FIRST, let me begin with a quick story. In early January, I made my way to West Virginia for a presentation. Travel required flying into Pittsburgh, Pa., renting a car and driving to my final destination.
Just outside of Pittsburgh, in the middle of a snowstorm, I stopped at a grocery store to get something to eat. As I walked into the store, I passed an elderly gentleman who was exiting the store with a single sack of various items and a bundle of bananas.
The image was powerful; the paradox stopped me dead in my tracks. The availability of fresh bananas against the backdrop of a snowstorm in Pittsburgh in January speaks volumes about the bounty of our food and transportation system.
No matter where you live or what time of year, there are few limitations on our purchasing options.
I recalled that scene recently while listening to New York Times columnist Mark Bittman discussing his new book, VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight & Restore Your Health ... For Good, with "OnPoint" host Tom Ashbrook.
Bittman's overarching goal, as described in the book, is to make us think more about the food we eat.
"During the day, you'll be observant and eat way more fruits and vegetables than you probably have until now. ... In the evening, you'll still eat more thoughtfully," he said.
Encouraging Americans to be more mindful of their diet is admirable. If only it ended with that consideration, there'd be no need for any further discussion — but it never does; there always seems to be some tangential commentary that goes along with the package.
Case in point: Ashbrook asked Bittman about the ensuing implications if the entire country adopted this type of diet, to which Bittman responded, "It's known to many people that the production of junk food and the production of animal products takes far more resources than the production of plants."
Bittman further explained, "The first choice that people need to make is not between an organic hamburger and a non-organic hamburger; it's between a hamburger and a head of broccoli. And it's not about whether that head of broccoli is organic or not; it's that it exists. So, the important thing is to start changing your diet in a way where you're eating more plants."
Within his constant string of criticism is where this begins to unravel. For example, Bittman's observation that "we're creating a food system that's not designed to benefit consumers" is erroneous, and he rhetorically asks, "Why don't we make it easier to buy fruits and vegetables?"
That doesn't make sense. Getting back to my bananas-in-the-snowstorm story: We live in a time of unprecedented luxury and options. Be it bananas or broccoli or artichokes or whatever item you want, fruits and vegetables have never been more ubiquitous.
That's no accident; it's the result of a highly interconnected, intensively managed global logistics system that delivers food when we want it and where we want it — all for the benefit of consumers.
Broad criticism is popular in some circles (after all, it helps sell books). However, that type of reckless condemnation disregards the incredible advancements we've made over time.
Do we need to eat more nutritiously? Sure, but that's a matter of personal choice; the blame doesn't lie with the system.
None of us are "victims" of food growers or manufacturers. After all, there are more options available than ever before. Many foods are available throughout the year, and if that weren't the case, selling books to promote broccoli instead of hamburgers would be unthinkable. We'd be constrained to eating only what was available seasonally and/or regionally.
Therefore, the benefit of eating better comes only because the current system enables it, not in spite of it. Any observation to the contrary is somewhat like biting the hand that feeds you.
*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.