The title for today's post is based on the title given to two of the podcasts that I'm sharing "You Are What You Eat" Parts 1 & 2 because I wasn't really sure what to call today's post, but this seemed to fit. There's a lot of talk out there that the U.S. leads the world in obesity mainly because we make unhealthy food so cheap and market that stuff extensively.
Compared to, say, fresh produce, which is arguably healthier but you're not likely to see any mass advertising for the lettuce or green beans grown by your local farmers. But I think that's a bit of an over-simplification of what is arguably a fairly complex problem, and one that is by no means unique to the United States. Sure, carbohydrate and saturated-fat dense foods are widespread here, but it wasn't always that way, so what happened?
Today's post draws primarily from Freakonomics Radio, and a discussion with Stephen Dubner, who is the co-author of the books and blog of the same name (Freakonomics). Typically, Freakonomics Radio discusses the hidden side of things. I'm sharing a discussion I found rather interesting: food, both how and why U.S. food got to where it is today, and where it may be headed.
For all the people who like to complain about America's food, there's a book called "An Economist Gets Lunch" written by Tyler Cowen. And in his book, Cowen explains -- as he puts it -- "How American Food Got Bad." A further discussion of this topic was addressed in two separate podcast episodes which aired on my local NPR affiliate here in New York (WNYC), but are available for anyone to listen to. In these, they look at the hidden side of how U.S. food got to where it is today.
Let me begin by noting that while food snobs just love to critique the U.S. food supply "system" and all of its flaws, there also needs to be an appropriate acknowledgement that there are a number of things the U.S. has done right. For example, we've made it possible for consumers to enjoy fresh, out-of-season produce all year long. We've also make it possible to feed large numbers of people cost-effectively, which may not be a life-or-death issue here, but is still something many parts of the world struggle with. These are good things, and deserve appropriate recognition.
The key question, at least from my perspective is, what can be done to IMPROVE the U.S. food supply system? There are a few interesting elements discussed in the following Marketplace Freakonomics radio clip as well as the two more in-depth podcasts which I think are worth listening to.
For example, while the so-called "localvore" movement of eating food sourced locally sounds very alluring (even to me!), but it won't really work economically to feed the world's population. But some interesting things are revealed in these programs and there are actually some bright spots out there -- if we as a population can take advantage of those things!
A case in point: immigration. Immigration has had a tremendously beneficial effect on our deit and given us a taste palate that is unrivalled by most places, all of which is available locally. But there was a time back in the 1940's and 1950's when the U.S. was not as friendly to immigrants, and it had a pretty negative impact on our collective diet. Even today, we have mixed views on immigration and our public policies reflect that.
Beyond that, there's also some interesting data on the environmental impact of the typical American diet, some of which is pretty fascinating. For example, going local sounds alluring and even logical. It might seem that transporting food, long-distance, to locations all over the planet might be a huge expense and big source of pollution — until you start to look at the numbers!
I've borrowed the following directly from Part 2 of the podcast (found below):
What's an environmentalist to do? For starters, as Weber-Matthews suggest, stop eating so many cow products. As we put it in SuperFreakonomics:
It is generally believed that cars and trucks and airplanes contribute an ungodly share of greenhouse gases. This has recently led many right-minded people to buy a Prius or other hybrid car. But every time a Prius owner drives to the grocery store, she may be canceling out its emission-reducing benefit, at least if she shops in the meat section.
How so? Because cows — as well as sheep and other cud-chewing animals called ruminants — are wicked polluters. Their exhalation and flatulence and belching and manure emit methane, which by one common measure is about twenty-five times more potent as a greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide released by cars (and, by the way, humans). The world's ruminants are responsible for about 50% more greenhouse gas than the entire transportation sector.
The best way to help, Weber and Matthews suggest, is to subtly change your diet. "Shifting less than one day per week's worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more greenhouse-gas reduction than buying all locally sourced food," they write.
You could also switch from eating beef to eating kangaroo — because kangaroo farts, as fate would have it, don't contain methane. But just imagine the marketing campaign that would be needed to get Americans to take up 'roo-burgers. And think how hard the cattle ranchers would lobby Washington to ban kangaroo meat. Fortunately, a team of Australian scientists is attacking this problem from the opposite direction, trying to replicate the digestive bacteria in kangaroos' stomachs so it can be transplanted to cows.
Have a listen below, or visit the links provided.
How political history influences what's on your plate (Marketplace Freakonomics)
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
You Eat What You Are, Part 1 (Freakonomics Radio Podcast)
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
You Eat What You Are, Part 2 (Freakonomics Radio Podcast)
Wednesday, June 06, 2012
These podcasts don't necessarily answer all the questions (hell, if they did, the producers would likely be Nobel prize winners!), but I think these provide a broader perspective of a topic that is often on the minds of people with diabetes. When it comes to food, there are reasons we got to where we are today, but there also seem to be positive signs. I think a key is to ensure our lawmakers know about it when it comes time to address the farm bill, something which is taking place now. Too often, the Federal farm bill discussions are dominated by agricultural states' lawmakers, many of whom are beholden to Big-Agri and Food Processing concerns, rather than the needs of those who consume these products. We all have a stake in this, but if we're giving certain subsidies because it keeps workers in a farm state in jobs, think about the longer-term consequences, like the costs to the nation's healthcare system for producing cheap commodities and the end-products of those (I'm thinking of corn, for example). There's a bigger picture, but we've become very accustomed to the way things have been done, rather than asking questions. But as American citizens, we have every right to be asking these tough questions of our lawmakers!