Unlikely pairings make for creativity in food. Think wine and cheese, chocolate and strawberries, peanut butter and bananas, or local and sustainable.
But when a mag like Scientific American dedicates its entire September issue to pairing hunger and obesity, the two most debilitating food trends on the planet, that could make for a supersized breakthrough in understanding food system contradictions. Or not.
Science and food don't actually pair that well, as the issue reveals. Or maybe it's just that Scientific and American don't. That's because of the match made in heaven between the food biz and powerful U.S. politicians who couple "science-based" genetic engineering and growth hormones with fundamentalist beliefs that the world was made in six days - about as fast as Iraq was invaded, and with as much mayhem to follow.
Or maybe it's because "scientizing" and medicalizing food problems pair too well with junk food industry efforts to divert attention to technical fixes. The battle lines for preventing or promoting the politicization of obesity are now being drawn. It's hard not to judge the Scientific American edition within this context.
John Rennie's editorial assumes the standard "we're working on it" stance, which treats any problem caused by a scientific endeavour as collateral damage that can be repaired by yet another inventive scientific product. "Thanks to industrial-age agricultural production, global commerce and the 20th century's green revolution in farming," Rennie writes, "the world can support billions of people who once would not have found enough to eat. But, goodness, look what we're feeding them."
Almost all the articles dealing with hunger call for a repeat of the 1950s "green revolution." Help farmers "gain access to fertilizers, high-yield seeds, small-scale water management technologies and improved livestock management," urges Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia U's Earth Institute.
Match that with all-weather roads, power grids, cellphones and the Internet to give access to world markets. Africa, scene of the world's most embedded poverty and hunger, "is primed for such a breakthrough, if donors support it," Sachs claims.
This is a more supportive form of shock therapy than the kind Sachs famously pushed on former Soviet countries during the 1990s, though the focus on the discipline and opportunities of the international market is common to both.
The one exception among anti-hunger writers is Barry Popkin, an expert in what's known as the "nutrition transition" - the shift in countries of the colonial South from lean bodies fed on peasant diets low in fats and empty starches to blubbery bodies raised on Western diets.
Popkin calls for political rather than technological solutions, and urges an end to U.S. and European subsidies of cheap grain exports, pop (sweetened with corn syrup) and processed supermarket foods.
Nutrition and lifestyle education in these countries "ignores the vast social, technological and structural changes that" cause the problem, argues Popkin, author of the forthcoming The World Is Fat (a deft dig at the pro-globalization thesis of the bestselling The World Is Flat).
By contrast, several of the scientists investigating therapies to overcome the human inheritance of "thrifty genes" have a Strangelovian feel. Bodies that have inherited these genes use food resources efficiently to promote weight gain, an adaptation that helped humans survive a couple of million years of food scarcity before the 1980s, when millions of people were suddenly able to stuff their faces with sweet nothings and cheap fats several times a day.
Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is keen on "pharmacological interventions" (presumably not a form of drug abuse) to "increase the dopamine response" or on using magnetic resonance imaging "to train people to exercise parts of their brains" to reduce gluttonous urges.
It's hard to find a better example of the medical model mindset, which "treats" illnesses with "therapies" rather than preventing them with public policies like banning junk food ads to kids, for example.
I'm reminded of efforts a few decades back to deal with garbage problems by promoting the hierarchy of rethink, refuse, reduce, reuse, and only after all these failed, recycle.
Of course, recycling, the most expensive and least pollution-reducing action, became the one and only, because it found champions who figured out a way to use recycling to sell, rather than eliminate, more commodities.
This issue of Scientific American tells us there's money to be made by creating and then curing obesity. That's what the science approach to obesity is about and what the prevention-based approach is up against.