The distasteful food debate

In: Uncategorized

31 May 2010

The discussion of food is one of the most distasteful discussions of recent years. It tends to grossly underestimate the huge benefits of cheap food and grossly overestimate its costs.

One of humanity’s great achievements over the past two centuries is to make food cheaper and more abundant. Although the global population has risen about seven fold since 1800 we are, on average, much better fed. The Malthusian nightmare of mass starvation has failed to materialise.

Of course there is still further to go. About a billion people worldwide live in hunger. But this is an argument for raising yields still further rather than giving up on the struggle.

In contrast, the risks associated with our abundance of food are overdone. For a start starvation is a problem of a different magnitude from any problems associated with obesity.

But, as it happens, the discussion of a epidemic of obesity is overdone. Despite problems associated with modern food life expectancy is still rising, as is the average age for the onset of chronic disease.

Michael Pollan, a professor of journalism at he University of California, Berkeley, discusses food in relation to what he describes as the rise of “the food movement” in recent years in a review essay in the New York Review of Books. He describes the movements of a rainbow alliance of different interests from vegetarians, to fans or organic food to Michelle Obama.

His account is misleading as it ignores the role of the authorities in encouraging the obsession with food and personal health. In that respect the trend he discusses is neither political nor a movement. It can be more accurately characterised as a preoccupation encouraged by the authorities.

He also underestimates the insular character of the “political” discussion of food. It is about what our bodies consume – essentially a form of narcissism – rather than about engaging with the broader world.