Food Activism: The Next Red Scare

July 24, 2013

There are plenty of people out there telling us what we should eat -- and worse, trying to use public policy to make us live by their opinions. Although many of them may know how to sell books and promote themselves through newspapers and press releases, few know much about the demands of our lifestyles, the economics of food and agriculture, and most important, nutrition, say Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, and Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Agricultural economist Jayson Lusk observes that some journalists, columnists, celebrity chefs and cookbook authors have conspired to create a distorted, dystopian picture of modern agriculture by promoting the view that the prescription for our ailments is local, organic, slow, natural and unprocessed food, along with a healthy dose of new food taxes, subsidies and regulation.

Activists' attacks on those who produce processed food are radical because they are trying to achieve not only a fundamental change in the way we eat, but also, in the words of the movement's guru, author Michael Pollan, a revolution in "the division of domestic labor." By that he means that if a person doesn't have the inclination or time to both shop and cook for him or herself (preferably from scratch) the food industry will "exploit" you by selling inherently harmful processed food.

Food technology has been a boon in so many ways, but sometimes it seems that countering opposition to it is like arguing about religion.

  • Pasteurization is a good example. Used to kill bacteria in dairy products, juices and canned foods, it lengthens shelf-life and lowers the likelihood of food poisoning.
  • And yet a few diehards insist that pasteurization destroys much of the nutritional value of milk and advocate the consumption of raw milk, even though public health authorities are unanimous in recommending against it and it is widely prohibited.
  • Young children, the elderly, people with compromised immune systems and pregnant women are particularly susceptible to the pathogens found in raw milk.

Food elitism might sell to some, but often it fails to work for real people who, for a variety of reasons, can't always cook handpicked, locally grown, organic, humanely raised, cage-free, fair-trade, sustainably produced food -- or who, after a day's work, just want to relax and enjoy dinner instead of seeking some sort of existential apotheosis. Nutrition advice should be geared to those who are health conscious, not just image conscious.

Source: Jeff Stier and Henry I. Miller, "How Much of Food Activism Is Nonsense?" Regulation Magazine, Summer 2013.

 

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