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Resetting the Table

Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat

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Here is a bold, science-based corrective to the groundswell of misinformation about food and how it’s produced, examining in detail local and organic food, food companies, nutrition labeling, ethical treatment of animals, environmental impact, and every other aspect from farm to table.

Consumers want to know more about their food—including the farm from which it came, the chemicals used to grow it, its nutritional value, how the animals were treated, and the costs to the environment. They are being told that buying organic foods, unprocessed and sourced from small local farms, is the most healthful and sustainable option. But what if we’re wrong? In Resetting the Table, Robert Paarlberg reviews the evidence and finds abundant reason to disagree. He delineates the ways in which global food markets have in fact improved our diet, and how “industrial” farming has recently turned green, thanks to GPS-guided precision methods that cut energy use and chemical pollution. He makes clear that America’s serious obesity crisis does not come from farms, or from food deserts, but instead from “food swamps” created by food companies, retailers, and restaurant chains. And he explains how, though animal welfare is lagging behind, progress can be made through continued advocacy, more progressive regulations, and perhaps plant-based imitation meat. He finds solutions that can make sense for farmers and consumers alike and provides a road map through the rapidly changing worlds of food and farming, laying out a practical path to bring the two together.
 
“A provocative book. . . . [Paarlberg] isn’t ideological and throws cold water on widely held progressive and conservative beliefs alike. He is skeptical of the emphasis on locally grown food and argues that food deserts aren’t so much of a problem as the way food companies have figured out to market unhealthy foods so that we will buy them. He’s making me think, always a good thing.” —Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times
 
“Resetting the Table is gutsy, objective, and beautifully written. Paarlberg advocates ‘ecomodern’—sensible—farming practices that benefit farmers, the environment, animals, and consumers. In the process he skewers some widespread, but fallacious, criticisms of America’s food system. This book is must reading for anyone seeking to understand controversies over food and farming.” —Michael F. Jacobson, co-founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest

“In Resetting the Table, Robert Paarlberg fact checks the most central myths of the modern food movement. Paarlberg’s firm grasp on the realities of modern agriculture lend credence to his insights on how we might take meaningful steps toward solving our dietary and environmental ills.  He argues that food policy, rather than farm policy, should serve as the focal point of action. In doing so, he offers valuable straight talk to commercial farmers and highlights the critical importance of continued innovation and entrepreneurship in agricultural production. This is a must-read book for anyone interested in understanding where their food comes from and the policies that affect how we eat.” —Jayson Lusk, Distinguished Professor and Head, Agricultural Economics Department, Purdue University

“Dr. Paarlberg cogently argues for the potential power and benefits of science in farming—while aptly wondering if we can trust ourselves to use this power responsibly. He neatly clarifies some popular misconceptions—detailing, for example, how U.S. agricultural policy often raises, rather than lowers, prices of subsided U.S. crops—while highlighting largely unrecognized and damaging cultural divides, such as that between commercial farmers and consumers. And, he calls for America’s commercial farmers to help bridge that gap by joining the advocacy movement for better nutrition and health.” —Dariush Mozaffarian, Jean Mayer Professor of Nutrition and Medicine, Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, Tufts University

“Chapter by chapter, Resetting the Table demolishes the preconceived beliefs of smart eaters raised on progressive, post-1960s culinary social movements. . . . Through a mix of history, science and reportage, [Paarlberg] makes a convincing case. . . . Resetting the Table is sure to be controversial, and should be widely read and debated.” —Rien Fertel, The Wall Street Journal

“Paarlberg pushes back against fashionable trends touted by the likes of Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, arguing that locavore and pre-industrial practices require a lot of dough, and won’t work for society writ-large. . . . A compelling take for anyone interested in food and its future.” —Nina MacLaughlin, The Boston Globe

“Astute. . . . Environmentally conscience readers will find much food for thought in this informative narrative.” —Publishers Weekly

“A terrific book. Robert Paarlberg makes clear that if crops don’t come in, little else matters. Resetting the Table shows how the whole world can be fed without environmental harm, and that’s worth listening to. This book accomplishes what is so rare in contemporary writing—being urgent yet reasonable at the same time.” —Gregg Easterbrook, author of It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear

“On a topic all too often subjected to wild claims, emotional argument and rejection of evidence in favor of prejudice, Robert Paarlberg brings welcome good sense, a wealth of facts and an eloquent use of language. His suggestions for how to improve our systems of food production, while benefiting the environment, are vitally important.” —Matt Ridley, author of How Innovation Works

“Drawing on a lifetime of global experiences in agriculture and food systems, Paarlberg challenges the concepts of organic, local, and small-scale as the solutions to feeding the world’s population a healthy and sustainable diet. Does the science-based, technology-driven plate he offers provide a path to this goal? Anyone seriously interested in this existential issue should get this highly readable and thoughtful book.” —Walter Willett, author of Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy

“Robert Paarlberg’s Resetting the Table is a fresh, deeply researched and courageous study of the unprecedented challenge of ensuring a healthful diet in an era of super-abundant food. Paarlberg demolishes currently-popular solutions such as local, organic, and micro-scale enterprises, while taking on commercial farmers, food companies and supermarkets for turning a blind eye to problems in the food supply. In doing so, he provides much needed context for all those concerned to bring the food system into line with human needs.” —Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History
 
“Broadly and deeply informed. . . . All in all, an almost indispensable guide to our food system—and how to make that system work better.” —Alan Moores, Booklist (starred review)

“A clear-eyed look at the present and future of food production . . . Paarlberg places the blame for our current epidemic of obesity and diet-related health problems firmly on the shoulders of food manufacturing, grocery stores, and restaurants for their promotion of unhealthy food. He concludes that commercial farmers did not bring on the food crisis, but they can help to address it by breaking political ranks and siding with progressive attempts to improve dietary health. . . . A book that will be of interest to everyone who is concerned about the health effects of food.” —Rachel Owens, Library Journal

“A perceptive analysis of America's food system. Paarlberg levels a well-informed, evidence-based critique of a broad swath of players in food production and consumption. . . . A cogent, revealing look at the future of food.” —Kirkus Reviews
© Marianne Perlak
ROBERT PAARLBERG is adjunct professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and an associate at Harvard's Weatherhead Center. He has been a member of the Board of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the National Research Council, a member of the Board of Directors at Winrock International, and a consultant to the International Food Policy Research Institute, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He is the author of Starved for ScienceFood Politics, and The United States of Excess. He lives in Massachusetts. View titles by Robert Paarlberg
Introduction

In 2008, I was attending a panel discussion on “sustainable food” at Harvard University, in the storied Faculty Room of University Hall. The purpose of the panel was to promote and celebrate good food, so we were served tasty hors d’oeuvres carefully sourced from local farmers and fishermen, beginning with demitasse cups of a delicious scallop chowder from Cape Cod Bay. The featured speakers were a celebrity restaurateur from the San Francisco Bay Area, a playwright from New York, and the young leader of Slow Food USA. It didn’t take long for all three to reach a lockstep conclusion: In the future, they said, sustainable food would have to be organic, local, and “slow,” definitely not fast or industrial.
 
Those at the event nodded their heads in assent, but I had a different take, having just returned from a research trip to rural Africa. I had been interviewing farmers in Uganda who were trapped inside a food system that was entirely organic, local, and slow. The women I had spoken with (most African farmers are women) did not know it, but they were living an extreme version of the Harvard dream. They were organic because they could not afford any nitrogen fertilizer; their food was all local because the rutted dirt roads made transport almost impossible during the rainy season; and their daily food preparation tasks were laboriously slow. Before cooking a porridge meal for their family these women had to strip, soak, dry, and then pound the maize kernels into flour, then carry in wood to build a fire plus water for the pot. Despite these efforts, many of their children were stunted from poor nutrition.
 
Farmers are important to me for personal as well as professional reasons. Both of my parents were from a farming background, and as a young teenager in the summer months I worked on my uncle’s Indiana farm, alongside my older brother and two cousins. We got up early to feed the cattle and hogs in the dark, before sitting down to our own breakfast. My cousins were still too young to drive a car, but they were handling powered machinery, working with animals four times their size, and they already knew things about farming well beyond the ken of most playwrights or big-city restaurateurs.
 
Discussions of food today can quickly turn into discussions about farming. Consumers not only want food to be tasty, safe, nutritious, and affordable; they also want it to come from farms that protect the natural environment, respect the welfare of animals, help sustain rural communities, and give hired workers a living wage. I share all of these goals, but my prescriptions differ from the Harvard panel’s dream. My research experience tells me not to yearn for an organic, local, or slow food system, since that would mean abandoning a century’s worth of modern science. It would force farmers to accept more toil and less income, consumers would be given fewer nutritious food choices, and greater destruction would be done to the natural environment. All this will be explained.
 
The use of modern science is broadly welcomed in medicine, transport, and communications, yet it has become strangely controversial in food production. Many of my friends in Massachusetts, where I live and work, hold a view that modern farming has become far too “industrial.” They agree with Mark Bittman, a former New York Times columnist, who blames industrial farming for having “spawned an obesity crisis, poisoned countless volumes of land and water, wasted energy, tortured billions of animals.” They would also agree with Philip Lymbery, the author of Farmageddon, who concludes that “every day there is a new confirmation of how destructive, inefficient, wasteful, cruel and unhealthy the industrial agriculture machine is. We need a total rethink of our food and farming systems before it’s too late.”
 
As their preferred alternative, many of my friends imagine a return to small, local, and chemical-free (organic) farms. These farms should produce a traditional mix of both crops and animals, as opposed to the specialized, industrial-scale farms that today produce just one or two crops and probably have no animals at all. When it comes to buying food, my friends would rather not be seen shopping in supermarkets, since too many items on the shelf are heavily processed or have traveled too many “food miles.” Their ideal, when they have plenty of time, is to buy unprocessed foods directly from local growers at a farmers market, or from a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm. They admire Alice Waters, proprietor of the acclaimed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley (she was one of the speakers on the 2008 Harvard panel), who states with pride that she has not set foot in a supermarket for the past twenty-five years.
 
I hear all this, but I’m not persuaded. I want a food solution that works for all, including people who live on a budget and those without a lot of spare time. Dinners at Chez Panisse must be a wonderful experience, but they start at more than a hundred dollars, not including the wine. Buying fresh produce at a farmers market is rewarding in season, but even then it means a separate trip to get needed products local farms don’t grow. Assembling healthy meals from fresh, unprocessed ingredients is a joy for many, but the time required for shopping, preparation, and cleanup may be too much for a single parent with school-age kids.
 
parent with school-age kids. Food solutions should also make sense for farmers. Here is where the organic approach creates problems, since it tells farmers they cannot use manufactured nitrogen fertilizers. True, all farming worked that way before synthetic fertilizers were first developed early in the twentieth century—but it made food production less abundant and needlessly laborious. Most farmers in the United States don’t want to turn the clock back, which is why only 1 percent of their land has been converted to organic production methods.
 
Problems would also arise if we “relocalized” our food system. Dietary health would decline because fresh fruits and vegetables would become scarce for many consumers in the cold winter months. Because transport costs have continued to fall, the dominant food system trend continues to be globalization, not localization. Traditional methods might at least seem a better way to protect the welfare of farm animals, given the abuses they suffer inside today’s “factory farm” confinement systems, but these traditional methods could not begin to meet today’s greatly expanded market demand for animal products. Total meat consumption in the United States is now five times as high as it was in 1940, and trying to meet this demand with traditional pasture and barnyard methods would be impossible. It will be better to follow Europe’s example and tighten welfare regulations for the farm animals we raise indoors, all the while developing better imitation meat products to reverse the growth of the livestock industry.
 
My realistic approach to such matters is one I learned from my father, who grew up on a small family farm in Indiana. After starting college late, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in agricultural economics, in order to learn why making a living on farms had suddenly become more difficult in the 1930s. My dad could be sentimental, but he always warned me not to romanticize the hard physical labor required by traditional farming.
 
My own career choice was also shaped by an early life experience, a trip to India and Nepal to visit my brother, who was serving in the Peace Corps. I had seen poverty in America, mostly in cities, but the extreme rural poverty I encountered on this trip to Asia left me angered and upset, yet also motivated. I have studied international food and agriculture in part to learn how poor farmers might better their lives. I have worked over the years in seven Asian countries, five countries in Latin America, and sixteen countries in Africa. My research has been financed entirely by international institutes, government agencies, my own academic institutions, and philanthropic foundations, not by any private corporations. I learned early on that big international agribusiness companies usually pay scant attention to poor farmers, since they are such bad customers for what the companies have to sell.
 
My colleagues and I who work in global food and farming can celebrate a considerable reduction in rural hunger and poverty in recent decades, especially in Asia. This progress has been sustained, in most cases, by making modern science-based farming methods available to the rural poor. This good news is surprisingly difficult to communicate back home, where science-based farming is routinely criticized for being too “industrial,” and where a long list of nationally known food writers, journalists, and academics now promote distinctly preindustrial alternatives. Many in this group, including writers such as Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Barbara Kingsolver, and others, see themselves as the leaders of a new social movement to reverse the direction of modern farming. Pollan, in a 2010 essay titled “The Food Movement, Rising,” explained it was time to reform industrial food and food production because “its social/ environmental/public health/animal welfare/gastronomic costs are too high.”
 
Many elite institutions have embraced this thinking. Beginning in 2001, Waters worked through Yale University to help build a new sustainable food program that included a college farm, university composting, and a shift by the dining services toward sourcing local organic food. Not wanting to be left behind, Harvard began fertilizing the grass in Harvard Yard using only organic methods, then it put up signs to let people know.
 
Influential national media outlets have offered mostly uncritical support. Pollan, with remarkable candor, described it this way to an audience in Santa Cruz, California, in 2013:
 
In the elite media, the critique of industrial food has gotten plenty of play. The media has really been on our side for the most part. I know this from writing for the New York Times, where I’ve written about a lot of other topics, but when I wrote about food I never had to give equal time to the other side. I could say whatever I thought and offer my own conclusions. Say you should buy grass fed beef, and organic is better, and these editors in New York didn’t realize there is anyone who disagrees with that point of view. So I felt like I got a free ride for a long time.
 
Pollan’s 2006 best-selling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma became something of a sacred text for this new food movement. It was adopted as mandatory summer reading for incoming students at numerous colleges and universities, where the author himself led at least a dozen different freshman readings. A streamlined version of the book pitched to “young readers” came out in 2009, along with a documentary film based on the book titled Food, Inc. Hollywood gave the film an Academy Award nomination.
 
In 2007, Barbara Kingsolver wrote her own bestselling book, one that recorded a personal decision to move to Virginia and eat only locally grown food for an entire year (except for grains and olive oil). Also in 2007, the New Oxford American Dictionary selected locavore as its Word of the Year. By 2009, the new food movement even gained official endorsement from the White House. First Lady Michelle Obama arranged to be photographed shopping at a farmers market, and at the urging of Waters she planted an organic garden on the White House lawn. Barack Obama’s Department of Agriculture also began promoting local food by initiating a “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program.
 
This new food movement deserves credit for the valuable alert it sent on America’s bad eating habits, which had led to heavier burdens of chronic disease. By 2018, 42 percent of American adults were clinically obese. Food movement leaders correctly blamed some of this on the corporate actors between farm and table—food manufacturing companies, supermarkets, restaurant chains—but they also began promoting a view that our farms, or at least our farm subsidy policies, shared much of the blame as well.
 
Farm subsidies were said to be ruining the nation’s diet by encouraging too much corn and soy production, as opposed to fruits and vegetables. I am generally opposed to farm subsidies, because they are wasteful and poorly targeted, but there is no good evidence that they have made us fat. Agricultural economists know that farm subsidies do not make obesity-inducing foods artificially cheap. Corn, soy, sugar, and dairy products are all artificially expensive because of federal policy, not artificially cheap. The reasons will be explained.
 
Industrial farming hurts the environment, but mostly because of how much food is produced, not how it is produced. If we tried to produce as much as we do today using preindustrial methods, the damage would be far more extreme. Modern industrial farming did become too chemical intensive after the Second World War, but more recently, thanks to the emergence of “precision agriculture,” chemical use on farms has decreased significantly, not just relative to output but often in absolute terms as well. Fertilizer use on America’s farms has remained flat for the past four decades while total production was increasing more than 40 percent, and total insecticide use on farms is now more than 80 percent lower than in 1972.
 
With satellite positioning, drone-based sensors, big data, robotics, and now machine learning as well, a modern revolution in precision farming has made possible the production of more food while using less land, less water, less energy, and fewer chemicals, implying large benefits to the natural environment. This promising new path to environmental protection has been dubbed ecomodernism, since it works not by producing less, or returning to the past, but by using new technologies that can produce more with fewer resources.
 
One exciting ecomodernist project now under way is the use of molecular science to develop imitation products that substitute for meat, milk, and eggs, making it unnecessary to raise and feed so many farm animals. If we can produce comparably delicious simulated meats from plant materials, or perhaps from cell cultures in a lab, fewer greenhouse gasses will enter the atmosphere, more farming and grazing lands can be returned to nature, and fewer animals will have to experience mistreatment at our hands.
“A provocative book . . . [Paarlberg] isn’t ideological and throws cold water on widely held progressive and conservative beliefs alike. He is skeptical of the emphasis on locally grown food and argues that food deserts aren’t so much of a problem as the way food companies have figured out to market unhealthy foods so that we will buy them. He’s making me think, always a good thing.”—Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times

“Chapter by chapter, Resetting the Table demolishes the preconceived beliefs of smart eaters raised on progressive, post-1960s culinary social movements . . . Through a mix of history, science and reportage, [Paarlberg] makes a convincing case . . . Resetting the Table is sure to be controversial, and should be widely read and debated.”—Rien Fertel, The Wall Street Journal

“Paarlberg pushes back against fashionable trends touted by the likes of Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, arguing that locavore and pre-industrial practices require a lot of dough, and won’t work for society writ-large . . . A compelling take for anyone interested in food and its future.”—Nina MacLaughlin, The Boston Globe

“Broadly and deeply informed. . . All in all, an almost indispensable guide to our food system—and how to make that system work better.”—Alan Moores, Booklist (starred review)

“A clear-eyed look at the present and future of food production . . . Paarlberg places the blame for our current epidemic of obesity and diet-related health problems firmly on the shoulders of food manufacturing, grocery stores, and restaurants for their promotion of unhealthy food. He concludes that commercial farmers did not bring on the food crisis, but they can help to address it by breaking political ranks and siding with progressive attempts to improve dietary health . . . A book that will be of interest to everyone who is concerned about the health effects of food.”—Rachel Owens, Library Journal

"A perceptive analysis of America's food system. Paarlberg levels a well-informed, evidence-based critique of a broad swath of players in food production and consumption . . . A cogent, revealing look at the future of food."Kirkus Reviews 

"Astute . . . Environmentally conscience readers will find much food for thought in this informative narrative."Publishers Weekly  

“A terrific book. Robert Paarlberg makes clear that if crops don’t come in, little else matters. Resetting the Table shows how the whole world can be fed without environmental harm, and that’s worth listening to. This book accomplishes what is so rare in contemporary writing—being urgent yet reasonable at the same time.”—Gregg Easterbrook, author of It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear

"On a topic all too often subjected to wild claims, emotional argument and rejection of evidence in favor of prejudice, Robert Paarlberg brings welcome good sense, a wealth of facts and an eloquent use of language. His suggestions for how to improve our systems of food production, while benefiting the environment, are vitally important."—Matt Ridley, author of How Innovation Works 

"Drawing on a lifetime of global experiences in agriculture and food systems, Paarlberg challenges the concepts of organic, local, and small-scale as the solutions to feeding the world’s population a healthy and sustainable diet. Does the science-based, technology-driven plate he offers provide a path to this goal? Anyone seriously interested in this existential issue should get this highly readable and thoughtful book."—Walter Willett, author of Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy

"Robert Paarlberg’s Resetting the Table is a fresh, deeply researched and courageous study of the unprecedented challenge of ensuring a healthful diet in an era of super-abundant food. Paarlberg demolishes currently-popular solutions such as local, organic, and micro-scale enterprises, while taking on commercial farmers, food companies and supermarkets for turning a blind eye to problems in the food supply. In doing so, he provides much needed context for all those concerned to bring the food system into line with human needs."—Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History

“Resetting the Table is gutsy, objective, and beautifully written. Paarlberg advocates ‘ecomodern’—sensible—farming practices that benefit farmers, the environment, animals, and consumers. In the process he skewers some widespread, but fallacious, criticisms of America’s food system. This book is must reading for anyone seeking to understand controversies over food and farming."—Michael F. Jacobson, co-founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest

"In Resetting the Table, Robert Paarlberg fact checks the most central myths of the modern food movement. Paarlberg’s firm grasp on the realities of modern agriculture lend credence to his insights on how we might take meaningful steps toward solving our dietary and environmental ills.  He argues that food policy, rather than farm policy, should serve as the focal point of action. In doing so, he offers valuable straight talk to commercial farmers and highlights the critical importance of continued innovation and entrepreneurship in agricultural production. This is a must read book for anyone interested in understanding where their food comes from and the policies that affect how we eat." —Jayson Lusk, Distinguished Professor and Head, Agricultural Economics Department, Purdue University

“Dr. Paarlberg cogently argues for the potential power and benefits of science in farming—while aptly wondering if we can trust ourselves to use this power responsibly. He neatly clarifies some popular misconceptions—detailing, for example, how U.S. agricultural policy often raises, rather than lowers, prices of subsided U.S. crops—while highlighting largely unrecognized and damaging cultural divides, such as that between commercial farmers and consumers. And, he calls for America’s commercial farmers to help bridge that gap by joining the advocacy movement for better nutrition and health.”—Dariush Mozaffarian, Jean Mayer Professor of Nutrition and Medicine, Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, Tufts University

About

Here is a bold, science-based corrective to the groundswell of misinformation about food and how it’s produced, examining in detail local and organic food, food companies, nutrition labeling, ethical treatment of animals, environmental impact, and every other aspect from farm to table.

Consumers want to know more about their food—including the farm from which it came, the chemicals used to grow it, its nutritional value, how the animals were treated, and the costs to the environment. They are being told that buying organic foods, unprocessed and sourced from small local farms, is the most healthful and sustainable option. But what if we’re wrong? In Resetting the Table, Robert Paarlberg reviews the evidence and finds abundant reason to disagree. He delineates the ways in which global food markets have in fact improved our diet, and how “industrial” farming has recently turned green, thanks to GPS-guided precision methods that cut energy use and chemical pollution. He makes clear that America’s serious obesity crisis does not come from farms, or from food deserts, but instead from “food swamps” created by food companies, retailers, and restaurant chains. And he explains how, though animal welfare is lagging behind, progress can be made through continued advocacy, more progressive regulations, and perhaps plant-based imitation meat. He finds solutions that can make sense for farmers and consumers alike and provides a road map through the rapidly changing worlds of food and farming, laying out a practical path to bring the two together.
 
“A provocative book. . . . [Paarlberg] isn’t ideological and throws cold water on widely held progressive and conservative beliefs alike. He is skeptical of the emphasis on locally grown food and argues that food deserts aren’t so much of a problem as the way food companies have figured out to market unhealthy foods so that we will buy them. He’s making me think, always a good thing.” —Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times
 
“Resetting the Table is gutsy, objective, and beautifully written. Paarlberg advocates ‘ecomodern’—sensible—farming practices that benefit farmers, the environment, animals, and consumers. In the process he skewers some widespread, but fallacious, criticisms of America’s food system. This book is must reading for anyone seeking to understand controversies over food and farming.” —Michael F. Jacobson, co-founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest

“In Resetting the Table, Robert Paarlberg fact checks the most central myths of the modern food movement. Paarlberg’s firm grasp on the realities of modern agriculture lend credence to his insights on how we might take meaningful steps toward solving our dietary and environmental ills.  He argues that food policy, rather than farm policy, should serve as the focal point of action. In doing so, he offers valuable straight talk to commercial farmers and highlights the critical importance of continued innovation and entrepreneurship in agricultural production. This is a must-read book for anyone interested in understanding where their food comes from and the policies that affect how we eat.” —Jayson Lusk, Distinguished Professor and Head, Agricultural Economics Department, Purdue University

“Dr. Paarlberg cogently argues for the potential power and benefits of science in farming—while aptly wondering if we can trust ourselves to use this power responsibly. He neatly clarifies some popular misconceptions—detailing, for example, how U.S. agricultural policy often raises, rather than lowers, prices of subsided U.S. crops—while highlighting largely unrecognized and damaging cultural divides, such as that between commercial farmers and consumers. And, he calls for America’s commercial farmers to help bridge that gap by joining the advocacy movement for better nutrition and health.” —Dariush Mozaffarian, Jean Mayer Professor of Nutrition and Medicine, Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, Tufts University

“Chapter by chapter, Resetting the Table demolishes the preconceived beliefs of smart eaters raised on progressive, post-1960s culinary social movements. . . . Through a mix of history, science and reportage, [Paarlberg] makes a convincing case. . . . Resetting the Table is sure to be controversial, and should be widely read and debated.” —Rien Fertel, The Wall Street Journal

“Paarlberg pushes back against fashionable trends touted by the likes of Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, arguing that locavore and pre-industrial practices require a lot of dough, and won’t work for society writ-large. . . . A compelling take for anyone interested in food and its future.” —Nina MacLaughlin, The Boston Globe

“Astute. . . . Environmentally conscience readers will find much food for thought in this informative narrative.” —Publishers Weekly

“A terrific book. Robert Paarlberg makes clear that if crops don’t come in, little else matters. Resetting the Table shows how the whole world can be fed without environmental harm, and that’s worth listening to. This book accomplishes what is so rare in contemporary writing—being urgent yet reasonable at the same time.” —Gregg Easterbrook, author of It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear

“On a topic all too often subjected to wild claims, emotional argument and rejection of evidence in favor of prejudice, Robert Paarlberg brings welcome good sense, a wealth of facts and an eloquent use of language. His suggestions for how to improve our systems of food production, while benefiting the environment, are vitally important.” —Matt Ridley, author of How Innovation Works

“Drawing on a lifetime of global experiences in agriculture and food systems, Paarlberg challenges the concepts of organic, local, and small-scale as the solutions to feeding the world’s population a healthy and sustainable diet. Does the science-based, technology-driven plate he offers provide a path to this goal? Anyone seriously interested in this existential issue should get this highly readable and thoughtful book.” —Walter Willett, author of Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy

“Robert Paarlberg’s Resetting the Table is a fresh, deeply researched and courageous study of the unprecedented challenge of ensuring a healthful diet in an era of super-abundant food. Paarlberg demolishes currently-popular solutions such as local, organic, and micro-scale enterprises, while taking on commercial farmers, food companies and supermarkets for turning a blind eye to problems in the food supply. In doing so, he provides much needed context for all those concerned to bring the food system into line with human needs.” —Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History
 
“Broadly and deeply informed. . . . All in all, an almost indispensable guide to our food system—and how to make that system work better.” —Alan Moores, Booklist (starred review)

“A clear-eyed look at the present and future of food production . . . Paarlberg places the blame for our current epidemic of obesity and diet-related health problems firmly on the shoulders of food manufacturing, grocery stores, and restaurants for their promotion of unhealthy food. He concludes that commercial farmers did not bring on the food crisis, but they can help to address it by breaking political ranks and siding with progressive attempts to improve dietary health. . . . A book that will be of interest to everyone who is concerned about the health effects of food.” —Rachel Owens, Library Journal

“A perceptive analysis of America's food system. Paarlberg levels a well-informed, evidence-based critique of a broad swath of players in food production and consumption. . . . A cogent, revealing look at the future of food.” —Kirkus Reviews

Author

© Marianne Perlak
ROBERT PAARLBERG is adjunct professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and an associate at Harvard's Weatherhead Center. He has been a member of the Board of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the National Research Council, a member of the Board of Directors at Winrock International, and a consultant to the International Food Policy Research Institute, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He is the author of Starved for ScienceFood Politics, and The United States of Excess. He lives in Massachusetts. View titles by Robert Paarlberg

Excerpt

Introduction

In 2008, I was attending a panel discussion on “sustainable food” at Harvard University, in the storied Faculty Room of University Hall. The purpose of the panel was to promote and celebrate good food, so we were served tasty hors d’oeuvres carefully sourced from local farmers and fishermen, beginning with demitasse cups of a delicious scallop chowder from Cape Cod Bay. The featured speakers were a celebrity restaurateur from the San Francisco Bay Area, a playwright from New York, and the young leader of Slow Food USA. It didn’t take long for all three to reach a lockstep conclusion: In the future, they said, sustainable food would have to be organic, local, and “slow,” definitely not fast or industrial.
 
Those at the event nodded their heads in assent, but I had a different take, having just returned from a research trip to rural Africa. I had been interviewing farmers in Uganda who were trapped inside a food system that was entirely organic, local, and slow. The women I had spoken with (most African farmers are women) did not know it, but they were living an extreme version of the Harvard dream. They were organic because they could not afford any nitrogen fertilizer; their food was all local because the rutted dirt roads made transport almost impossible during the rainy season; and their daily food preparation tasks were laboriously slow. Before cooking a porridge meal for their family these women had to strip, soak, dry, and then pound the maize kernels into flour, then carry in wood to build a fire plus water for the pot. Despite these efforts, many of their children were stunted from poor nutrition.
 
Farmers are important to me for personal as well as professional reasons. Both of my parents were from a farming background, and as a young teenager in the summer months I worked on my uncle’s Indiana farm, alongside my older brother and two cousins. We got up early to feed the cattle and hogs in the dark, before sitting down to our own breakfast. My cousins were still too young to drive a car, but they were handling powered machinery, working with animals four times their size, and they already knew things about farming well beyond the ken of most playwrights or big-city restaurateurs.
 
Discussions of food today can quickly turn into discussions about farming. Consumers not only want food to be tasty, safe, nutritious, and affordable; they also want it to come from farms that protect the natural environment, respect the welfare of animals, help sustain rural communities, and give hired workers a living wage. I share all of these goals, but my prescriptions differ from the Harvard panel’s dream. My research experience tells me not to yearn for an organic, local, or slow food system, since that would mean abandoning a century’s worth of modern science. It would force farmers to accept more toil and less income, consumers would be given fewer nutritious food choices, and greater destruction would be done to the natural environment. All this will be explained.
 
The use of modern science is broadly welcomed in medicine, transport, and communications, yet it has become strangely controversial in food production. Many of my friends in Massachusetts, where I live and work, hold a view that modern farming has become far too “industrial.” They agree with Mark Bittman, a former New York Times columnist, who blames industrial farming for having “spawned an obesity crisis, poisoned countless volumes of land and water, wasted energy, tortured billions of animals.” They would also agree with Philip Lymbery, the author of Farmageddon, who concludes that “every day there is a new confirmation of how destructive, inefficient, wasteful, cruel and unhealthy the industrial agriculture machine is. We need a total rethink of our food and farming systems before it’s too late.”
 
As their preferred alternative, many of my friends imagine a return to small, local, and chemical-free (organic) farms. These farms should produce a traditional mix of both crops and animals, as opposed to the specialized, industrial-scale farms that today produce just one or two crops and probably have no animals at all. When it comes to buying food, my friends would rather not be seen shopping in supermarkets, since too many items on the shelf are heavily processed or have traveled too many “food miles.” Their ideal, when they have plenty of time, is to buy unprocessed foods directly from local growers at a farmers market, or from a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm. They admire Alice Waters, proprietor of the acclaimed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley (she was one of the speakers on the 2008 Harvard panel), who states with pride that she has not set foot in a supermarket for the past twenty-five years.
 
I hear all this, but I’m not persuaded. I want a food solution that works for all, including people who live on a budget and those without a lot of spare time. Dinners at Chez Panisse must be a wonderful experience, but they start at more than a hundred dollars, not including the wine. Buying fresh produce at a farmers market is rewarding in season, but even then it means a separate trip to get needed products local farms don’t grow. Assembling healthy meals from fresh, unprocessed ingredients is a joy for many, but the time required for shopping, preparation, and cleanup may be too much for a single parent with school-age kids.
 
parent with school-age kids. Food solutions should also make sense for farmers. Here is where the organic approach creates problems, since it tells farmers they cannot use manufactured nitrogen fertilizers. True, all farming worked that way before synthetic fertilizers were first developed early in the twentieth century—but it made food production less abundant and needlessly laborious. Most farmers in the United States don’t want to turn the clock back, which is why only 1 percent of their land has been converted to organic production methods.
 
Problems would also arise if we “relocalized” our food system. Dietary health would decline because fresh fruits and vegetables would become scarce for many consumers in the cold winter months. Because transport costs have continued to fall, the dominant food system trend continues to be globalization, not localization. Traditional methods might at least seem a better way to protect the welfare of farm animals, given the abuses they suffer inside today’s “factory farm” confinement systems, but these traditional methods could not begin to meet today’s greatly expanded market demand for animal products. Total meat consumption in the United States is now five times as high as it was in 1940, and trying to meet this demand with traditional pasture and barnyard methods would be impossible. It will be better to follow Europe’s example and tighten welfare regulations for the farm animals we raise indoors, all the while developing better imitation meat products to reverse the growth of the livestock industry.
 
My realistic approach to such matters is one I learned from my father, who grew up on a small family farm in Indiana. After starting college late, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in agricultural economics, in order to learn why making a living on farms had suddenly become more difficult in the 1930s. My dad could be sentimental, but he always warned me not to romanticize the hard physical labor required by traditional farming.
 
My own career choice was also shaped by an early life experience, a trip to India and Nepal to visit my brother, who was serving in the Peace Corps. I had seen poverty in America, mostly in cities, but the extreme rural poverty I encountered on this trip to Asia left me angered and upset, yet also motivated. I have studied international food and agriculture in part to learn how poor farmers might better their lives. I have worked over the years in seven Asian countries, five countries in Latin America, and sixteen countries in Africa. My research has been financed entirely by international institutes, government agencies, my own academic institutions, and philanthropic foundations, not by any private corporations. I learned early on that big international agribusiness companies usually pay scant attention to poor farmers, since they are such bad customers for what the companies have to sell.
 
My colleagues and I who work in global food and farming can celebrate a considerable reduction in rural hunger and poverty in recent decades, especially in Asia. This progress has been sustained, in most cases, by making modern science-based farming methods available to the rural poor. This good news is surprisingly difficult to communicate back home, where science-based farming is routinely criticized for being too “industrial,” and where a long list of nationally known food writers, journalists, and academics now promote distinctly preindustrial alternatives. Many in this group, including writers such as Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Barbara Kingsolver, and others, see themselves as the leaders of a new social movement to reverse the direction of modern farming. Pollan, in a 2010 essay titled “The Food Movement, Rising,” explained it was time to reform industrial food and food production because “its social/ environmental/public health/animal welfare/gastronomic costs are too high.”
 
Many elite institutions have embraced this thinking. Beginning in 2001, Waters worked through Yale University to help build a new sustainable food program that included a college farm, university composting, and a shift by the dining services toward sourcing local organic food. Not wanting to be left behind, Harvard began fertilizing the grass in Harvard Yard using only organic methods, then it put up signs to let people know.
 
Influential national media outlets have offered mostly uncritical support. Pollan, with remarkable candor, described it this way to an audience in Santa Cruz, California, in 2013:
 
In the elite media, the critique of industrial food has gotten plenty of play. The media has really been on our side for the most part. I know this from writing for the New York Times, where I’ve written about a lot of other topics, but when I wrote about food I never had to give equal time to the other side. I could say whatever I thought and offer my own conclusions. Say you should buy grass fed beef, and organic is better, and these editors in New York didn’t realize there is anyone who disagrees with that point of view. So I felt like I got a free ride for a long time.
 
Pollan’s 2006 best-selling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma became something of a sacred text for this new food movement. It was adopted as mandatory summer reading for incoming students at numerous colleges and universities, where the author himself led at least a dozen different freshman readings. A streamlined version of the book pitched to “young readers” came out in 2009, along with a documentary film based on the book titled Food, Inc. Hollywood gave the film an Academy Award nomination.
 
In 2007, Barbara Kingsolver wrote her own bestselling book, one that recorded a personal decision to move to Virginia and eat only locally grown food for an entire year (except for grains and olive oil). Also in 2007, the New Oxford American Dictionary selected locavore as its Word of the Year. By 2009, the new food movement even gained official endorsement from the White House. First Lady Michelle Obama arranged to be photographed shopping at a farmers market, and at the urging of Waters she planted an organic garden on the White House lawn. Barack Obama’s Department of Agriculture also began promoting local food by initiating a “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program.
 
This new food movement deserves credit for the valuable alert it sent on America’s bad eating habits, which had led to heavier burdens of chronic disease. By 2018, 42 percent of American adults were clinically obese. Food movement leaders correctly blamed some of this on the corporate actors between farm and table—food manufacturing companies, supermarkets, restaurant chains—but they also began promoting a view that our farms, or at least our farm subsidy policies, shared much of the blame as well.
 
Farm subsidies were said to be ruining the nation’s diet by encouraging too much corn and soy production, as opposed to fruits and vegetables. I am generally opposed to farm subsidies, because they are wasteful and poorly targeted, but there is no good evidence that they have made us fat. Agricultural economists know that farm subsidies do not make obesity-inducing foods artificially cheap. Corn, soy, sugar, and dairy products are all artificially expensive because of federal policy, not artificially cheap. The reasons will be explained.
 
Industrial farming hurts the environment, but mostly because of how much food is produced, not how it is produced. If we tried to produce as much as we do today using preindustrial methods, the damage would be far more extreme. Modern industrial farming did become too chemical intensive after the Second World War, but more recently, thanks to the emergence of “precision agriculture,” chemical use on farms has decreased significantly, not just relative to output but often in absolute terms as well. Fertilizer use on America’s farms has remained flat for the past four decades while total production was increasing more than 40 percent, and total insecticide use on farms is now more than 80 percent lower than in 1972.
 
With satellite positioning, drone-based sensors, big data, robotics, and now machine learning as well, a modern revolution in precision farming has made possible the production of more food while using less land, less water, less energy, and fewer chemicals, implying large benefits to the natural environment. This promising new path to environmental protection has been dubbed ecomodernism, since it works not by producing less, or returning to the past, but by using new technologies that can produce more with fewer resources.
 
One exciting ecomodernist project now under way is the use of molecular science to develop imitation products that substitute for meat, milk, and eggs, making it unnecessary to raise and feed so many farm animals. If we can produce comparably delicious simulated meats from plant materials, or perhaps from cell cultures in a lab, fewer greenhouse gasses will enter the atmosphere, more farming and grazing lands can be returned to nature, and fewer animals will have to experience mistreatment at our hands.

Praise

“A provocative book . . . [Paarlberg] isn’t ideological and throws cold water on widely held progressive and conservative beliefs alike. He is skeptical of the emphasis on locally grown food and argues that food deserts aren’t so much of a problem as the way food companies have figured out to market unhealthy foods so that we will buy them. He’s making me think, always a good thing.”—Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times

“Chapter by chapter, Resetting the Table demolishes the preconceived beliefs of smart eaters raised on progressive, post-1960s culinary social movements . . . Through a mix of history, science and reportage, [Paarlberg] makes a convincing case . . . Resetting the Table is sure to be controversial, and should be widely read and debated.”—Rien Fertel, The Wall Street Journal

“Paarlberg pushes back against fashionable trends touted by the likes of Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, arguing that locavore and pre-industrial practices require a lot of dough, and won’t work for society writ-large . . . A compelling take for anyone interested in food and its future.”—Nina MacLaughlin, The Boston Globe

“Broadly and deeply informed. . . All in all, an almost indispensable guide to our food system—and how to make that system work better.”—Alan Moores, Booklist (starred review)

“A clear-eyed look at the present and future of food production . . . Paarlberg places the blame for our current epidemic of obesity and diet-related health problems firmly on the shoulders of food manufacturing, grocery stores, and restaurants for their promotion of unhealthy food. He concludes that commercial farmers did not bring on the food crisis, but they can help to address it by breaking political ranks and siding with progressive attempts to improve dietary health . . . A book that will be of interest to everyone who is concerned about the health effects of food.”—Rachel Owens, Library Journal

"A perceptive analysis of America's food system. Paarlberg levels a well-informed, evidence-based critique of a broad swath of players in food production and consumption . . . A cogent, revealing look at the future of food."Kirkus Reviews 

"Astute . . . Environmentally conscience readers will find much food for thought in this informative narrative."Publishers Weekly  

“A terrific book. Robert Paarlberg makes clear that if crops don’t come in, little else matters. Resetting the Table shows how the whole world can be fed without environmental harm, and that’s worth listening to. This book accomplishes what is so rare in contemporary writing—being urgent yet reasonable at the same time.”—Gregg Easterbrook, author of It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear

"On a topic all too often subjected to wild claims, emotional argument and rejection of evidence in favor of prejudice, Robert Paarlberg brings welcome good sense, a wealth of facts and an eloquent use of language. His suggestions for how to improve our systems of food production, while benefiting the environment, are vitally important."—Matt Ridley, author of How Innovation Works 

"Drawing on a lifetime of global experiences in agriculture and food systems, Paarlberg challenges the concepts of organic, local, and small-scale as the solutions to feeding the world’s population a healthy and sustainable diet. Does the science-based, technology-driven plate he offers provide a path to this goal? Anyone seriously interested in this existential issue should get this highly readable and thoughtful book."—Walter Willett, author of Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy

"Robert Paarlberg’s Resetting the Table is a fresh, deeply researched and courageous study of the unprecedented challenge of ensuring a healthful diet in an era of super-abundant food. Paarlberg demolishes currently-popular solutions such as local, organic, and micro-scale enterprises, while taking on commercial farmers, food companies and supermarkets for turning a blind eye to problems in the food supply. In doing so, he provides much needed context for all those concerned to bring the food system into line with human needs."—Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History

“Resetting the Table is gutsy, objective, and beautifully written. Paarlberg advocates ‘ecomodern’—sensible—farming practices that benefit farmers, the environment, animals, and consumers. In the process he skewers some widespread, but fallacious, criticisms of America’s food system. This book is must reading for anyone seeking to understand controversies over food and farming."—Michael F. Jacobson, co-founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest

"In Resetting the Table, Robert Paarlberg fact checks the most central myths of the modern food movement. Paarlberg’s firm grasp on the realities of modern agriculture lend credence to his insights on how we might take meaningful steps toward solving our dietary and environmental ills.  He argues that food policy, rather than farm policy, should serve as the focal point of action. In doing so, he offers valuable straight talk to commercial farmers and highlights the critical importance of continued innovation and entrepreneurship in agricultural production. This is a must read book for anyone interested in understanding where their food comes from and the policies that affect how we eat." —Jayson Lusk, Distinguished Professor and Head, Agricultural Economics Department, Purdue University

“Dr. Paarlberg cogently argues for the potential power and benefits of science in farming—while aptly wondering if we can trust ourselves to use this power responsibly. He neatly clarifies some popular misconceptions—detailing, for example, how U.S. agricultural policy often raises, rather than lowers, prices of subsided U.S. crops—while highlighting largely unrecognized and damaging cultural divides, such as that between commercial farmers and consumers. And, he calls for America’s commercial farmers to help bridge that gap by joining the advocacy movement for better nutrition and health.”—Dariush Mozaffarian, Jean Mayer Professor of Nutrition and Medicine, Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, Tufts University

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