well-being of their households.  The workers included highly motivated high school kids, whose contributions to household budgets were significant enough to keep families from penury and more extreme food insecurity, but also prevented these households from qualifying for higher SNAP benefits and the college-bound kids themselves from needs-based scholarships.

Households without regular incomes cobbled together food provisions from minimal earnings, savings, and emergency sources, which included a high school emergency “closet,” established by concerned teachers, that contained essential food and sundries the kids otherwise lacked.  Over this period, various local charities, including food pantries and food banks, distributed what emergency food provisions they had and solicited more, but saw their financial resources cut back by what they interpreted to be mean spirited government, especially at the state level. These sections vividly testify to the limits of customary charitable networks, especially where most workers have lost primary sources of income that they have been unable to replace.  Traditionally generous local Christmas and other holiday food efforts continued but had to be scaled back. A community where large numbers were unemployed or had suffered big cuts to wages, saw increasing numbers of people with unmet needs in a context of decreasing contributions.

Social and Moral Dimensions

 The adults’ struggles to find jobs, provision their families, and put food on the table with dignity—as their roles changed from “givers” to “receivers” of charity are forcefully epitomized in these very human stories, short biographies of hard-working and loving families, coping with economic crisis and family disasters through no fault of their own.  For me, the most important findings came at the end of the narrative, which documented the growing bifurcation of what had been a resilient, middle class town, which over a very short time divided into a two class town that separated rich from poor, with the faltering lower class seeing no prospects for regaining their prior middle class life style and culture.

The other major insights were reported in two appendices.  The first, a 2013 survey of household economies in Rock County before and after the recession, showed deep cutbacks in quality of life alongside a reluctance to ask government for greater assistance. This may have been partly cultural but also suggests a deep distrust of government capacity to improve their situations.  Contrary to government officials, most thought the country was still in recession. Specifically, over one third of households had lost jobs, three quarters of the households had experienced a significant decrease in home values (a consequence of the separate but related mortgage and real estate crisis). For those who had found another job, more than half were earning less than before. Only 3-5% responded that they thought Janesville would recover to the financial and job security they had enjoyed prior to the crisis. At least half expressed difficulty at some point in paying for adequate food, and more than half had had to cut back on health care and other necessities.  Many acknowledged symptoms of anxiety and depression. But only about a third overall thought that government should be doing more to help people who were out of work (more out of work favored greater government assistance than those who had not lost jobs).

The second survey, which examined the impact of local community college job training programs, revealed that these job-training programs, which encouraged many workers to go back to school and retool for other jobs, did not put them at an advantage over those who did not access job training.   About 10 percent more of the re-employed workers had found employment without enrolling in community-college training. Those who had not gone back to school also appeared to have steadier work and to be earning more.  Local jobs that would have enabled the retrained group to put their new skills to work, at least in the immediate term, were not there.

Such findings bode ill for job training programs that are supposed to put SNAP or other beneficiaries of public food and nutrition programs to work, to earn living wages so they will not have to rely on government assistance. They also suggest an urgent task for everyone who cares about reductions in food insecurity.  It is time to go out to such heartlands, and listen to what people are thinking and doing, and find ways to emphasize the “jobs” connections to food programs, which otherwise will continue to founder through misunderstanding, resistance, and lack of support for entitlements.

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Food OpEd Fellowship opportunity in San Francisco

Received from Polly Adema, who is the Director of the Master of Arts in Food Studies Program at the University of the Pacific. Looks like a great opportunity for anyone interested in writing about food and policy for a broad public audience. Note that the application deadline is March 22, 2017, which is very soon. 

In partnership with The Culinary Trust, the Food Studies program at University of the Pacific San Francisco is offering a 2-day intensive training for rising thought leaders dedicated to crafting impactful  OpEd pieces about contemporary food issues. The program takes place over a weekend in July in San Francisco. Tuition and travel scholarships are available. You’ll find details here:

http://www.pacific.edu/Academics/Schools-and-Colleges/College-of-the-Pacific/Academics/Departments-and-Programs/Food-Studies/OpEd-Workshop-A-Place-at-the-Table.html

Please share widely among your networks, especially among those engaged in food activism and food justice efforts. While authors, scholars, and journalists are encouraged to apply, we are dedicated to empowering people who may not have a background in food journalism or in writing for the public but who are committed to getting their voice more widely heard. The deadline to apply is next week but the application is pretty straightforward. 

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What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, February 13, 2017

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

Where else to start but with the outlook for nutrition and agriculture policy in the new administration? This account from Civil Eats of a recent panel discussion on the 2018 Farm Bill gets to some of the essential questions: what will happen to farm labor? What is going on with SNAP? Any reason for optimism? Probably not. But this could be a good read to start a discussion with students about setting U.S. policy priorities.

For additional perspective on where the Trump administration may be going, listen to this interview that Evan Kleiman conducted with Helena Bottemiller Evich, from Politico. From Sonny Perdue’s background, to crop policies in the Farm Bill, SNAP, to soda taxes, food safety and regulation, immigration, and even the White House garden, there is a lot here. The same author has written about President Trump’s personal relationship to food here. This is a pretty detailed take on Trump, his family, and their history with food and well worth reading.

Hearings on President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor, fast food executive Andrew Puzder, have been scheduled for later this week, but the debate about his qualifications seems to be picking up steam. In this Washington Post editorial, a long-time Hardee’s employee discusses wages and working conditions in Puzder’s company. Meanwhile, Senator Elizabeth Warren persists in her efforts to raise important questions about Trump cabinet nominees. In this case, she has written a very long list of questions about Puzder’s qualifications that you can read about here.

As you may have heard, since the U.S. presidential election, George Orwell’s novel “1984” has returned to the bestseller lists. If you want to stoke the fires of your own paranoia, read this article, in which the very serious New York Times examines the strange deployment of military grade spyware (the kind deployed by agencies like the NSA) into the phones of soda tax activists and scholars in Mexico. Someone is taking food studies scholarship very seriously. At least in Orwell’s novel, everyone knew they were being watched all the time.

How do climate change, coastal restoration policy, indigenous foodways, community organizing, folk wisdom, seafood, food gardens, and tribal recognition all come together in one disturbing story? Read this article by Barry Yeoman, which uses a holistic perspective to examine how native people in south Louisiana are trying to save their communities and foodways as the Gulf of Mexico rises and destroys their land. Yeoman may not be an anthropologist, but this article would really be useful in any number of anthropology classes. Read it.

This piece by Nina Martyris on the NPR food blog examines the role of hunger in the lives of enslaved Americans. She draws on the work of Frederick Douglass, who wrote extensively about how desperate he was for food as a child. Yet Douglass also ended up using food in order to barter for literacy. This is a good piece for teaching about the use of food and hunger tools for controlling people.

From Lucky Peach TV, food science writer Harold McGee narrates this video on the relationship between pollution and the flavor of foods. He starts with the story of how a flavor scientist in LA became a major researcher and activist on smog, then looks at more recent work by folks from the Center for Genomic Gastronomy (yes, that is a thing) and the blog Edible Geography that use the concept “aeroir,” and “smog meringues” to get at the taste of cities. Quite a lot is packed into this little five minute video – show it to your students and you can discuss it for hours.

It turns out that mushroom hunting can be quite dangerous, but not because people end up eating poisonous mushrooms. Rather, it seems that people are themselves the danger, for a variety of rather disturbing reasons. Read this article, from Joshua Hunt on Eater.com for the details. Foolish behavior, murder, mayhem, and more. None of which is the fault of the mushrooms. Have the Cohen brothers made a movie about this yet?

Who invented Nutella and why? This seems like the sort of question that you could easily answer by visiting the web site of the company that makes the stuff (https://www.nutella.com/en/us, if you must). But this article, by Emily Mangini at Serious Eats, argues that the company’s story is missing details. She provides them in the article and refers determined readers to this blog, for an even more in depth examination of the subject.

If you are interested in the history of the restaurant business in the United States, then looking into fast food is unavoidable. From Andrew Puzder (see above) to Ray and Joan Kroc and, of course, to all the activists and workers struggling for decent pay and working conditions (also see above), it is hard to underestimate the importance of the industry to American culture. The success of The Founder, a film about Ray Kroc, provides at least one fascinating perspective. This interview, in which Russ Parsons talks with Lisa Napoli, author of the book  “Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away” (Dutton, 2016) is equally interesting.

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Fast Food Labor Secretary?

David Beriss

In the weeks following his election, President Donald Trump announced the nomination of Andrew F. Puzder to lead the U.S. Department of Labor. There has been much discussion and commentary on this choice. Mr. Puzder is the CEO of CKE Restaurants, Inc., which owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s fast-food chains. Because of this background, much of the commentary on his qualifications has come from the restaurant industry, including the National Restaurant Association (which favors the nomination) and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (which opposes his nomination). There is also this commentary, which suggests that nominating Puzder is a way of overturning the entire history of the Department of Labor, leaving in its place conditions for workers that resemble “The Jungle” (the author of the commentary appears to be in favor of this outcome).

Hearings on his nomination are scheduled for February 2, 2017.

If confirmed, what sort of job will Mr. Puzder do? The Department of Labor’s mission statement is remarkably succinct:

“To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.”

Perhaps the most famous Secretary of Labor was Frances Perkins, who served from 1933 to 1945. She was the first woman to hold a cabinet position (and a sociologist!). More importantly, she was instrumental in creating President Roosevelt’s New Deal, she wrote the Social Security Act, and fought for minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws. The Department of Labor’s headquarters building is in fact the Frances Perkins Building. This is where Mr. Puzder will work, if he is confirmed.

Will Mr. Puzder “foster, promote, and develop the welfare” of American workers? Or would he do more to promote the interests and welfare of industry? Are these necessarily opposed? One of the reasons people have raised questions about Mr. Puzder’s ability to fulfill the Labor Department’s mission is that his positions on many of the issues are well known. He has written and spoken a great deal about working conditions, wages, and benefits in the restaurant industry. Here are ten questions that seem worth addressing prior to Senate approval of his nomination:

  1. Wages: The call to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour has been led by fast food workers, the industry where Mr. Puzder works. The current minimum wage is $7.25/hour and has not changed since 2009. Some states and cities have raised their minimum wages locally, but there are also states that have no minimum wage, so unless the federal government raises it, they will stay at $7.25. The minimum wage is not a living wage for most American families. Mr. Puzder, who reportedly makes more than $4 million annually, opposes raising it. Is there a societal interest in making sure workers are paid enough to support themselves and their families or should wages be set strictly by the market?
  2. Overtime: The Obama administration tried to update overtime pay rules that define which employees should be paid overtime when working more than 40 hours per week. The salary threshold below which workers can receive overtime pay has not really changed much since 1975, which means that millions of people are essentially working longer hours for free. Puzder argues that they prefer this freedom over higher wages and thus opposes the new rules. He has also argued against California rules requiring rest and meal breaks for workers. Who benefits more from workers “flexibly” working longer hours for no pay: the workers or the companies?
  3. Sexual Harassment: Puzder has been criticized for his company’s advertising, which has featured bikini-clad women eating hamburgers. Certainly, there is nothing especially unusual about using sex to sell all kinds of products. Yet at least one recent report suggests that sexual harassment is significantly more frequent at CKE restaurants than elsewhere in the fast-food industry. What will Mr. Puzder do at Labor to insure that workers in all industries have a harassment-free environment?
  4. Health Care: Puzder has argued that the Affordable Care Act has driven up health care costs and triggered a restaurant recession. The existence of this recession is disputable (see this and this), but access to health insurance and health care is certainly an issue for restaurant workers. What will he do to help restaurant and other workers in food-related industries get access to affordable health care?
  5. Sick Leave: Paid sick leave is not a common benefit for workers in the restaurant industry. Food service workers often work when sick or injured. Legislation has been proposed in the last few congresses to allow all workers to earn paid sick days. This seems like an important way to improve the welfare of American workers. As Secretary of Labor, would Mr. Puzder support paid sick leave for all American workers?
  6. Immigration: One of Mr. Trump’s signature campaign issues was immigration: he promised to build a wall and deport millions of undocumented people. The restaurant industry uses a lot of immigrant labor, including undocumented workers, and Mr. Puzder has been a supporter of immigration reform initiatives that include a path to legalization. This position has caused much concern on the right. The National Restaurant Association supports immigration reform and argues that the industry needs immigrant labor. Will Mr. Puzder support immigration reform of the sort endorsed by the NRA or will he choose instead to support Mr. Trump’s policies?
  7. Unions: The Department of Labor has long worked with unions to protect workers in the United States. Mr. Puzder is on record as opposing unions and unionization, especially in the fast food industry (the unions, of course, oppose Puzder’s nomination). He has opposed efforts by the National Labor Relations Board to make both franchisees and corporations jointly responsible for wage violations and, as noted above, he opposes the $15 minimum wage, both of which are strongly supported by unions. One analyst has suggested that he might use his powers as Secretary of Labor to undermine unions, rather than support workers. Can an anti-union Secretary of Labor work to support the interests of workers?
  8. Tipping: In many restaurants, tipped workers receive hourly wages that are far below the already low minimum wage. They rely on tips to make up the difference. For some, this results in unpredictable and low wages. For others, this means that front-of-the-house workers get paid relatively well, while wages for cooks remain low. There have been efforts by activists and restaurateurs to address these issues, but it is unclear where Mr. Puzder stands. What would Mr. Puzder do as labor secretary to ensure that tipped workers and other restaurant workers are able to count on a reliable wage?
  9. Statistics: Measuring society in order to determine public policy is one of the key missions of modern government. Yet during the election, candidate Trump often cited statistics, including the unemployment rate, that seemed unrelated to any numbers produced by government agencies or anyone else with real data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, an agency of the Department of Labor, collects data and produces reports on everything from employment to prices. Will Mr. Puzder work to insure the continuity and reliability of this data? Or will he use the BLS to create “alternative facts” that support assertions made by the President?
  10. Experience: Puzder argues that increasing wages and improving working conditions in fast food will result in more automation and fewer jobs for people. But there is a lot more to the restaurant industry than corporate-run fast food chains like those led by Mr. Puzder. In 2016, restaurants employed 14.4 million people, with about 3.7 million in fast food. 70% of restaurants are single units, not chains. For most restaurants, the connections between customers and workers are an essential part of the business. Can Mr. Puzder advocate for workers—in the restaurant industry or in other industries—if his view of them is framed only by experience in large corporations?

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Review: Sorting the Beef from the Bull

Sorting the Beef from the Bull. The Science of Food Fraud Forensics.  Richard Evershed and Nicola Temple. Bloomsbury, 2016.

Media of Sorting the Beef from the Bull

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

Evershed, Richard and Nicola Temple (2016) Sorting the Beef from the Bull. The Science of Food Fraud Forensics.  New York: Bloomsbury Sigma.

This book systematically covers the categories of food fraud that pervade global food systems and trade.  It carefully explains the biology, chemistry, and physics of food, as well as the tools that have been constructed to test authenticity of species, political-geographic origin places, and toxic dangers of additives. These later include dyes and preservatives, and substances and substitutions added to extend the quantities of shelf lives of particular products.  The first three chapters introduce “Food Fraud 101” and the major categories of falsification, with special emphasis on eggs and poultry.  The next six chapters cover specific adulterations and efforts to detect them in the major food categories: fish, red meat, dairy, spices and condiments, beverages, fruits and vegetables.  There is plenty of fraud to go around with values-based items (organic, ethically sourced) which may not originate where their values claim they do. The final chapter, “thoughts for digestion” reviews main points and technologies available or in the pipe-line for individual consumer, food-processor, retailer, or other institutional detection of misrepresentations.  This chapter also summarizes guidelines for real food sourcing that are quite similar to Michael Pollan’s principles: select whole rather than processed foods, sourced locally or from trusted sources, thereby shortening the food chain with its possibilities of fraud.  Be skeptical of deals that are too good to be true; they usually involve deceptions.  Be willing to take the time and pay a fair price to get the story and connect with the people behind the foods you eat.

These chapters are packed with food biochemistry and clear explanations of the sleuth work that goes into detecting fraud and its harms.  There is particular attention to adulterations that produce life-threatening or -ending allergens, such as peanut or dairy that purposely or inadvertently have been added to products that should not contain them.  The major motivation is greed, although some shelf-life expanding technologies claim they are fighting world hunger and local food insecurity, and reducing waste.  Cases of Chinese, then Indian and Bangladeshi adulterators are most frequently cited, but there are plenty of U.S. and European culprits or co-conspirators eager to profit from food falsification, even where this process introduces human health risks.  There are also some simple guidelines to detecting common frauds in common foods.  Individuals can use their senses (smell, taste, touch, visual observation of cooking properties) to detect products that are not what they claim.  E.g., does the spice mixture in the package or the coffee or tea smell and behave the way it is supposed to? Does the fish fillet unexpectedly fall apart (in which case it is probably a cheaper species, not pricey cod)? Does the unbelievably cheap egg have a membrane inside the shell? If not it is a counterfeit, which in quantity yields huge criminal profits for the manufacturers who operate in many countries.

Surprisingly, the EU up to the time of publication had no official definition of food fraud, in contrast to the US, which defines “the deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging; or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain” (cited on p.262).  Throughout the substantive, food-category based chapters, the authors cite legal cases but bemoan the lack of inspection and regulators, even where the legal framework is in place.  They should also bemoan the lack of time dedicated to food shopping and eating, the “convenience” factor that expands food chains and distances consumers from the sources of their food.  Such distancing layers risks of fraud and harms at every level, and also reduces the consumer’s pleasure, knowledge, and connections to food and to other human beings all along the food chain.  Thin and incomplete government or food-industry oversight of food quality and truth, combined with consumers’ appreciation of convenience foods, are challenges unlikely to be resolved by greater knowledge in food forensics.  The outstanding technical perspectives also raise additional conflicts in values.  Given the emphasis on reducing food waste, should we, the consumers, prefer the apple that rots? Or the apple that, with the application of food technology, stays or appears to stay fresh an unnaturally long period of time? In a world of industrialized foods, can individuals be trained to prefer a natural strawberry to the industrialized fake flavor?

You can use the examples in discussions of traceability, hazard analysis, biochemical and flavor diversity in foods, and other food-system topics.  The book also contains a good refresher course on basic food biochemistry, with helpful chapter by chapter summaries of the major chemical bonds and reactions in an appendix.

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Review: Two Books on Hunger and Food Security

De Schutter, Olivier. and Cordes, Kaitlin Y. 2011. Accounting for Hunger: The Right to Food in an Era of Globalisation. London/New York: Hart Publishing (288 pp).

Timmer, C. Peter. 2015 Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger is So Hard Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (240 pp).

Jo Hunter-Adams
University of Cape Town

Accounting for Hunger and Food Security and Scarcity offer complementary pictures of food accounting for hunger coversecurity and hunger, one from the perspective of economics, and the other from a broader rights-based perspective. As an edited volume, Accounting for Hunger allows for several fine-grained analyses of specific dimensions of food security. In contrast, Timmer’s Food Security and Scarcity draws global lessons from the history of food security, and offers market analysis as a basis for recommendations to economists and policy planners.

In Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger is So Hard, Timmer lays out the complexity of global food security in seven chapters. Each chapter builds on a set of key assumptions about economic policy. Timmer focuses on the need for pro-poor economic growth, in particular structural transformation or urbanization, with decreased labor on farms. He asserts again and again that, “historically, the structural transformation has been the only sustainable pathway out of poverty.” (p113, see also xii, p4, 9, 29, 37, 56, 85, 95). Beginning with this premise, he spends much of the analysis looking at ways that such structural transformation takes place (and very briefly on the consequences when such a transformation fails). Not being trained as an economist, I did not understand some of chapter 3, which lays out specific models for balancing control of the market while allowing competition. My own shortcomings as a reviewer aside, a major strength of this book lies in its scope, suggesting some of the ways that the food price stabilization can be achieved at a global level, and not shying away from the complexity of such a feat (i.e. achieving “a guaranteed nutritional floor for the poor” and “secure availability and stable prices in food markets” p31.)

food security coverAlso to the book’s credit, Timmer does mention failed agricultural transformations, where populations end up in growing urban slums rather than gaining momentum to move out of {material} poverty. Timmer also mentions the lack of transparency of market transactions and large-scale food purchases, and the slowdown of new agricultural research.

However, the assertion that structural transformation is the key route out of poverty is worthy of critique. While Timmer is up front about the Asian bias present in the book, he is less introspective about the potential issues this bias brings to the analysis. That is, without defining the boundaries and exclusions (geographical and historical) of successful structural transformation, I found it difficult to be convinced in favor of “pro-poor” structural transformation. Past successful structural transformation cannot, taken alone, predict the future; climate change and the declining availability of fossil fuels surely opens up the possibility that the future may be different from the past, and that new routes towards food security will be necessary. Narrow conceptualization of material poverty and hunger also masks historical power imbalances, where economists may feel empowered to make far-reaching policy based on their assessments of hunger, without considering the exploitation that has facilitated inequality. This critique notwithstanding, the book offers a good introduction for non-specialists (undergraduate and graduate) into the issues and complexities of global food security.

The editors of Accounting for Hunger begin by offering a summary of the challenges and relationships between urban food supply and rural agriculture, emphasizing the need to consider the imbalances of power in food systems, with particular attention to farmers. Thereafter, the book is divided into two parts. The first focuses on power imbalances in food systems, with three chapters focused on agribusiness (Cordes), food retail (Cowan Schmidt) and Biofuels (Cloots). The second part focuses on the role of trade and aid in creating an international environment that promotes the right to food. De Schutter begins with an overview of the policies that govern international aid and the ways that these tend to overlook their role in promoting the right to food globally. In the three chapters that follow the authors focus on rich-country agricultural subsidies (Mersing), the legal recourse in relation to the WTO (Konstantinov) and recommendations for food aid (Moreu).

Rather than review each chapter, I would like to highlight a few chapters as good potential assigned reading for particular issues in food security. In chapter three, Cordes offers attention to the relationships between biodiversity, mono-cultures, and trade agreements. She also weaves in studies of GMOs, farmer suicides in relation to debt, and the need for transparency in agribusiness. Schmidt offers key insights into the disproportionate burden borne by smallholders and small farmers when forced to compete on global markets. Cloots’ chapter on Biofuels offered a very helpful introduction to the ways that biofuels shapes the commodities market. She argues that the current orientation of the biofuels market tends to infringe upon the realization of rights to food in developing countries, and deepen the bargaining disadvantages of low-and-middle income countries. Cloots effectively weaves the relationships between food security, land use, climate change, energy needs, and biodiversity. In chapter 6, Mersing considers the complexity of phasing out rich country agricultural subsidies without increasing hunger amongst the very poor. Here is where the complexity of artificially low prices for commodity food is juxtaposed with the need for these low prices given low wages and unemployment in low-and middle-income countries. The final chapter guiding food aid recommendations is clear and concrete, and lays out the intersections between food aid, the agricultural decline of recipients, and the muddy waters of motivations of the nations providing aid.

Points of intersection

In recent years, the focus on global hunger has shifted towards at least some consideration of local food environments and framing food security in terms of healthy foods—not only caloric sufficiency. The complexity of intersections between obesity and hunger deserved at least some consideration, as it has important implications for policy, including health policy amongst the growing populations of urban poor.

Both books frame hunger as primarily an issue of poverty, rather than an issue of agricultural production (though Timmer believes agricultural research and improved yield is a key part of food security in the future). Both books also highlight small-scale farmers

SmallholderNetBuyers revise

Illustration by E.B. Adams, http://ebadams.com/.

in the effort to improve global food security. One concrete point highlighted by Timmer is that farm sizes should increase somewhat to facilitate greater food security. Rather than advocating for large commercial farms, his argument is for moderately larger family smallholdings that would allow for more efficient household production and better local supply. This is consistent with chapter 3 of Accounting for Hunger, where Cordes highlights the ways that smallholders and small-scale market farmers currently shoulder disproportionate burdens of risk. However, while Timmer represents the market as a neutral force, the authors of Accounting of Hunger are much more willing to delve into the ways that powerful corporations may stack the odds against smallholder farmers. Both volumes highlight that higher food prices would not serve smallholder needs, as most smallholders are net buyers of food, and are at most risk for food insecurity, symbolizing the complexity of creating more equitable food systems.

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