Abolish the Food Industry

Second, he doesn't want to ban smoking. The language of abolition -- not prohibition -- is well chosen. Proctor doesn't yearn for the criminalization of smokers, nor does he foresee the end of cigarettes or tobacco. He's simply arguing that the industry that profits from it oughtn't to exist in a society that has a minimum concern with public health. If you want to smoke, you're free to grow and cure your own tobacco, he suggests.

The analogy of tobacco with food isn't perfect, clearly. People who eat Twinkies often want to eat Twinkies, and we all need to eat. But it's increasingly common to see the medical literature push forward an understanding of sugar addiction and it's also true that our food choices are far from free, in no small part because of the commercial and cultural power of the food industry. Weaned as most of us are on Big Food's free speech, we ought to be suspicious of our instincts when it comes to food.

This week's Nature article doesn't argue for the abolition of Big Food, but indicts the industry nonetheless: "Sugar is cheap, sugar tastes good, and sugar sells, so companies have little incentive to change." Limiting the power of these corporations to sell their products -- just as we limit alcohol and tobacco companies -- ought to be widely agreed, and the battle among health professionals in the years to come will see the transformation of this proposition into an axiom.

The food industry tastes its own blood in the water, and is responding aggressively to the nicks and cuts from public health professionals. It's unwise to underestimate the chutzpah of an industry that spread trans fats across the Western diet in the 20th century, and made a marketing pitch of their removal in the 21st. So the industry has adopted a strategy that counters a pound of sugar with an ounce of nutrition.

Derek Yach, senior vice president of Global Health and Agriculture Policy at PepsiCo, offers Sun Chips as a food that "would do very well on almost every nutrition criteria." The problem is that while they're moderately better than other chips, they're still chips, and part of a business whose main profit derives from food high in salt, fat, and sugar. More important, Sun Chips are still a snack food -- the growth of which, some argue, is the main engine for expanding American waistlines.

The breadth of products controlled by the food industry -- amply toxic and less so -- is itself a symptom of a deeper problem that has public health symptoms, but a political economic cause. The food industry is an oligopoly that has transformed not only what we eat but how we eat it, and what we think of food. Which is why the logic of Proctor's argument as it could apply to the food industry waits in the wings -- for now. It's hard to entertain the abolition of the food industry, because it's difficult to imagine ourselves in a world without PepsiCo, Nestlé, Kraft (formerly part of Philip Morris), and friends, and their product lines.

Few have lived in a world in which a handful of corporations don't run the food system. The food industry has made our world theirs. Instant meals and ready calories are as much a part of the fabric of late capitalist life as the culture in which they're acceptable. Excising corporations from an economy that has come to depend on their products addresses the problem of added toxins in food. But it does little to change the circumstance that renders those foods a caloric raft for the poor, nor does it address deeper injustices within the food system spawned by corporate power.

But a better food system needn't be limited to one where food giants behave a little better because they are taxed and hushed a little. Lustig and colleagues argue for limits to corporate power in food because, by adding sugar to almost everything they make, they make us less free as consumers. Extending Proctor's argument to those very corporate powers invites us to imagine what a world without Big Food might look like -- and dream ourselves freer still.

Image: Ruslan Nabiyev/Shutterstock.

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Raj Patel is a British-born American writer, activist, and academic. He has worked for the World Bank and WTO and been tear-gassed on four continents protesting against them. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved and The Value of Nothing. More

Raj Patel is a British-born American writer, activist, and academic. He has worked for the World Bank and WTO and been tear-gassed on four continents protesting against them. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved and The Value of Nothing. He’s currently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for African Studies, an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a fellow at The Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First. He is currently an IATP Food and Community Fellow. He has testified about the causes of the global food crisis to the US House Financial Services Committee and is an Advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
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