How True Is the Apocalyptic Debate About Food?


Food Wars: The Importance of History in Contemporary Food Discussions

Sabri Ülker Publications has made it their mission to translate significant foreign publications on topics such as food research, food debates, and science communication into Turkish, and making them accessible to students, young scientists, and enthusiasts.  The book “Food Wars,” which has just hit the shelves and whose cover design and layout I’m not particularly fond of, is one of these translated works.  Instead of “food” in “Food Wars,” it could also be referred to as “nutrition.”

This book, an intriguing compilation consisting of 13 chapters that answer questions such as how our food is produced, whether the historical origins of foods can be examined, whether a common understanding can be found in food research, also examines many topics from the promises of agricultural technology to taste politics, each chapter written by a different author, focuses primarily on America.  While examples provided are from the U.S., I believe generalizations can be drawn regarding every country and culture.  The editors, Matthew Morse Booker and Charles C. Ludington, are also academics.

 In Food Wars, the authors aim to shed light on discussions about food and eating from a historical perspective.  The first part contains historical and intriguing information about food production while the second part centers on food choices.  The third part discusses eating habits, the fourth part explores food sexism, and the final section is dedicated to cooking.  Although there are numerous questions and perspectives regarding meals and foods is today’s world, the editors emphasize that we must not overlook the historical perspective.

The book comprises articles by various authors presenting their own ideas and opposing views of other authors regarding the food debates.   The driving idea behind this book was to evaluate the history of food and develop new methods that have evolved into a distinct field of study. How True Is the Doomsday Argument About Food?  To delve deeper, let’s read on. Sabri Ülker Food Research Foundation

#SabriÜlkerPublications #Book #food #nutrition #health #science

According to some researchers, the use of large-scale economies and cutting-edge technologies increases the quality, quantity, and security of the world’s food supply by lowering prices.

The other side argues that, in terms of family budgets, such produced food is relatively cheaper, and while confirming the increase in quantity, they contend that the quality has not improved, and they claim that human health is jeopardized by genetic engineering and toxic chemicals…

 According to the second view, a significant portion of the population is better nourished than ever, but the injustices in the food system seem to be potentially devastating humanity in the long run. The debates continue on the grounds of: “Will the world be able to access to food on a global scale, or will it struggle with major hunger crises, as we have seen throughout history?” say the editors, Booker and Ludington; both are academics.   The book they compiled to shed light on food and food-related debates in Food Wars provides historical and intriguing insights. The first part covers food production, the second addresses food choices, the third explores meal arrangements, the fourth discusses food sexism, and the final part delves into cooking.

Today, there are numerous questions and perspectives that are the subject of our questions and research about food, but we cannot ignore the historical perspective, say the editors.

Advocates of chemical-based farming argue that theirs is the only way to unsure food access as the world’s population grows.  Opponents of these advancements, sometimes referred to as the “green revolution” emphasize the potentially striking outcomes for everyone.  The abundance we can access today: At the end of our story, the harms of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics may cause famine, high prices, diseases, and even wars.  In addition to their predictions, these researchers also draw attention to the bad conditions that have come true.

The conclusions drawn by the editors from these discussions are: 1) It is crucial to recognize that both scenarios are doomsday scenarios. Following this realization, 2) understanding when and where to utilize technology in producing our food, and knowing when and how to revert to traditional methods when needed, are paramount.

 The First article is authored by Margaret Mellon:

While discussing the debates surrounding genetically modified products, Mellon argues, in contrast to the unscientific and baseless claims of today’s conspiracy enthusiasts, that these products are safe. However, she asserts that proponents of genetic engineering have failed to deliver even half of what they promise. Despite agricultural genetic engineering appearing to address minor issues, it also gives rise to new problems. According to the results and observations drawn from Mellon’s academic research, although genetic engineering entered our lives with the aim of enabling access to chemical-free agriculture, it has fallen far short, except for a few developments.

For instance, in the United States, it has been claimed that herbicide-resistant crops encourage farmers to use glyphosate, an herbicide less toxic than the more widely used atrazine.  However, as farmers continued to plant genetically engineered crops, resilient weeds continued to proliferate because, like many organisms, they could adapt.

Another promise of genetically modified crops was a design that could prevent human diseases.  But even if these products are claimed to contain more nutritious oils, there is still no evidence that these products are healthier to consume.

The positive effects of genetic engineering were their success in controlling some pest species.  The use of pesticides was reduced.

Historically, progress using technology has been defined as an idea of liberal capitalism.  This understanding stems from the belief that scientific discoveries and technological developments are superior to previous ones.  So, even if we don’t succeed, we don’t go backward.  Even if we are skeptical of new technologies, we wait patiently with our faith in progress, and our worries about the damage we may incur are invalidated.  Still, while genetically modified crops should not be excluded, they should not be considered our sole future.

In the second article, Peter Coclanis evaluates industrial agriculture:

Is the so-called “Great Farming” method good or bad?

The problems of developments in industrial agriculture, one of the American success stories, are solved thanks to science.  This will continue.  In the U.S., there are adequately funded entrepreneurial farmers on fertile and affordable land, operating in a favorable market environment, often with support from the legal system and government regulations.  It is known that they are supported by the logistics, insurance, and finance sectors, which offer favorable conditions.  In such an environment, the productivity of American farmers is bound to produce crops that are superior and marketable to the entire world.  However,  achieving sustainability and sustainable industrialization in the agricultural sector remains a critical challenge.

Furthermore, according to the author, when it comes to the planet, it will not be about unhealthy/inexpensive (junk) food and overeating or unscientific horrors such as high fructose corn syrup, but how to feed the 9.7 billion people who will live on Earth in 2050.  Food security for 2050 will be monitoring the scientific development of GMOs, synthetics and biology microbiomes, and high-tech agriculture.  Where exactly would we be today without the earlier “scientific progress” in agriculture?

In the third article, Steve Striffler argues against Coclanis’ ideas:

He rejects positive reviews of the current food system, especially for environmental reasons, such as costs to workers.  Both forms of contemporary food activism are, he says, consumer-oriented.  In other words, both views fall short of evaluating the situation of food workers in the face of inequality in the system.  Additionally, according to the book’s editors, focusing on how we treat the people who work through the entire process of food, from being planted to reaching the consumer, is the kind of thinking we need to build a successful food system.

 Solutions should be sought for the issue of low wages and harsh working conditions that food workers face, as well as their struggle with inadequate living conditions. On the other hand, consumers have fallen into the trap of a system that promotes unhealthy food consumption, resulting in insufficient access to nutritious food…  Additionally, the environment is being ravaged by the agricultural industry and animals are being treated unnecessarily cruelly under the guise of an industrial model.

In the author’s view, the “food system” alone cannot be changed because food is entirely integrated within the framework of capitalism.  What is ultimately needed is a working-class movement designed to challenge state and corporate power rather than mere “food activism.”  At this educational level, the food movement has effectively demonstrated that the traditional food system is problematic, unhealthy, and an exploitative system organized around profit rather than human needs.

In the fourth article, Margot Finn delves into different, yet not entirely unrelated debates controversies over the role of food in creating, maintaining, and reflecting social hierarchy:

Margot Finn says that the question of “taste” and our food preferences, as well as the way we prepare and consume food, reveal our social class.  Finn explores both theory and some historical examples to conclude that taste is intrinsically class-dependent and that all food movements are ultimately class-based indicators of power or impotent.  From this perspective, she argues that shopping at the market where local farmers’ goods are sold without intermediaries is a moral act rather than a social act.

Is good food elitist or related to your social class?

Many philosophers have shared anecdotes over the years illustrating that the perception of “taste” can vary among different social classes and even among individuals.

For instance, in his 1757 article titled “Of the Standard of Taste,” David Hume argues that everyone may seem to have their own preferences, but in the end, we all tend to enjoy the same things.  Similarly, Immanuel Kant argues in “The Critique of Judgment” that beauty is common sense, he states that everyone can have the same aesthetic judgments if they get enough education and take the time to find a good reason, imagination, and perspective.  In line with these perspectives, the article’s author states, “Good taste is often associated with carefully developed privileged preferences.”

On the other hand, the famous French thinker Pierre Bourdieu made deep contributions to the subject in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste in 1979.  The research team surveyed 1217 people in France, all from different social classes, about their preferences and found no evidence of the universal tastes Hume and Kant described.  Contrary to expectations, the respondents exhibited “distinctive skill systems specific to different classes and class factions.” Poor people tended to prefer “low” quality things, middle-class people “medium,” and rich “high” quality things.  In these surveys, the working class preferred their meals to be “plenty and good,” while the upper class described their preference as “original and exotic. “While exotic tastes are undesirable for the poor, they are seen as desirable traits among the wealthy.  Bourdieu reveals the distinction between classes in his work.  opinion suggests that wealthy people may necessarily prefer exotic foods because they are superior taste compared to more familiar options.  In fact, they are harder to obtain, which sets them apart from other people around them.  Still, this idea did not find much resonance in the academic world.  Advocates of the food revolution have assumed that everyone with adequate knowledge and access to high-quality food develops the same taste preferences.  So, I ask, what about organic diets or the gluten-free trend without a medical necessity?!  They do not seem to fit well with this result.

In the fifth article, Charles Ludington addresses a similar question, implying that there is no such thing as “taste”, while pointing out that people constantly pass judgements on what they consume.  He is almost complete agreement with Finn regarding how one’s class background, cultural capital, and social desires determine an individuals’ definition of “the best”.

However, he argues that family traditions, our familiarity with certain things, the desire for perceived authenticity, and various concepts such as “tribal identity” influence our taste rankings, including the meaning of what we eat and drink based on gender.

He states, “The objective qualities of food and beverages are important, and so is our physical and emotional state at the time of tasting.”

In the sixth article, Charlotte Biltekoff points out that what American consumers envision as a dietary regimen is, in fact, guided by social values:

 She contends that the science of nutrition is not as scientifically grounded as Americans believe. Rather, the notions of proper nutrition are rooted in the concern of the upper class regarding bodily and emotional control, as well as concepts of beauty. Consequently, she believes that nutritional advice is tailored not to individual needs but rather to “social” (elit) demands and expectations regarding what constitutes a healthy body and what is labeled a “lifestyle”.

Educating people about proper eating extends beyond applying the realities of nutrition to improve biomedical health.  Concerns about poor eating habits in the U.S. fundamentally express broader social concerns, and guidance on proper nutrition embodies significant social and moral ideals.  Discussing “good” or “bad” foods or diets inevitably delves into social values and ideals fashioned by economically and culturally esteemed members of society.  As a result, Biltokoff notes, “the moral hierarchies generates through notions of good and bad food are inevitably linked to class.”

In the seventh article, Matthew Morse Booker discusses food safety legislation and the debate in the U.S.:

Booker states that the laws passed by Congress in 1906 laid the foundations for organizations like the FDA today and narrates its historical development in great detail. He highlights outbreaks related to contaminated shellfish.  Towards the end of the article, Booker demonstrates how ordinary individuals, state and federal authorities, courts, and corporations attempt to shift the responsibility for safe food to the government.

According to him, a polluted river or port is not within the control of an individual or producer. Resolving this pollution is a necessity embedded in political, economic, and even cultural aspects of life.  The paradox of modern life is that we demand the state to protect us from the far greater risks that condemn excessive state control, but most of us condemn excessive state control.  Either we don’t know what truly we want or are dishonest about it.  This complexity extends to our relationship with food.  Today discussions regarding profit motive, responsibility of the point of consumption, and the government’s role constitute significant aspects of the discourse on food safety.

In the eighth article, Sarah Ludington examines the origins and controversies surrounding government food subsidies:

She examines the history of the U.S. Department of Agriculture since the nineteenth century and the inception of the Agriculture Act to illustrate how large farms have wiped out small farms from the market, giving rise to the current obesity epidemic.  Established in 1862, the department has since accurately expanded federal support by funding scientific research, educating farmers on new technology, and aided by agricultural statistics.  U.S. agricultural policy during the Great Depression created programs that continue today, despite the apparent conflict of interest between policies benefiting farmers and the needs of those relying for adequate for a sustainable income, alongside the consumer society’s requirement for adequate food and nutrition. Efforts to distinguish between agricultural subsidies and nutrition programs have been fruitless, as the Agricultural Law benefits both groups.  This coalition, supported by political interests, remains strong.

The author says that from time immemorial, official legislation was suitable for creating big businesses and business lobbies, and it manipulated the legislation, causing them to receive more agricultural subsidies.

According to Ludington, the United States needs a complete separation of agriculture and food policies, or the establishment of a new institution dedicated solely to managing federal food and nutrition programs.  However, this change would entail political risks.  Referring to Charlotte Biltekoff’s ideas in Article No. 6, she states that the interests of the upper classes shape notions of proper nutrition.  When the requirements of politics are examined, political will can only achieve the separation of agriculture and food policies.  Maybe a will that will emerge after a new economic crisis, she adds.

In the ninth article, Amy Bentley explores the roles of women in food production and presentation, starting with breast milk, the first food humans consume:

Bentley examines the debates surrounding breastfeeding, formula feeding, and infant formula, demonstrating that a lasting consensus has been achieved.  She says all the controversy stems from concerns about motherhood and the role of mothers in raising children.  While we expect women to raise their babies as healthy children, Bentley shows that today, we have strict expectations even in a free and individualistic society.

Bentley looks at the historical background of commercial baby food and says that processed foods provide a delicious and safe food supply in a democratic way to consumer expectations as they desire.

In the industrialized food sector, many researchers acknowledge that environmental pollution poses challenges, alongside health issues arising from the provision of tasty food.  “Instead of giving up, we should vociferously advocate for higher-quality industrial food”she says, referring to Laudan.   The progress in commercial baby food align with this direction, as manufacturers respond to negative perceptions from nutrition studies and consumer confidence research by introducing products that align with the twenty first century notion of “good food”.

In the tenth article, Tracey Deutsch delves into the topic of women and food to specifically addressing women’s roles in the kitchen:

Deutsch notes that both right and left critics have debated how women disappoint everyone by walking away from the kitchen.  Recognizing that cooking is hard work and that many people do not actually enjoy it when it becomes necessity, she envisages a future world where men are more Engaged, and cooking is not confined to the nuclear family context.

The article emphasizes that a true analysis of these issues without considering them within the framework  of sexist concepts.  In general, it is stated that the thoughts that restrict the developments in food policy stem from the rights of women’s rights.  According to the author, we must now accept that cooking at home is labor-intensive (both paid and unpaid).

Deutsch explores the subject through three themes: 1) The existence of gender discrimination in the discourse of cooking at home, 2) The fact that this discourse has existed for a long time, 3) The “nostalgic” disciplining effort that has always existed in the past of women, and that bringing certain types of women to the fore means marginalizing others.

The remaining articles in the book focus on food and happiness.  Is food and drink crucial to human happiness?  Even if there is no definitive answer to this question, thinking about what this answer means should be part of a fulfilling life.

Robert Valgenti asks whether caring for food impacts quality of life.

He has studied philosophers’ answers to this question since Plato and shows that food is rarely seen as essential to a good life and is sometimes even seen as spiritually “corrupting  .”Modern philosophers, on the other hand, have been more optimistic about food.

Valgenti concluded that having a food philosophy is an integral part of the good life… Our tastes are an integral part of our identities.  Yet despite the physiology of our taste buds, the experience of taste is not just cognitive but a form of cognition shaped by the society we live in.

Ken Albala shows the value of cooking and eating with others in the name of personal happiness.

The author states that cooking and being careful about good nutrition requires effort, and this is a way of working that connects people to the past, farmers, animals, and our friends.  In short, he says that caring about cooking adds meaning to our food and gains the admiration of others in this way, all of which makes people who cook happier.

In his thinking on industrial food, most industrial food does not taste very good, let alone the environmental, social, political, and moral problems posed by the modern food supply.  Cooking your own food and infrequently putting a lot of effort into it is fun and satisfying and makes your food taste better.  And he emphasizes a crude critique of capitalism: Value comes not from a price tag but from the pleasure of making it with your own hands.

Albala summarizes the motivation for enduring cooking and eating together as follows: We need to do this for our own happiness, to be happy with our loved ones, and even to be appreciated.  So, in short, he says #makehappybehappy 🙂

Finally, Rachel Lauden, addressing both Valgenti and Albala, returns to some of the controversies raised in the early parts of the book.

Lauden states that she prefers processed and fast-food foods, especially when made with high-quality ingredients.

Lauden included a footnote to her article, describing four different historical culinary philosophies.  The 4 Philosophies that Laudan considers most important for understanding the contemporary situation: Monarchic, Republican, Romantic, and Socialist.

Monarchical or aristocratic culinary philosophy was the norm in the mid-eighteenth century.  Consequently, the ruling class had a more refined and luxurious cuisine than its subjects.

The Republican culinary philosophy supported food policy into the next century as it struggled to accept immigrants, women, and African-Americans as citizens, feed a growing population, deal with rural-urban migration, and fight wars at home and overseas.  For example, this included subsidies for irrigation, agricultural research, and social assistance for family farms.

For these reasons, many people chose a different alternative, namely the third philosophy: the romantic kitchen philosophy.  At the forefront of this thought were those who advocated that if they reverted to the old ways and traditional peasant diets, they would eat more enjoyable and healthy meals.  For them, cooking should not be seen as a servile duty demanded by the aristocrats nor as a responsibility to the family.  Rather, as Albala mentions, it was a creative endeavor where the cook was on par with the poet or artist in leading his audience to an appreciation of the natural world.  Eating well was not simply a matter of affirming status or maintaining health.  It could also create political change in agriculture, the food economy, and society.  Nevertheless, interest in the romantic culinary philosophy, which did not have a broad economic or social framework, waned over time.

An alternative philosophy, the socialist culinary philosophy, had a political agenda.  It embraced that food should be produced, prepared, and consumed end masse and that the perfect meal was the common meal.  In the twentieth century, especially giant countries such as the Soviet Union and Maoist China tried to establish socialist utopias yielding adverse consequences.  As Steve Striffler explains, this view tries to use food to explain the problem of capitalism.

It seems that the food discussions in the past are the ideas that are still being discussed and developed today.  So, we aren’t discussing new issues.  Today’s quality discussions will also be a source for all discussions about food in the future and will shed light on the knowledge we need to live in a better world.  For myself, I try to give information about food, food, nutrition and discussions with my writings and to create food/nutrition ideas for a better world.  If I happen to trigger some new thoughts, #makehappybehappy. 

(*) Ludington C.C and Booker M. M. (2023). Food Wars, Sabri Ülker Foundation Publications, pp. 396.

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