Joan Gussow

I Trust Cows More Than I Trust Chemists: A Conversation With Joan Gussow

This interview appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal.

Joan Dye Gussow, Mary Swartz Rose Professor Emerita
 and former chair of the Program in Nutrition at Columbia
 University Teachers College, Nutrition Education Program, 
lives, writes, and grows organic vegetables on the west bank 
of the Hudson River. Long retired, she is still co-teaching her
 course in nutritional ecology at TC every fall. She is author,
 co-author or editor of five books including The Feeding Web: 
Issues in Nutritional Ecology, This Organic Life and Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables.

Q. Michael Pollan has referred to you as his guru. You were talking about “nutritional ecology” way back in the 1970s. How did you originally develop this concept?

A. Yes, the term first went public in the subtitle of my book: The Feeding Web: Issues In Nutritional Ecology, which was published in 1978. This for me was an attempt to address the whole ball of wax. I might not have picked the right term for it. But I didn’t know how else to describe what I was after.

Some time earlier, I had seen an exchange in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Someone had written the editor asking why the journal had no coverage of the world hunger crisis, and the editor wrote back and said the world food crisis was the field of agricultural economists, demographers, and agronomists, but that it was not part of the field of clinical nutrition. Too often, the field of nutrition was this narrow.

Another example: I once asked a classroom of nutrition students to pick from a selection of journals about food, nutrition, and medicine one journal they thought their fellow students should read. I myself was fascinated by the food journals where you saw ads for what was coming next. Once I saw an ad for ”powdered cloud #9” that “gives your juice drinks eye-appealing opacity.” But not a single student in that class picked a “food” journal. 
One of them actually said to me later, “I don’t think that being interested
 in nutrition means you have to be interested in food.” So, on the one hand you had a nutrition editor who didn’t think his field had to do with hunger and on the other hand you had a nutrition student who didn’t see why she needed to be interested in food. Clearly, a broader view of things was needed. ‘Nutritional Ecology’ was my attempt at such a broader framework.

Q. This is the problem of professional silos.

A. Our job as nutritionists was to pay attention to the food after the swallow. Nothing before the swallow mattered. That meant that we were incredibly narrowly focused. The idea that nature had anything at all in mind regarding food was lost. Food technologists got busy trying to figure out things like the perfect balance of carbohydrates and protein in wheat, as if we could ever know what the perfect balance is. Food processors 
were only concerned with what they could do to the food to make it more marketable, not with valuing the essential character and quality of the food as it comes from nature.

Q. You’ve summed it up in the past by saying, “I prefer butter 
to margarine, because I trust cows more than I trust chemists.” Has your skepticism about technology gotten you into trouble?

A. How is it in this country we are so willing to look at technology and say that it will solve all of our problems? We always rush right in, let “progress” take over, and never imagine that it may have a negative effect on the overall society. I’m not sure why, but I felt this even in the very early days of the internet, when the excitement was so high. I was thinking, “People aren’t paying attention now to the environment. If everyone is busy watching frogs on their computers, they won’t notice when the actual frogs disappear.” That was decades ago and it is so much worse today.


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Q. Are people similarly distracted when it comes to real food?

A. Yes, but they’re beginning to wake up. Today the food industry fortifies breakfast cereals with B12, which is only found in animals in nature. There’s a new film out about Michael Pollan’s In Defense Of Food and it features a tribe in Africa—one week they are eating antelope, one week they are eating honey, another week berries from trees, all along with various plant roots. This is, it seems to me, the polar opposite of breakfast cereals fortified with B12. We’ve arrived at the idea that to be nutritionally complete, we need every day one food from column A and two from column B, 
that we need to manipulate and measure and supplement ingredients, this much fat with this much vegetable protein and no gluten, counting each element. And we are trained to tell people to eat so many helpings of fresh fruit, winter and summer, forgetting that god doesn’t make fruit in winter.

Q. God does make organic Twinkies 12 months a year, doesn’t she?

A. That is not god. That is merely a god-like object called a factory, making a food-like object called a Twinkie. The point is that the professional field that should have been guarding the henhouse—attending to the integrity of food as it moves from seed to table, with attention to organic, biotech, hydroponics, energy, pollution, all the issues—this “field” has never really quite existed.

Q. Maybe this is also why there is no field in finance called slow money.

A. We share many of the same concerns about the long-term costs of reductionism.

Q. Isn’t this where the idea of local comes in? Global financial markets are reduced to a bunch of abstractions, a bunch of numbers. The place where you live and the life in the soil—these are the opposite of abstract. How did you get from nutritional reductionism to the local food movement?

A. The idea of relocalization as a possible solution was suggested at the end of The Feeding Web. I was thinking, “People don’t know we’re importing pork from Haiti, the poorest country in the world. How can we make people aware of the madness and the destructiveness of this food system?” I thought the only way people could begin to learn how agriculture worked would be for them to get to know a farmer and the only way to do this would be to have a farmer in their vicinity and the only way there would be a farmer in the vicinity was if local people were willing to buy, in season, what the farmer grew.

Around 1990, when the national Organic Foods Production Act was passed, I was on a panel and asked to take a stand on local versus organic, and I came down on the side of local, saying that as long as we had local farmers, we could work with them to go organic, but once we lost the local farmers, the game was up.

Local developed in response to the corruption of organic by large industrial producers. There was a feeling that local couldn’t be stolen from us. Which of course turned out not to be true.

Q. Who has stolen local?

A. Walmart is trying to position itself as a local player. But this poses all kinds of problems for small producers who get hooked into a large supply chain and become hostage to a system that over time drives prices down and hurts them and other local producers.

Q. Is community-supported agriculture a meaningful alternative?

A. CSAs and farmers’ markets are part of the solution. Food hubs are
 a significant new thing. Central locations that bring produce together and then distribute it. These take up where CSAs leave off. I’m worried that CSAs are facing competition today that is just too tough from home delivery and online ordering.

Q. It all comes back to the internet, doesn’t it?

A. My friend Pam Cook has a wonderful story about the days of bulk purchasing through co-ops and buying clubs. Her buying club members used to get together to plan orders, and then again to divide the stuff up. But once you could order online, it ended the whole social structure. 
No one had to bother coming together. No one had to sit around and laugh. No one had to say, “If we’re going to fill out the order, someone has to buy another pound of beans.” It all died. The internet did it. The earth is down there breathing and we are not hearing her. The internet removes us from Mother Earth, makes us forget our dependence on her and on each other.

This interview appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more or to subscribe to the Journal.

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