Magazine | May 20, 2013, Issue

Big Brother at Your Table

The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto About the Politics of Your Plate, by Jayson Lusk (Crown Forum, 240 pp., $24)

There has been an explosive growth in government power in recent years, from the health-care system to the financial-services sector. Compared with such breathtaking assaults on liberty as Obamacare, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on large sodas might seem to be an issue that conservatives can shrug off. But Jayson Lusk’s new book explains that government’s growing intrusion into Americans’ eating habits should not be ignored. Politicians now think it’s perfectly appropriate to try to limit the amount of soda people consume; to tinker with food manufacturers’ recipes by restricting the use of certain ingredients (including sugar, salt, and trans fats); to ban toys in Happy Meals and restrict what restaurants offer their customers.

Lusk is more than qualified to tackle these issues. In fact, his curriculum vitae almost makes him look like a double agent: He could easily be mistaken for the food nannies about whom he writes. An agricultural-economics professor at Oklahoma State, Lusk has written about food and agriculture policy for more than 100 peer-reviewed publications and has served on the editorial councils of seven top academic journals. If this impressive academic career doesn’t give him that whiff of liberalism, there is also this: He wrote the book while taking a sabbatical in Paris.

But that Lusk is hardly a food nanny becomes clear on the very first page, when he says the food police are “totalitarians” who “seek control over your refrigerator, by governmental regulation when they can or by moralizing and guilt when they can’t.” He explains that the catastrophic predictions often made by the food nannies are nothing more than the “hysterics of an emerging elite” and admits he’s being polite by using the term “food police” instead of the more accurate terms “food fascists” and “food socialists.” His tone is unapologetic when he says that today’s food police are less like Andy Griffith than like the Gestapo.

Lusk begins by identifying members of the food police, who “play on fears and prejudices while claiming the high mantle of science and impartial journalism.” No longer just a few über-healthy academics and public-health activists, the modern food police now include among their ranks talk-show hosts, politicians, and celebrity chefs. Lusk says “it is impossible to turn on the TV, pick up a book about food, or stroll through the grocery store without hearing a sermon on how to eat.”

The regulators have even enlisted A-list Hollywood actresses to spread the message. Joining Lusk’s book on bookstore shelves this spring is a cookbook by Gwyneth Paltrow — but this cookbook is not just another collection of favorite family recipes. Paltrow promotes an “elimination diet” that entails removing a long list of items from the family grocery list, including, but not limited to: coffee, alcohol, eggs, sugar, shellfish, soy, dairy, wheat, meat, and processed food. What qualifications does Paltrow possess that make her an expert on human dietary health? The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that to become a registered dietitian, one must pass an examination after completing an accredited bachelor’s- or master’s-degree program. According to Paltrow’s Wikipedia entry, the actress “briefly” studied anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, before dropping out to act, but never completed any studies in nutrition or dietetics. This hasn’t stopped her from moralizing on what foods Americans should be eating.

Lusk explains that more and more people are buying into this sort of pseudo-expertise on food issues. Once, while giving a presentation on writing, he discovered that his audience was far more interested in discussing food policy:

 I engaged in a lively discussion with about seventy-five graduate students and professors of English. I wasn’t surprised that they had questions about food and agriculture, and I was happy to answer them. What surprised me was the absolute moral certitude permeating the air. Many in the room had no doubt they were being poisoned and fattened up by an out-of-control food system. What facts did these folks have to bolster their case? Nothing more than what was presented in [the 2008 documentary] Food, Inc., along with a few innuendos picked up in the Sunday paper. I would never have dared question them on the finer points of Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky. Yet they were certain that my explanations for why food is produced the way it is were wrong.

#page# Great self-confidence, combined with a highly ideologized view of food issues, is a syndrome afflicting much of the food-police establishment. Lusk doesn’t deny that there are problems with food production and manufacturing in America. He shares the food police’s “unease with the present state of farm policy,” saying that it is an “anachronistic throwback” that survives on “the political power of the farm lobby” and results in such bizarre policies as paying farmers not to farm and food-assistance programs that drive up the price of food. But he disagrees with the intrusive regulatory solutions proposed by the food police:

Where I part with [food activist Michael] Pollan and his fellow foodies is in their conclusions that “like so many government programs — what subsidies need is not the ax, but reform that moves them forward.” What makes the food police think the government will get it right this time? They like to talk about market failures but are apparently blind to the abundance of government failures. If the process is so corruptible by corporate interests and mega farms, as they claim it is, then Uncle Sam is incapable of working in our food interests, and all the preaching of hope and change is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

Lusk also disagrees with the food regulators’ view that the general public are low-information eaters who lack the smarts to differentiate between a slice of greasy pizza and a vitamin- and nutrient-rich leafy green salad. According to Lusk, it is these low expectations that make the regulators so devoted to “nudge theory,” which holds that since fallible human beings are incapable of acting in their own best interests, government must step in to make their lives better. Lusk says that even though nudge theory is “pseudoscientific,” it has “permeated the highest levels of regulatory decision making” at various government agencies and “is the engine behind the new food paternalism.”

Food paternalism dovetails perfectly with the regulators’ view of the free-market system and individual freedom in general: They believe in the need for “Uncle Sam’s helping hand.” Lusk writes that the food police’s “readiness to empower government to control food businesses; to centrally direct agricultural output through heavy taxes, subsidies, and public-agency purchasing requirements; and to override consumers’ free choice with everything from a gentle nudge to outright ingredient bans is slowly leading us down the road to serfdom.”

Government intervention is the only solution identified by the majority of modern thinkers on food policy. First lady Michelle Obama’s strategy to solve the childhood-obesity problem was not to encourage parents to take a greater role in their children’s nutritional development, but to increase the number of children enrolled in federal school-feeding programs; to, in effect, centralize the feeding of children by government agencies. Hillary Clinton famously floated this idea over a decade ago in her pleasant-sounding yet ultimately creepy big-government love story It Takes a Village. Most recently, MSNBC political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry cheerfully corrected parents on the silly notion that “your kid is yours and totally your responsibility,” suggesting instead that Americans view their offspring with the “collective notion of these are our children.”

Instead of making us better off, Lusk warns, giving the government more power over food decisions would “usher in a more stagnant, less dynamic world, and . . . breed a generation of children unwilling or unable to imagine how to improve their diets through mathematics, chemistry, biology, and engineering.” Lusk doesn’t want his children to live in a society preoccupied with the romanticized ideas of the past, but in one that’s innovative in how it creates and distributes food — “feeding the world’s hungry with higher-yielding, more nutritious crops, and developing space-age technologies that make tasty food at the push of a button.”

Lusk makes a strong case that the food police are a major obstacle to the kind of innovation we need. Their intransigence on many of the benefits of food modernization — from genetically modified food to industrial farming and synthetic fertilizers, and even modern conveniences such as large-scale grocery stores and today’s shipping methods — is the kind of thinking that will, as Lusk warns, ultimately doom us to poverty.

– Julie Gunlock is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and directs its Culture of Alarmism Project.

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