Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know
As an ethically and environmentally aware feminist vegetarian, I view food and politics as ineluctably joined. Robert Paarlberg’s Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know challenged some of my basic ideas about hunger, famine, and the scope of issues contained by the term food politics, yet the book ignores some of the ways in which food is always simultaneously personal and political.
Food Politics covers a wide range of topics connected to the way we eat as well as to our food’s impact on the world around us at local and global levels. Paarlberg examines population growth, food costs, politics of chronic hunger and famine, farming technologies, food aid, obesity, environmentalism, agribusiness, fast food culture, organic and local food, GMOs, and the overarching structures that govern the world food system. At times Paarlberg oversimplifies complex problems, especially in his chapters “The Politics of Obesity” and “Agriculture, the Environment, and Farm Animals.” Moreover, although he supports his points with statistics and logical arguments, he frequently flattens alternative positions, sometimes inconsistently. For example, he suggests that vegetarianism has little global impact on the food supply in one context yet acknowledges the consumption of less red meat as a better way to reduce the environmental impact of food than eating local produce.
Paarlberg recognizes the significance of women’s labor in third-world farming systems. He addresses the political disenfranchisement of women in these economies when he depicts the problem of chronic undernutrition in “poor and hungry communities” where women are prevented from political action because they are, first, overextended by their duties as farmers and as caregivers for the children and elderly and, second, their socially marginalized status. Feminists doubtless know this and would like to see Paarlberg push his points further, as I wanted him to, but his attention to the gendered politics of undernutrition is significant.
Paarlberg considers the work of Rachel Carson and Frances Moore Lappé in dialogue with Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, but he dismisses Frances Moore Lappé’s as a “young countercultural food activist.” Although Lappé was young when she published Diet for a Small Planet, she has created The Small Planet Institute and established a rich, innovative series of books, videos, teaching aids, and other resources about the politics and environmental impact of food. Although he supports some of Lappé’s points, he does so in a way that shifts their focus—he implies that her actions are good, but not for the reasons upon which she bases them, which is a partial, uneven, and reductive way to treat an argument.
The greatest flaw of Food Politics is Paarlberg’s oversimplification of other groups’ and individual’s claims. He provides useful and even groundbreaking information but only by suspending these fundamental components of food politics in a way that does not allow for the inextricability of belief or ideology from the way we eat.