Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 12, 2009

Food Beware

Filed under: Ecology,farming,Film — louisproyect @ 4:33 pm

Opening Thursday at the Quad Cinema in New York and available in home video on November 17th, “Food Beware: the French Organic Revolution” is a companion piece to films like “Food Inc.” and “The Future of Food” that detail the harm done to consumer and nature by chemical farming.

But “Food Beware” has an added dimension, going one step further to make the case that the cancer epidemic of our epoch is directly related to the chemical-laden agriculture that has been largely adopted in the pursuit of profit. Originally titled “Nos enfants nous accuseront”, this documentary by Jean-Paul Jaud explores the same deadly nexus that is the subject of Sandra Steingraber’s “Living Downstream”. Stricken by bladder cancer in her 20s, Steingraber—a biologist and poet—sought to make the connections between cancer and the toxins that seeped into the waters of her Illinois farming community. In that book she wrote:

To the 89 percent of Illinois that is farmland, an estimated 54 million pounds of synthetic pesticides are applied each year. Introduced into Illinois at the end of World War II, these chemical poisons quietly familiarized themselves with the landscape. In 1950, less than 10 percent of cornfields were sprayed with pesticides. In 1993, 99 percent were chemically treated.

This is exactly the same threat that the people living in the small, rustic farming village of Barjac faced when the mayor decided to make the school lunch organic. Alarmed by a spike in cancer rates in an area dominated by chemical-based farming, the Communist mayor Edouard Chaulet (an affiliation unfortunately not identified in the movie) decides to take action against a cancer epidemic that has become generalized in Europe as the press kid for “Food Beware” indicates:

  • In Europe every year, 100,000 children die of diseases caused by the environment.
  • In Europe 70% of cancers are linked to the environment: 30% to pollution and 40% to food.
  • In Europe cases of cancer in children have been increasing by 1.1% yearly for 30 years.
  • In France the number of cancers in males has increased by 93% in 25 years.

Despite the clearly polemical—and urgently needed—focus of the movie, it does not preach to the audience and even sustains a meditative and lyrical quality throughout. Nestled beneath the Cévennes Mountains in south-central France, the village of Barjac and the surrounding fields look like something out of an impressionist painting. Furthermore, despite having all the reason in the world to be outraged by being victimized by toxic chemicals, the villagers appear more interested in creating alternatives to the existing system than confronting the powers that be. Since many of their friends and neighbors are farmers using carcinogenic pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, perhaps they have no choice in the matter unless they were willing to fight a kind of civil war.

Some of the more interesting moments of this very human drama involve local organic farmers and their chemical-based counterparts having discussions about whether it is feasible to make the transition to all-organic, exploring the social and economic factors that divide the two groups. Relying wholly on the testimony of the interviewees rather than direct commentary, the audience hears the case for organics in strictly economic terms—a clear rebuttal to those who condemn organic farming as impractical and expensive. Considering the subsidies that chemical-based farming receives as well as the damage it does to soil and water resources, not to speak of the collateral damage it does to human beings, it condemns itself in both economic and human terms.

The movie arrives at a time when the food production system has received intense scrutiny. Yesterday, when I watched the screener, the Sunday NY Times Magazine section had a special Food Issue. One article promoted vegetarianism and another considered the calorie-restriction diet, a regimen that allows people to live far longer and with fewer ailments like diabetes and heart disease based on statistics. There was also an article by Michael Pollan touting “Rules to Eat By”. Along with the Times’s Mark Bittman, whose most recent book “Food Matters” worries about unsustainable agriculture, Pollan has become one of the major spokesmen for the values upheld in movies like “Food Inc.” and “Food Beware”.

But there is not a neat fit between the Food Revolution and the more traditional ideas about revolution upheld by people like Barjac’s Communist mayor. Pollan became a lightning rod for criticism after he urged people to continue shopping at Whole Foods. After John Mackey, the libertarian founder of Whole Foods, had written an article in the Wall Street Journal attacking government involvement in health care, there were calls for boycotting his stores. Using his reputation as a prophet of healthy eating, Pollan denounced the boycott using a singularly tortured logic:

John Mackey’s views on health care, much as I disagree with them, will not prevent me from shopping at Whole Foods. I can understand why people would want to boycott, but it’s important to play out the hypothetical consequences of a successful boycott. Whole Foods is not perfect, however if they were to disappear, the cause of improving Americans’ health by building an alternative food system, based on more fresh food, pastured and humanely raised meats and sustainable agriculture, would suffer. I happen to believe health care reform has the potential to drive big changes in the food system, and to enlist the health care industry in the fight to reform agriculture. How? Because if health insurers can no longer pick and choose their clients, and throw sick people out, they will develop a much stronger interest in prevention, which is to say, in changing the way America feeds itself.

There is also some reason to question the NY Times’s commitment to healthy eating despite the frequent publication of Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman’s articles on eating healthy. Their science pages have been polluted for some years now by the writings of John Tierney, a libertarian who never saw a chemical he didn’t like. On June 5th 2007, Tierney mocked Rachel Carsons for warning of “a cancer epidemic that never came to pass.” He also touted the work of I. L. Baldwin, a professor of agricultural bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin who believes that “civilization depended on farmers and doctors fighting ‘an unrelenting war’ against insects, parasites and disease.”

Possibly an even worse offender is the NY Times’s Gina Kolata, who has virtually made a profession out of denying links between chemical pollutants and cancer, notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) being a sibling of Judi Bari, the environmental activist who was killed by a bomb planted in her car. In an article published in the July 6th 1998 Nation Magazine, environmental journalist/activist Mark Dowie pointed out:

On March 19, 1996, two long stories by Kolata appeared in the Science Times section. “Some environmentalists are asserting that humans and wildlife are facing a new and serious threat from synthetic chemicals,” reads Kolata’s lead, ignoring the fact that Colborn’s hypothesis was drawn not from environmentalists but from the work of more than 400 scientists, all of whose names and numbers were provided to the Times. Throughout the main article she uses the “e” word repeatedly to describe Colborn and Myers, though both have doctorates in zoology. And she calls Myers’s employer, The W. Alton Jones Foundation, “an environmental group.” (The private foundation dedicates only part of its philanthropy to environmental issues.) Kolata invokes the expertise of Dr. Bruce Ames of the University of California, Berkeley, and Dr. Stephen Safe of Texas A&M, as she has often before, to counter Colborn and Myers’s hypothesis. Ames is an active adviser to The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), a corporate-supported “watchdog coalition that advocates the use of sound sciences in public policy.” TASSC has about 900 members, 375 of whom are scientists. The rest are executives from the chemical, oil, dairy, timber, paper, mining, manufacturing and agribusiness industries seeking ways to defend their products in media and the courts.

Ultimately, the cognitive dissonance at work in the pages of the NY Times points to the political paralysis that prevents major reforms from taking place in American society as well as other major industrialized countries like France. The powers-that-be recognize that humanity is threatened by greenhouse gases, chemical-based farming, exhaustion of the world’s fishing stocks, mountaintop removal in coal country and a myriad of other environmental problems but they stop short of attacking the root of these problems, namely production on the basis of profit.

As the crisis deepens, with all its attendant symptoms from the cancer epidemic to species extinctions, the understanding that a radical change is necessary will seep into the consciousness of those who have the power to change the system, namely the working people who bear the brunt of unhealthy food, chemical pollution and other hazards that constantly lowering wages leaves them vulnerable to. A NY Times editor or a hedge fund manager can afford all the healthy food and the best medical care required to fix the illnesses that attack even the wealthy but the world we need should make it possible for everybody to live well, not just the rich. If it takes socialism to make that world possible, then let’s move forward.


  1. “A NY Times editor or a hedge fund manager can afford all the healthy food and the best medical care required to fix the illnesses that attack even the wealthy” – there’s the contradiction. They breathe the same air and drink the same water as everyone else, but their allegiance to the profit motive forces them into denial.

    Comment by Dennis Brasky — October 12, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

  2. Great essay, Louis. Someday soon, we are going to find out that most of our health problems are tied to the environment and being poor, the two often being connected. Here is something I wrote in my book, Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate:

    For most of our time on earth, we lived as gatherers and hunters. In the main, we were healthy, and we kept ourselves in relative harmony with the world around us, seldom putting too much pressure on the land’s productiveness, either by overpopulating an area or destroying the environment. We divided our output in an egalitarian manner; there were neither rich nor poor. We were remarkably observant, and this acuity led to major technological and social achievements, as well as a connection to the natural world unknown today. All was not peace and light, of course, but compared to the disasters that befell us afterward, the world of the gatherers and hunters seems almost paradisiacal.
    The invention of agriculture about ten thousand years ago brought with it an end to the universal egalitarianism of the original humans. This was because farming went hand-in-hand with the rise of class society. From here on, each system of production would be marked by a grotesque inequality in which a small minority in each society used force and violence to extract a surplus from the majority of workers, whether they be slaves, serfs, or wage laborers. Agriculture was a great success in terms of the growth of human populations, and it and all future class societies allowed a few to live in splendor. But for the many, life became harsher than gatherers and hunters could have imagined. Life expectancies fell, physical stature diminished, and diseases became rampant. Richard Manning, in his book Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, tells us:
    “Summarizing evidence from around the world, researcher Mark Cohen ticks off a list of diseases and conditions evident in skeletal remains of early farmers but absent among hunter-gatherers. The list includes malnutrition, osteomyelitis and periostitis (bone infections), intestinal parasites, yaws, syphilis, leprosy, tuberculosis, anemia (from poor diet as well as from hookworms), rickets in children, osteomalaria in adults, retarded childhood growth, and short stature among adults.”
    Agriculture and the attendant class society were also ruinous of the environment. As populations grew, more, and less viable, lands were brought into cultivation, gradually eroding the soil and facilitating periodic catastrophes whenever the rains failed to come.”
    With capitalism, agricultural problems took on new and more ominous dimensions. Capitalism converts the land and the food supply into commodities, things to be bought and sold in the ceaseless pursuit of profits. Peasants were (and are still being) forced from their lands so that large-scale, highly mechanized farms could produce crops and meat for export: sugar, tobacco, cotton, coffee, beef, pork, and chicken. To counter the lack of large expanses of new lands for cultivation, farming became increasingly intensive, with more machines and chemical agents used to raise yields per acre. The consequences were growing pollution of our soils, water, air, and bodies, outputs not factored into the calculation of farm productivity. Enormous quantities of food were produced, and yet hundreds of millions of people still went hungry and farmers were strapped economically as high outputs drove prices ever downward.
    Corn provides a good example of the pitfalls of modern capitalist farming. A drive through Iowa takes you past picturesque villages with neat white churches and red dirt roads leading into the countryside. But there are no longer the mixed crop farms of yore. Instead, for miles in every direction, are unbroken fields of corn. Iowa farmers produce more than their fair share of the nation’s 80,000,000 acres and 125,000 square miles of corn. Production began to rise dramatically with the invention of hybrid seeds. Farmers who planted such seeds gained an economic advantage over other farmers and used this to buy the fields of those farmers who failed. Farm size also grew to take advantage of economies of scale. Large farms needed machinery, and corn farms became highly mechanized; the high costs of machines further spurred the concentration of holdings. Hybrid seeds have to be bought anew each year, so a seed-producing industry developed. Large-scale farming and hybrid corn also brought with them massive doses of chemical fertilizer and pesticides. Again quoting Manning, “ . . . corn farming accounts for 57 percent of all herbicides and 45 percent (by pound of active ingredients) of all insecticides applied on all U.S. crops.”
    Corn production in the United States is enormous, but little of the corn grown is for direct human consumption. Some is exported, ruining the corn farmers of countries like Mexico, who have higher costs. Much of it is fed to meat-producing animals, themselves produced in assembly-line fashion in huge mechanized hog and cattle “factories.” A good deal of it is processed into corn syrup, which has become ubiquitous in our food. Check the ingredients of what you buy at the grocery store. Corn syrup is in everything:
    “Since the 1980s’s most soft drink manufacturers have switched from sugar to corn sweeteners, as have most snack makers. Nearly 10 percent of the calories Americans consume now come from corn sweeteners; the figure is 20 percent for many children. Add to that all the corn-based animal protein (corn-fed beef, chicken, and pork) and the corn qua corn (chips, muffins, and sweet corn) and you have a plant that has become one of nature’s greatest success stories, by turning us (along with several other equally unwitting species) into an expanding race of corn eater.”
    The environmental consequences of all this grain production are considerable and negative. Two examples will suffice. First, the nitrogen used in fertilizer eventually finds its way into our rivers. It depletes the oxygen in water and kills plants and animals. Nitrogen from the corn belt flows down the Mississippi River and creates a “dead zone” of 12,000 square miles in the Gulf of Mexico. The high protein fish and shellfish of the Gulf have died so that a “low-quality, high-input, subsidized source of protein can blanket the Upper Midwest.” Second, the corn-infused food we eat is not so good for us. It may be partly responsible for the great increase in obesity since the 1980s, when food manufacturers switched to corn sweeteners. And a recent study at the University of Minnesota found that a diet high in fructose (as compared to glucose) elevates triglyceride levels in men shortly after eating, a phenomenon that has been linked to an increased risk of obesity and heart disease. Little is known about the health effects of eating animals that have themselves eaten so much corn, but in the case of cattle, researchers have found that corn-fed beef is higher in saturated fats than grass-fed beef.
    The great irony of corn production is that the its explosion has pushed prices sharply downward, so much so that the cost per bushel of corn produced is much higher than the price. The government makes up the difference with a generous subsidy. The more corn produced, the more acreage devoted to it, the greater the gift. More marginal lands are brought into cultivation and more fields are devoted to one crop, compounding the environmental damage.

    Comment by michael yates — October 12, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

  3. I am a big admirer of your work and what you do Michael. This doesn’t take away from the point you’re making (which I basically agree with), but I wonder how true the statement that “For most of our time on earth, we lived as gatherers and hunters” is. Many scientists now believe that “true, planned, and coordinated hunting” is a fairly recent development in human history. Hunting was probably an inefficient way of getting resources. There are also some who argue that the split and division of labor that led to male domination and oppression of females is related to the move from the basic sexual equality of foraging societys to the organized tracking and killing of other animals. Of pre-homo sapiens, the anthropologist Steve Mithen believes that australopithecines, commonly believed to be our ancestors, were largely vegetarians. He asks, “Did the australopithecines hunt at all? Probably not, or at least no more than chimpanzees today. Indeed, the robust australopithecines evolved into specialized vegetarians, with massive jaws and chewing muscles fixed onto a crest of bone”. In his work, “Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots of Our Domination of Nature”, Jim Mason argues that “Neither is it true that we have been mighty hunters throughout . . . evolution. Some anthrologists now believe that humans probably first took to meat-eating as scavengers, occasionally grabbing a bit of meat and bone left among the remains of animals killed by true predators. That and the occasional killing of rodents, lizards, and other small animals surprised in the course of foraging kept animal flesh in the diet for millions of years. Evidence now suggests that true, planned, coordinated hunting of large animals began only about 20,000 years ago”. Two interesting books that touch on these ideas are Dave Nibert’s ‘Animal Rights, Human Rights: Entanglements of Oppression” (in which the sources I quote were found) and Donna Hart and Robert Sussman’s ‘Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution”.



    Comment by tim — October 12, 2009 @ 10:40 pm

  4. On the subjects of biotechnology/bio-politics/genetic manipulation of food, Jeremy Rifkin has written a lot; although he may not be as Left as the average readers here.

    Comment by m.c. — October 13, 2009 @ 12:41 am

  5. Tim, I will check the sources you cite. Thanks!

    Comment by michael yates — October 13, 2009 @ 1:12 am

  6. “A more curious attack on Carson appeared in a New York Times column by John Tierney a couple of weeks later. The article ran under this mischievous heading: “Fateful Voice of a Generation Still Drowns Out Real Science.” It contrasted Carson’s “junk science” with a hostile review of Silent Spring in Science, the publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, written in 1962 by I.L. Baldwin. A professor of agricultural bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin, Baldwin had trotted out the same arguments against Carson then being distributed by the big chemical and agricultural interests, which saw her book not as a scientific challenge but as a public relations problem. The Tierney column insisted Baldwin’s science has held up better than Carson’s.”

    “But left unsaid was that in 1963, after President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee concluded a lengthy study by supporting Silent Spring, the editors of Science concurred. In an indirect rebuke to Baldwin’s review, they applauded the committee’s findings and remarked of the report, ‘Though it is a temperate document, even in tone, and carefully balanced in its assessment of risks versus benefits, it adds up to a fairly thorough-going vindication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring thesis.'”


    Comment by Nik — October 13, 2009 @ 3:36 am

  7. I’ll be honest, I don’t see why to get so worked up over Pollan’s difference of opinion and the fact that he shares a paper with Tirney and Kolata. I hate Thomas Friedman, but I still like reading Paul Krugman’s columns. I know you’re an unrepentant marxist,but can’t you go with agreeing to disagree at least when it comes to Pollan?

    Comment by Jenny — October 13, 2009 @ 8:27 am

  8. As a lifetime food scientist (from well before the name was invented) I have to comment – firstly that I never bother to look at videos or read much of the comments made about (what are generally mythical or invented)food dangers, which merely show the general ignorance of the authors.

    We live in a time when the safety of the food supply is very well controlled – despite the fact that food infections from badly handled food continue at a high level – but the health and longevity of the population in the developed countries is better than ever before in human history.

    And yet media and self-opinionated pundits are forever shouting WOLF from the rooftops.

    My general advice is ignore ’em…………..

    Comment by Paddy Apling — October 13, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

  9. Large scale agriculture (which includes the use of machines and yes pesticides) is one of the most progressive parts of capitalism over past modes of production. For the first time in history we can feed billions of people without billions having to slave in fields toiling for long hours.

    Middle class reactionaries howl against it and pine for the good old days. None of them have ever worked on a small farm. If they had ever carried out that kind of back breaking labor for such little result I promise you they wouldn’t romanticize it as they do.

    Science points the way forward.

    Bring on the genetically modified food!

    Comment by Jani — October 14, 2009 @ 11:00 am

  10. Hear, hear, Jani

    Comment by Paddy Apling — October 14, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

  11. And my advice is to ignore the “scientific” opinions of people whose websites feature cranky and facile “debunkings” of man-made climate change. It offends my sensibilities as a middle class reactionary. And a scientist.

    Comment by Nik — October 15, 2009 @ 6:31 am

  12. So Jani & Paddy, assuming your not corporate shills, you’ve both apparently got no problem with Monsanto’s “science” of injecting Bovine growth hormones into cows to produce more milk when there’s already a milk glut in this country?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 15, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

  13. Yikes! The far-left is against “more milk”? No wonder you’re not taken seriously.

    Comment by Richard Greener — October 15, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

  14. Judi Bari survived the car-bomb assassination and FBI frame-up attempt of 1990. She died seven years later of metastatic breast cancer in 1997. For details see http://www.judibari.org

    Comment by Nick — October 15, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

  15. I’m fine with man’s mastery of nature in any form where it leads to progress and the abundance required for us to reach communism. The problem isn’t science or technology, it’s which class controls them.

    My position is the same as that of Marx, Engels and Trotsky. I’m hardly a corporate shill.

    Comment by Jani — October 16, 2009 @ 6:08 am

  16. Fair enough. Then like the TITLE of the movie warns – Caveat Emptor!

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 16, 2009 @ 6:21 am

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