As a long-time champion for change in industrialized agriculture, you’re passionate about helping people better understand the problems associated with our global food system. How is COVID-19 drawing attention to the issue?
KL: Until we completely change the way we grow food, outbreaks and pandemics like we’re dealing with now are likely to keep happening. And experts say there’s the potential for them to be even worse. The likelihood is that COVID-19 originated in China, where industrial agriculture companies have taken over farmland and pushed smaller-scale farmers deeper into the forest. In order to earn a living, some people are also going deeper into forests for the wild animal trade. Here they are exposed to pathogens that would normally be kept safely away from human populations. Then there are the issues with factory farms — you have thousands of animals crammed in unsanitary conditions and they're all genetically the same. So if some pathogen does get in, as has happened in the past with the Avian Flu, every animal is at risk since there is no firewall to stop the spread. And in this setting, the pathogen often becomes more virulent.
“I hope this pandemic is a global wake-up call that inspires people to demand radical change.”
Some might think that sticking to a highly-processed diet could minimize exposure to harmful pathogens. Do you have any advice about this?
KL: People think that if something comes in a sealed plastic package or box it must be completely safe. But that's not true at all. When you buy packaged, processed foods there are so many chemicals involved, and these chemicals can leach into the food. And unfortunately, there is very little in the way of testing or monitoring by the regulatory agencies, so we really don't know what we're eating.
“Right now we have to ensure we have the healthiest immune system possible. The best way to do that is with a whole foods diet.”
So you're on a much-needed mission to clear up the confusion and misinformation about how we consume food. How did this start?
KL: I’ve always been interested in health and nutrition. About 10 years ago, I decided to go to school to study holistic nutrition and I realized just how much misinformation there is around these topics. After that, I went to work at a cardiologist practice in Manhattan and I saw first-hand how confused people (including the doctors) are about what actually constitutes a healthy, whole foods diet. I wanted to recommend a book they could read, but I couldn't find one that I felt encompassed the whole issue – from the way foods are grown and raised, to nutrient depletion, to additives and pesticides in the foods, and to the problems with food packaging. That's when I started writing my book, Formerly Known as Food.
Public Enemy’s Chuck D has joined your mission, writing a song Food As A Machine Gun, tell us more.
KL: I happen to know him, and since he is so politically active and interested in issues of justice, I thought he’d be interested in writing a blurb for my book. He wrote the blurb and was then inspired to write a song about the issue. It's great because he is sharing the information with his huge audience.
You're advocating a food system that works for the environment and our health. What does that look like?
KL: Right now we have this unique opportunity because there is a lot of awareness around the vulnerability of our food supply. So much of our food has to travel great distances and relies on fossil fuels — and the current disruption means we’re seeing food shortages in some places. Shipping food from China to the U.S. and vice versa doesn't make any sense on any level!
We need to localize our food supply. We need farms that are diverse, with fruit and vegetable crops and animals together. Regenerative agriculture is the best system for soil health and it benefits the environment by creating a diverse ecosystem to support pollinators, birds, and a whole host of crucial wildlife. We also must stop spraying toxic chemicals all over everything. It’s not just on our food; we’re also poisoning the water, the land, and all the other creatures that live here with us.
What personal steps can we start taking now?
KL: The most important thing is to ensure we have the healthiest immune system possible. The best way to do that is with a whole foods diet. On the other hand, highly-processed foods are full of sugar, refined grains, and poor quality oils. Then there are the pesticide residues and the chemicals in the food packaging – all of these things contribute to an inflammatory state, and that’s what makes people vulnerable and likely to suffer serious health complications from viruses like COVID-19. I recently read one statistic that really alarmed me, only 12 percent of the entire U.S. population is considered metabolically healthy, and metabolic health is directly related to what we eat.
“This one statistic really alarmed me, only 12 percent of the entire U.S. population is considered metabolically healthy.”
So whole foods diets should be our number one priority. But it’s hard to know what that entails. What’s your advice?
KL: The marketing and language used by the food industry makes it hard to discern what is and isn’t a whole food. I recently started an Instagram account called, Kristin can I eat this? because a friend told me that she always wants to text me from the store and ask me if she can eat certain products. So we thought it would be a cool idea to share that knowledge more broadly. I hope your readers will follow me there because once you start to see how the industry tries to trick and mislead us with confusing labels – and instead learn how to read labels with a critical eye – it becomes more clear what is and what isn’t a whole food.
What is The Whole Egg Theory?
The Whole Egg Theory is a handy way to understand the whole food concept. Basically, any food you eat should be whole and intact, like the whole egg – and the egg is the perfect illustration of this. For many years, dietary experts have been saying, don't eat the yoke, make an egg-white omelet, or use some terrible product like Eggbeaters. And this advice couldn't be more wrong. The egg is a complete nutritional powerhouse in one whole food and most of the nutrition is in the yolk! It's a great example of how we've been misled so much in terms of nutrition and health. You can take The Whole Egg Theory and apply it to all the other foods you eat.
What are the other ways we've been misled?
KL: The public needs to know that regulatory agencies like the FDA and the EPA (in the U.S.) are not protecting public health. They are funded with our tax dollars to monitor what the food, agricultural, and chemical companies are adding to our crops and foods. However, since these corporations wield so much power, regulatory decisions often come down on the side of industry – not public or environmental health. This is outrageous and deserves much more attention. I hope this pandemic is a global wake-up call that inspires people to demand radical change all along our food supply.
THREE STEPS YOU CAN TAKE NOW
Eat whole foods. This leads to cooking most of your meals yourself, which will automatically improve your diet and your health.
To the best of your ability, buy organic. That's going to be a huge boon to your health. There are so many pesticide residues on all of our foods and over a day, week, month, they add up. Scientists say that even traces of some pesticides can be harmful endocrine disruptors, or chemicals that interfere with our hormonal systems.
Buy pasture-raised animal products. These are healthier for you and the planet. We need to support the smaller-scale farmers who are giving animals a humane life, treating the earth with respect and taking care of the soil. Soil is everything!
Kristin Lawless is the author of Formerly Known As Food: How the Industrial Food System Is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture, which was the winner of the Green Prize for Sustainable Literature in 2019. Her journalism and columns have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Newsweek, and VICE, as well as in academic journals, such as The Black Scholar, Critical Quarterly, and The New Labor Forum. Lawless is also a Certified Nutrition Educator and lives in California.
Learn more about Kristin Lawless’ book Formerly Known as Food here.