Squash Pots and Bad Bananas: The Cultural Myopia of American Food Activists

Originally published on Huffington Post on 11/12/15.

Co-authored by Julie Kelly, food policy writer and cooking instructor.banana-innerpagemast5.jpg

“You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.”

So said Dr. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace-prize winning biologist who helped develop specialty crops to grow in poor nations and saved millions of hungry people from starvation in the late 20th century.

Although Dr. Borlaug is no longer with us, his sentiment and purpose live on. That quote is certainly still applicable to Africa, where despite economic gains over the last few decades, it is still home to millions of empty stomachs. Peace is fleeting and food often weaponized. Whether it’s due to poverty, climate, or war – food stability still eludes Africa. Several countries are struggling with massive food insecurity. South Sudan is on the brink of famine; areas of Nigeria, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Somalia are also on high alert.

One-third of the world’s children who suffer from stunting and wasting (low height and weight) due to malnutrition lives in Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 40% of people live on less than $1.90 per day.

As lucky American moms, we can only imagine the horror and heartbreak of trying to find enough food to feed a hungry, sick child. But tragically, this is a reality for hundreds of millions of mothers (themselves hungry) around the world. Staple crops like rice, cassava, and bananas are routinely threatened by diseases that poor farmers are powerless to stop. Often times, farmers must watch as the only food they are able to grow is stricken with pests or diseases they cannot prevent.

We would never suggest that an African country should give up on a crop that has been part of its culture and heritage for generations. But that is exactly what a California mother and food activist did last month at a food conference – ironically enough – named after Dr. Borlaug.

Zen Honeycutt is the founder and director of the Moms Across America, an anti-GMO activist group. Honeycutt attended this year’s Borlaug Dialog, an annual symposium on global agriculture and food security. Some of the discussion centered on the need for GMOs (genetically engineered crops) that could help food stability in parts of Africa. This offended Ms. Honeycutt’s First World sensibilities, where her ample food choices are often dictated by the presence of GMOs. She confronted one man from Uganda who indicated GMOs might be the only way to save his country’s banana crop. In her words:

“I got to speak to Erostus Nsubuga, chairman of the Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium, from Uganda. His main defense of GMOs was not that GMOs and related chemicals are safe, but that they have been trying for 20 years to grow bananas naturally and they have not been successful, implying that they need GMOs. He never indicated that Uganda might be a better place to grow other types of crops besides bananas.”

So here is an American mother (who evidently knows very little about Ugandan agriculture) having the audacity to suggest to someone from Uganda that maybe they should just throw in the towel and grow something else. Clearly, she doesn’t realize that Uganda is the 2nd largest producer of bananas in the world. They are a critical staple crop and a storied part of Ugandan culture; there is evidence that bananas may have been introduced to the area as early as 4,000 years ago.

Mr. Nsubga’s concern is that bananas in Uganda are being threatened by a disease called Banana Wilt which destroys the crop and causes premature ripening and discoloration of the fruit. The loss of this crop is having a devastating economic impact on Ugandan farmers who rely on it, not only for income, but in many cases as their primary source of food.

A promising biotech solution (developed by Ugandan scientists for Ugandan farmers) involves the transfer of 2 genes from green peppers into the banana plant to give it resistance to the disease. It has had tremendous success in field trials but is running into opposition from anti-GMO activists who, not unlike Honeycutt, would rather see this solution fail than risk the success of a genetically engineered crop.

Sadly, Honeycutt’s view is representative of the larger American food movement where GMOs are enemy number one. Much of the anti-GMO sentiment by elite foodies is fueled by political or profit motives as well as a deep-seated hatred of Monsanto, one of the companies that develops GMO seeds.

But even humanitarian “GMOs” are anathema to elite foodies like wealthy author, activist, and Berkeley professor Michael Pollan, so he proposes that it might be better

“to encourage them to plant squash or greens in pots around their houses or around the edges of their fields.”

Now that sounds completely logical for the people of Berkeley, who can easily afford artisanal pots and heirloom seeds; not so much for hungry people experiencing crushing poverty. If you are living on the edge of famine, you may not be able to afford a squash pot – or seeds for that matter. You may not have access to clean water, much less fertilizer or a nice open field.

But when you’re an American elitist, eager to reject the idea that a vitamin fortified crop could rescue children from the tragic effects of malnutrition, you go to the edge of reason and fall off. That’s what Pollan did here. With zero sense of compassion or introspection, Pollan blithely tells impoverished people to essentially starve since his advice is utterly useless.

Pollan and Honeycutt share a way of thinking that is pervasive in the food movement, particularly with anti-GMO activists. They are so blinded by a hatred of biotech companies like Monsanto that they are now traveling down a squash-lined ideological path that defies reason and substance.

But what exactly are anti-GMO activists and elite foodies trying to accomplish with their campaign against biotech in Africa? Their rhetoric and attitudes have consequences beyond what happens in the cereal aisle at California grocery stores. These humanitarian applications have nothing to do with Monsanto or pesticides, a fact American food activists are well aware. Yet they are so determined to demonize a technology, they won’t even separate the issues for the sake of human lives.

Maybe it is impossible for them to fathom a place where Whole Foods and hipster co-ops don’t exist or where children die daily from malnutrition. Maybe they can only imagine farmer’s markets as quaint places with natural pet treats and specialty jams rather than places where narrow margins can mean the difference between eating and not eating. And where one batch of bad bananas may mean your children will go hungry.

Perhaps American food activists, especially mothers like Zen Honeycutt, will someday move beyond their cultural myopia and realize the human cost of their words and influence. Because the people of Africa – all people – deserve more than misery and empty stomachs. And, they certainly deserve better than flippant advice and imaginary pots of squash.

The Luxury of Golden Juicers and Smelly Sandwich Shops

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You may have never heard of a woman who calls herself, The Food Babe. Her name is Vani Hari and she’s really only a big thing in certain circles of food-privileged conscious Facebook women, but you probably remember a big blow-up last year when she “exposed” Subway for having yoga mat chemical in their bread. There was a big collective, “So, that’s what that smell is!” heard around the world. If you’ve ever been in a Subway, you know exactly what I’m talking about. No disrespect meant to Subway — my kids love the subs. But seriously, what is that smell?

The Subway Yoga Mat Chemical Scare of 2014 put The Food Babe on the map and helped her brilliant online business model take off — which is to find a scary sounding chemical in a big company’s product and freak people out that it’s going to shorten their 80-plus year life expectancy. Then, shake down petition the company to remove it and get lots of new followers and shoppers to the online store. It’s a magical formula, really. The problem is, she either doesn’t understand science or she’s getting her information from sketchy sources like Natural News (another online joint with a big store). And scientists and science advocates are sick of it. I mean, they have had it with her nonsense and they are coming out swinging.

The first big salvo fired was from a chemist with a fantastic gift for profanity named Yvette d’Entremont, otherwise known The SciBabe, which one assumes is her mocking poor Vani. SciBabe’s article, titled The Food Babe Blogger is Full of Sh*t, appeared on Gawker and quickly went viral. It was an epic, hilarious takedown that impacted Food Babe’s popularity for, oh… about a minute. Her followers, The Food Babe Army, adore her so it’s going to take a lot for her to lose them. There’s a new book out, however, that may actually cause some of her soldiers to defect permanently this time — if they’re willing to read it.

A book called The Fear Babe, Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House, is scheduled to be released just in time for Halloween and Thanksgiving, a season where Americans give thanks for their abundance by consuming massive amounts of candy and casseroles. Written by science communicator, Kavin Senapathy and co-authors, Marco Draco and Mark Alsip, it breaks down nearly every questionable Food Babe claim — and there are a lot of them so it’s a rather long book. From aspartame to yoga mat chemicals to flu shots and sugar — they address her bad science in meticulous detail — sometimes too much detail because I caught myself making a mental grocery list whenever there was a page with chemical formulas. The detail is necessary though and leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that the old Food Babe is playing fast and loose with scientific “fact” and more than likely making a pile of money doing it.

One could almost start to feel sorry for Vani Hari because it’s got to be humiliating to be called out like that in public. Almost but not quite. If it were just her getting some attention and making money off of a little corporate blackmail, I doubt anyone would particularly care. After all, those corporations are presumably run by grown-ups who’ve had enough high school assemblies to know how to handle bullies.

It’s also not that tragic if a bunch of people with extra money want to spend it on food that makes them feel daisy-fresh clean on the inside. Hopefully, they’re grateful for the immense privilege of turning their noses up at perfectly safe food. In this writer’s opinion, it’s the fact that she uses the little bit of power she has in her corner of the Internet to prop up the cancer quacks who prey on desperate people, that makes her fair game for a scientific smackdown.

In a section called “Ring a Ring O’ Roses” (have I been saying that wrong my whole life?), the authors address the support Hari gives to alternative cancer treatments. The Food Babe does not give out health advice without disclaimers but she is complicit in the promotion of potentially dangerous cancer therapies by recommending doctors and clinics with questionable reputations such as the Burzynski Clinic and Gerson Institute. According to the book, Gerson endorses a sometimes fatal drug called Laetrile, which is not FDA approved. Gerson Therapy also involves “juicing” as part of the treatment. And as luck would have it, the authors point out, you can go to the Food Babe’s online store and buy a juicer for $2495 (that’s not a typo) that, in her words, “is highly recommended for the Gerson Therapy.”

The authors go into details on the Gerson quackery and the real life and death consequences to the people who have followed it. Perhaps the Food Babe would be more sympathetic if she stuck to her corporate targets instead of aiding and abetting cancer-cure predators. Because, she’s got rabidly loyal fans, one of whom could make a life-threatening error in judgment by following her recommendations.

Even if you’ve never heard of The Food Babe, the book is still worth picking up as a good health and diet reference. The authors do a very good job at dispelling many fears and myths that have seeped into our culture about the food we eat because, as the author of the book’s forward points out:

“In all of human history, the food supply has never been more abundant, diverse, or safe. Think of your last meal. Many in the world today will live a full life without eating something that good.”

The Fear Babe is an important reminder for us this holiday season to have gratitude that we live in a society where $2500 (hopefully gold-plated) juicers exist and that we have such luxurious problems as worrying about what’s in the bread (or the reason for that weird smell) at a sandwich shop.

Homeopathy: Dead Sharks and Hufflepuff Meds

So, I had the piece I’d written about my mom and alternative medicine go up on Huffington Post last week and it really irritated some people which upset me at first but I got over it in about 24 hours. Many people missed the point and zeroed in on my lack of understanding of homeopathy and argued that shark cartilage was not considered homeopathy. Evidently, these don’t count:

shark2 sharkcart1 shark3

(Yes. I am this petty.)

One of the homeopaths who said shark cartilage wasn’t homeopathic sells it on her website. They had all sorts of arguments like, “well, it’s not indicated for cancer” (except by the guy who wrote that book  I guess). Or then, “she shouldn’t have self-prescribed.”  Then why is it sold over the counter? They all agreed that I don’t understand homeopathy. And guess what? I probably don’t and- I DON’T CARE. (Yes, I’ve read up on the concept and it sounds stupid unless you think water cures everything.)

As far as I’m concerned, homeopathy falls into the same category as all unproven supplements and herbal “medicine” and everything else under the alternative umbrella. I think it’s all bullshit but I’m not trying to ban it. If people want to buy magic water and pretend it does something, then by all means, they should knock themselves out.  But why not label it correctly?  Slate had an awesome article about homeopathy the other day where chemist and author, Yvette d’Entremont, makes this  great observation:

My biggest concern with homeopathy is the labeling. I’m a scientist and science writer who wants consumers to understand what they’re buying, but what do any of these homeopathy labels mean? “200C.” “10x.” “3C.” “Humulus lupulus.” “Arsenicum alb.” “Natrum Muriaticum.” What language are they even written in?

This sounds like it should be sold to Hufflepuffs in a Harry Potter apothecary  instead of to nonfiction people at Walgreen’s.

I had several points that I clearly failed to make in my HuffPo piece. One, is that the FDA is considering applying truth in advertising laws to homeopathic products like it does to other things you buy and put in your body, as they should. Because, if the company who makes Kind Bars has to remove the bar’s “healthy” label then it’s not unreasonable for corporations that sell homeopathy to remove the “medicine” label from their products if they’re just water. Or the FDA could require them to at least make their label comprehensible, especially if the products contain alcohol or heavy metals.

The second point is that alternative medicine is held up as an entity that is all peaceful incense and tinkling music and could never be motivated by something as ugly as money. It’s not. It’s a very big industry. And alternative medicine, including homeopathy, is weakly regulated so it’s able to make all sorts of ridiculous, unproven, and sometimes dangerous claims. So, while the FDA is busy involving itself in whether or not mayonnaise is mayonnaise without the egg, the quack brigade is getting away with selling fake cures for everything from ADHD to cancer.

And the final point I failed to make is that there is a lot of pressure put on people with cancer to fight and survive. My mom was very much a Type A personality who took dying of cancer as a personal failure. Somehow, torturing herself and “fighting” until the very end made her feel like she wasn’t giving up. Alternative medicine takes advantage of that desperate pressure to fight and profits nicely from it.

I know that I’m Monday morning quarterbacking about how everything went down with my mom. I guess I just look at how hospice was able to come in and make her life as peaceful and comfortable as possible. I wish end-of-life care was something that we hadn’t been afraid to discuss. Or that going into hospice care wasn’t considered giving up because we might have had more time and she could have had a more gentle passing.

As far as the homeopathic shark cartilage nonsense goes, it sort of makes me laugh to see how much is sold on the Internet after getting yelled at that it wasn’t homeopathy. Then again, it’s not that funny since sharks are being slaughtered for no reason. (Well, I guess one shark could go a long way since homeopathy is mostly water.) Or it could be that sharks aren’t being slaughtered at all (except they are). They could be selling Jell-O water in those bottles.  How would we know?

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