My first thought: we’re fucked. That’s typically where I’m at when I start thinking about these kinds of things – i.e. environmental issues, and in this case particularly, food and agriculture. We’re pretty fucked. Our food is lacking nutrition, we’re destroying our soil, we’re all fat and unhealthy, we’re literally made of corn, and there’s nothing we can do about. Money wins. It always wins. And the big guys have tons of money. What’s a small group of us to do?
But I suppose I should set aside my despair for a moment. Constant cynicism isn’t good for anyone. I suppose it’s better to understand and process the problem, and I mean really, deeply, and openly process the problem, than frozen in silent desperation. And the first step towards progress is understanding. That’s what these readings do for us – they set the stage.
A lot of this stuff I knew at the surface level – e.g. the number of farms has plummeted, the specialization of commodity crops has skyrocketed, and the government has had a hand in all of it with commodity subsidization – but I didn’t know how massive some of these shifts were. What’s become abundantly clear is that our food system is controlled through sometimes well intentioned but poorly implement policy and massive amounts of lobbying and funding by the agro-business to ensure they stay flush.
John Ikerd’s piece – Corporatization of the American Food System – laid that sentiment out strongly and clearly, but what I found specifically noteworthy was his call to action, stating “all it would take to spark it [a food revolution] would be for consumers and taxpayers to understand how their tax dollars are being spent.” Is it really that simple? If we, as a nation, truly understood the extent to which our tax dollars are funding our lack of healthful food, would anything change? Would we rally as consumers and demand sweeping policy changes? Dismantle commodity subsidization? Allow the free market to truly take hold in the food system? Do enough people just need to be outraged?
The thing that I continually struggle with is how can I, as a well meaning, but relatively typical American, make any appreciable difference? I’ve stopped eating meat. Great. Is that doing anything? I can’t with a good conscious go back to eating meat, but is it doing anything other than making me feel better? I’m outraged. Corporate control makes it not only more difficult for me to find healthy food, but makes it more expensive by eliminating, or co-opting, small-mid size farms to feed the industrial food beast. And that’s ignoring all the damage industrialized farming does to the environment.
Lastly, while reading David Kamp’s piece – America’s Dysfunctional Relationship with Good Food – I was struck by the insane quackery in which ‘science’ was being exploited purely for monetary gains. This really shakes me up. I have a deep trust in science and the approach that scientists take to understand our world more deeply. I honestly believe it’s the best method we currently have to increase understanding. The problem is it’s often misrepresented, or misunderstood so profoundly that the results can often be catastrophic. The quackery of Kellog serves to demonstrate that even still today, if you slap a lab coat on an actor and have them tell the audience something is healthy, they’ll believe it. Just look at Dr. Oz. And while sometimes they may even have a study or two to cite, often they take these individual points of reference as gospel. That is not science. Science is demonstrably repeatable. We see this over and over. With GMO’s, with ‘superfoods’, with ‘now with 2x the fiber!’. It’s massively dysfunctional. Food science is not at a state where it can tell us what to eat. Yet that’s all we want from it. We all want to be told what’s healthy, what’s good for us. And when the answer isn’t clear, we lean on ‘experts’ to tell us so. The problem is that often food ‘experts’ are in the pockets of big-agro. Or that a study comes out telling us that x-food causes cancer, so we overreact by removing it entirely and substituting this y-food that just came out of another big-agro controlled lab. It’s ludicrous.
The other issue I latched onto was the fact that James Beard would have never had the success he did if he wasn’t a manly looking man. While he did a great deal towards ensuring ‘taste’ is king, he had to be a stereotype, fit a certain mold of what was expected from a meat-eater. It’s not necessarily an important point towards the food system, but I think it speaks to a cultural aspect of America that foods are stigmatized and stereotyped as well. Kale is for women who do yoga, big fat burgers are for bearded, beer-guzzling men. We’ve attached labels to food in the same way we attach labels to humans. That can’t be good. It should be okay for a stout, facepaint covered football fan to eat a delicate, garden grown salad. But it’s often times not okay.
Oh man, the problems seem endless. What are we all gonna do? I guess we’re just fucked, right?