Page One

Journalists show distaste for fast food

By Carol Hunet Special to the Daily Planet
Wednesday September 25, 2002


Processed foods are becoming less appealing to American eaters, say journalists debating the social and environmental impacts of factory foods at a UC Berkeley conference this week. 

On one side, food industry giants like McDonalds, Monsanto, Conagra are pushing for technological advances such as genetically modified crops and irradiated beef. They say the changes will lead to greater consumers convenience and productivity. 

On the other hand, critics fear that industry advances will hurt the environment, public health and American culture. 

Eric Schlosser, author of the New York Times bestseller “Fast Food Nation,” addressed a packed audience at Wheeler Hall Monday night, pushing to lessen the industrialization of food. 

Schlosser noted that 10 agribusinesses control 90 percent of the global food market. 

“There is a lot of talk about the current system being inevitable,” Schlosser said. “There is nothing inevitable about it at all.” 

In a conference titled “Food and the Environment: The Costs, Benefits and Consequences of Modern Food Production,” sponsored by the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and hosted by UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, Schlosser and a panel of authors kicked off the week-long gathering with some of the country’s most prominent food, science and agriculture journalists. The conference will also feature representatives from the food industry, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, nutritionists and other organizations. 

Panelist Michael Pollan, contributing writer for “The New York Times Magazine” and author of “The Botany of Desire” said that the food industry treats agriculture like a factory rather than as part of a larger and fragile ecological system.  

American agriculture’s centralized structure and vast acres of undiversified crops leave it vulnerable not only to environmental threats like pests and drought, but also to terrorism, Pollan said. “The system is very precarious.”  

There are, however, promising alternatives to factory foods. While food consumption is growing annually at a rate of 3 percent, the organic food sector is growing at a rate of 20 percent, Pollan said.  

Panelist Corby Kummer, senior editor of “The Atlantic Monthly,” talked about combining personal pleasure and the love of food with environmental responsibility. The argument is that when people build relationships with local food growers, they start seeing themselves as active participants in a dynamic environment rather than passive consumers. 

“You are the converted,” Kummer said. “Make relationships with that sassy person behind the counter at the Cheeseboard.” 

Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters, who catered dinner for conference participants Monday night, has long been an advocate of “slow food,” a protest to fast food. 

At her world-renowned restaurant, Waters focuses on using local, seasonal foods on her menus. “This is a delicious revolution,” she said. 

Mark Hertsgaard, a panelist who researched his book “Earth Odyssey” overseas pointed out that concerns such as obesity, organic farming and genetically modified foods are luxuries that most of the world cannot afford.  

“Worldwide, one in three people goes to bed hungry several times a week, and one in six is chronically hungry,” said Hertsgaard, who complained that news organizations seldom cover chronic hunger before it is a disaster. 

While proponents of industrial agriculture and genetically modified foods use world hunger to justify new, high-yield technologies, Hertsgaard said that hunger usually has more to do with poverty than with production. 

“The Green Revolution is biased in favor of people with capital,” he said. “As [agricultural] outputs become larger, [food] distribution becomes more uneven.” 

Orville Schell, dean of the university’s journalism school and author of the 1983 book “Modern Meat: Antibiotics, Hormones and the Pharmaceutical Farm” shared a similar view. 

“There is a paradox at work in the food industry,” Schell said. “We’ve made incredible progress, yet we take a step forward and surprise ourselves by raising a host of new problems.”  

A final question from the audience on Monday threw the panel: “When was the last time you ate at a fast food restaurant?” 

Berkeley’s Waters hemmed and hawed at the microphone, but finally relented. “It was a bit of a research project,” she said, explaining how she was late for a conference in Salina, Kan., and only had 10 minutes to eat. “I just went through the drive-through, took my order to the other side and ate it next to a trash can. I was finished in less than five minutes.” 

“Where? Where?” the audience asked. 

“It was McDonalds,” Waters confessed. “But it was over eight years ago.” 

Schlosser, on the other hand, is not tempted by McDonalds.  

“I go to In-&-Out Burger,” he said. “The fries are good. The shakes are good. And the religious messages on the cups are very entertaining.”