Consumers want to know more about their food—including the farm from which it came, the chemicals used in its production, its nutritional value, how the animals were treated, and the costs to the environment. We are being told that buying organic foods, unprocessed and sourced from small local farms, is the most healthful and sustainable option. Robert Paarlberg, a political scientist specializing in agriculture and food policy at Harvard and Wellesley, takes issue with this advice in a new book, Resetting the Table: Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat. He says commercial farms have an important role to play in fostering healthier eating habits. Paarlberg explores 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 proposes 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.
associate professor in the Sustainability Science Program at the Harvard Kennedy School and at Weatherhead Center for International Affairs