Book Review: Food for Nought by Ross Hume Hall

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Book Review: Food for Nought by Ross Hume Hall

by Marty Jezer

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 8, No. 6, November/December 1976, p. 24–25

FOOD FOR NOUGHT by Ross Hume Hall, Harper and Row (Medical Department, Harper and Row Publishers, Hagerstown, Md.) $8.75.

(This review was first published in the April 1976 issue of The Natural Farmer, the newsletter of the Natural Organic Farmers Association) 

Food For Nought is probably the most comprehensive book available on the subject of food cultivation, food manufacturing, food marketing, and food consumption. Hall, a professor of biochemistry at McMaster College, in Hamilton, Ontario systematically describes how the corporate world, agribusiness, and government work together to produce nutritionless food that is hazardous to the health of the consumer, ruinous to the soil it is cultivated upon, but profitable and easy to manufacture for the corporations that market it. 

Hall writes easily with a sophisticated understanding of social and economic factors, as well as the scientific and technical aspects that go into food production. His material, thoroughly documented, is presented in an historical context, so that we see not only the result of the misuse of technology, but also the process by which it went wrong. For instance, in discussing “lifeless bread”, he goes into the history of the milling process, and his essay becomes a mini-history of bread. 

Much of the material in this book will be familiar to those who have read books by Beatrice Trum Hunter, Rachel Carson, Jim Hightower, Murray Bookchin, the Ralph Nader organizations and other muckrakers. But the presentation here is inclusive—we get information on agribusiness and soil, food processing, food additives and nutrition, the misuse of chemicals and mistreatment of animals, food technology, medicine and the Green Revolution—all in one 290 page book with a valuable glossary and useful appendices.

Hall focuses his anger not so much on specific outrages that he talks about, but on the system that produces these nutritional monsters. He attacks scientists who are so specialized in their fields that they have no interest in the societal results of their research. He notes that food technologists—they’re the people who keep the supermarket shelves fresh with new products—are rarely trained in nutrition and that the food processing business is more interested in marketing than it is in the value of their food products.

A paradigm of the way the food business works is the Green Revolution, an attempt by the U.S. to export its agricultural system to the third world. As Hall notes, the new seed pioneered by American agricultural research is dependent on irrigation, pesticides and heavy doses of fertilizers. Because of the investment needed, only large farmers can afford to become part of this movement. They prosper—or at least they prospered (in recent years, yields have gone down)—but at the expense of their smaller neighbors who can’t afford this new technology. As the rich get richer they buy the poor farmer out. The rich soon own the land, while the poor flock to already overcrowded cities where there is neither housing nor work. In addition, the Green Revolution creates a market for American technology—tractors, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. Before its ban, 70 percent of the DDT manufactured in the United States was for export. This policy is deliberate and it parallels agricultural policy in the U.S. Moreover, the values that motivate it are the same values that operate in the American food business: profit, efficiency, bigness over all. 

Unfortunately, Hall neglects to give an overview of the system in which these mad scientists and technologists work. This is surprising, because throughout the book are pictures of advertisements that food proccessors take out in trade publications that graphically describe the dishonesty and greed of our corporate homemakers. (This is a value judgement, understand.) To me an advertisement from LaRoche—the drug corporation—that says “Our Red Coloring Looks So Natural You’d Swear It Grew On A Vine” is an example of corporate dishonesty; but to food processors who might use LaRoche coloring, it’s useful information. 

But Hall stops his analysis there. No mention of the words “capitalism”, or “competition”, nothing about the insane logic of the corporate system which assures the production of shoddy, useless, dangerous and unnecessary goods for the sake of corporate growth and corporate profit. (And there is a perverse logic to it; if corporations can’t grow, how are people going to find jobs?)

Hall’s work is valuable as is the work of the other muckrakers in food production. But reform has never come (and won’t come) from an enlightened public that has no access to power, that is helpless against the logic of the system. Government can’t force change either (Fred Harris notwithstanding), as the government bureaucracy is the corporate world’s willing collaborator. What is needed to put good nutritious food into our bellies is a revolution: a revolution in consciousness so that people will stop supporting the different facets of this system and begin organizing themselves into a counterforce, and a corresponding revolution in terms of institutuion that topples capitalism and replaces it with a human form of cooperative socialism with a politically active public in charge. 

Marty Jezer 

(The following paragraph was added to the review by the editors of The Natural Farmer)

Much of Hall’s blame for adulteration and industrialization of food is directed toward what he terms an antiquated and limited scientific paradigm for analyzing the effects of additives, antibiotics, preservatives, etc.,as well as the traditional nutritionist’s analysis of food into vitamins. The scientific approach which dwells on the measurable parts of food buttresses the whole trend toward industrialization, and sanctions the steady, but slow poisoning of the population while passing off the erroneous belief that a refortified bread or milk is equal to the natural, unprocessed food because vitamins add up to the same. In an article “Is Nutrition A Stagnating Science,” Ross wrote: the “concept of nutrition, grew out of 19th century science … out of a single-cause-effect adding machine concept. Known vitamins number 17 … why limit themselves to a selected few? The short listing results from a desire to simplify nutrition theory to as few elements as possible. And then, what of simultaneous interaction between a vitamin and its biochemical and physiological milieu? This milieu includes the other accessory factors: a shortage of or excess of one vitamin perturbs utilization of another.

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