Sunday, 7 September 2008

Why we must Sacrifice Diet Freedom for a Better World

photo by slice
“People have the right to make up their own mind about what they eat or don’t eat.”

- Retailer Julian Graves, whom I accused in The Worst Sugar Pushers of All.

I don’t disagree with this. People do have the right to make up their mind about what they eat - and thank heaven for that. At current levels of knowledge about nutrition, intervention by the authorities would probably damage people who want to be healthy as much as it would protect those who do not.

Yet there is a difference between choosing what to eat from the available food and being able to choose what food is available. We must get used to the idea that some foods should never have been available in the first place and must now be banned.
We think freedom is about being able to do what we want – but in reality freedom operates only within the bubble of our own experience. If we are not aware we ever had an option, there is no sense of loss when the option is withdrawn - we do not feel any less free. So if it were possible to engineer mass, experience-specific amnesia then we could ban something without anyone feeling their rights had been eroded.

However, we cannot do that. Instead, people get used to food they like being available then perceive the threat of its withdrawal as the erosion of their rights or freedoms. Quite reasonably from their own perspective, their complaints might include:

- I am capable of eating this stuff in moderation so why should my pleasure be taken away because others cannot exercise self-control?

- My health is my business, so I should be allowed to eat this stuff.

- Instead of banning things, you should concentrate on educating people to eat them sensibly.
What Monkey Wants Monkey Gets
Taking things away from people does not sit well in the agenda of political parties. Our democratic systems, envy of the world though they may be, encourage a doctrine of ‘what monkey wants monkey gets’ – you’re not going to vote for the candidate who stops you doing the things you like. This is part of the reason cigarettes are still on sale; and governments are more than happy to dress up their profiteering and corporate appeasement as pandering to liberal ideals.
Merry Dance

Photo by spin spin
So instead of taking things away from people, we inch our way towards solutions painfully slowly. One by one, US states ban trans-fats. Milligram by milligram, regulations about salt content in processed foods shift in favour of reductions. The absurd and merry dance continues between companies wanting to make money from selling rubbish, researchers reporting that the rubbish damages our health and people telling the authorities they should be allowed to eat rubbish if they want to.

In the meantime, obesity rates inexorably increase, diabetes incidence rises to unprecedented levels, cancer rates increase and drug companies spend billions developing semi-effective cures for our diet-induced ailments.
So I say we must change the emphasis of the merry dance. Yes, let’s educate. Yes, let’s respect people's sense of loss. Hey, let’s even see if we can find a way for companies who manufacture this rubbish to land a bit more softly when we ban it...but we must become less squeamish about this concept of freedom.

People will complain at first, but then forget. They will find new foods they like. They probably won’t thank anyone for the extra few months of life they were given by being forcibly prevented from eating so much high fructose corn syrup - but then gratitude is not what this is about.

This is about making society collectively healthier so that some of the billions currently spent looking after the sick or squandered on misguided medical research can be spent on other ways to make the world a better place.
What Can We Do?
Clearly it will take time for the world to change - but I believe we can all help things along by recognising that:
  1. The gratification of our every preference is not necessarily a right
  2. However much we resent government intervention, sometimes it is the only way to create a better future
What do you think about this issue? I can imagine there will be some strong opinions, so please share any thoughts in the comments.

See Also:
The Worst Sugar Pushers of all: Health Food Stores
Julian Graves Responds to 'Sugar Pushers' Post


Anna said...

In a bit of a rush today, but I had to chime in on this.

You said "At current levels of knowledge about nutrition, intervention by the authorities would probably damage people who want to be healthy as much as it would protect those who do not....Yet there is a difference between choosing what to eat from the available food and being able to choose what food is available."

Absolutely! That is where I think we need to focus.

But I would put the focus, not on banning the foods deemed "bad" (because that is a difficult can of worms to determine, as we have seen over the past 60+ years), but rather, on removing the barriers to real, healthful foods that people (even a small minority) want.

Food production has become increasingly industrialized and centralized, with emphasis placed on faster, cheaper, more abundant, with little thought to the hidden costs not paid for at the cash register (higher taxes; agri-business subsidies & corporate welfare; rising rates of nutrition-related chronic disease; environmental degradation and pollution; loss of rural communities and culture; etc.

Government policy makers (the "authorities") promote and protect the industrial agri-business, not the small scale, de-centralized/local food producer. In fact, most govt policies create massive barriers for small scale food producers. That is what we need to change.

The big businesses say that the small scale producers have to conform to the regulations "to keep the playing field level". Well, the regulations are written for mega-scale operations, which just drown small scale producers in excess and are just not necessary. The big guys flout the regulations anyway, but they have deep pockets for the puny fines and large posses of lawyers and lobbyists to do maek things go their way.

I say, remove the inane, industrial-sized regulations that make no sense for a little guy and let the small producers do their thing and serve their customers.

Joel Salatin, a biodynamic farmer in Virginia, writes eloquently about his experiences with tunnel-visioned inspectors and excessive, restrictive regulations at his Polyface farm. His hand processed chickens in his open-air on-farm processing facility yields chickens with low bacteria counts that blow away the commercial competition every time (including industrial organic chickens). He has done the lab tests to prove it. Yet, he is harrassed by regulators because he doesn't have screens on the windows (but he has no windows). His customers come many miles to the farm to pick up the chickens, they know how the chickens are processed, and they have a face-to-face transaction. it doesn't get less anonymous than that, unlike the huge meat and poultry processors that supply our school lunch foods and hospitals, yet are constantly issuing recalls for millions of pounds of contaminated meat. And even though Salatin's facility doesn't conform to regulations, his chickens are cleaner and safer than any grocery store chicken. But the govt and the regulators have a hard time with that, because they focus on picayune issues such as a special bathroom for exclusive use of the inspector, etc. His family's bathroom in the house doesn't meet regulation, of course.

Joel tells it like it is in his excellent books, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal; War Stories from the Local Food Front, and Holy Cow and Hog Heaven (I have no connection to Salatin or his books other than as a reader, though my dad knew him years ago through local food advocacy groups).

The more I learn about how hard it is to be a small scale food producer today (either farmer or a small scale, traditional or artisan processor, like a cheesemaker or sausage-maker, etc.), the more I realize how our food choices are a mirage. There is astonishingly little choice if one wants to avoid industrial food. Small scale producers are the Davids against the corporate and govt Goliaths and cannot provide us the choices we need unless we support them to they can stay afloat - with our purchases, with our pressure on our elected officials to not burden them with asinine regulations and barriers, and with our voices. This is not a partisan issue, either, this is a liberty issue for all. If we can't feed ourselves with the real food that has nourished humans for thousands of years, then we are lost.

I say let the industrial food junkies have their RTE, heat n serve, pre-cooked "edible, food-like substances" (Michael Pollan's words) if they want, but don't take away our access to the real foods we want. That access is in real danger, my friends, those most don't know it. Small farmers in niche markets (like raw milk, farmstead cheese and dairy processing, pastured livestock, etc., are being harassed in many states right now, being forced to go "underground" or go conventional, or out of business entirely. The only thing tolerated by the authorities is 100% compliance with their plan.

I've had enough with banning and discouraging certain foods "for our best interest". I have no trust, zero, zip, nada, in my govt's judgment about what is good for me and my family and what isn't.

Am I becoming more libertarian or what? LOL! A few years a go I never could have imagined championing small farmers. But on the food front, it's really bleak in the US and around the world, with both of our major parties and the various interntional organizations (WTO, World Bank, UN, etc.) because they all cater to the big corporate multinational farm interests, not the people who simple want to feed their communities.

Ok, I think I just fell off my soap box, giddy with righteous indignation. Better run now.


Methuselah said...

Anna - superb rant ;-) In the UK we have had something of a backlash against, in particular, the intensive farming of chickens, with some high profile chefs championing the cause. If the media noise can be taken as an indication then I would say there is a certain amount of back-to-nature, farmers market, grow-your-own philosophy flourishing in the UK, albeit on a small scale and probably primarily amongst the middle classes. Do you have any kind of equivalent glimmer of hope in the US? The TV I watched over the last couple of weeks seemed to suggest not!

In any case, I do think that we have to attack the problem from both my angle and yours. By allowing the industrial food junkies to eat the junk we line the pockets of the junk producers allowing them to retain the power that squeezes the smaller producers in the first place. If, over time, we can evolve people's tastes away from junk and towards good food - and banning the junkiest junk is an important part of doing that - then eventually people start buying the better food and the whole financial and ethical dynamic starts to shift in favour of the producers of better food.

I agree that 'the authorities' can scarcely be trusted to know what should and shouldn't be banned, but I worry that if we give up on the notion of putting pressure on them then effectively it becomes open season for the junk producers and we are in an even worse spot...

Almost Vegetarian said...

I believe people should have the opportunity to make up their own mind about what they eat (within reasonable boundaries - we don't want people munching on their neighbors' beloved family pet, for example). The problem is, this assumes a level playing field. But this is not what we have when, for example, food companies are allowed to bombard our defenseless children with food advertising. And, of course, it snowballs from there.

I still think people should decide for themselves. But I think if food companies are going to promote the items in their food, it should be, say, the first three items and not the one drop of goodness at the end of a 10-line list.

Then we have a glimmer of a hope of making an intelligent choice.


Methuselah said...

almost vegetarian - I guess the hard part is knowing where we draw the line. Even if we manage to get the rules on marketing in place so that people are not misled, there will be people who fall prey to the addictive qualities of the worst ingredients, like sugar. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether people should be protected from themselves. In the case of tobacco I tend to think they should (although clearly governments disagree) - and since sugar is also addictive and has long term health consequences, its tempting to see a parallel.

Anonymous said...

People do have the right to make up their mind about that they eat - and thank heaven for that.

I think you have a typo here - about that they

Methuselah said...

Thanks anon - have corrected that!

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