Monday, October 8, 2018

Q&A with Gerardo Otero about his book The Neoliberal Diet: Healthy Profits, Unhealthy People

Want to lose weight? Easy! Just swap your chips and sodas for fruits and vegetables and exercise more. Problem solved, right?

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Mainstream explanations for the obesity epidemic argue that people simply eat too much “energy-dense” food while exercising too little. Gerardo Otero's new book The Neoliberal Diet: Healthy Profits, Unhealthy People argues that increased obesity does not result merely from individual food and lifestyle choices. Since the 1980s, the neoliberal turn in policy and practice has promoted trade liberalization and retrenchment of the welfare regime, along with continued agricultural subsidies in rich countries. Neoliberal regulation has enabled 
agribusiness multinationals to thrive by selling highly processed foods loaded with refined flour and sugars—a diet that originated in the United States—as well as meat. Drawing on extensive empirical data, Gerardo Otero identifies the socioeconomic and political forces that created this diet, which has been exported around the globe, often at the expense of people’s health.

Otero shows how state-level actions, particularly subsidies for big farms and agribusiness, have ensured the dominance of processed foods and made healthful fresh foods inaccessible to many. We asked Professor Otero a few questions about his research.

Why are people getting fatter in the United States and around the world?

People are getting fatter because, since the late 1970s, much more of the food we eat is processed, with large amounts of saturated fats, refined flour, and sugars. According to the mainstream explanation, people simply eat too much and exercise too little. It’s all about “personal responsibility,” just as the tobacco industry argued about smoking, so individuals could stem the problem if they tried. Education would be a good solution, it is suggested, but studies in several countries have confirmed that increasing knowledge about healthy food without modifying poverty and inequality will do little to modify diets. Most people just cannot afford the healthier foods. As currently structured, food production is dominated by large agribusiness multinationals that can afford to lobby governments to let them do as they please, maximizing profits, for example, by steering farm subsidies to their own economic advantage. Corn and soybeans both feed the sweetened soft drinks and the meat-producing industries, whose products are important components of the neoliberal diet.

How does your new book The Neoliberal Diet expand or update the research you published in your 2008 book Food for the Few?

In Food for the Few, several colleagues and I showed how Latin American agricultural and food-production patterns were increasingly conforming to the US diet. This shift coincided with a turn to neoliberal policy that promoted free trade and gave free rein to agribusiness multinationals. We document how Mexico, for instance, started to import large quantities of corn from the United States while exporting labor. Argentina and Brazil were becoming heavy exporters of soybeans even as many of their people became food insecure, in the sense of lacking sufficient access to food. In The Neoliberal Diet, I go first into the origins of the energy-dense diet in the United States and the way inequality disproportionately affects the lower- and middle-income working class. This diet is heavily based on two transgenic crops, that is, ones produced with biotechnology: corn and soybeans. These crops are used in many processed foods, and to produce other ingredients like high-fructose corn sugar for sweetened soft drinks. Both are used to feed livestock. Chicken has become the cheapest, most mass-produced meat; because the factory-farmed version has seven times more fat than its free-range counterpart, I call it the neoliberal meat. The new book establishes the structural connections between the way in which neoliberalism has enabled large agribusiness multinational corporations to dominate markets and the industrial, energy-dense diets in the American continent and beyond. Combined with growing inequality, the neoliberal diet poses a particular threat to the lower- and middle-income working classes. More affluent people have broader food choices but are still exposed to unhealthy fare through ubiquitous promotional efforts by the big food companies. And the neoliberal diet is not just cheap; it is also tasty. In fact, flavor is one of the main foci for food scientists seeking to hook consumers. So Food for the Few focused on the agricultural conditions of food production, while The Neoliberal Diet extends into the socioeconomic determinants under which food is produced and consumed.

Describe for the layperson the new index you have developed for measuring the risk of exposure to the “energy-dense” neoliberal diet.

The main goal of developing the neoliberal diet risk index, or NDR, was to show that there is a systematic correlation between socioeconomic factors and biophysical realities as expressed in the body mass index (BMI), the standard measurement for determining whether people are overweight or obese. The vast and growing nutrition literature tends to focus on multiple biophysical causal factors of obesity at the individual level. Proffered “solutions” tend to focus on what individuals can or should do to avoid getting fat. My goal was to sharply point out that income inequality and a country’s position in the world system—whether countries are food-import dependent or not—also play a role in determining people’s food choices. It is not just a matter of individual choice or personal responsibility: if you cannot afford healthy food, you will face a greater exposure to the energy-dense, neoliberal diet—and likely get fat. If willpower has a role to play, it will lie with governments asserting their regulatory role, and policy makers could show their personal responsibility by controlling food producers so as to steer food production in a healthier direction. We also need public policies geared to redistributive income, so that everyone can afford a healthy diet.

How can the most disadvantaged populations foster the kind of state-level changes needed to reform the food regime?

First, we all need to stop blaming the victims. Low socioeconomic status is correlated with lower spending power, stress, anxiety, and depression, all of which push people in a more vulnerable position toward eating the cheapest and most energy-dense foods. Tragically, healthier foods are more expensive, which is why excessive weight and obesity have become other expressions of social injustice. Some social movements demand labeling for food containing transgenic crops, which is fine, but such steps are limited to enhancing how individuals make choices without making a dent on inequality. Progressive social movements need to focus on the structural determinants of the food regime, such as the use of subsidies to enhance the production of energy-dense diets, the widespread focus on meat production, and the ability of a few large agribusiness multinationals to dominate what has become a highly concentrated economic sector. Their control of what’s on our menus needs to be redirected toward healthier foods. Governments will hardly do the job unless they face strong, organized pressure from below. Moving toward a better distribution of income and the production of healthier food presupposes organization—and mobilization.

How has NAFTA and migrant farm labor both positively and negatively affected the people of Mexico?

Since the late 1980s, Mexico’s politicians have made terrible choices in liberalizing agricultural trade while eliminating most supports for smallholder peasant producers. This resulted in the country’s loss of food and labor sovereignty: Mexico now imports almost half of its food, and millions of workers were forced to migrate to make a living. While Mexico has expanded its exports of fruits and vegetables, this did not result in expanding employment opportunities for the bankrupted peasant farmers who used to produce basic foods. The only positive effect of migrant labor can be seen in economic terms for the workers’ own families. But migrant labor is far from being a solution to national development: rural families and communities have been torn apart by migration, which contributed to a wave of violence and pushed many into organized crime. This is why Mexico’s next president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, will focus on a food-sovereignty program as a principal goal when he takes office on December 1, 2018. The point is to enable the rural population to produce enough food for themselves and the nation and to regenerate their families and communities. This would also make migration a matter of choice and not of economic compulsion.

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