August 19, 2018
Can Our Food System Be Fixed?
Expert Q&A

Can Our Food System Be Fixed?

by Brian Rinker  

Marian NestleMarion Nestle, PhD, is a nutrition and food expert, professor, author, and advocate of healthy eating. She is Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, at New York University and has held faculty positions at Brandeis University and the UCSF School of Medicine.

Nestle earned a PhD in molecular biology and an MPH in public health nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley. She has authored six books on the scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choice, obesity, and food safety, and has written two books on pet food. She has worked as nutrition policy advisor for the Department of Health and Human Services and editor of the Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health. From 2008 to 2013, she wrote a monthly column for the San Francisco Chronicle food section. You can read her blogs on all thing nutrition at www.foodpolitics.com (check out her post about jellyfish chips).

Nestle spoke with Alice Waters, chef and food activist, about the intersection of public health and food systems on March 19 at her alma mater, the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, for its 75th Anniversary Speaker Series. (You can view a video of the eventat this Facebook link.) We spoke with Nestle before the event about what a food system is and how it affects public health.

Marion, can you begin by explaining what a food system is?

Food system is the term used to describe everything that happens to a food, from the time it is produced, transported, processed, served, and eaten, to dealing with the waste it causes. It is the entire cycle of food production and consumption. Food system is the hot jargon term used to explain how agriculture and health are related. You can’t really have healthy eating unless you have a healthy agriculture system. I think of the food system as a way to describe the links between agriculture, nutrition, and public health.

What is the “food movement,” and how does it play a role in addressing food systems?

The food movement is about advocacy for food systems that are better for people and the planet. The movement advocates for changes in our agriculture system, the ways people choose food, and how governments deal with policy issues around food.

I view the food movement as remarkably successful in important ways. First of all, we have much better food in the supermarkets today than we did 20 or 30 years ago. We have more farmers markets, more young farmers, more people interested in food, and more food studies programs at universities. Alice Waters had a great deal to do with this because of her early advocacy for healthier food systems, and her more recent advocacy for teaching children how to grow and prepare food. This has been hugely successful. There are now thousands of schools with gardens and kids who are really learning about food.

More people today are interested in food that is good, clean, and fairly produced. Advocacy is not always easy, but it is worth the effort to try to improve the food system. And advocacy works, although not always as quickly as I would like. But what’s most heartening is that so many more people are aware of the importance of food to society, culture, health, and the environment.

Are the predominant food systems in the U.S. really failing us, and if so, how bad is it?

The most obvious consequences of our current food system are poor health and a polluted environment. Overeating and its health consequences continue to be huge problems at the same time as millions of Americans don’t have a reliable source of healthy food on a daily basis. The contribution of industrial agriculture to climate change is also a huge problem. And we see voluminous food waste. All of these are signs of a dysfunctional food system.

How do failing food systems lead to those consequences?

The government supports industrial agriculture, which is neither kind to people’s health nor kind to the environment. Vast areas of farmland are treated with pesticides, insecticides, and so forth. Government subsidies promote food for animals and fuel for cars rather than food for people. These are systematic issues that have led to a situation in which some people don’t have enough to eat and others eat too much of the wrong kinds of foods. Obviously, something is wrong. If the food systems were working, we would have healthier people and an environment that is better protected.

What has been your role in the food movement, and how did you get involved?

I write books about food politics. In that way, I provide a research basis for advocacy. I got involved in these issues years ago after attending a meeting on the health consequences of cigarette smoking. Physicians advocating against cigarettes showed slides about how tobacco companies marketed to children, minorities, and low-income people in developing countries. I was struck by how much this looked like food marketing. I left the meeting thinking that Coca-Cola marketing looked just like this and we nutritionists should be paying more attention to food-industry marketing. I started paying attention and have been writing about these issues since the mid-90s.

What are the biggest barriers to the food movement’s progress?

The barriers? Big business. Big agriculture. Big food. Big meat. These industries have a lot of money invested in the kind of food they’re producing and they don’t want to lose profits. Companies have stockholders to please. Meat producers don’t want the cost of feed to go up, and they don’t want to—or can’t—graze their cattle on grass or do other things that might raise costs. The way our food system runs is about business imperatives. These are about money. They are not about public health.

Food companies are not social services agencies, and it is a mistake to view them as such. They are not charities; they expect returns on investment.

Are high costs a problem?

Of course, the high cost of healthy food is a problem for people with few resources. But food systems are really about government policy. The government subsidizes corn and soybeans that feed animals or are used as the basis for junk foods (or, more politely, “ultraprocessed” foods). It doesn’t subsidize fruits and vegetables. It doesn’t do much to reduce the cost of fruits and vegetables so poor people can afford them. If it did take those kinds of actions it would also have to create policies to ensure that fruit and vegetable growers make a decent living and pay their workers decent wages.

One approach that’s being explored is taxing unhealthy foods, like soda. Do you see that as a positive approach to addressing food policy?

Well, soda taxes certainly seem to be working. They generate revenue for useful purposes as well as reduce consumption of sugary beverages. Soda taxes are one of the instances where advocacy has been most successful. People are willing to vote for soda taxes if the revenues are used to fund social programs. Sugar-sweetened beverages are easy targets—low-hanging fruit in public health terms. They contain sugars and water and nothing else of redeeming nutritional value.

Are sugar-sweetened beverages on their way out?

Sales of Coke and Pepsi are way down in the U.S. That’s why the soda companies are now putting enormous marketing efforts into Asia and Africa.

You’ve written a couple of books on pet food. How does pet food play a role in the food system?

Pet food is one way to deal with food waste. All pet food is made from the byproducts of human food production. These byproducts—the parts of food plants and animals that we don’t eat—have plenty of nutritional value. If pets didn’t eat them, the byproducts would go to landfills or be burned or rendered. I suppose they could be composted but that would be composting on an enormous scale. If we did not feed food byproducts to cats and dogs and, instead, fed them human foods, it would be the equivalent of feeding another 30 million people because there are so many pets in this country.

So, pet food plays a positive role?

In the food system, absolutely.

What about pet foods that say they are healthier for your pets. Is that just marketing?

The marketing is just the same as it is for human food, but there is much less research on diet and health for pets.

When Mal Nesheim and I were writing our book [Feed Your Pet Right], we were distressed at the lack of research comparing one kind of feeding regime to another. We wanted studies looking at the health and longevity of pets raised on the cheapest possible pet foods and those raised on the most expensive. We couldn’t find any. All pet food has to meet the same nutrition standards, so the main difference has to be in the ingredients that provide those nutrients. Does the quality of the ingredients make a difference? You would think it would, but we could not find any research. From a nutritional standpoint alone, the kind of pet food doesn’t seem to make much difference.

What are your thoughts on the idea of people in the U.S. eating insects as a primary protein source?

I don’t see much consumer demand for eating insects. We have plenty of food in America. Food availability is not the issue; we produce and import twice the amount of food we need. The real issue is inequitable access to healthy choices. Personally, I don’t find insects particularly delicious. Maybe other people do.

Have you eaten insects before?

Sure, I have had them but not a lot. They are certainly crunchy.

One idea is that the insects would replace the mass production of other protein sources.

I don’t see a need for that at this point. I live in New York City and would like to see some use for cockroaches, but I don’t find the idea particularly appetizing. I don't think anybody really wants to eat a cockroach. Still, aren't we lucky to have choices? I know people who are interested in producing insects for food and I wish them great success.

What are you working on now?

I’ve got a new book coming out from Basic Books in October. It’s about food-industry funding of nutrition research, and it’s titled Unsavory Truth: How the Food Industry Skews the Science of What We Eat.

If there’s one thing you want people to take away from your work, what is it?

Eat real food and enjoy what you eat. I see dietary advice as simple and easy to follow—at least for people with money and education. Eat a largely plant-based diet, don’t eat too much junk food, and balance calories consumed with calories burned. Really, that’s all there is to it. Following these precepts would go a long way to promoting health for people and the environment. Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures and it’s one that everyone can enjoy.