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.
The results is that the developing world is malnourished while the developed world is obese and malnourished. And despite this, 14% of US households deal with food insecurity while we throw out 35 million tons of food every year. Globally, one-third of the food we produce never gets eaten. I find I'm actually unable to form a coherent statement on this epic, epic fail. 

...So have some charts:

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)

So what did we do with all that extra food?

In the '70s, we started turning it into high fructose corn syrup...

... which changed what we eat...


... and how much we eat... 
...which drove our fast food culture...


...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:
Everything, and I mean everything, points to a system that's tottering on the edge of complete collapse. And the statistics are starting to bear this out. 

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.

It's almost impossible to summarize how this system is broken, because it's broken so very badly in so many directions. And it's broken in the profit interests of several different industries including the chemical/agribusinesses, food product manufacturers, media/marketing conglomerates, and big-pharma (who get to sell us all those statins and cancer treatments). There is not a government conspiracy to give poor people diabetes. There doesn't have to be. The corporatocracy is getting the same result just through the profit principle.

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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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. 
  5. 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). 
  6. 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. 
Maybe you can't do all of these, but start at the top and each thing you do will help reduce your risk.

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

Comments

  1. Learning to eat where you live is challenging, too. It's not something you're going to learn in a week or a year. You have to learn to eat what's at the farmers' market in season, yes; but you also have to learn what your staples are, and what the meals are that you return to, over and over. That means learning to understand what's going to be available in November and February, which foods you can put into storage long-term(and how to keep animalia out of it), and how much of it to keep on hand. I once bought a fifty-pound bag of rice when I noticed that grocery stores weren't quite re-stocking in the Bush Jr. years, but that wasn't a good bet for a then-single guy in a boarding school's teacher-apartment; I didn't want to eat rice all the time. Flour and some bread bowls and bread tins were a better bet; so was a noodle making machine.

    The critical thing to remember about securing the supply chain of your own food is that it's exhausting, though. Several years ago, my town and street lost power in a freak October snowstorm that cost us ten days without electricity. Grilling was fine for a couple of days... but it was cold inside, and the thermostats in my house ran on electricity (since replaced with models that are mostly mechanical and have battery back-up to run the furnace's gas system). The grocery stores weren't selling anything cold for days, they weren't getting new deliveries of stuff so the shelves were mostly empty, and anything that required a cookpot or an oven was essentially impossible. It was a good thing a) that my workplace was closed but b) they were still paying me, because I was taking 2-4 hours a day traveling around to various places to get ingredients that I thought I could cook. Planning was essentially impossible in the moment.

    That said, when I did encounter food, I bought some for my neighbors; and they ultimately wound up doing the same for me. It's important, especially in the earlier emergencies, to demonstrate care for the folks around you because you need them when the later emergencies strike. And there will be later emergencies, that's more or less guaranteed. Plus, there's nothing quite the visible gratitude when you show up with milk and cereal at a house that's been without both for days...

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  2. You're right, it's not easy. And that sucks because with our technology and infrastructure it should be. But it's certainly easier to start thinking about it before the problem hits (long before, as you wisely pointed out).

    The mitigation for the risk of a power outage are different from that of a food shortage -- even though the two can happen together. Lasting 10 days without power would be challenging for anyone who hadn't already crafted a whole life around it (color me super impressed). We have LOTS of pantry staples, a stock of meat in a big freezer in the garage, and the ability to camp cook with propane (you just have to vent carefully). But our heater is also electric and we don't have a fireplace. The last time we lost power (2008), the roads were completely impassible as well (ice storm -- even the post office shut down for several days).

    Fortunately, we rarely have power problems here. If we did, I'd invest in a whole house natural gas generator (and if I wanted to be antifragile, I'd sell them to others).

    What you experienced during those 10 days (communities banding together to feed themselves, gratitude for milk and cereal) is what used to draw us together every winter. The struggle to feed ourselves was a real, visceral thing up to about 75 years ago.

    The reason cooking is top of my list is that keeping a stockpile of food at home requires that you cook and eat from your stock regularly to keep things circulating. So year, 50 lbs of rice is a challenge for a single person or small family. Though freezing the uncooked rice in sealed bags would keep little visitors out.

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  3. Aye the circulation of your food-stocks is really critical. If you're eating out too often, you're putting your own stores at risk. And learning to cook is mission-critical. A beginner should find a grimoire-like cookbook (I recommend Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food and the companion volume, but she's also a little too Mediterranean-y for a New Englander, really). What makes a cookbook grimoire-like? Ironically, fewer recipes, and more cooking procedures — how to roast, how to broil, how to steam, how to pan-fry. How to do these with fruits, vegetables, fish, meats, starches. How to make complex second-order ingredients, like noodles and bread, from first-order ingredients like flour and eggs. How to make sauces and dressings for those ingredients. There's HUGE numbers of cookbooks with mouth-watering-sounding recipes; but a beginner often needs to master a set of six to twelve recipes first, and then build variations on those; in this same way, of course, a would-be magician learns to raise a circle and banish unwanted spirits, and then to summon lesser spirits before the greater ones. It's not always an easy process; but it's rewarding.

    I realize, of course, as I type this that I'm stating what's probably already obvious to you; but maybe it's beneficial for your readers. Thank you for some good thoughts around how to revise one's relationship with food.

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    Replies
    1. No, your points are really valid. I took a look at my cookbook shelf and about two-thirds of them are in the grimoire category. They're either how to books (bread making, baking, fermenting, pressure cooking) or my husband's texts from culinary classes -- which are extremely useful for basic recipes, but require that you cut any recipe in them way down (custard -- 2 dozen eggs...).

      In my opinion, the very, very best book of this type for home cooks is Ruhlman's Ratios (http://ruhlman.com/2009/04/ratio-the-simpl/). Genius.

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  4. I'm a northwesterner who's been dying to get out of California (and woh won't be able leave for family reasons anytime soon). My mind has changed a bit about CA as I grow more conscious of the looming food crisis: yes, the drought is worrisome, but locally grown food is currently plentiful, and we have an almost year-round growing season that could work in my family's favor in the coming years. I'm looking for a new house and one of my big criteria is "can it support a small but packed garden, orchard, and chickens"?

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  5. Go North young man. The Pacific Northwest is like all the positives and none of the negatives of CA.

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