The Call, Column 83 – More Food for Thought

29 10 2017

(October 29, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

More Food for Thought

            What is food?

This question began my last column, starting us on an adventure through the history of hungry living things on our planet. We left off around 10,000 years ago, with the basic definition of “food” that has sustained essentially every single animal, since we first emerged from the primordial soup hundreds of millions of years ago: food is the bodies of the right organisms, in the right amounts, from which energy and nutrients can be obtained.

Every species on the planet – ourselves included, at least until 10,000 years ago when we started agriculture – eats according to this basic definition of food, defined by their particular evolutionary history. And I would argue that eating this species-specific definition of “food” produces the greatest likelihood for achieving individual health and longevity.

But then, at least for the human animal, everything changed. Our hubris put an end to the golden era of diet, as it does to most good things. We ate from the Forbidden Tree, choosing to toil in the field in order to eat our bread. And we took upon ourselves the responsibility of gods, but with neither the wisdom, nor the power, nor the benevolence of the One who originally established us as hunter-gatherers.

Agriculture turned food into a human creation. No longer was our diet extracted from the same basic plants and animals on whose flesh we had evolved; rather, it was the product of our own toil, the spoils of our conquest and subjugation of previously-wild land, previously-wild plants, and previously-wild animals. This allowed tribes of early modern human beings to settle in one area, enabling them to produce more food per square foot than at any time prior, but making them dependent on their own labor to keep closed the thin veil between survival and starvation.

I cannot overstate the significance of this event, probably more than any other in our history. This marked the birth of civilization, and was the original cause of everything, good and bad, that has come with civilization. Settling down as agriculturalists naturally resulted in the development of human communities…at the expense of the long-term health of the land on which we settled. It allowed for the division of labor, and also for caste systems and the exploitation of the lower classes. It sparked the beginning of commerce and trade, and resulted in warfare between neighboring tribes in competition for the same (unnecessarily-) limited resources. It provided us with a more stable food supply, but made us susceptible to basically every disease we struggle against to this day.

Civilization allowed for all of this. We can argue until the cows come home whether it improved or worsened our species’ overall wellbeing, but it happened. And at the root of every product of civilization, as the basic premise upon which all of human endeavor sits, is the fact that we cultivate, rather than the hunt and gather, essentially all of our food. Food became the foundation and basis of human society.

And then, as the story goes, the first tribal communities morphed into nation-states. Agriculture-based settlements set themselves apart by more than just geographical distance. Human beings began to bow to different leaders, worship different gods, trade in different goods and currencies; and all the while, each state was but one strategic maneuver away from their rightful expansion into their neighbors’ land, or one wrong move away from the loss of their own. Food was a finite resource to be guarded, stolen, traded for, and won, and every cow your neighbor owned, every acre he planted, every bite he took…was one fewer for you.

Simultaneous to the political differentiation enabled by agriculture was the cultural differentiation. The development of a quasi-stable society, which was set in motion by the start of agriculture, freed up peoples’ time and brain-power for more nuanced work than hunting and gathering their food, or even growing it. Some were free to create poetry, music, and art of all kind; they studied philosophy and science; they practiced astrology and founded complex, often politically-charged religions. Distinct cultures developed, and the diets, culinary practices, and agricultural strategies unique to a certain people became one of the ways to define and distinguish them from others. Food became culture.

These basic definitions – food as a finite resource, as an element of culture, as the elemental foundation of civilized society and community – persisted for much of modern human history. Nearly all of us were agrarians, by association if not as farmers ourselves. Food was politics; it was culture; it was vocation; and it was limited. But despite being under domestication, it was still understood as an outcropping of the natural world. That is, until the late 19th century. And here’s where it gets really ugly, really fast.

As the Industrial Revolution burgeoned in the Western World, efficiency and uniformity became the name of the game. It stopped mattering, how tasty or nutritious your tomatoes were; margins were tight and global demand was skyrocketing, so it only mattered how many pounds you could squeeze out of every square foot. The question “is this cow being raised as healthfully as possible” was replaced with a more economical one, “is this cow being raised as efficiently as possible”. And as an answer to that question, the CAFO was developed.

Food, like every other consumable good, became a commodity under industrialization. My ear of corn is the same as your ear of corn, which is the same as one grown in Mexico or Greece or Arkansas – they are distinguishable only by how cheaply each can be grown and shipped.

And here, my friends, something strange happened. Up until some point in the early 20th century, we were still heterotrophs, relying on other “food” organisms to gather solar energy (plants), or concentrate it in an easily-digestible package (animals). But with the widespread implementation of fossil fuels as energy sources, and their adoption into agriculture – as both fuels and fertilizers – we began to both figuratively and quite literally eat fossil fuels. We, the kings and queens of the heterotrophs, have come to the point of using more non-biological, chemically-stored energy to feed ourselves than biological! Food has become a commodity, and somehow, it is a non-renewable, fossil-fuel-based commodity

We would be justified to leave the conversation here. This is an accurate description of food as it is currently defined. But it isn’t the only definition…and they only get worse.

The Industrial Revolution gave rise to a cold, soulless, reductionist view of food and human nutrition, one I’m sure that you are intimately familiar with…though I hope you know to look beyond it.

Modern nutrition has taken the approach of defining food as a means to an end – foods are simply combinations of water, fiber, protein, carbohydrates, fats, and micronutrients, and eating is simply a means towards consuming the perfectly-understood amounts of each of these substances needed to maintain a healthy life. There is no nuance, according to nutritional science, and food is not only a commodity, but simply the sum of its parts…just like the human beings consuming it. It is measurable and quantifiable. “Food” is just a number of Calories and associated amounts of vitamins and minerals; and balancing these numbers with your body’s requirements is the only consideration that is needed in order to be healthy. Food is a means to an end, and that’s it. How utterly absurd!

And finally, we’ve reached modern day. From a political standpoint, food is a commodity; from a scientific one, it’s a means to a nutritional end. But there is one more definition that arose together with our Postmodern Western Corporatocracy; the idea that’s more immediately responsible for our horrible “relationship with food” (God, I hate that phrase) than any other: Food. Is. A. Vice.

We are bombarded by aggressive marketing campaigns whose basic message is that our lives can be made better if we just eat the product that they’re selling. We are told to consume alcohol, sugar, and fast food as methods to cope with the stress of modern life. Ads convince us that good taste is what we crave – that consuming their “cheezy”, or “lo-fat”, or “naturally-sweetened” product, as part of a balanced lifestyle of course, will make us enjoy our lives more. And we’ve been convinced that the conspicuous consumption of certain foods – specific brands, certain health foods, that special new box of reconstituted garbage – can help to advance our place in society. I know, it’s hardly an intelligent view of food. But I didn’t say it…the TV did.

And there you have it. Food has gone from the basic energy and nutrients required by a species to live, to an agricultural commodity, all the way to a means of mass mind-control. At this point, it’s just a way to sell flashy combinations of wheat, corn, soy, milk, and sugar, the commodity crops that governments around the world subsidize in order to prevent food shortages and the associated political unrest. We’re in a bad place; there’s no kinder way to say it. We’ve discussed solutions to this problem in the past, and will do so in the future. But today, I just hope I’ve given you some food for thought.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

Advertisements




The Call, Column 82 – Food for Thought

17 10 2017

(October 15, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Food for Thought

            What is food?

That’s a question you probably haven’t heard before. And it might have caught you off guard, being that you and I are the Urban Farmer family, and food is kind of our thing.

But really, have you ever actually stopped and thought deeply about food? For me, it took many years of urban farming, developing an environmental awareness, steeping myself in evolutionary/Paleolithic nutrition, reading enough Wendell Berry, and (no word of lie) debating with people in the comment sections of food-related articles to really get me to think deeply about this question. And it’s a rabbit hole that you’ll probably find just as interesting as I do. Grab a flashlight, Alice, because Wonderland awaits!

Let me take you back a few billion years, when the Earth brought forth the first single-celled life. This, I think, is a good starting point for the definition that we’re trying to build today. One of the basic characteristics that defines life is the use of metabolism; that is, taking in energy and materials from the environment in order to support internal functions. This is true of every life-form on the planet, and as far as I’m concerned, it is the basic definition of “food” after all other nuance is stripped away. Food is energy and nutrients from the environment.

The first life on Earth was autotrophic; in addition to taking in materials from its environment, it “created its own energy” by taking in energy from non-living sources, either sunlight (photosynthesis) or chemicals/heat in its environment (chemosynthesis). Plants as well as certain bacteria and algae are autotrophs still present on Earth today.

But, contrary to what some would have you believe, we are not autotrophs. We are heterotrophs, organisms that must steal from, maim, or kill other organisms to supply themselves with energy. Like all other animals, fungus, and some microorganisms, our food must come from the body parts of other living things.

This sort of realization was striking for me, when I made it a year or two ago. There are people who claim that meat/eggs/milk are “not food, they’re murder/theft/etc”. Murder is defined as killing another human being, of course; but inflammatory terminology aside, this sentiment isn’t exactly wrong. ALL of a heterotroph’s food is the product of killing or stealing, by definition, if we believe that these acts are still defined as such when perpetrated against a non-human (they aren’t, but for the sake of argument, let’s broaden their definition). In this scope, “food” doesn’t actually exist. There is no lifeless sludge from which we can extract nourishment (Twinkies notwithstanding). Seeds are the unborn fetuses of plants; fruits are their ovaries; sap is the literal lifeblood (blueberry pancakes with extra syrup, anyone?).

This all might have turned your stomach, but it shouldn’t. We can’t photosynthesize, we can’t live off of volcanic heat, and we aren’t breatharians; for heterotrophs like us, food is the literal bodies of other organisms that contain energy and nutrients.

Getting a little more specific, all of life on Earth is divided into various levels of categorization. The principle, and arguably narrowest of these, is a “species”, a group of very similar organisms that can reproduce with one another.

Among other things, a species is defined by its diet, the things it eats in order to survive. Taking this a little further (warning: justifiable bias ahead), a species’ “optimal diet” is the subset of those things that it CAN eat, in the appropriate amounts necessary to both provide it with all energy and nutrients it needs, in optimal chemical form, but also minimizing its intake of toxins to a manageable level. This optimal diet is developed as an integral part, both a cause and effect, of its evolution.

Wild ruminants eat grass; that’s their optimal diet. They eat grass, because they have multiple stomachs and special bacteria in order to be able to digest grass; because they eat grass; because their stomachs and gut bacteria are supposed to digest grass; because they eat grass. Do you see my point? Their optimal diet developed as an integral part of their evolution. Domesticated cows are also supposed to eat exclusively grass as well, but our government subsidizes corn and soy in order to placate us…so we feed them an evolutionarily-inappropriate diet.

But wild species – animals, plants, fungus, microbes – they basically eat their optimal diets in almost every case. A tree “eats” sunlight and certain soil micronutrients because that’s what its evolutionary history dictates; with low-quality soil, it becomes sickly, and without sunlight, it dies. A robin eats earthworms, seeds, and the bottom half of each perfectly-ripe raspberry in my yard, because that’s what its evolutionary history dictates; if it doesn’t get the protein, fats, carbohydrates, fiber, and beneficial microorganisms that it needs from those foods, its health becomes suboptimal and it becomes more a more likely target for evolutionary purging.

The adherence to optimal, appropriate diet is a benchmark quality of healthy, stable species on Earth. Those individuals that eat appropriately are healthier and better able to survive, reproduce, and teach their offspring to eat similarly; those who don’t, aren’t. For the vast majority of species on earth, essentially all but human beings and their domesticated plants and animals, food is the bodies of the right organisms, in the right amounts.

If the answer to our question, “what is food?”, stopped here, with this last definition, all would be good. This definition is by-and-large the historically- and evolutionarily-normal one, acted upon for basically all of human history (and all of the history of every other species).

But we didn’t stop there. Next time, we will kick off at the start of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago, when the definition of food changed enormously, and has continued to do so throughout written history. Food is a lot more complicated now than ever before. Stay tuned.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 81 – Rest and Lie Fallow

1 10 2017

(October 1, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Rest and Lie Fallow

I am writing this column with more inspiration bouncing around my brain than for any one before…here goes.

In the past couple of years, as summer has transitioned over to autumn, I have often written a column or two about the hugely important “Fall Garden” – a second chance at a harvest; an extension of the season; one final push before we allow winter to envelop our urban farms for what will sometimes feels like forever.

This year, I am changing my tune. I still hugely support fall gardening, and encourage anyone with the energy, time, and motivation to put this paper down and go tend your broccolis and leafy greens right now.

But I won’t be planting a fall garden. At least this year. Before you disown me, please let me explain.

Since starting full-time work as an engineer last April (2016), I have slowly made myself more and more busy. I let this on a little in some columns during my Existential Period (last summer), but until fairly recently, I kept letting it get worse.

Now, I am the last person to glorify being “busy” – I don’t know if I’ve ever even used it as an excuse to get out of something (until this column, I guess). As far as I’m concerned, it is a matter of personal failure that a whopping majority of my time is pre-planned, and that I rarely allow myself time to relax. I just have so many interests, friends, family members, and the obligations that come with each, and also a very difficult time saying “no” to anyone, for anything, for any reason, that my lifestyle is the result. If any of you are fellow ENFPs, I know you can relate to my feeling that a meticulously pre-planned life is a horrible, ugly, nasty thing, one I am working very hard to change.

That’s enough complaining, though. You’ve just met the 2016-2017 version of Alex, and I can assure you he will be very different by 2018 (seriously hold me to it, under threat of every last one of my to-do lists being buried under a pile of chicken poop).

Today, I want to have a heart-to-heart with you. You don’t have to grow a fall garden. In fact, it might be better for everything and everyone involved if you let Nature reclaim that little parcel until next spring. Really, I promise, it’ll be fine.

Every year that I’ve been gardening (this was my 9th, I think), I have attempted some measure of fall gardening. In most of those years, it was just a way to keep the productive summer garden going. But this year, my garden has not done exceedingly well. I’ll chalk some of it up to the weather – periods of bone-dry heat, alternating with week-long stretches of cloudy skies and rain, that do not a strong tomato plant make – but it is certainly mostly my fault. Actually, given the pandemonium I spat out above, I’m genuinely amazed at the amount of tomatoes, green beans, and turnips that are ready for harvest as I write this.

And as always, the abrupt transition from summer to fall had me thinking about a fall garden. But this year, that garden would exist not as an extension of my beloved summer plot, but squarely as atonement for the sin of neglect. Hence why, I decided against it this year.

I need to get certain things in order, trim down some of my obligations, and recover some of the fire of passion that I used to have about my interests. Next year’s summer garden will be great, and if I find it in me, next year’s fall garden will also be great. But for right now, I’m looking forward to a lower-stress couple of months, without the impending certainty of failing at a fall garden, which itself would only have been an apology for the quasi-failure that came before.

And so with all of that said, I’ll share some good reasons (read: not excuses!) to harvest the last crops of summer, pull up spent plants and cut back perennials, and mulch the manure out of that bad boy until spring. I want to reiterate that I am not in any way discouraging fall gardening, which is a great activity that I will most likely do next year. I am merely giving a nod to those whose lives might make it more difficult for them to plant a second time this year, or whose underperforming summer garden has discouraged them from doing so: here’s why it’s ok to rest and lie fallow over winter…and let your garden do the same.

            It’s actually good for the land. If you look around in the middle of October, there is very little growing. Our climate is not exactly conducive to most plant growth during the late fall and winter, and has evolved certain biological and chemical rhythms in order to replenish itself during this time. Microbial activity is still occurring, and the winter is a chance for organic matter to break down, pathogens, weeds, and insect pests to be killed, and the soil to be given a rest from the extraction of nutrients that it endures the rest of the year. As long as you clean spent plants, mulch, and optionally plant some cover crops, your garden will be waiting for you, all the better for a nice rest, next spring

            It’s probably good for your family, friends, and pets. Gardening can be a time-expensive hobby. It is fulfilling, and productive, and a very natural thing for human beings to do. But allowing yourself the chance to rest for a few months of the year means you can devote more time to your family, friends, and pets.

The “family and friends” part should be self-evident, and so should the part about pets. But by “pets”, of course, I also mean chickens and other food animals. Obviously they cannot be allowed to lie fallow over winter (that’s called neglect). By temporarily removing your attention from the garden, you can give more of it to them – both empathetic attention, like you’d give any companion animal, and also productive attention – and they will be the better for it. You can use this opportunity to update the coop and give it a thorough cleaning, both of which I plan to do this weekend.

It’s good for the farmers, if you make it. We’ve already gone over the “you-probably-can’t-grow-all-your-food-yourself-so-buy-the-rest-from-local-farmers” thing plenty of times, but this might be especially true during the winter. As I said, it is not easy to grow winter crops in our area, and it requires a lot of overhead and investment (of time, money, and willpower) on the part of the farmers. I have seen Blue Skys Farm’s amazing winter greenhouses, and let me tell you that it is no easy task for Christina and her colleagues, even with passion like theirs.

And I don’t know about you, but I can’t grow spinach for anything, in November or otherwise. Make sure, if you are taking a break, you support the experts by buying your vegetables from the many winter farmers markets in our state (might I suggest the Hope Street Market in Pawtucket). You won’t be disappointed.

            It’s good for you, if you need it. Considering everything listed above, I feel like you don’t need to be told twice why it might be good to take this season off. If it’s been a bad garden year, or you just can’t seem to find the time right now, you might be doing more harm than good, trying to make up for that by committing to a fall planting. It’s ok. Seriously.

If you are in the same boat as I, let your garden rest and lie fallow for the next couple of months. Get your commitments in order, enjoy the holidays, and get ready. Because come spring, it will come out of hibernation, and so will you, and you’ll be ready to fall in love with it again.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.