Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism

April 19, 2012

You can't judge a book by its cover, nor even for that matter by the cover endorsements, as likely as not to be written by the author's friends. A much nicer indicator of the readability, if not the intellectual worth, of a book is the author's choice of enemies. With Julie Guthman's new book, one doesn't have long to wait. They include the alternative food movement, epidemiologists and sundry health researchers and, moving to a completely different terrain, neoliberal economists. Since neoliberalism is largely unloved, let's begin with the others.

The alternative food movement favours fresh, healthy, preferably organic food. What's wrong with that? Plenty, says Guthman. One suspects that Guthman, who lectures in the pretty university town of Santa Cruz, California, must live at the epicentre of this disagreeable "healthist" movement, to use one of her many pejoratives. For Guthman, this movement promotes unrealistic, expensive and culturally inappropriate diets for the masses. Alternative food is found at farmers' markets or expensive supermarkets and eaten by people with money in their pockets. In the US, the movement ranges from Michael Pollan, the "foodie in chief" and "leader" of this movement, to Michelle Obama.

Obama takes her message to America's food industry that they are particularly responsible for making children fat. To show her own seriousness about food, she has turned the White House garden into a vegetable plot reminiscent of Buckingham Palace's wartime days of Dig for Victory. Another of Guthman's charges is that the foodies are unbearably white and middle class. Apart from Obama that is, and she is hardly a pauper. Most critically, they provide a diversion and cover for the source of problems, lodged in the US food production system, principally due to neoliberalism. It therefore cannot provide a solution to obesity.

If obesity is a problem, that is. This is where Guthman's second enemies on the list come in: the purveyors of mainstream obesity research. Ranging from their mistaken assessment of food consumption patterns and the size of the epidemic (if indeed it is an epidemic), to the notion of energy balance or "obesogenic society" theses, all such talk promotes a culture of discrimination against fat people - should they exist, of course! This is a sideshow with authoritarian dimensions, understandable perhaps through Michel Foucault's bio-power thesis. New research into weight gain points the finger in a completely different direction, she says, that of "environmental toxins and pharmaceuticals"; thus explaining why Europeans (where hormone-treated beef is banned) are slimmer than Americans.

Capitalism certainly seems implicated. Warren Buffett, one of the world's richest men, apparently receives $1 million (£626,260) a day in dividends from Coca-Cola, which is explained by the fact that Americans are gargantuan consumers of the soft drinks - some 60 gallons per person a year. Also, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, calories from the food supply, adjusted for spoilage and waste, increased from 2,220 per person in 1970 per day to 2,680 in 1997. Strangely, such analysis passes Guthman by.

It has not been ignored by everyone, however. US economist Barry Popkin has travelled the world investigating what he refers to as the "nutrition transition". In contrast, Guthman's is a stay-at-home analysis. Indeed, she argues that the alternative food movement is infected by "Europhilia", or wanting to be like Europeans, and this is a criticism that would hardly go down badly with right-wing Fox News. Likewise we learn nothing about America's own history of body size (anthropometrics), a topic at which US scholars excel. Instead at one point Guthman's analysis, laughably, offers us "big bones".

Neoliberal capitalism may be a culprit, but not because its influence has been embedded only in farm policy and economics. It also works in culture. Capitalism stimulates the desire for cheap, "tasty" foods. In this respect, although some might write off Guthman's analysis as ultra-leftist, in fact it's rather conservative, arguing that people should be able to eat what they want. The alternative food movement, in contrast, isn't going to change America's eating habits. Who would seriously expect it to? Attempts to link the overconsumption of food with deleterious environmental consequences is dismissed here as "coarse analysis".

Two and a half pages of this book are allotted to Guthman's own alternative. Change will apparently happen "through the power of public politics" which will transform the "logics of capitalism". Given the enormous power of the status quo I simply don't get it. But then I don't imagine that the overweight and largely poor people who suffer the consequences of the American food system do either.

Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism

By Julie Guthman

University of California Press

248pp, £41.95 and £16.95

ISBN 9780520266247 and 66254

Published 26 November 2011

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