Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On Food, Culture and Me (con't)

Writer's note: this turned into a bit of a manifesto - sorry about that. In lieu of this, I am posting portions, not the whole thing - so as not to overwhelm completely.

I also somehow obtained the book entitled Waistland: The R/evolutionary Science Behind our Weight and Fitness Crisis by Dierdre Barrett, a psychologist and professor at Harvard. Now, I am not generally pulled in y “self-help” genre of books, but this piqued my interest. Perhaps because of the term “evolution” in the title, or perhaps because it puts a behaviorist’s spin on why I behave the way I behave, I’m not really sure. The author starts out on an evolutionary perspective, talking about our ancestors, how they would be hunter-gatherers, eating upwards of 500 species of plants and animals, depending on the season and the location. This has greatly declined with the advent of modern day farming, encouraging more monocultures of fruits and vegetables (plots of land planted with a single plant species). This decreases the diversity of food available to us to things that we can cultivate and grow in large areas. And more recently, this has led to the selection of plants that produce pretty things that travel well. Things that don’t bruise easily from a long train ride, things that can be shipped a million miles and still arrive waxy and shiny on your grocery store shelf. I must admit, when I look at the fruits locally grown in my farmer’s market, I often think they look unappealing. The apples are dull and perhaps a bit bruised. The tomatoes are not as red. The strawberries are not nearly as large. All of these traits have been selected for, mostly to the detriment of taste, vitamins and substance. The author argues that it’s unfortunate that we’ve had to choose to walk away from our hunter gatherer ways to settle on farming. She argues that perhaps farming was not the great advance we thing it was. I’m not entirely sure about THAT point of view, but I definitely see her point. We’ve lost touch with the way we evolved. And we’ve lost touch with our food supply.
When I went to India and Nepal, I was fascinated. The trip was amazing and beautiful and really cannot be described in words. One of the common things about traveling is food – you have to try the local fare, sample it all. There were fruits and vegetables everywhere, ones I had never seen, and such wonderful things as watermelon juice and fresh mangoes. Fruit looked a little different and all vegetables were cooked to within an inch of recognition. One night, a fellow traveller ordered a chicken (a whole one) for dinner. The chicken came to the table, dressed in sauce, fresh from the tandoor. Everyone at the table began remarking about the size of the chicken. It’s wings were thin and paltry. The legs had hardly any meat on them. The breast and body were tiny compared to the American chickens we were used to. I began to think about this – which was right? Which was wrong? Had we grown so accustomed to our bloated, genetically modified meats that we no longer recognized a “real” chicken? Or were Indian standards for meat much lower and younger chickens were allowed to be killed? Or were these what chickens USED to look like before corporate American got it’s hands on chickens and altered them forever? I wasn’t quite sure at the time, but I am sure now. Our chickens are screwed up, man. They’re overfed, unexercized and fattened to the point of being nearly unrecognizable to the rest of the free world. While in India, I also saw animals being led to slaughter at local butcher stands. People would walk their goat or sheep to the stand, where it’s throat was slit and it was butchered for sale. I was mortified. Mortified. Even though I’m a scientist, I don’t handle blood well. I also think that seeing something like that could put me off meat for a few weeks. Then I started thinking about it more. Where does my food come from? What do the plants look like? Where are the animals raised? How are they raised? How are they treated? As an American, I have become so disconnected with my food that I have no idea. And for the most part, I don’t want to know. I don’t want to see slaughter. I don’t want to think about where my meat came from. But maybe I do. Maybe I should think about where it came from. Maybe I should know that it was raised on a farm in the middle of Iowa. Maybe I should know that it was confined to a cage for it’s entire life. I mean, I AM putting this stuff in my body, right? Shouldn’t I have some connection to it? Shouldn’t I have some sense of the sacrifice that animal gave for me to live? Shouldn’t I know what types of hormones and antibiotics and pesticides I am putting in my body?
The answer for me is yes. I should know and I should pay attention. And it’s mixed up in my head with my wanting to be healthy and live a long enough life to see my grandkids grow up. Another part of me wants to feel good about the food I eat. Another part does not want to support this ridiculousness that is corporate food. The whole idea of someone else “taking care of things for me”. That I have no say in how animals are treated or how millions of acres of corn are subsidized but broccoli is not. How thousands of edible vegetable and fruit plans are literally facing extinction because of the loss of genetic diversity we’ve perpertrated. I am not OK with that. I’m also not OK with how oil soaked our food has become. I’m disappointed with how far we’ve drifted from healthy operating farms. Farms used to raise lots of fruits and vegetables and deliver only to the local markets, close to home. Didn’t want anything to spoil. Everything should be fresh. Animals were kept on the farm because their manure was the best way to fertilize the land. Very little oil required. The Amish still farm this way, right outside the city. But we’ve decided, for some reason, that animals should live apart from the farm. Their manure should pile up and create toxic messes in feedlots and go unused for fertilizer or anything else. Crops should instead be fertilized by petroleum based products. They should also be polluted with insecticide just to make sure everything around them is good and dead. I don’t know about you, but I am also not OK with this.
Here in PA, there’s a huge deer problem. They’re everywhere. Just outside the city for hundreds of miles: deer. Don’t get me wrong, I love deer. I think they are beautiful and amazing creatures – ones I hadn’t seen in CA. The reason the deer population is so out of control is because their natural predators, mountain lions and wolves, have been eliminated from this region by overhunting. In fact, I am pretty sure the mountain lions of PA are completely extinct. This is disastrous for an ecosystem. The deer run amok, out of control, eating vegetation down to its last bits and pieces. Plants are unable to grow and reproduce properly and disease easily spreads among deer. As the population spirals out of control, and entire ecosystem can collapse, leading to the demise of many of the plants and animals that depend on some part of the ecosystem to survive. This is a bad thing, obviously. To a certain extent, we’ve been able to control the deer population by issuing hunting permits and allowing herd culls. The biggest problem with this is that it’s not natural selection. Hunters are picking off the deer that happen by their perch, not the deer weakened by disease or hunger, like a wolf pack might (and, of course, you might not want to eat the one sickened by hunger – you want the 12-point buck, right?). I’m not saying hunting is wrong, I’m just saying it doesn’t work to the advantage of the herds’ health. It the same thing with farming. We culture a thousand plants and don’t want some bug to eat the plants. Makes sense. However, killing off those bugs with pesticide kills off other things too, things that might be beneficial. Things in the soil that convert bad soil to good. Earthworms that turn anything they eat into rich dirt. Birds that eat the bugs. Etc., etc. I think I knew all this stuff, but I didn’t know it, really. Reading these books has brought it to the forefront of my mind recently. And it makes sense. Organic and sustainable makes sense. A lot more sense that polluting the shit out of everything.

To be continued...

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