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.




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