Benjamin R. Cohen


On his book Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food

Cover Interview of March 25, 2020


What I learned about this period in history was that there was a major shift in agricultural activity, ethics, and food identity in a busy half century: what had been an age-old mode of understanding food based on the process transformed by the early 20th century to one understood by attention to the product. Instead of the thick culture of agricultural activity, agrarian livelihoods, and the experiences of cultivating, processing, sharing, selling, and preparing food to eat—all about process and activity—government regulation, corporate marketing, and scientific analysis focused on the product at the end of the agricultural lifecycle.

This is especially apparent as codified in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and, then, the FDA that soon derived from it. That producer-to-consumer change became my main point of interest as I thought about current issues of food and agricultural ethics. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), food additives, and continuing angst over contamination define the comparable worries of our twenty-first century.

For me, a study of the era of adulteration shows that debating the merits of food identity and safety at the end of the food life cycle—the consumer option at the store—gives up the majority of the work we call agricultural, ethical, and political. The book’s implications, and I say this outright in the epilogue, are that to argue over GMOs and chemical additives today requires more attention to the environmental circumstances producing them and the cultural values at play, not just the product resulting from those processes.