Marion Nestle has been thinking about the intersection between food, science, public health and politics for the last 20 years. In that time, she’s produced some of the country’s most authoritative books on how food ends up on the grocery shelf and the table.
Her new book, “Let’s Ask Marion,” boils some of the most profound food issues, such as whether food can be addictive, how to prevent food waste and whether to eat fake meat, into a simple question-and-answer format that can fit into a coat pocket.
In her book, the New York University professor says food is political — and says the coronavirus pandemic proves to be a prime example.
Through President Trump invoking the Defense Production Act, meat-packing plant employees were forced to work even though they were getting sick with the coronavirus at high rates. For example, plants owned by JBS, the world’s biggest meatpacker, became epicenters of COVID-19 outbreaks in the U.S. and Brazil.
Suddenly, meat-packing workers became essential. But they also often aren’t paid well and aren’t offered sick leave or health care benefits, Nestle says.
“The average wage of people in meatpacking plants is under $30,000 a year and they are working under really dangerous, crowded conditions. No wonder they get sick,” she says. “Nearly 60,000 meatpacking and farm workers have gotten sick so far — that’s a lot.”
With millions out of work, food pantries across the country have struggled to keep up with the demand. And the pandemic is thought to have begun in Wuhan, China, in a wet market, where live animals are slaughtered and sold for food.
“The most important issues in the world all connect to food in one way or another,” she says. “And I think the coronavirus pandemic is a perfect example of that.”
On what makes a healthy diet
“I think it’s so simple that Michael Pollan can say it in seven words: ‘Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.’ Really, that’s all there is to it. And then these days, the concept of ultra-processed is a relatively new concept, and it means foods that are industrially produced with ingredients that you can’t pronounce and that you don’t have in your home kitchen. They have a lot of additives. It’s a polite word for junk foods. If you avoid those, you will probably be eating fewer calories and eating much more healthfully.”
On food and inequity
“One of the absolute ironies of the food system is that over the last 30 years, the price of fruits and vegetables has increased much, much more than the price of sodas or fast food or junk foods in general. Well, that gets us right into the whole question of food policy and politics again. There are reasons why vegetables are more expensive. And when people say they can’t afford them, I have a lot of sympathy for that. I think we need a food policy that makes healthy food affordable and available and accessible to everybody.”
On how to make healthy food less expensive through policy
“First of all, you decide that you want an agricultural system that’s going to promote health and, I hope, sustainability. And you develop a whole series of policies in order to make it easy for farmers to grow vegetables. You subsidize land for them so that they can actually grow these things. You take the subsidies away from corn and soybeans and you put it into foods that are going to make people healthier.
“My favorite example of the way government policies don’t work has to do with marketing to children, which is something that particularly bothers me. Food companies spend billions of dollars marketing to children and every penny of that is deductible as a business expense. That’s one of the first things I’d change.”
On eating fake meat
“I have a really complicated position about it because I don’t know yet what the answers are to my questions about health and sustainability. I think everybody would be better off eating less meat because of the connection between high meat diets and various kinds of diseases and also the effects of meat production on the environment because that’s the biggest food source of greenhouse gases.
“But fake meats, which are ultra-processed foods, they have multiple ingredients that you can’t find in home kitchens and it’s not clear yet what their effect is on the environment or on health. They’re trying to make their product appear to be neat and they do a pretty good job of that. I’ve eaten those products and they look like meat, they taste like meat. One big review just came out and it kind of says more research is needed. I’m always for more research.”
On her stance on supplements
“More than half of Americans take supplements of one kind or another, despite the fact that there’s almost no evidence that they make healthy people healthier. They’re probably not harmful. And if they’re just expensive placebos and people feel better. These days, I’m for anything that makes people feel better.”
On food waste and how agriculture contributes to global warming
“The agricultural contribution worldwide to global warming is probably about a quarter of greenhouse gases. Climate change is making it really hard to grow crops the way we’re used to. They’re moving north. But the main harm from food in the United States is people eating too much of it. The too much is built into the system: We have about 4,000 calories available in the American food supply. That’s less exports plus imports. We only need about half of that. And so waste is built into the system. And the estimate that I’ve seen is that about 70% of food waste comes at the production level, 10% comes at the retail level — much less than I would have expected — and then 20% what we do in our homes.
“But the real problem is at the production level and it’s really hard to deal with. The example that I like to give is I visited a farm in upstate New York and was told by the farmer, ‘just go take anything you want out of the fields because we can’t use it. It was the wrong size. We tried every food bank in upstate New York and nobody could come here. They don’t have the trucks. They don’t have the people to come and pick it up.’ I mean, that’s the kind of thing that breaks your heart. But it’s very, very difficult to deal with.”
On our changing relationship to food because of the pandemic
“It’s done just absolutely shocking things, and the most shocking was the discovery that there are two completely different food supply chains in the United States — one for restaurants and other institutions like schools and one for retail. They don’t interact at all. When restaurants and schools closed, all this food piled up and was being destroyed at the same time that people who were out of work were lining up at food banks to get handouts of food. We haven’t seen anything like this since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
“But what’s happening on an individual basis is also quite mixed. Sales of processed foods are going up because they have a long shelf life and they’re cheap. But at the same time, people bought more seeds. They were growing more of their own foods. You cannot buy a canning jar in upstate New York because everybody’s dealing with the produce from all those seeds they planted. So that’s a good sign. People are cooking more. That, it seems to me, is a real step forward and something that I hope will last beyond this.”
Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’Dowd. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.
Book Excerpt: ‘Let’s Ask Marion’
When my book Food Politics first appeared in 2002, the immediate reaction to its title was “What does politics have to do with food?” Years later, I am still asked that question. This book aims to answer it. To begin with, the food we consume and enjoy every day is influenced, if not determined, by the power of food companies to sell products, no matter how those products might affect our health or that of our planet. We are obliged to eat in order to obtain the nutrients and energy we need to grow, reproduce, and survive. Here, I describe why and how a substance essential for our very existence has become a touchstone for political disputes about culture, identity, social class, inequity, and power, as well as arguments about what roles are appropriate for government, private enterprise, and civil society in twenty-first-century democratic societies.
Although trained in basic science (my Berkeley doctorate was in molecular biology), I have spent most of my professional career as a public health nutritionist and food studies academic. From this perspective, today’s greatest public health nutrition problems—the Big Three—are hunger (affecting roughly a billion people globally), obesity (two billion and rising), and climate change (everybody). These share at least one cause in common: all are due in part to dysfunctional food systems, a term that encompasses everything that happens to a food from production to consumption. Food systems, in turn, depend on political and economic systems. If we want to eliminate hunger, prevent the health consequences of excessive weight gain, and protect the environment, we must understand, confront, and counter the political forces that created these problems and allow them to continue.
For decades, I have been thinking, writing, publishing, and teaching about how politics affects and distorts food systems. If anything has changed over these years, it is the explosion of public interest in the politics of food, and in advocating for food systems that better support health and the environment. The goal of much of my recent work has been to inspire not only “voting with forks” for healthier and more environmentally sustainable personal diets, but also “voting with votes.” By this I mean engaging in politics to advocate for food systems that make better food available and affordable to everyone, that adequately compensate everyone who works to produce, prepare, or serve food, and that deal with food in ways that conserve and sustain the environment.
Since 2002, I have written, edited, co-authored, or co-edited the books about the politics of food listed at the front of this book. These include hundreds of pages of detailed discussion, exhaustively referenced. Despite my best efforts to make my writing clear and accessible, my books must seem daunting, because I am often asked for a shorter summary of their principal points. I have resisted, not only because I want people to read my books, but also because I do not find short essays easy to write. From 2008 to 2013, I wrote a monthly column for the food section of the San Francisco Chronicle. These columns were supposed to respond to readers’ questions, but few readers asked any, which made writing them hard work.
In contrast, I very much enjoyed responding to questions from my friend Kerry Trueman, a dedicated environmental advocate who frequently blogged about food issues and occasionally asked my opinion about whatever she was writing about. At some point, she began asking more formal questions and posting our exchanges under the heading “Let’s Ask Marion.” I co-posted these exchanges on the blog I have written since 2007 at www.foodpolitics.com.
Kerry’s questions were sometimes about specific events in the news, sometimes about more general topics. What she asked reflected her highly informed concerns about the intersection of dietary choices and agricultural practices, and I appreciated her intuitive food-systems thinking. Her questions ranged from the personal to the political, from food production to consumption, and from the domestic to the international. They often challenged me to think about issues I might not otherwise have considered and were so much fun to deal with that I could quickly respond. In searching for a relatively uncomplicated way to write short accounts of my current thinking about food-system issues, I wondered whether Kerry would consider working with me to produce a book in a question-and-answer format. Happily, she agreed. This book is the result of our joint efforts and would not have been possible without her collaboration.
My overarching purpose in writing these short essays is to encourage advocacy for food systems that are healthier for people and the planet. Successful advocacy means engaging in politics to counter the actions of a food industry narrowly focused on profit, all too often at the expense of public health. In this book, I use “food industry” to refer to the companies that produce, prepare, serve, and sell food, beverages, and food products. Although this industry includes agricultural producers and restaurant companies, most of my discussion is about the companies that raise or make the foods and food products that we typically buy in supermarkets.
In the current political era, the methods used by the food industry to sell products, regardless of health consequences, are largely unchecked by government regulation. This is because the governments of many countries, including our own, have been strongly influenced—“captured”—by industry. Also, in many countries, civil society is too weak to effectively demand curbs on industry marketing practices. Advocacy means organizing civil society and pressing government to create healthier and more sustainable food systems. This means politics.
In trying to decide what this book should cover, Kerry and I thought the questions should address how politics affects personal dietary choices, the food environment in communities (in the United States and elsewhere), and the truly global nature of current food systems, and we organized the questions under those three categories. Within each category, we wanted to include the questions we hear most frequently, along with those that illustrate why and how food is political and what needs to be done to make foods systems better for everyone, poor as well as rich. Across the categories and questions, several themes come up repeatedly. Watch for these themes in particular.
Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I list this first because it underlies all of my thinking about food and food issues. Food is delicious as well as nourishing and is one of the supreme joys of human culture.
Food is political. Because everyone eats, everyone has a stake in the food system, but the principal stakeholders—food producers, manufacturers, sellers, farm and restaurant workers, eaters—do not have the same agenda or power. We eaters want food to be available, affordable, culturally appropriate, healthy, and delicious; workers want to make a decent living; producers and other industry stakeholders want to make a profit. Such interests can and do conflict, especially when profits take precedence over social values of health, equity, and environmental protection.
“Food system” helps explain food issues. As noted earlier, this term refers to the totality of how a food is grown or raised, stored, transported, processed, prepared, sold, and consumed or wasted. Knowing how foods are produced explains much about their availability, cost, and health and environmental consequences. Food systems operate in the context of broader social, cultural, and economic systems; these too have political dimensions.
“Ultraprocessed” is a more precise term for “junk” foods. It refers specifically to products that are industrially produced, bear no resemblance to the foods from which they were extracted, and contain additives never found in home kitchens. Research increasingly links consumption of ultraprocessed foods to poor health.
The principles of healthful diets are well established. We can argue about the details, but diets that promote human health are largely (but not necessarily exclusively) plant-based, provide adequate but not excessive calories, and minimize or avoid ultraprocessed foods. Such diets are also better for the environment.
The food industry influences food choices. Cultural, social, and economic factors influence food choices, but so do food industry marketing and lobbying actions. The food industry’s primary job is to sell products and return profits to stockholders; health and environmental considerations are decidedly secondary, if not irrelevant.
Food systems affect the environment. A sustainable (or, in current terms, agroecological or regenerative) food system replaces the nutrients extracted from soil by food plants, and minimizes the damaging effects of animal and plant production on soil, water, and greenhouse gases.
Food systems generate and perpetuate inequities. An ideal food system makes healthy, sustainable, affordable, and culturally appropriate food available and affordable to everyone and enables everyone to have the power to choose such foods, regardless of income, class, race, gender, or age. It adequately compensates workers employed on farms and in meat-packing plants, food production facilities, and restaurants. The goals of food system advocacy are to achieve these ideals.
Kerry and I finished writing this book before the coronavirus-induced respiratory disease, Covid-19, devastated lives, livelihoods, and economies. In exposing the contradictions and inequities of profit-driven economic, health care, and food systems, this global pandemic illustrated our book’s themes. In the United States, Covid-19 proved most lethal to the poor, racial minorities, the elderly, and those with obesity-associated chronic diseases. Suddenly, low-wage slaughterhouse and grocery store workers—often migrants or immigrants, and many without sick leave or health care benefits—were deemed essential. Slaughterhouses, now viral epicenters, were forced to remain open. Farmers destroyed unsold animals and produce while the newly unemployed lined up at food banks. Corporations laid off workers but took millions in government bailouts and paid salaries and bonuses to executives. These events call for advocacy for strong democratic government and institutions, among them food systems that benefit all members of society, regardless of income, class, citizenship, race, ethnicity, gender, or age.
A Word about the Sources and Further Reading
Because my writings deal with controversial topics— alas, not everyone agrees with my views—I usually make sure to back up nearly every statement with extensive references. But for this book, which draws on so much of my own work, I instead include chapter-by-chapter lists of relevant books, reports, and articles, followed by a list of additional books and reports that have informed my work, some historical, some current. All of these references are meant as starting points for deeper investigation of the issues discussed here.
My hope is that this book succeeds in providing a brief overview of my thinking about food system issues, from the personal to the global. Even more, I hope that it inspires readers to take food politics seriously and to engage in advocacy for healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable food systems for current and future generations.