Quantcast

One Thing to Do About Food: A Forum | The Nation

  •  

One Thing to Do About Food: A Forum

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

This forum was edited by Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse Restaurant and director of the Chez Panisse Foundation in Berkeley, California.

Michael Pollan

About the Author

Marion Nestle
Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, is the...
Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan is the author, most recently, of Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.    
Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry, author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry and essays, has farmed a hillside in his native Henry...
Troy Duster
Troy Duster, director of the Institute for the History of Production of Knowledge at New York University, holds an...
Elizabeth Ransom
Elizabeth Ransom is a sociologist at the University of Richmond whose work focuses on globalization, food and the...
Winona LaDuke
Winona LaDuke directs the White Earth Land Recovery Project and works on issues of bio-piracy, indigenous rights and...
Dr. Vandana Shiva
Dr. Vandana Shiva is a physicist, ecologist, activist, editor and author. She is the founder of the Research Foundation...
Carlo Petrini
Carlo Petrini is the founder of the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont and Emilia Romagna, Italy. This...
Eliot Coleman
Eliot Coleman, who has been a farmer for almost forty years, is the author of Four Season Harvest and The New Organic...
Peter Singer
Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University. His most recent book, co-authored with Jim Mason, is...
Eric Schlosser
Eric Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation and a co-producer of the documentary Food, Inc.    
Jim Hightower
Jim Hightower has been called America's favorite populist. He's been editor of The Texas Observer, president of the...

Also by the Author

As the food movement has discovered, winning over the media, or even the president, is not enough.

Today's conversation about food was started by dot-connecting writers like Berry in the 1970s.

Also by the Author


MORE FUN THAN A BARREL OF...

Princeton, NJ

In an accurate review of Jonathan Marks's loosely argued What It
Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee
, Micaela di Leonardo passes on to readers
the misleading impression that the Great Ape Project uses the genetic
similarities between humans and apes to argue for "human rights" for
apes, "frequently to the detriment of the impoverished African and
Southeast Asian residents of ape homelands" ["Too Much Monkey Business,"
July 8].

This is false from start to finish. First, the Great Ape Project is not
based on the genetic similarities of humans and great apes but on the
rich emotional and mental lives of the great apes, so well documented by
supporters of the Great Ape Project like Jane Goodall and many others.

Second, the Great Ape Project does not seek the full range of human
rights for great apes, but only the basic rights to life, liberty and
protection from torture, and even the rights to life and liberty that we
seek are not absolute, for they allow euthanasia in the interests of the
apes, and captivity where that is in the best interests of the apes or
is required for the safety of others. Finally, the protection of the
remaining, and rapidly dwindling, forests of Africa and Southeast Asia
where the great apes live in their natural habitat is, surely, also in
the best long-term interests of the human residents of those regions.

Readers interested in finding out more about the project for themselves
may go to www.greatapeproject.org.

PETER SINGER


DI LEONARDO REPLIES

Evanston, Ill.

You've got to hand it to notorious headline-grabbing philosopher Peter
Singer, who has endorsed infanticide for disabled human babies, claimed
we can solve global poverty by just consuming a little less and donating
as individuals to aid agencies (no need, apparently, to complicate
matters by considering capitalist functioning and state and NGO actions)
and called for a revision of taboos against bestiality since "sex with
animals does not always involve cruelty." Now how exactly can he hold
his mouth to call Jon Marks's 98% Chimpanzee loosely argued?

What is so refreshing about Marks's work is that he is a hard scientist
who really understands that we live and act within a shifting political
economy. Animal and ecosystem conservation and human rights for the
impoverished who live in surviving great ape territories in Africa and
Southeast Asia need not be antithetical projects, but Marks quotes
numerous Great Ape Project activists who believe they are, including the
zoologist who chillingly said to him, "Think percentages, not numbers"
in weighing Southeast Asian human vs. ape rights. Others frequently
liken apes to human children or mentally retarded adults. And Singer is
most disingenuous in claiming that the GAP does not argue on the basis
of genetic similarity. The group's official website clearly argues for
apes' inclusion with humans in a "community of equals" because they (and
Singer co-wrote this statement) "are the closest relatives of our
species."

The issue, as Marks makes crystal clear, is not whether apes are
adorable, interesting, endangered and in need of aid--of course they
are--but how we use science to make political arguments. "Why should the
mentality of apes have any bearing on their humanness (or lack thereof)
or their rights (or lack thereof)? If you lose the ability to reason and
communicate, do you...forfeit your humanity and rights? This is a scary
moral place for apes and people to be.... Human rights should neither be
forfeitable nor accessible by nonhumans.... Singling out particular
classes of people in order to show how similar they are to apes is a
troubling scientific strategy, not least of all when the humans
rhetorically invoked are the very ones whose rights are most
conspicuously in jeopardy."

Disability groups and others quite rightly have weighed in en masse
against Singer, but nonhuman primates, too, deserve a better, more
rational advocate.

MICAELA DI LEONARDO



THIS IS A TEST. THIS IS ONLY A TEST...

Santa Barbara, Calif.

Eighty years ago, journalist Walter Lippmann took on the standardized
testing enterprise in The New Republic, addressing such broad
issues as the effects of education, opportunity and heredity on test
scores. For example, Lippmann dismissed the claim that IQ tests measure
hereditary intelligence as having "no more scientific foundation than a
hundred other fads, vitamins and glands and amateur psychoanalysis and
correspondence courses in will power." His articles on testing continue
to be valued today not merely because he could turn a phrase but because
he had a firm grasp of the complex technical and political issues
surrounding the use of test scores.

Alas, Peter Sacks is no Walter Lippmann. To Sacks, who reviewed my book
Fair Game? The Use of Standardized Admissions Tests in Higher
Education
["Testing Times in Higher Ed," June 24], the issues are
simple: Tests are evil; eliminating them is good. Sacks has undoubtedly
been aware of my work because I have pointed out errors and omissions in
his writings on testing; in fact, I do so in my book. He ignores large
portions of the book in order to characterize it as "a defense of the
hegemony of gatekeeping exams." A reader of the review might be
surprised to find that my book proposes a new consumer agency to monitor
admissions testing, discusses the perils of relying too heavily on test
scores in admissions decisions and describes research, including some of
my own, in which test scores did not do a good job of predicting
subsequent grades.

Rather than attempt to address every inaccuracy, I will focus on a
central feature of Sacks's review--his belief that the existence of
score disparities among ethnic and economic groups proves that
admissions tests are biased. In Fair Game? I point out that
determining whether tests are biased is complex and requires a
willingness to look beyond patterns of average test scores. In
Change (March/April 2001), I commented on Sacks's earlier
Change article, "Standardized Testing: Meritocracy's Crooked
Yardstick": "[Sacks] cited several studies to prove that SAT scores and
socioeconomic status are related, and alluded to [a study conducted by
the National Center for Education Statistics]. What he neglected to
mention is that this study showed that socioeconomic status was also
related to high school grades... [and to course background, teacher
evaluations and extracurricular activities]. In particular, 24 percent
of the high-SES group, compared to only 10 percent of the low-SES group,
had high school [grade-point averages] of at least 3.5..."

What the GPA and the SAT have in common is that they are indexes of
previous achievement and therefore reflect past inequalities in
educational opportunity. In The Nation (June 5, 2000), Pedro
Noguera and Antwi Akom noted that "explaining why poor children of color
perform comparatively less well in school is relatively easy:
Consistently, such children are educated in schools that are woefully
inadequate on most measures of quality and funding."

Sacks omitted the findings on grades and other achievement measures from
his book and from his Change article. Presenting the complete
results would have undercut his position that some inherent property of
tests causes the scores to be related to economic factors. (Including
all the findings might have also required him to abandon his pet phrase,
"the Volvo effect," which he uses to refer to the association between
family income and standardized test scores.)

In addition, Sacks is incorrect in implying that class-rank admission
plans like the Texas 10 percent plan, which involve consideration of
high school grades but not test scores, have uniformly led to greater
campus diversity. The Dallas Morning News, for example, reported
on June 19, 2002, that at Texas A&M, the percentages of black and
Latino students have decreased since the initiation of the Texas plan.
As I point out in my book, the plan is structured so that diversity
benefits are likely to accrue to the state's flagship institution, UT
Austin.

Finally, in response to Sacks's criticism that my writing is
textbookish, I readily concede that I lack his ability to generate
catchy phrases like "Volvo effect" and "crooked yardstick." But clever
labels are a poor substitute for thoughtful consideration of the
controversies that surround the use of standardized tests.

REBECCA ZWICK


SACKS REPLIES

Boise, Idaho

In response to my criticisms of her new book, Rebecca Zwick takes aim
at the reviewer. She says I believe that "tests are evil; eliminating
them is good." It's not surprising she'd make up this straw man, since
attacking it also sums up the entire marketing strategy behind her book.

Zwick--a former researcher at the Educational Testing Service, the firm
that produces such standardized tests as the SAT--and her publisher have
touted Fair Game? as a source of objective information about
testing, positioned to clear up all this testing fuss with common sense
and straight facts. If one chooses to look at a different or broader set
of facts than she does, or to interpret them with a non-ETS spin, Zwick
seems to imply that one must then be a simpleton and an ideologue.

Zwick tries to make hay of the finding that high school or college
grades, just like test scores, also correlate strongly to socioeconomic
status. Not recognizing this, as Zwick takes pains to do in her book, is
to unfairly single out standardized tests as punitive to poor and
minority kids, Zwick claims.

Like so much of her book, Zwick seems to miss the big picture. The
thrust of my entire critique of the testing culture--and her book--is
that gatekeeping tests give questionable weight to one-time performance
on highly abstracted testing exercises, which by definition are mere
approximations of genuine work. And mostly poor approximations, at that.
Given this, it's no wonder that test scores are such feeble predictors
of later success, whether in school or work.

Just as Bates College and other institutions have done, with great
success, in their efforts to reduce the importance of admissions tests,
I'll take classroom performance--as measured by grades, portfolios of
student work and other documentation of student accomplishments both in
and out of school--any day over test performance as an indicator of how
a student will perform in real life, not the tested life.

Regarding the Texas 10-percent plan, Zwick says I'm incorrect in
implying that de-emphasizing the SAT has led to greater diversity for
all state institutions. In fact, I'm not implying any such claim in the
context she quotes. I draw on data only from the University of Texas at
Austin. Zwick speculates that the plan has merely reshuffled the deck in
terms of statewide enrollments of minorities. If Zwick wants me
or another reviewer to take her seriously on this point, she'd better
offer up something of substance or do some real analysis. In her book,
Zwick could only muster up this: "Data on the statewide effect of
the Texas 10 percent plan are hard to come by."

What can she possibly mean with such a vague statement? That university
officials are trying to hide some dirty little secret? Does it mean that
there are no campus-specific enrollment data broken out by race and
ethnicity? Seems improbable. Or could it mean that Zwick could find no
readily available studies by credible researchers that support her claim
that enrollments have merely been redistributed from other state
campuses to Austin? But even a boatload of data needs a theory, an
explanation of what the data mean. Alas, Zwick offers readers no
theoretically plausible explanation whatsoever as to why minority
enrollments might be expected to decline across the state as a result of
reducing the emphasis on SAT scores. In fact, there's every reason to
expect just the opposite.

As for textbookishness, that is certainly no major offense. Sign me up
any day for a dry but forthright book about testing in America.
Regarding Zwick's curious reference to me and Walter Lippmann, I won't
touch that one with a ten-foot number-2 pencil.

PETER SACKS

Also by the Author

Food is a good place to start to make change—but it’s only a start.

We should apply FDR's principles of relief, reform and reconstruction to our current financial crisis.

Also by the Author

This old American democratic tradition already has deep support at the grassroots.

People are wriggling free of the fetters of corporate culture.

Every five years or so the President of the United States signs an obscure piece of legislation that determines what happens on a couple of hundred million acres of private land in America, what sort of food Americans eat (and how much it costs) and, as a result, the health of our population. In a nation consecrated to the idea of private property and free enterprise, you would not think any piece of legislation could have such far-reaching effects, especially one about which so few of us--even the most politically aware--know anything. But in fact the American food system is a game played according to a precise set of rules that are written by the federal government with virtually no input from anyone beyond a handful of farm-state legislators. Nothing could do more to reform America's food system--and by doing so improve the condition of America's environment and public health--than if the rest of us were suddenly to weigh in.

The farm bill determines what our kids eat for lunch in school every day. Right now, the school lunch program is designed not around the goal of children's health but to help dispose of surplus agricultural commodities, especially cheap feedlot beef and dairy products, both high in fat.

The farm bill writes the regulatory rules governing the production of meat in this country, determining whether the meat we eat comes from sprawling, brutal, polluting factory farms and the big four meatpackers (which control 80 percent of the market) or from local farms.

Most important, the farm bill determines what crops the government will support--and in turn what kinds of foods will be plentiful and cheap. Today that means, by and large, corn and soybeans. These two crops are the building blocks of the fast-food nation: A McDonald's meal (and most of the processed food in your supermarket) consists of clever arrangements of corn and soybeans--the corn providing the added sugars, the soy providing the added fat, and both providing the feed for the animals. These crop subsidies (which are designed to encourage overproduction rather than to help farmers by supporting prices) are the reason that the cheapest calories in an American supermarket are precisely the unhealthiest. An American shopping for food on a budget soon discovers that a dollar buys hundreds more calories in the snack food or soda aisle than it does in the produce section. Why? Because the farm bill supports the growing of corn but not the growing of fresh carrots. In the midst of a national epidemic of diabetes and obesity our government is, in effect, subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup.

This absurdity would not persist if more voters realized that the farm bill is not a parochial piece of legislation concerning only the interests of farmers. Today, because so few of us realize we have a dog in this fight, our legislators feel free to leave deliberations over the farm bill to the farm states, very often trading away their votes on agricultural policy for votes on issues that matter more to their constituents. But what could matter more than the health of our children and the health of our land?

Perhaps the problem begins with the fact that this legislation is commonly called "the farm bill"--how many people these days even know a farmer or care about agriculture? Yet we all eat. So perhaps that's where we should start, now that the debate over the 2007 farm bill is about to be joined. This time around let's call it "the food bill" and put our legislators on notice that this is about us and we're paying attention.

Wendell Berry

Alice Waters has asked me if I will propose one thing that could change the way Americans think about food. I will nominate two: hunger and knowledge.

Hunger causes people to think about food, as everybody knows. But in the present world this thinking is shallow. If you wish to solve the problem of hunger, and if you have money, you buy whatever food you like. For many years there has always been an abundance of food to buy and of money to buy it with, and so we have learned to take it for granted. Few of us have considered the possibility that someday we might go with money to buy food and find little or none to buy. And yet most of our food is now produced by industrial agriculture, which has proved to be immensely productive, but at the cost of destroying the means of production. It is enormously destructive of farmland, farm communities and farmers. It wastes soil, water, energy and life. It is highly centralized, genetically impoverished and dependent on cheap fossil fuels, on long-distance hauling and on consumers' ignorance. Its characteristic byproducts are erosion, pollution and financial despair. This is an agriculture with a short future.

Knowledge, a lot more knowledge in the minds of a lot more people, will be required to secure a long future for agriculture. Knowing how to grow food leads to food. Knowing how to grow food in the best ways leads to a dependable supply of food for a long time. At present our society and economy do not encourage or respect the best ways of food production. This is owing to the ignorance that is endemic to our society and economy. Most of our people, who have become notorious for the bulk of their food consumption, in fact know little about food and nothing about agriculture. Despite this ignorance, in which our politicians and intellectuals participate fully, some urban consumers are venturing into an authentic knowledge of food and food production, and they are demanding better food and, necessarily, better farming. When this demand grows large enough, our use of agricultural lands will change for the better. Under the best conditions, our land and farm population being so depleted, this change cannot come quickly. Whether or not it can come soon enough to avert hunger proportionate to our present ignorance, I do not know.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.