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A poem by Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Entry #6 – 7/26/2010

I’ve received many questions regarding what the local and organic food movements are all about.  Originally this post was going to be a brief introduction to what these two movements are, why they are important, and how they contribute to the larger picture of sustainability.  Instead, it has morphed into a short critique of the industrial food system with a few suggestions at the end on how to slowly break free from this system.  Rest assured, more posts are to come that will focus on the local and organic food movements more specifically.

Before we get started, I want to pose a question: What could possibly be more important than the food we put into our bodies?  As far as I’m concerned, there are two possible acceptable answers to this question: 1) the air we breath and 2) the water we drink.  Apart from those two necessities of life, the food we eat is the most vital part of our physical existence.  So, what would it look like if food was where it should be on our list of priorities?  What if we were as interested in the origins of our food as we are with reality television and celebrity gossip?  What if we spent as much time thinking about and preparing food as we do on facebook and entertainment?  What if we took a proactive role in our food from farm to plate, rather than continue to be the passive consumers we are today?  Keep these questions in mind as you read on and as you go about your daily lives.


“Food” has changed more in the past fifty years than it has in the previous ten-thousand.  The rise of new technologies in agricultural production and food processing, as well as advances in food science have given us a bounteous, season-less, and exceedingly cheap harvest.  Not only has the food itself changed, but also the way in which we consume it – increasingly fast and in front of the television, in the car, or at the desk.  At the same time, we seem to be a people absolutely obsessed with food, nutrition, and health.  What are the consequences to all of these new technologies, sciences, eating habits, and obsessions?  That is the question I hope to scratch the surface of answering with this post.

Today we produce massive, unprecedented amounts of food and we do it at very low monetary costs to consumers.  Sounds great, right?  Perhaps, but there are consequences and costs to this kind of agriculture – costs that are not necessarily monetary and are, more often than not, difficult to see.  For instance: the way industrial agriculture produces food has tremendous costs to health; that includes costs to the health of the environment, costs to the health of the plants and animals being produced, and costs to our own health.

Costs to the environment: There are costs to the health and sustainability of the land and the total environment as products are grown in unsustainable ways and shipped hundreds or thousands of miles from pasture to plate.  What I mean by “grown in unsustainable ways” is we grow in ways that might work well on an economic level, but not on an ecological level.  One easy area to see this is in monoculture (the cultivation of a single crop in a given area) and it is prevalent throughout modern agriculture.  Nature doesn’t produce things in monoculture, and there’s a reason – it’s terribly inefficient.  Without going into too much detail, as more and more of one crop is grown in a given area, dependence on large amounts of water and fertilizers increases as the soil becomes unfertile degraded.  Dependence on pesticides also increases as the risk of bugs destroying entire fields of crops is a very real concern.  This is a topic I’m sure to hit more on in the future.  For now, if you want more information on the environmental impacts of modern agriculture check out this site: http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/~agroeco3/modern_agriculture.html

It’s also worth mentioning here the degree to which modern agriculture depends on oil, or maybe more importantly; cheap oil.  In many ways we are eating this cheap oil – it’s connected to everything from the fertilizer, to the pesticide, to the farm equipment, to the processing, to the packaging, and to the transportation.  Modern agriculture simply could not do what it does without oil, and it could not continue the way it does today if oil becomes more expensive.  There are two things that are guaranteed to happen – oil will become more expensive and oil will eventually run out.  There are disagreements on when these will happen, but it is undeniable and inevitable that oil will one day be depleted and before it does it’s going to get very expensive.  Forget ecological sustainability, our system is physically and economically hinged on a resource that is volatile and finite – how could it be anything but unsustainable, how could it be more related to food security?

Costs to the plants and animals:  There are costs to the health of the animals as they are fed food they weren’t ecologically designed to eat, they are kept in cages their whole lives in which they have no room to turn around, and they are living their lives in a warehouse or a crowded factory farm, knee deep in their own excrement.  In order to keep the animals alive and producing in these horrible, unhealthy environments, large amounts of antibiotics are needed.  In addition, to get the animals to grow faster and produce more meat, eggs, or milk, they are given steroids and hormones, which are effective but have drastic and painful effects on the animal.  It’s the same sort of deal for plants.

Costs to our health: Then there are the costs to our health as we ingest all the chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, preservatives, pollutants, and diseases) that are needed by industrial agriculture to produce these large amounts of cheap food.  There is also food processing, which produces for us thousands of “edible food-like substances,” products that are not “food” in a traditional sense but are none-the-less consumable.  Often these products are easy or ready-made for us in nifty little packages or cans.  But there are consequences to buying products that suggest eating and preparing real food is an inconvenience or an interruption to our busy lives.  There are also consequences to allowing corporations to do our cooking for us.  Add all this together and we have the makings of our very own pandemic of prevalent diseases; obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, just to name a few.  We are literally poisoning ourselves.

For a nation and a culture that is absolutely obsessed with health and nutrition, we are undeniably a country filled with very unhealthy people.  Michael Pollan talks of this ironic paradox in his book In Defense of Food.  Part of the problem is we take our health cues from the very industry that is poising us in the first place.  This is one reason why he suggests avoiding foods that make health claims.  The other reason is that if a certain product makes a health claim, it’s a good indicator that it isn’t really “food.”  Another part of the problem is the mechanistic and reductionist paradigm under which food science operates.  Nutritionists are in constant pursuit of the optimal equation for a healthy human being.  Often a group of researchers will advocating one type of diet, or food, or nutrition over another (e.g. the Atkins diet).  But food science, while providing us with a host of knowledge, is massive in volume, very limited in contextual understanding, and extremely confusing (especially for the average consumer).  Is milk good or bad?  What’s healthier, egg yokes or egg whites,? margarine or butter?  Everybody has an opinion, but even “experts” don’t seem to have definitive answers and if they do it took years to get there.  We’ve been bombarded and influenced by so much information, so many products (47,000 of them in the average supermarket to be precise), constant advertising, and an endless array of food “fads,” it’s no wonder why walking through the supermarket today is a very confusing and overwhelming experience.

Wendell Berry wrote an essay in 1989 entitled “The Pleasures of Eating.”  In it, he discusses the problems associated with industrial agriculture which I have paraphrased below.  He goes on to outline seven ways in which we can reconnect to our food and make our eating experience more healthy, ethical, and pleasurable.  This essay can be found in its entirety HERE or in book of collected essays entitled What Are People For?

The over-riding concern for the agricultural industry – as with any industry – is not quality and health, but volume and price.  The entire industrial food economy, which is the primary (if not the only) source of the food we eat today, is obsessed with volume and makes decisions based on costs and profits.  So the industrial food economy, from large factory farms and feedlots to the chains of supermarkets and fast-food restaurants, has increased scale in order to increase volume in order to reduce costs.  But as scale increases, diversity declines; as diversity declines, so does health; as health declines, the dependence on drugs and chemicals necessarily increases.  As capital replaces labor, it does so by substituting machines, drugs, and chemicals for human workers and for the natural health and fertility of the land.  So it’s a cycle set in motion by the system itself to become more efficient and profitable in an economic sense, but has the effect of becoming more destructive and unhealthy in a human and Earthly sense.

Eaters must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.  This is a simple way of describing a relationship that is inexpressibly complex.  To eat responsibly is to understand and enact, so far as we can, this complex relationship.  What can one do?  Here is a list, probably not definitive:

1.  Participate in food production to the extent that you can.  If you have a yard or even just a porch box or a pot in a sunny window, grow something to eat in it.  Make a little compost of your kitchen scraps and use it for fertilizer.  Only by growing some food for yourself can you become acquainted with the beautiful energy cycle that revolves from soil to seed to flower to fruit to food to offal to decay, and around again.  You will be fully responsible for any food that you grow for yourself, and you will know all about it.  You will appreciate if fully, having known it all its life.

2.  Prepare your own food [as opposed to letting corporations do it for you].  This means reviving in your own mind and life the arts of kitchen and household.  This should enable you to eat more cheaply, and it will give you a measure of “quality control”: you will have some reliable knowledge of what has been added to the food you eat.

3.  Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home.  The ida that every locality should be, as much as possible, the source of its own food makes several kinds of sense.  The locally produced food supply is the most secure, the freshest, and the easiest for local consumers to know about and to influence.

4.  Whenever possible, deal directly with the local farmer, gardener, or orchardist.  …[b]y such dealing you eliminate the whole pack of merchants, transporters, processors, packagers, and advertisers who thrive at the expense of both producers and consumers.

5.  Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production.  What is added to food that is not food, and what do you pay for these additions [in monetary costs as well as in costs to your health and to the health of natural world]?

6.  Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening.

7.  Learn as much as you can, by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of the food species.  [For example]…I dislike the thought that some animal has been made miserable in order to feed me.  If I am going to eat meat, I want it to be from an animal that has lived a pleasant, uncrowded life outdoors, on bountiful pasture, with good water nearby and trees for shade.  And I am getting almost as fussy about food plants.  I like to eat vegetables and fruits that I know have lived happily and healthily in good soil, not the products of the huge, bechemicaled factory fields…  The industrial farm is said to have been patterned on the factory production line.  In practice, it looks more like a concentration camp.

The pleasure of eating goes even beyond the categories of politics, esthetics, and ethics of food.  “Eating with the fullest pleasure – pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance – is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.  In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.

Further Reading:
In Defense of Food – by Michael Pollan
The Unsettling of America – by Wendell Berry
Crisis and Opportunity – by John Ikerd
Deep Economy – by Bill Mckibben

Also watch the 2009 documentary, Food Inc.

Entry #2  4/10/2010

 

Currently Reading:

The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer
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The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year Round Vegetable Production Using Deep Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses
by Eliot Coleman

The New Organic Grower
By Eliot Coleman

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Anthill: A Novel
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