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Food Rights, Food Duties, and Obesity

» May 27th, 2016

Despite a 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting that childhood obesity was in decline, the numbers?—?when properly interpreted (and supplemented with more recent research)?—?confirm the opposite. As they have for decades, children between the ages of two and 19 are, in fact, becoming overweight or obese at a steadily increasing rate.

Today, 33.4 percent of kids are considered overweight, with 17.4 percent of them qualifying as obese (defined as having a body mass index [BMI] of 35 or more) or severely obese (a BMI over 40). To put these measurements in perspective, a healthy person who is 5’9″ and 150 pounds will have a BMI of around 22.

These numbers intersect with an especially compelling sociological observation: As childhood obesity becomes commonplace, parents are increasingly unable to recognize the condition in their children. Writing inScientific American, Jane Ogden explained that, “as populations get fatter, the new normal has become overweight and therefore invisible.”

Read more. 

Why We Drown

» May 4th, 2016

It’s later afternoon at the Town Lake YMCA in Austin, Texas, and a man in Lane Two is gliding through the pool with fearless perfection. His movements are languid; breathing metronomic; pace effortless. He completes lap after lap with such ease of motion that the only word that keeps coming to mind as I watch him move down the lane is natural. That’s a natural-born swimmer.

In fact he’s nothing of the sort. No human being is a natural-born swimmer.To confirm, I need only look over to the YMCA’s instructional pool, where the whole notion of being a natural-born swimmer is quickly disabused by a clutch of six physically fit adults milling anxiously in waist-deep water around Dena Garcia, a swim instructor.

They’re participants in a TOW?—“Terrified of Water”—class, and the contrast with what’s happening in Lane Two illustrates something important. At some point in time (probably very early in life), the impossibly elegant lap swimmer had to do exactly what these courageous adults were now doing in the instructional pool: confront his fears by gripping the edge and kicking, placing his face in the water and making bubbles, and allowing his body to float while avoiding a panic attack.

Exactly why we don’t instinctively swim is a mystery. But as Daniel E. Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, explains, “It is possible that some of our ancestors swam or occasionally waded into marshes to collect sedges, but there is very little evidence that natural selection acted much on human abilities to swim.” He calls humans “slow, inefficient, and awkward as swimmers.”

Read the full story here. 

How the 1% Gardens

» April 30th, 2016

It’s an interesting time for luxury voyeurism. The obvious expressions of rare wealth — the 50,000-square-foot homes, the $250,000 cars, the private jets, the stratospheric penthouses, the monthlong trips around the globe — are, at least in terms of shock value, fading. These acquisitions have become so Disneyland-ish in their well-publicized glitz that they barely register on the over-the-top meter.

But what’s more notable, if only sociologically, is how the wealthy elite, perhaps bored with its own ostentation, has unleashed its purchasing power on the more commonplace aspects of life. Indeed, simple acts that the rest of us could feel a flash of superiority about performing are being colonized by a kind of extravagant, trickle-down consumption manifest in once-humble acts, such as gardening.

This observation came to me while running through Houston’s River Oaks neighborhood, the residential Eden of the city’s moneyed elite. You know you’re in River Oaks because pets are walked by hired help, leaf blowers provide the white noise, faux chateaux compete for manorial distinction and a private police force keeps the peace (well, actually, they pick up newspapers left out too long). But what stopped me while I was running was an activity that had never before registered, in my experience, as a spectacle: Someone was planting a tree. only the act involved an aerial lift crane, a truckload of labor and a backhoe.

The idea had never occurred to me: The super-rich generally don’t drop to their knees and plant saplings. To the contrary, they outsource photosynthesis, allowing annual tree rings to accumulate on someone else’s time, with someone else’s labor, with the nutrients from someone else’s soil. on this occasion, a fully formed willow oak protruded from a root ball the size of a large pickup truck. It swung from a crane that was slowly lowering it into an even larger hole. Six men leaned into the thing. They attempted to hold it steady while shuffling around the canyon’s edge, negotiating the precipice while pushing against the swaying heap, one terrifying misstep away from being smashed between root ball and hole. A master gardener I know (my mother) later told me, in a rather unfazed manner, that the entire operation probably cost well over $100,000.

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On the Road

» April 23rd, 2016

In the early 1970s, John Tarrant, a British ultramarathoner who set world records in the forty- and hundred-mile distances, suffered a hemorrhaging stomach ulcer that occasionally sent him to the hospital for tests and blood transfusions. Tarrant despised the interruptions to his training schedule, and during at least one stay, he ducked into the bathroom, changed into running gear beneath his hospital gown, and snuck outside for a quick five-miler. As Bill Jones recounts in his book The Ghost Runner, Tarrant sacrificed everything for his sport—his work, his family, and, evidently, his better judgment.

Today is the 120th Boston Marathon [this piece was originally published on April 18, 2016], and I’d wager that nearly every runner in the race would understand Tarrant’s impulse. Training for long-distance races breeds a restless need to elevate the heart rate, score an endorphin hit, and achieve what Tarrant called that “magnificent feeling of well being.” Running begets more running, an insidious cycle that can become, over time, a game of high-mileage brinkmanship that blurs the line between dedication and obsession. At the peak of his training, Tarrant was logging 180 miles a week—an addiction, no doubt, but a healthy addiction, at least according to the runners. (The doctors aren’t convinced: by 2015, running-related cardiology concerns had crystallized into something called the excessive-endurance hypothesis; google the phrase and “scarring of the heart” comes up a lot.)

Raed more. 

The Paradox of Unanimity

» March 8th, 2016

 

In a paper about to be published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society, a team of researchers identifies something they call the “paradox of unanimity.” If you’ve ever smelled a rat when everyone else is celebrating an idea then this paradox is for you. While unanimous agreement (or something close to it) might suggest that a particular claim is right, the researchers, led by Lachlan J. Gunn, an engineer at the University of Adelaide in Australia, found the opposite to be true. Rather than confirming truth, unanimity indicates that something went wrong, that a “systemic failure” undermined popular judgment, that the confidence of the crowd has been skewed by bias.

As it’s currently framed, the paradox applies primarily to criminal justice concerns—police line-ups and the like. But it also has implications for food and agriculture. Few fields of popular interest have cultivated a wider array of glib axioms of empowerment than food: genetically modified organisms are bad, local is better, you shouldn’t eat food your grandmother wouldn’t eat, and so on. In the context of Main Street foodie wisdom, these claims enjoy something close to unanimity. But, for all their support, none comes closer to the unanimity quotient than the gilded assertion that organic food is food grown without pesticides.

 Read more here.

On Chips and Microchips

» February 8th, 2016

This past year, 2015, may go down as the year we admitted that our relationship with digital media was getting a little dysfunctional. Several recent books—notably Sven Birkerts’ Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Ageand Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age—persuasively argue that an unhealthy immersion in online culture is blurring our focus. Meaningful tasks such as reading serious books or having face-to-face conversations have gotten more challenging. Fretful articles appearing in places such as the Chronicle of Higher Education have covered the emotional fallout (among Millennials in particular). We’re anxious, in turns out, from too much digital investment, and while few us are taking a digital detox, the idea is starting to sound pretty nice.

These studies—which became a media staple in 2015—sketch a dire portrait of chronic digital distraction, maybe at times too dire. But they effectively highlight notable aspects of our social media habits that, because of digital culture’s comprehensive claim on our lives, we may be too distracted to recognize as detrimental to our well-being. Although the connection is by no means obvious, the digital trap—whether overstated or not—illuminates the intractable struggle we have with another vexed consumer behavior: eating unhealthy food.

The parallel begins with an elemental point: Modernized humans dedicate much of their lives to avoiding discomfort. The quest to live as stress free as possible is such a fundamental desire that it almost seems self-justifying. Not surprisingly, fast food and digital applications speak persuasively to this primal urge, promising as they do to ease us through the day with miraculous short cuts and life hacks that never cease to wow us with their novelty. An app that directs us exactly where to drive, not unlike a pizza with cheese jammed into the crust, offer enough convenience and novelty—granted in very different ways—to keep us in thrall to the charms of modernity.

Read more.

Putting An End To “Anti-Science”

» January 6th, 2016

 

Now that the Food and Drug Administration has approved genetically modified salmon for human consumption, a timeworn debate over the safety and effectiveness of genetically modified food has once again resumed. Several lazy tropes drive this discourse—GMOs are “Frankenfood,” GMOs will feed the world, GMOs cause cancer—and none of them are true, which is, in part, what makes this revolving argument so frustrating to follow. But one phrase more than any other routinely gets tossed into the conversation like a grenade: anti-science.

The phrase feels good—there’s nothing more rhetorically satisfying than ejecting a dissenting view before the game even begins. But we need to stop using it to characterize those who disagree with a scientific position we support. For one thing, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with being anti-science, if only because science is neither a) an all-encompassing explanation of everything, nor b) an inherently virtuous phenomenon. For another, such a dismissal obscures the deeper reasons for being doubtful about GMOs (and vaccines and global warming and so on), reasons that can teach us a lot about how we incorporate science into a democratic society and monitor its applications

To condemn a person as anti-science implies that science is the intrinsically superior explanation for phenomena we encounter. But it’s not. Read more

Horse Meat in the Food Chain

» December 10th, 2015

 

Exotic game meat is a specialty food item that’s becoming increasingly less special—currently it’s a $39 billion a year industry. This might be great news for consumers with a taste for bear, yak, lion, or beaver (you can place an online order with a quick click), but it’s not so great in terms of knowing what’s in our food.

Exotic meats shipped globally have long had a reputation for being mislabeled (in some cases, almost 70 percent of the time) and, closer to home, a recent Chapman University study found that the problem was prevalent in the United States as well. More to the point—and of possible concern to those who aren’t even in the market for exotic meat—the study found that some imported game contained traces of something that’s illegal to produce and sell commercially in the U.S.: horse meat.

Exactly how horse meat gets mixed up with other meat (processed or exotic) is hard to say. There are multiple points where supply chains might cross and most of them are obscured by the intricately global nature of the trade. But one pipeline stands out as a perfectly plausible source. Notably, it begins and ends in the U.S.

Read more here.

“Humane” Turkeys Come from Factory Farm

» November 30th, 2015

 

 

In preparation for this year’s Thanksgiving feast, more consumers than ever before will seek turkeys that have been humanely raised. For these shoppers, optimistic messages offered by Whole Foods and other animal welfare–oriented food retailers will provide assurance that they’re making an ethical food choice. “Our birds live in harmony with the environment and we allow them plenty of room to roam,” explains a Diestel Turkey Ranch brochure, prominently displayed at many Whole Foods meat counters. Diestel turkeys raised at the Ranch’s main farm earn a 5+ welfare mark—the highest—from the nonprofit Global Animal Partnership, which contracts with third-party certifiers and administers the company’s rating system for humanely raised animal products. Diestel is one of only a handful of Whole Foods meat suppliers out of about 2,100 to achieve this remarkable distinction. So, along with the Diestel’s promise that “on our ranch a turkey can truly be a turkey,” it seems safe to assume that the Diestel turkeys sold at Whole Foods lived a decent life.

But a recent undercover investigation by the animal advocacy group Direct Action Everywhere tells a more complicated story.

Read more here.

Chipotle’s Food Safety Problem

» November 12th, 2015

 

If your brand has anything to do with food, the last place you want it to appear in is the Food Poison Journal. But that’s exactly where the Chipotle Mexican Grill recently found itself, prominently placed in a headline confirming its most recentE. coli outbreak.

Thirty-nine people in Washington and Oregon came down with E. coli O26 after eating at a Chipotle restaurant in late October. Twelve were hospitalized. The source of the outbreak has yet to be verified, but experts suspect tomatoes. Chipotle shuttered 43 stores and tossed all remaining ingredients into the trash, patting itself on the back for its “abundance of caution.”

The problem with this response, though, is that Chipotle—whose defining creed is “food with integrity”—has assured consumers that an “abundance of caution” was integral to its mission from the start. Chipotle’s much-touted cautionary approach has underscored such definitive moves as banning genetically modified organisms and supporting locally sourced produce. Thus the “fast casual” alternative has been able to transform a burrito—as one of its advertisements proclaims—into a “food-culture changing cylinder of deliciousness.”

Read more here.