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The Food Warriors

By Lauren Helper

Robert Lustig sparked a global conversation on health and the effects of sugar-loaded food.

The Bay Area, long a bastion of resistance to Big Food, becomes an epicenter for new models of nutrition and sustainable production as experts track how climate change and other factors are raising the stakes.

Robert Lustig traces his big breakthrough in the science of food consumption to a 2006 symposium convened by the National Institutes of Health. The focus was environmental health, and the UCSF professor of pediatrics briefly considered giving a talk on a topic like lead poisoning, or maybe delving into the link between air pollution and asthma. Instead, he went off script — to a substance synonymous with childhood.

Lustig argued that a modern dietary staple was actually dangerous, leaving an audience of otherwise orderly academics in disarray. “They were all milling around outside by the bathroom saying, ‘Oh, my god, he’s right,’” Lustig remembered. “Sugar is a poison.” Since then, Lustig, an endocrinologist by training, has refined his research on how sugar contributes to serious conditions like type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease, particularly among children. In the process, he says, he has experienced intense skepticism and smear campaigns, and he witnessed the fallout from death threats to a colleague at UCSF.

“I didn’t do this because it was cool or it was retro or it was lucrative,” says Lustig, who now runs a website encouraging resistance to a “pandemic” of diseases linked to unhealthy diets. “The science is my sword and my shield.” Lustig also isn’t alone in his crusade to change the way people eat in the name of their own self-preservation.

Though the Bay Area has long been a center of gravity for movements against animal cruelty and in favor of food access programs like community-supported agriculture, the region is also home to several poster children in the quest to change the way people eat from the ground up.

Stanford superstar Roz Naylor, chef Alice Waters, journalist Michael Pollan, farm labor activist Eric Holt-Giménez and a wide range of other local academics, culinary experts and technologists have also made careers out of questioning the way we eat. Some implore consumers to limit unhealthy ingredients, while others urge scrutiny of the meandering, global supply chains that end on dining room tables. Over time, these issues have moved to the forefront of public debate. The loosely-organized sustainable-food movement has won a series of significant policy changes on issues like food labeling, inspired popular documentaries unpacking problems with the food system, and catalyzed fast-growing local farming programs, food justice organizations and a wide range of new technologies.

Those wins follow decades of warnings about the harmful effects of industrialized agricultural practices. “As the demand for food, animal feed and fuels continues to rise with a growing global population and increased per capita incomes, the use of toxic chemicals in agriculture remains widespread,” Naylor says. Naylor, who served as a science advisor for former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s initiative on Sustainable Development, calls toxins released from the use of pesticides and other chemicals in intensive farming operations “one of the biggest threats to humanity from agriculture.” “Agricultural toxins do not remain local or simply within the food we eat — they spread around the globe through water and winds and affect all ecosystems and people,” she says. “Figuring out a way to intensify agriculture on a global scale without the use of toxic pesticides remains a major challenge for humanity.”

Movement makers

For Holt-Giménez, executive director of the Oakland-based nonprofit advocacy group Food First, the urgency is only increasing in the face of the fastest-evolving global threat to food production: climate change.“We’re at an historical juncture, and we’re in a race against time,” he says. “We don’t know how this is going to turn out. We do know how things are going to turn out if we do nothing.” Holt-Giménez grew up working on a dairy farm in Pt. Reyes, but his real introduction to the ins and outs of agriculture came over 25 years of working with campesino farmers in Latin America.

“I got in on the ground floor,” Holt-Giménez says of his time in Mexico, Nicaragua and beyond. “I went as a volunteer to teach farmers to farm, which is kind of ridiculous.”He would later refine his ideas around agroecology — the root form of sustainable agriculture, where ecological cycles are harnessed to improve food production — while pursuing a doctorate at UC Santa Cruz. Back then, Holt-Giménez first realized that economics often outweighed the well-being of farmers and the consumers who rely on their bounty. While in Central America, research was another focus, like monitoring the destruction of modest gains for small-scale farmers after Hurricane Mitch killed some 7,000 people when it slammed into Honduras in 1998.

In the storm’s wake, Holt-Giménez watched large corporate food companies swarm to fill the void. “We realized then that it’s not enough to be right,” he says. “One has to get the practices right, but one also has to support social movements to create political will.” Between work in the field done by the likes of Holt-Giménez and health research by Lustig and his colleagues, critics like Pollan are attempting to connect the dots.

In his 2006 breakout book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Pollan took aim at the “plague of corn” warping the food system, inverting the economics of farming and cheaply fattening up livestock for slaughter.

Corn, Pollan explained, was just the beginning of an ever-more-complicated food system bloating both the American public and the bottom lines of corporations like Cargill, General Mills and other well-known food giants.“When fake sugars and fake fats are joined by fake starches, the food industry will at long last have overcome the dilemma of the fixed stomach,” wrote Pollan, who when reached for this article said he was on a summer “media fast.” (Editor’s note: Can we really blame him? Each of Pollan’s 10 books has achieved runaway success, bringing Pollan widespread, sustained media attention for more than a decade.)

Alongside pop culture phenomena like Pollan’s recent Netflix debut and documentaries like “What the Health?” have been a series of milestones for critics of industrialized food. Among the most notable were Mexico’s 2013 soda tax and a 2015 New York Times exposé on the way Coca-Cola and other companies covered up evidence of disease linked to their products, drawing comparisons to tobacco companies decades earlier. “That was a major sea change,” Lustig says of the Coca-Cola scandal. “They were now a public health pariah.”

Roz Naylor conducts research around the world on the environmental and economic aspects of food production as well as food security.

Seizing the spotlight

As with any social movement, the question facing local food advocates who have tasted a number of successes in recent years is deceivingly simple: Where to go from here? Lustig got his own taste of the power of Internet-aided advocacy when a 2009 talk comparing the health toll of sugar to alcohol went viral. The video has racked up more than 7 million views on YouTube so far. “It sort of exploded. I had no clue,” he says. “I didn’t even think my mother would watch it.”

Now that he and others have secured a platform, Lusting says he is most closely watching global developments like declining soda sales and roller coaster pricing for commodities like sugar cane. Also in play, he says, are questions about how exactly the food of the future will be produced in tandem with global population gains. “How do you make bad food good? That’s ultimately what we have to figure out,” Lustig says. “But first you have to admit that the bad food is bad.”

While Lusting is not shy about confrontation — “the more heat, the more notice” — he also worries about splintering among food reform advocates. Diehard vegans bent on eradicating meat, he said, have given him problems for not espousing their view almost as much as large food conglomerates. The Bay Area, he says, is right in the middle of it all. “It’s ground zero for the craziness, and it’s also ground zero for the high-tech stuff,” Lustig says. “You have to know what the goal is.”

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