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Unintended Consequences

11 March 2024

Oppenheimer won Best Picture last night (also Best Actor, Supporting Actor, Director, Cinematography, Film Editing and Original Score). The story of a man who led a team of scientists to create a bomb to end the war, it's a lesson in "gray areas" and less than simple solutions. I don't think anyone would argue that it is morally correct to destroy two cities and hundreds of thousands of human lives, yet that was the choice the US decided it needed to make under the circumstances. We think it was the only way to end World War II, but we will never really know. Even after the first H-bomb test, Oppenheimer described the uneasy acceptance of it:

"We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita…'now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'

I suppose we all thought that one way or another."

We can describe many aspects of our food system similarly. The chicken nugget was developed at Cornell University by food scientist Robert C. Baker to provide a way for the meat industry to clump ground meat together without the skin and keep the batter from falling off. As studies about the dangers of red meat started rolling in, getting people to eat more chicken seemed like a good idea at the time. Despite McDonald's claim that their nuggets use “100% white meat” chicken, the fact remains that most nuggets are loaded with fat, sodium and fillers, and made with industrial chicken meat, where the animal suffers and the meat is nutritionally inferior.

The concepts of "bliss point" and dare-I-say (?) “junk food” originated from a psychophysicist from Harvard named Howard Moskowitz. Hired by the US Army to get soldiers to eat more rations when they are in the field, he studied the problem of MRE-fatigue (Meals-Ready-To-Eat); soldiers found these meals so boring that they typically threw half away. Moskowitz figured out that he could use “sensory-specific satiety” (avoiding strong flavors) to make foods alluring while overriding the brain's signal to stop eating.

His findings were successful. In fact, so successful that many years later, Moskowitz came into his own as the go-to consultant for everything from Dr. Pepper to Prego tomato sauce. But the strategies required to make sure army soldiers consume enough calories are not necessarily appropriate in the public sphere. With more than 1 billion of the world’s 8 billion people now obese, including 159 million children and teens (according to a new study), I'd say we (the world) have overshot a bit.

What about our farming methods? The Farm Bill was originally created to protect farmers after the Great Depression. Farm subsidies in the form of crop insurance (for which the USDA spends $10 billion annually) help farmers in times of trouble (one could argue that farming is the most important business in this country, so it makes sense to protect them). But a review by the Organisation for Economic Co‐​operation and Development (OECD) found that “subsidized crop insurance generally has a negative impact on climate change adaptation”. Crop insurance incentivizes farmers to try to grow on marginal and environmentally sensitive land (why not?…I'll get paid either way) without encouraging innovation. No wonder our industrial farms are washing away in [more frequent] extreme storms!

Here I'll remind you about The Biggest Little Farm and also see my new film recommendation below for more details.

There have been many iterations of the Farm Bill which incentivize soil conservation (only 7% of total spending), but the biggest chunk of change is for public food assistance (SNAP). Here's another unintended consequence: a program designed to feed the poor and hungry has tremendous market influence (to the tune of $120 billion per year!) in both the food and health sectors.  The foods which “seem” most affordable are subsidized by the government through corn subsidies. While new programs have emerged to incentivize healthy choices, they are not always the convenient choice, thus reinforcing a system that cultivates the next generation of unhealthy eaters (and consumers of health care dollars).

The simple solution: encourage farmers to grow food that is healthy and incentivize regenerative agriculture, so that the healthy choice becomes more accessible, convenient and affordable. Simple, but not easy! And of course, there will be unintended consequences here too…but from what I understand, the alternative is not sustainable.

The future of food is in all our hands. Support solutions that help farmers, food consumers and the Earth. Join the campaign to Regenerate America. Soil is our common ground.

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