The Food Post
Everyone's got a different area of focus. I have a friend who is an obsessive recycler (you know how I feel about that). Another acquaintance is a huge environmentalist and supports animal causes. A third is committed to helping the homeless. Then there's Gordon, who is genius with economics trends.
My obsession is food. For me, food is the most critical political, cultural, physical, and spiritual issue we are currently facing -- globally. It intersects multiple major trends and is a bell-weather for the state of the planet and of humanity.
Spoiler alert: the canary is dead.
The rise of industrial agriculture started after WWII and ramped up quickly through the early to mid 70s. Known, ironically, as the green revolution, wartime technology was used instead for making more food for more people. Not that this is a bad goal. I'm not elitist or entitled enough to think that kids starving and dying or going blind from vitamin A deficiency is OK (let them eat organic cake!). But there are just a few issues with how we met that goal:
- We paid for modern agricultural methods with fossil fuels, a non-sustainable resource.
- We put the control of our global food supply in the hands of a few conglomerates, without any oversight.
- We focused more on yield than on quality, and eventually on nothing but profits.
- We depleted the soil, polluted the groundwater, increased erosion, and contributed to global warming -- ironically impacting future generations' ability to grow food.
- Our intensive methods of raising animal protein is not only unconscionably cruel to animals, but leads to less healthy and even actively harmful food.
- We promoted mono-cultures and large scale agriculture, which make our food supply a lot more fragile and a lot less nutritious.
- We focused our efforts on a few staples, high in carbs and low in nutrients.
- As part of that focus, we subsidized these crops with government money and when the surplus was too much we started using more and more of them in modern food products
- We tied our agricultural system directly into our industrial food system.
- We thought we solved the food issue, but we never could solve the political, corruption, and economic issues that keep people starving to this day.
- Still, all that food fed our population growth, beyond what is sustainable for the planet to support.
|Corn yields (and in fact all yields) started increasing rapidly in the '40s |
with the advent of industrial agriculture.
|Which did make food more affordable, at least in the US.|
(And only until recently, you will note)
|In the '70s, we started turning it into high fructose corn syrup...|
|...which drove our fast food culture...|
|... and how much we eat...|
|...and increased obesity...|
|... and then diabetes.|
|...and, amazingly, increased the rate of food waste.|
Clearly, the increase in production made food cheaper -- but in quality as well as price. Food was less nourishing and more disposable. There was more of it, but it still didn't get where it was most needed.
The US is the leading edge of this trend. And as a result we spend less of our income on food than in any other country.
|Trust me, this isn't because we eat less|
But even if the food we were creating were good for us, the method of production is completely unsustainable. For this, I'm just going to point you to The Atlantic for a nice chart-driven overview of what's wrong with the way we grow food. The TL;DR version is that we're running out of phosphorus, which we need to fertilize our crops and keep from starving to death.
Our food system is fragile to ecological and economic shocks. And our environment has been damaged, which makes those shocks more likely:
- The overuse of chemical fertilizers that poison our groundwater and destroy the soil
- The use of pesticides that have created resistant bugs and 'super weeds'
- The use of glyphosate that kills bees -- bluntly, our bee population is directly responsible for a third of our food supply (and indirectly responsible for even more)
- The depletion of soil from monoculturing -- despite the bullshit about organic produce being no healthier than sprayed, the truth is that all food is less healthy... because the soil is less healthy
- The loss of topsoil due to erosion (deforestation for cattle, etc.)
- The use of preventative antibiotics in feedlot animals that's creating resistance in human populations
- The injection of growth hormones that have an impact on the environment
- The creation of genetically modified organisms without any disinterested oversight, with the potential to impact ecosystems and trigger human allergies and the specific encouragement of high pesticide use
- The control of seed saving (which is one of the things that I consider to be literally a mortal sin) and the subsequent elimination of regional food varieties
- The globalization of food production/distribution, to the point that apples from New Zealand are shipped to Washing State (apple capital of the US) or that California produces 82% of the world's almonds
- The use of our precious and limited agricultural capacity to create twinkies and coca cola
- Industrial food processing, with it's nutritional depletion and greater risk of food-born illnesses
- The inability of people to feed themselves at any level of the process (gardening, preserving, shopping, cooking, eating)
- Food deserts -- places where the poor can not access real food
- The school lunch program and soda machines in schools -- the worst crap fed to our youth
That's right, we can't actually grown enough to feed ourselves anymore
|Which probably explains why food's actually been getting less affordable in the US in the past 15 years|
Though we want to be careful using price as an indicator of anything because of the rise of speculation and new risky financial instruments in the commodities market. It's turned what was supposed to be a mechanism for stabilizing food prices and protecting farmers into another legal casino for the 1%, where as usual, the 99% get fucked through no fault of their own as food prices experience increased volatility.
But there is something more here. Something that goes beyond the facts and charts and history of food in this country. It's the reason that I'm so passionate about this topic. It's the reason that I consider the persecution of seed saving such an atrocity.
Food isn't just necessary in the Maslow sense, it's also spiritually and emotionally necessary. Food is how we connect to the planet. It's how we create community. It's how we manifest love in tangible -- edible -- form. I don't mean this metaphorically. I mean it very literally, and magically. When we corrupt our food, we corrupt our relationships with the planet and each other. I'm not saying that the days of famine were great but back then we at least knew the value of food and produced and shared it on a much more local level. There are still places where this occurs, but they are few and far between. We could have had the best of both worlds: improved nutrition, reduced hunger, and protection for the planet. The fact that we have so much food, but that it's so cheap and empty, is a result of and metaphor for our consumer culture. By devaluing our food we devalue ourselves and our relationships.
OK, the meeting's gone on long enough...action item time (sorry for getting all corporate, but if you leave a discussion without some concrete things to do then it was just a waste of time). You need to become more robust or even antifragile to the risk of our fragile food system breaking down in some way. Whether it's the drought in California, a giant salmonella outbreak, a sharp spike in oil prices that makes distribution more expensive, commodities trading bastards screwing up prices, or WWIII.
Here are things you could do to reduce the risk to you of an edible Black Swan (tastes like chicken). Some of this may sound annoying or boring or like it won't fit into your cosmopolitan, urban, overworked life. But you have to do it anyway. Because it's food, you know. Bonus karma points for being kinder to animals and people as well.
- Learn to cook. And I mean really cook, from scratch. Bake bread and make noodles. Make stock. Put together meals without gravy mixes, cans of soup, or any commercial 'helpers'. You don't always have to cook or cook from scratch, but you need to know how because it'll save you money which is important for the next step.
- Get ready to spend more -- a lot more -- on groceries. There are several steps here, the first being actually buying more food and less food-like products. But even that's not enough. You need to buy better versions of both real and processed food. And, I'll be blunt, that's going to cost you. I actually made a chart for this (I'm sorry, I'm a PM, it's in my blood). But basically, you want organic, free range, fair trade, grassfed... all the expensive versions of the "regular" (i.e. industrial) food. It really does matter. For you, for the planet, for the people in the cellar (when you eat Hershey's you support child slavery -- go here for a list of better options).
This is what we go for when we shop. Obviously when we eat out we are less picky (though we try to eat at local places and ethic food and not giant chains). And food at work is food at work (working lunches, client dinners).
- Go local. Find farmers markets or farm stands or CSAs in your area. This is critical. Not only will you be getting better, fresher food, you'll be supporting local small-scale agriculture. When the shit hits the fan and the shelves at the regular grocery are empty, this is what you'll be eating. That can never happen? Right. It always happens.
We're not strict locavores because we find it unrealistic and kind of silly (people used to get scurvy in the winter, I don't mind lemons from California). But we do subscribe to the theory of "local kitchen/global pantry" as a guideline. We don't wait for local bananas and lemons to come into season, because we'd be waiting a long time. But I also refuse to buy New Zealand apples during the 5 or 6 weeks you can't get local ones. If it has a local season, I wait for that season. Still we live in an area where this is easier to get away with. Even if you can't do that where you are (without eating pemmican and hardtack all winter) you should do it as much as you can.
- Learn to preserve food. If you're shopping this way, you will want to take advantage of sales. Not to mention that if you buy seasonally, you want to get more when you can to eat when it's not available. You don't have to put up your whole pantry, but you should have the skills and equipment to make food last longer... just in case you have to. Besides it's fun. Our family has experimented with the following: beer, yogurt, cheese, fermented veggies, preserves, pickles, shrubs, herbal teas, drying, kefir, kombucha, curing meats, freezing, mineral water (yes, we've made our own mineral water). Some were successful and some not so much (oh kombucha, how I loathed thee). None of this is a big deal. It's all done casually when we have a surplus, or something needs to be used up, or because it saves money, or tastes a hell of a lot better.
- Garden. We don't do as much of this as we should or used to, because a family injury made things very difficult for several years and the garden was one of the things that dropped off the bottom of the priority list. We do grow herbs, and have some fruit trees. This year I'm putting in some tomatoes (organic heirloom, the better version thing applies here too).
- Raise animals. There are other foods you can produce in an urban yard, depending on where you live. The backyard chicken is a hipster cliche around these parts and some people keep rabbits (which I like to call coneys because Tolkien is awesome and I'm more comfortable eating coney than rabbit -- which is illogical, but hey). We don't raise eggs or meat right now, but we are getting an apiary in the spring, which is very exciting.
Whenever I talk about food, I find I attract accusations of elitism. Oh, sure, maybe some people can afford organic produce or grass fed beef or have space for a garden or time to preserve, but lot of people can't and don't and what about them! You're just a snob, a foodie, with your six kinds of salt and heirloom baby veggies.
But I ask you, since when is eating healthy, local food snobbish? Look, I believe that safe, sustainable, healthy food should be an inalienable right for all people. It should not be a luxury. Throughout history, people who were poorer than the poorest American still grew food. Share croppers grew their own food after working in the landowners' fields all day. They did it because they had to, because they wanted to eat. It was a priority. Cities fed themselves with rooftop gardens and community plots, and during the WWII families in allied countries grew victory gardens to support the war effort and feed their families. They were the opposite of snobs.
The idea that questioning the healthy and safety of our food supply makes you elitist is a con. It's a line that industry feeds you to keep you from speaking up and acting out. We have more and cheaper calories in the modern West than at any other time in human history. So sit down and eat your Disney Brand Corn-soya Frozen Micro-meal (TM) and take your metformin and your statins and shut up. If it were unhealthy, we couldn't sell it. Right? Right?
But politics aside, our global food supply is in danger. And it will be the poor who will be most impacted. First the poor in other countries and then the poor in our own. If we don't buy from the local farmers, then there will not be local farmers for when we need them. Look around you. Do you live in a place that can feed itself? Because if you don't, you need to think hard about what's most important to you. And if you do, you need to take the time, and the money, to dig beneath the surface to find the real food. It's literally a matter of life and death.
Related: Food Sustainability, Eat Less Shit