Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable
By Baylen J. Linnekin
Review by David Wineberg
We’re slicing the food scandal into ever thinner wedges, targeting diets, pesticides, sugar, salt and fat, and now, government interference. Biting the Hands That Feeds Us is about how bizarre laws, distorting subsidies, and endangering of the food supply are all rampant, even as governments claim to safeguard it. There is insanity whereby pure organic skim milk cannot be sold with that name because it does not have added vitamin A. (Then it wouldn’t be organic, would it.) There are places in the USA where it is illegal to water plants with runoff from your own roof (Colorado) and where feeding the homeless is a crime.
It is most unfortunate that in an era of decreasing budgets and increased mandates, agencies like the FDA and USDA spend their time dreaming up new regulation they admit address no problem. Not only are the agencies unable to inspect and enforce as required, but they promote gigantic amounts of waste, such as the three million tons of spent grain that brewers normally donate to farmers as cattle feed. (They’ve been doing this for thousands of years.) By requiring the spent grain to be refrigerated, the whole supply chain suddenly ceases to exist. Biting the Hands that Feed Us is packed with such ill-conceived regulations.
To me there is no more absurd rule than the nitrite rule. In the 1970s there was a national uproar and scandal over the amount of nitrites and nitrates in processed meat, particularly in bacon. It was dangerous, and consumers sought refuge in nitrite-free meats. Today, the FDA shuts down artisanal makers of processed meats for not having nitrates or nitrites in their meats.
The book is best when it details absurd laws being enforced, such as officers ripping any food-bearing plants from front yards (Tulsa). Or laws against giving food to anyone who “appears” poor (Las Vegas, Orlando, Dallas, …). It is less impressive when Linnekin philosophizes about things like ivory policy (not exactly food). He says it is wrong for Kenya to burn confiscated illegal ivory. He says they should flood the market with it to discourage poachers. But he ignores that this will simply make ivory of interest to more people instead of training them that ivory is not for decorative treats. He also has a propensity to repeat. He’ll say the same thing about a law or an agency or an incident four times, I guess to make sure you got the message, but it’s patronizing.
Overall, it’s a valuable addition to the canon. Anything that will awaken us to the mess we continue make is appreciated.
Editor's note: This review was has been reposted with permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.