Food Fights From gut to plate and beyond, Mike Gibney demands a global food debate

Something to Chew On: Challenging Controversies in Food and Health

Mike Gibney (University College of Dublin Press, 2013), 202 pages including notes and index

Irish professor Mike Gibney’s terse, dense book is true to its title. There’s plenty to chew on here, remarkably so given its short page-count.

But what he wants from readers far more than a vigorous chew is a thorough digestion of all that’s set forth in his remarkable book. Although he never says so explicitly, Gibney wants nothing less than to change the terms and outline of debate when we talk about food. So let go of any expectations you might have about yet another book exploring antioxidant compounds, the virtues of locally-grown fruits and vegetables or another manifesto against “agri-business” and junk food.

Where myriad other books regarding food and nutrition take us inward—whether it’s the machinations of factory farming or the supposed pitfalls of our own domestic table—Gibney, director of the Institute of Food and Health at University College Dublin, wants to shake us out of our current narcissism and into the larger world. Don’t worry yourselves sick about antioxidant levels or even your own health via diet, he in effect tells us. As he reveals later in his book through a whirlwind tour of scientific studies, the most important factors and decisions impacting your health as an adult have more than likely already been made.

What matters most, he reminds us, is the persistent problem of malnutrition and starvation in the undeveloped world. Book-ending that problem is obesity in the developed world, but even that pales in comparison because Gibney argues, yet again, that western society, almost certainly, is focusing its attention on the wrong culprits.

Far more than improving our own lives through such current trends championing organic farming, or anxiety over “food miles” and genetically-modified (GM) foods, world hunger remains a problem within the grasp of a solution. But only if we plan for the future and pay attention to the most reliable science.

So it’s clear from the outset that the “challenging” declaration of the book’s subtitle is not an adjective. It’s an active verb, one so muscular you can hear Gibney chisel away at the most widely accepted tenets, and even doctrines, of food and agricultural activism that have arisen from today’s progressivism. Given the right marketing firm, Gibney could easily fashion himself as the antidote to Michael Pollen. Where Pollen offers the intimate look of food and health, Gibney zooms outward.

His first order of business is reminding the reader that, in terms of variety and quality of food, we in the West have never had it so good.

It’s both a blessing and a curse that our bounty has been complicated by huge investments in agricultural research, and the dawn of science in nutrition. It’s a boon, you’ve no doubt already guessed, because it’s resulted in higher crop yields requiring less time and work. It’s a bane because science is also easily manipulated, or even ignored. In addition to providing a catalog of useful studies on science, food and nutrition, Gibney’s book is also a fine primer on how scientists sometimes fall short of the ethics of their academic discipline where the public good is concerned.

It’s clear from the outset that the “challenging” declaration of the book’s subtitle is not an adjective. It’s an active verb, one so muscular you can hear Gibney chisel away at the most widely accepted tenets, and even doctrines, of food and agricultural activism.

Using the well-known research from the University of Oregon’s Paul Slovic, who showed how public perception of risk shapes power and public policy, Gibney argues that while food is more than adequately regulated for safety and nutrition than ever before, such assurances will probably never comfort those sensitive to even the slightest dangers, or cynical of business interests.

“Risk assessment is an adversarial exercise,” he writes. “The scientists are on the one hand part of this innovation but also part of the regulatory process. The regulators are caught between the precision of science and the politics of getting air-time. The consumers are affluent, informed and mobilized through a network of NGOs. And none of them trusts one another.”

Used or abused, scientific studies form Gibney’s litmus test of choice. He has little patience for studies that merely point toward correlations and associations, however. His affection is instead reserved for studies that land dead-center in the target of cherished current assumptions, such as the link between sugary soda and obesity.

From the dread of GM foods to those who romance organic farming—even though it requires considerably more land for lesser yields—Gibney knocks down pillar after pillar. We have the luxury of worrying ourselves sick about pesticides and food additives, he reminds us. Meanwhile, “seven children have died of hunger somewhere in the world” in the time it takes to read a short paragraph of his book.

His most damning passages are saved for NGOs and the European Union, which he alleges have extended the life of Europe’s colonial interests in Africa through anti-GM legislation and lobbying. So it is that Africans have yet to see crops resistant to parasitic worms, or that are more drought-tolerant than their possible precursors.

“As a citizen of Europe, I feel utterly ashamed. Consider what is being lost,” he writes passionately.

The current dread of all foods genetically engineered is clearly one Gibney finds odd, if not strange, or even downright stupid.

He cites two studies from Washington’s National Academy of Sciences, from 2002 and 2004, vouching for GM foods’ safety. We’re also reminded that we’ve been eating such foods for years now. Chymosin, once taken from calves’ fore-stomachs for the production of cheese, has been in use as a GM alternate for years. Canola oil is a reality thanks to plant scientists’ successfully breeding lines of rapeseed low in erucic acid, a cause of cardiac problems.

Critics’ impassioned insistence to the dangers of GM foods is all the more curious for what these same critics ignore, Gibney points out. There’s more than enough needless alarm over golden rice, a grain with two genes inserted to produce a synthesis of beta-carotene that could prevent blindness in malnourished children. But where is the outcry over crops mutated using chemical or radiation methods to induce far more genetic alterations? This is no cursory question, Gibney points out. That’s because mutated foods remain unregulated, even as the barrier of entry of GM foods climbs ever higher.

“Mutated crops with their genomes blitzed to pieces escape the regulatory net,” Gibney seethes. “It simply doesn’t make sense.”

An almost identical contrarian cudgel is taken to our current epidemic of obesity, which isn’t quite a current epidemic at all. Gibney shows that, while it may be exacerbated in modern times, rates of obesity have actually risen and fallen across other historical eras. The best scientific studies using identical twins reveal that weight remains far more determined by genetics than environment. Feed multiple sets of twins different foods in different environments, and their weights remain stubbornly similar.

As for obesity’s causes, he hits on several studies that link our “tsunami of lard” more forcefully to factors such as indoor air-conditioning, hours slept, the age at which women birth their first child, and our suburban and city-planning preferences reliant on cars. The latter is no surprise. It would have been nice if Gibney had taken more time to dwell on the others.

He explains the physiology of the human gut before introducing us to the possibility, thanks to the developing research of WUSTL’s Jeffrey I. Gordon, that the full weight of obesity, so to speak, may yet reside in the number or quality of bacteria hosted in our bowels.

Food plays its part, he concedes here and there. We cannot resign ourselves to fate and simply “dive into the French fries.” It’s just that studies linking food to obesity are rarely reliable for the simple reason that few test subjects tell the truth once they get up from the dining table. The data they provide researchers are riddled with misinformation or outright lies about what they eat. Only long, big and very expensive dietary intervention trials produce the best of golden data. Alas, those are few in number.

“Obesity is here to stay,” Gibney tells us in depressing words, in a book with more than its share of downbeat, but fascinating, passages. The best solutions, such as redesigning our cities or awaiting a remedy that may yet alter our guts’ bacteria, are long-term. Meanwhile, the most pressing question remains unexplored.

“Why do some people more than others choose to eat more than they need to maintain an acceptable body weight? That is the key question and it is not being asked.”

It’s implied throughout, in bits here and there, that eating well and nutritiously is all well and good. In fact, a healthful diet will “pay off in spades” later in a person’s life, Gibney tells us.

But if it’s health advice you seek, look elsewhere. The bad news is that the most vital decisions regarding your health have probably already been made.

Want to avoid osteoporosis? Get your fill of calcium-rich foods before you turn 25. Worried about heart disease, high blood pressure and other major health ailments? Ask your mother how well she ate when pregnant. Citing the famous Dutch “Hongerwinter” and British Barker Hypothesis of foetal programming of adult disease, Gibney gives full marks to the proposition that our overall health as adults is largely determined by the quality of our mothers’ diet in the early trimesters. That of course determines your birth-weight, and will more than likely determine your adult health.

As Gibney shows in the book’s chapter on obesity, chances are good your body-weight has been predetermined as well. But if you can lose weight in mid-life, go for it. A leaner figure in middle-age means you’re more likely to avoid Alzheimer’s disease later on.

Something to Chew On bristles with impressive iconoclasm, but it could have benefited from a more serious confrontation with opponents. It’s tantalizing to consider, for example, how Gibney might have approached the legacy of Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring. Directly or indirectly, Carson’s impact on current campaign against GM foods and the Green Revolution is beyond dispute. It’s a shame Gibney glides over such influences.

In the time-honored tradition of professors and scientists accustomed to assuming everyone else is as well-studied as their work-a-day peers in academia and research, he draws too short a point on the way to conclusions he assumes make themselves self-evident. His ripostes are sometimes so impressive they leave you wanting more.

“The Green Revolution which saved the lives of maybe billions of persons over the last 50 years has its critics who argue that it has also brought poverty, social upheaval, loss of biodiversity, loss of soil organic fertility, increased soil salt level and so on,” he writes. “This to me is saying that we should not have invented and applied antibiotics because of problems on the farm, problems of allergy, problems of resistance, of super-bugs and so on.”

No one can fault Gibney for his stern advice which, if heeded, would redirect our energies from needless concerns and back toward the scourge of world hunger and malnutrition. But there’s always room for debate. For example, as much as Gibney emphasizes the need for western agricultural subsidies and technologies in the developing world, there’s growing evidence that more effective transportation and less waste of food might best serve the world’s starving masses.

Even in the light of recent research, however, Gibney’s more often half-right than half-wrong. He scolds leaders in the developed West for their lack of motivation in helping solve the problem. And he’s more than half-right in pointing out that the current faddish concern over “food miles” of carbon energy expending to transport food abroad is much ado about nothing. Producing food closer to its consumers would require massive transformation of current land-use patterns, eating up vast troves of real-estate. What’s more, it wouldn’t have nearly the energy-conserving effect of either limiting or eliminating the amount of dairy and meat products consumed in the average household.

The virtue of Something to Chew On is that Gibney makes his urgency interesting to the reader, even if it’s intermittently clogged in cumbersome science that could have been better articulated. The book’s impressive corralling of so many issues onto so few pages is a strength, at times marred by the inherent weakness of being concise for its own sake.

It’s a bracing, necessary read nonetheless—if you’ve the time to make your way through this dense meal, page by page.