When a newspaper columnist as conservative as George Will embraces the radical chic about food espoused by Michael Pollan, the entire food industry and grain-based foods in particular have a lot to be concerned about. The headline on one of Mr. Will’s recent columns, "Bad Health Built Into Our Corn-Based Food System," reveals how shocked the industry should have been to read Mr. Will’s apparent endorsement of what Mr. Pollan writes, in The New York Times and in several books. In numerous pieces, this journalist teacher accuses the food industry of pursuing every possible means to increase output without heeding the deleterious impact this is having on health. Mr. Will joins Mr. Pollan in hinting that there is something evil about the presence of corn-based ingredients in food, while claiming "industrialization" of food manufacturing is also wrong and is responsible for obesity.
Having survived the outrageous slings and arrows of Mr. Pollan, the food industry must not disregard Mr. Will’s more recent endorsement. The latter is especially disturbing because it appears aimed at persuading the newly-named Obama secretary of agriculture, former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, to lift the alleged power of the food industry over the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Thus, Mr. Will lays blame for the food industry’s alleged disregard for health not just on a market-driven economy, which he usually praises, but on politics. He advocates the Department doing whatever is necessary to change the industrial food chain. The latter he says is too reliant on fossil fuel and not enough on the sun.
These assaults on the food industry and the quality of its output should not be dismissed even though the claims are wrong. Hardly anything emphasizes the danger of neglect more powerfully than the data just issued on annual disappearance of wheat flour in the United States. Some dismay may have been prompted by total consumption holding unchanged in 2008 and per capita use decreasing by one pound. But that is not the real story. Looking at the pattern of total flour disappearance thus far in the 21st century, one sees four years, 2002 through 2005, when flour consumption dipped by a combined total of at least 20 million hundredweights below where it would have been without the negatives of low-carbohydrate dieting advocated by the late Dr. Robert Atkins. That shortfall is the aggregate of consumption in those four years below the 400-million-hundredweight mark. This is a costly deficiency for all grain-based foods.
Similarly, the minimal decrease in flour disappearance in 2008, which amounted to 415,999,999 hundredweights, strongly affirms that demand has recovered from the trauma of the Atkins years. The drop in use that occurred in the 2002-05 period marked the first time in history that changes in eating patterns had caused such a significant decrease. After all, this drop occurred as population grew at a rate of nearly 3 million people per year. Similarly, per capita use of wheat flour, estimated at 137 pounds in 2008, has held above the Atkins-era nadir of 134. True, per capita consumption is now 10 pounds below the recent peak of 147 pounds attained toward the end of the 20th century.
Returning to that high-water mark is not beyond attainment, considering how the peak was reached in the prior run-up from the modern per capita low of 110 pounds in the early 1970s. Even dreaming about this possibility, though, requires a forceful response to irresponsible pundits of whatever politics who seize upon food as a way of stirring controversy. That is especially the case with the new Obama administration in its formative months in considering policies that could have a dramatic effect on not just what the Department of Agriculture says about how food is produced, marketed and consumed, but on the attitudes of millions of Americans concerned about their health and well-being. Recent trends in flour consumption clearly underscore how very much is at stake.
This article can also be found in the digital edition of Milling and Baking News, April 7, 2009, starting on Page 7. Click