Culture and politics in a global cooking pot

Agri-Culture - Safe Food
September 19, 2003

Both these important books illustrate in different ways how sophisticated the new understanding of food policy is. For 40 years after the second world war, the critics of the dominant view of food production and technology were few and far between. They were mainly from outside the food industry and mainly conservative in the true sense of the word; they were uneasy about, or hostile to, the rapidity of change and what drove it.

Now, as both Marion Nestle (a molecular biologist-turned-nutritionist) and Jules Pretty (a biologist-turned-ecologist) show, there is a highly articulate science and evidence-based critique of the shape and direction of the current food economy. Both offer clear, rational solutions and directions for dealing with big policy issues such as safety and health (Nestle), and agriculture and culture (Pretty). A theme common to both is that food politics are not, as some have argued, fissured between those who are pro or anti-science, for or against progress; on the contrary, food policy is characterised by arguments within rather than without science, about what is meant by progress.

Pretty shows how we cannot understand what happens to the land, let alone its products, unless we appreciate how culture shapes the landscape. The land and food production are not just biological but social entities, as W.

G. Hoskins showed 50 years ago. While tender about the past (there are lovely paintings by his father of landscapes in Africa and England), Pretty suggests that a modern culture is emerging within sustainable agriculture, which returns people to the centre of farming processes. A new beauty and moral integrity can be generated by food production if a different policy recipe is followed, instead of crude industrialisation with its narrow definition of efficiency.

Sustainable agriculture's appeal is societal not just as a practical food production system. But it is not a religion, and should be rigorously audited for how it balances yields and social goals. Its live experiments in Cuba, Switzerland, Africa and India (not just in pockets of the rich West) deserve support and critical improvement from scientists and other academics too often in thrall to the agri-industrial contract culture.

Millions of people in these regions have shown how a vibrant, populated, food-producing countryside is stable, productive, just and ecologically viable - a true alternative to the old-style World Bank policies of driving people from the land to increase productivity, or of abandoning food production for work in towns to fuel export earnings that are supposed to be able to buy food surpluses from already "efficient" overproducing agricultural systems (such as the US, European Union and other industrialised producers).

Sustainable food practices enhance food security in a way no reliance on the value of a national currency to be able to buy food can ever do. Building soil fertility enables people to stay on the land; a virtuous cycle builds communities alongside biodiversity. Confidence returns; real not "spun" confidence. Agri-Culture is particularly strong on weaving stories and case studies among the facts to make this case.

Nestle is on a roll in Safe Food . Her book is a sequel to, and was originally to be part of, her stunning Food Politics . Whereas that book dissected the arcane world of US food and nutrition politics, this new book provides an equally powerful critique of how the US federal authorities and food industries conceive of and constrain policy on safety. Her account is powerful and convincing. A veteran of the Food and Drug Administration, US Department of Agriculture and federal nutrition committees and politics, she provides a panorama of food safety from microbial safety and genetically modified products to bioterrorism. The analysis is a welcome addition to the food governance literature in which it is likely, with its sister volume, to become a classic.

The book is strong on how the architecture of US food governance stops good policy and science from delivering safer food. Nestle has wonderful diagrams showing the labyrinthine complexity of US government, alongside elegantly simple ones showing the idiocy of one agency regulating one product when another is responsible for a near-identical one. For years, the General Accounting Office has published damning critiques of how safety is managed in the US, recommending (as does Nestle) the creation of one coordinating federal agency. Presidents have been "bought" to stymie this rational solution.

There are those who prefer to keep governance mainly under the control of the USDA, better funded and more politically powerful than the much-vaunted FDA. Would that the EU had listened to such evidence before creating its new European Food Authority. So often, the FDA is invoked as an effective model when it is weak, compromised and underfunded.

With meticulous referencing, Nestle reviews important tensions: the split between the FDA and the USDA over food and public health; the coincidence of big donations from industry with industry-friendly decisions; deafness to the evidence in favour of "hazards analysis critical control point procedures"; FDA resistance to mandatory labelling and its preference for voluntary systems of regulation; the triumph of the biotech industries in persuading federal bodies to support a "plant first" policy in place of a "safety before planting" policy; and the buying of science.

Safe Food ends with a powerful chapter on the implications of bioterrorism. Nestle watched the clouds from her office window as the Twin Towers fell, and she ponders the anthrax attacks that followed. For 20 years, food safety discourse has mostly underplayed the risks to consumers. Those boundaries are now shifting as bioterrorism (re)introduces an era of deliberate risk-taking, the use of food or microbes (often from animals) as weapons. She is right that the 1980s notion of food security needs recasting. Inexorably, public not just individual health is creeping up the global food agenda. But, in truth, the issue is not and never has been simply bioterrorism conducted by wild political fringes. They are just one end of a spectrum that includes state and corporate perpetrators as well.

Tim Lang is professor of food policy, City University.

Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature

Author - Jules Pretty
ISBN - 1 85383 920 5 and 925 6
Publisher - Earthscan
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 264

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