News, Systems Thinking

Q&A with Dr. Marion Nestle: evidence, politics and the future of food

1 December 2021

Ahead of the launch of The Politics of Knowledge: Understanding the Evidence for Agroecology, Regenerative Approaches, and Indigenous Foodways on 6 December, Dr. Lauren Baker, our Senior Director of Programs, speaks to Dr. Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita at New York University. Nestle is the author of many books about food politics, most recently Let’s Ask Marion: What You Need to Know about the Politics of Food, Nutrition, and Health.

Dr. Lauren Baker: ​​You are an authority in “food studies.” How would you define this field? How does “evidence” show up in your work? 

Dr. Marion Nestle: At New York University, we describe food studies as an analysis of the most important problems facing society through the lens of food. Bringing food to the foreground exposes problems that might otherwise be much harder to see and understand—the effects of COVID-19 on food systems, of agriculture on climate change, of food processing on health, for example. I can’t talk about any of these topics without grounding them in historical, sociological, and scientific evidence. My doctorate was in molecular biology so scientific evidence comes naturally. I think of my work as polemical, but heavily documented.

 LB: Your book “Let’s Ask Marion” highlights how inherently political food, nutrition, and health are. Can you reflect a bit on how evidence is also political?

MN: I think of evidence as something empirically provable through careful observation or experiment. Both observation and experiment are human and, therefore, subject to human psychology, conscious and not. Observations are obviously in the mind of the observer.  Scientific experiments involve choices of research questions, methods, and interpretation of results.  

Because most experiments addressing diet and health come out with ambiguous results or results that show only small differences, these require interpretation. Humans interpret things differently. Differences in interpretation become political when corporate interests are at stake. I’ve long been concerned about studies funded by food corporations because their results are so predictable. If I know that a corporation funded a study, I can guess that its results will favor the sponsor’s interests (there are exceptions, but they are rare). 

LB: Our forthcoming compendium is anchored in the influence of dominant narratives – whether they’re true or false – and how they shape the political debate and much of the world’s policy and practice when it comes to food systems. What problematic narrative/s do you think need to be dismantled? 

MN: The dominant narratives that leap to mind is that industrial farming is the only way to feed the world now and in the coming decades and that the more food it produces, the better.  I see food overproduction as a root cause of the major health and environmental problems we confront today. Overproduction forces food companies to compete for sales in order to expand their growth. They can’t all grow. Across-the-board growth of food companies is unsustainable.

LB: We’re advocates for diverse evidence and agroecology, regenerative and Indigenous foodways as pathways to sustainable food systems. Where do you see opportunities for food systems transformation? What examples and evidence are most compelling for you?

MN: I’m thoroughly convinced that human health and environmental sustainability depend on non-industrial farming methods. Industrial farming is not about food; it is about feed for animals and fuel for cars (don’t even get me started on 40% of U.S. corn going to produce ethanol). We need an agricultural system that promotes human health, reduces environmental impact, does a much better job of promoting animal health, and puts a high priority on replenishing what gets taken out of the soil. Abundant observational and experimental evidence shows how this can be done and is being done.  I’m not a farmer but I do grow food in raised beds and cannot believe how much food can be produced in a well-composted bed.

LB: In your opinion, what’s the role of philanthropic funders and donors in transforming food systems and how can they best activate a research and action agenda that is focused on political and social justice, the right to food, and food sovereignty? 

MN: The goals of food system transformation have to be to eliminate hunger, reduce the effects of obesity, and greatly reduce the impact of agriculture and food consumption on climate change.  The best way to do that is to begin by asking the people who are most affected by these problems about the kinds of changes they would like to see, and then fund programs to effect those changes.  That may sound obvious, but hardly anyone actually works that way with communities.

LB: A core recommendation of the compendium is that funders and donors must work to catalyze transformative research and action agenda that: is transdisciplinary; is focused on political and social justice and food sovereignty; and, challenges vested interests. What do you consider to be the key elements of a transformative research agenda? 

MN: The number one priority is listening to powerless people about their needs and the kinds of solutions they seek. Every funder should be asking who it wants to serve, how it can reach its target audience, and how that audience wants to be helped and targeted.  Every program needs to be designed to empower its recipients to continue it. 

LB: It’s the GA’s 10 year anniversary next year and as we prepare for that milestone, we’re reflecting on how the dialogue about food systems transformation has changed over the last 10 years and looking ahead to what’s next. What gives you hope for the future of food? 

MN: Easy. Look at the questions you are asking! Look at the number of individuals and groups who are asking such questions and acting on them.  My bookshelves are loaded with books on these issues. I’ve just listened to a conference of food business executives charged with coming up with ideas about how to promote regenerative agriculture in their supply chains; without question, they recognized that if they don’t address health and sustainability, they won’t survive. The word is out. The big need now is to act on it.

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On Monday, 6 December 2021, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food will host a webinar event to mark the launch of The Politics of Knowledge: Understanding the Evidence for Agroecology, Regenerative Approaches, and Indigenous Foodways — a new compendium tackling the dominant questions about evidence that are holding back food systems transformation. Speakers will unpack the narratives that unpin these questions and explore the many ways funders, researchers, and policymakers can take transformative action. Register here