Nature’s Perfect Food

We all think of milk as a healthy food- but why?  Turns out, the present day isn’t the only time when political issues were reflected in food issues- E. Melanie DuPuis in her book Nature’s Perfect Food traces the story of milk through American history.  She chronicles its rise to prominence as an instrument of Christian revivalist movements of the nineteenth century and the construction of a massive distribution and promotion industry around it as a result of its purported perfection.  She focuses on the societal beliefs and forces that contributed to its status as a daily necessity- of particular interest to me was the role that government played. The relationship between the milk industry and the government illuminates both the successes and the limitations of the industrial food system, and can inform a fruitful discussion around the creation of a more sustainable food system.

milk-advertisement-wpa-art-program-1940Both government and industry have had a hand in shaping perceptions of the rise of industrial agriculture, and recognizing this (as opposed to thinking of industrial agriculture as a natural consequence of modernity) leads to a deeper understanding of the society and food system that we live in.  The perfection narrative- i.e., the idea that society is forever improving and moving towards perfection- of the government and industry groups (and the polarizing decline narrative of some consumerist and anti-corporate groups) perpetuates the idea of the industrial food system as inevitable:  in order to maintain the quality of life that we enjoy today, industrial agriculture as it exists today is an indispensible necessity.  DuPuis’ comparison to the Cold War is apt here:  much like pro- and anti-industry groups, both the Soviet Union and the United States were convinced that they had created the ‘perfect’ system, and there was no room for argument (214).  In the words of George Bush, repeated throughout his presidency, “you’re either with us… or you’re with the enemy.  There is no in between.”

This Manichaeist sentiment is inherently polarizing and doesn’t allow for productive discourse.  Not only does it create a considerable degree of animosity among groups working towards the same goal (a healthy, profitable, sustainable food system) but it denies crucial nuance.  By recognizing this divisive element of the political discourse surrounding the food system, one can clean a more comprehensive understanding of how to reform it.  In order to effect meaningful change, all perspectives must be considered, from recognizing the gains that the industrial food system has provided to acknowledging the valid claims of those who speak out against it.

For better or for worse, change must come from inside the system if it is to be meaningful, because to live as a member of society is to life inside the industrial food system.  Downfall narratives paint modern society, the government, and technology as the problem with the food system, but an anarcho-Luddite approach won’t benefit many people, if anyone.  Society, government, and technology are tools that can be used for good or bad; denying them that power would be to deny a good-food movement the avenue to succeed.  In order to become successful and effect lasting change, a movement must consider a holistic approach to both the cause and the solution—no single factor created the evils of the industrial food system, and no single reform will fix it.

Milk is not a perfect food, because nothing is a perfect food; despite Americans’ obsession with ‘superfoods,’ the only way to get a healthy diet is to consume a variety of healthy foods.  DuPuis’ thorough and repeated rejection of the perfection narrative provides a valuable common-sense counterpoint to the claims of both pro- and anti-milk crusaders:  there is no perfect food, and to subsidize industries as though there were is foolhardy and expensive. Government partnerships with ‘virtuous’ big business informed by deeply-held but not necessarily scientifically valid socially constructed beliefs do infinitely more harm than good.

The allowances that government has made to large corporations in the past twenty years has galvanized people—controversies surrounding rBGH milk struck a chord with consumers across America and introduced many people to the faults of the existing power politics surrounding food.  Writing blank checks to industries considered by some to be socially beneficial has proven questionable to public health, and people have reacted— it would be similar to the government subsidizing Twinkies because Twinkies were seen by some as wholesome and healthy.

The rise of organic milk without the support of the massive government and business infrastructure built around conventional milk over the last century attests to the fact that consumers (a word that interchangeable with ‘citizens’ in an interesting comment on modern America) retain a considerable degree of power.  Consumer awareness is increasing, and dismissal of ‘tofu politics’ (222) is unwise; this  idea that ‘the personal is political’ united people from all walks of life to mobilize their personal concerns for societal good in feminism’s second wave.

Organic milk is not the only proof of this; the explosive growth of organic agriculture, farmer’s markets, and even moves towards more humanitarian meat sourcing by major food providers and fast food restaurants.[1]  Powerful and deep-pocketed forces are arrayed against consumer awareness groups—the defeat of California Proposition 37 comes to mind here—but doesn’t that make the sentiment all the stronger, that despite this it has pervaded the national consciousness to the extent that it has?

The increasing awareness around food issues over the last few years, both by government and by private industry, suggests that consumers do have political authority—voting with one’s dollars is a powerful form of voting indeed.  But is there a way to harness this individual action into a broader form of activism?  Can there be a national movement, along the line of the populist agrarian movements of the nineteenth century, advocating a healthier food system?

DuPuis makes a valid point when she says that you can’t change the entire system by changing one element; you have to situate the problem in its sociopolitical and economic context (209).  Why is milk (or cheap ground beef, or a Happy Meal) so important?  To what end was the industrial food system created?  How can we achieve those same goals in a more sustainable manner?

She also cites veganism and vegetarianism as two movements that start as personal choices but create ‘communities of practice’ (217) that make their practitioners feel part of a larger whole, and thus more apt to advocate for their shared beliefs.  By considering the perils of perfection narratives, recognizing the power of consumers to effect change, and making a concerted effort towards the creation of communities of practice, I would argue that DuPuis lays a firm foundation for the construction of a stronger sustainable food movement.  By examining the relationships between government and industry, social movements and consumer behavior through milk, she analyzes the successes and failures of previous movements and provides a solid jumping off point for food advocates.

So what can we take away form this?  How can the milk narrative inform a discussion on healthy and sustainable food moving forward?  How can the relationship between government and milk illuminate the successes and limitations of the industrial food system?  And finally, what do you think would be the most effective way to effect change in the food system?


[1] Greenaway, Twilight. “Food Mega-wholesaler Sysco Pledges to Liberate Pigs from Crates.” Grist. Grist Magazine, 25 July 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. <http://grist.org/factory-farms/sysco-the-company-that-bring-you-most-of-the-food-you-eat-dumps-gestation-crates/&gt;.

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