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Glassner vs Cook: on diet and health [Jun. 16th, 2007|01:54 pm]
Acting as adequate counterpoints, Barry Glassner's "The Gospel of Food" and Christopher Cook's "Diet for a Dead Planet" provide an interesting contrast on agribusiness.

Cook's "Diet" is almost universally a polemic: despite this, his book is most fascinating during part II, tracing the roots of the conversion from agrarianism pre 1800's, and proceeds to modern corporate monoculture agribusiness of today. Rather than opening with this story and presenting a coherent explanation for "the way things are today", he instead opens with the "signs of the apocalypse" type presentation which clearly voices his agenda of fear. It is apparent that he is trying to get you scared, and then to look upon history with scared eyes so you can believe his agenda.

However, his storyline is also fascinating in its incoherency as well. He is perfectly justified in exposing the tragic irony of the existence of surplus grain at the time of bread lines and starvation, as was the situation in the beginning of the 20th century. He presents no cures- his argument is not new, and his suggested remedies of "burning GMO crops" and smashing corporatism is not a recipe for better food, but for starvation. He wants to argue that the rise of corporate farming caused the end of small farming, but he does not consider the impact of non-farm industrialization. He completely ignores the effect of inflation throughout his book, and quotes absolute changes in price to back his argument when many of those changes may not have been significant relative to the overall economy, which was becoming more dominated by manufacture and later, by technology. Most egregiously, he argues that chemicals were impoverishing the farmers, even as they "applied chemical fertlizers at twice the recommended rate". No explanation is given why farmers were overusing expensive chemicals at the cost of their profit margins and safety.

In contrast, Glassner's "Gospel" debunks many of the myths associated with modern agribusiness. As an avowed "slow food" advocate, he is not attempting to argue in favor of heavily processed food. However, he makes a good attempt to step back from much of the fear voiced in Cook's "Diet". In contrast, Glassner puts scale on many of the scares, using many of the same refernces cited in Cook's "Diet" but highligting the actual magnitude of the issues. In contrast with the dangers of smoking, which elevate your risk of disease on the order of thousands or tens of thousands, diet effects are often three to four orders of magnitude smaller and often not statistically significant- in most cases, a single case of heart disease can tip the numbers dramatically. He also exposes studies in which the effects are cited but not actually observed, instead calculated from tables of expected risk.

Both books ignore a central point that I had hoped they would cover- the twentieth century has seen an overwhelming rise in life expectancy, at the same time the price, in relative terms, of food has shrunk from consuming most of the family budget, down to a small fraction thereof. The reality of food production is that while modern life may be stressful, the realities of running a small farm are far from ideal. Very few areas of the world are capable of producing a consistent and nutritionally complete diet entirely from locally produced vegetables year in and year out. Food is a series of challenges which humanity, as a whole, has yet to conquer, both in terms of feeding the world, and nourishing and nurturing our desire to act ethically and sustainably.

Glassner's "Gospel", as opposed to Cook's "Diet", provides suggestions and recommendations throughout the text, rather than a single sparse chapter of suggestions at the end. His recommedations are simple and consistent throughout: Quit smoking. Reduce stress. Eat foods that taste good. Moderation. His prescription is that we are preoccupied with worry, and that the culture of "no" causes us to fetishise bad foods, and "safe treyf", and as a result not see the big picture with objectivity and realistic solutions. Cook has the tone of a revolutionary warrior- kill the corporations before they kill us. Warfare, however, is not the right solution, and as Glassner rightly points out, to disrespect the work of many of the men and women who work hard within business to feed the hungry and provide afforable, reasonable, and tasty choices is simply that: disrespectful. It would be naive to suggest that corporations have our best interests at heart, but they are not wholly evil, either. A dead customer buys nothing. Cook wants to hate corporations, and begrudgingly, his only positive recommedation in the last chapter (indeed, in the whole book) is a brief nod to the rise of corporate organic foods.

In summary, though, neither book is really a complete picture. Glassner does not go far enough to paint the historical picture, whereas perhaps Cook goes too far and loses the page with too many inconsistent details. If you want to be terrified, you will agree with Cook. If you want to be consoled, you will read Glassner. The truth, as always, remains elusive. Cook has no right, as Glassner might argue, to destroy the jobs that sustain the working class, but likewise, enforced sustained poverty as provided by the corporations that Glassner lionizes is no solution for the working poor, as Cook might argue. Glassner may come closer to a reasonable approach, in my opinion, but we have yet to see a truly honest body of work that provides real perspective and answers to the questions of poverty and provides a diet for a sustainable, ethical world.