Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Everything Comes From Somewhere

It is common knowledge that Jesus is reported to have explained that it is not what we put into our mouths, but what comes out of our mouths that makes us unclean. While it is certainly true that there are many things we should not ingest, I see that bible passage referring primarily to the morality of what we say and do as being more important than how we eat.

In today's world, however, what we do and how we eat are far less separable than at the time of Jesus. In fact, with the advent of Factory Farming and CAFOs, Chemical pesticides, artificial/synthetic edible ingredients, and many other industrial applications in "food manufacturing", what we eat is inextricably linked with factors such as the treatment of the planet, of animals and our own bodies, not to mention those of whom we provide food to. To celebrate the increased efficiencies of the industrial food system while ignoring the many negative effects is to ignore our obvious responsibility for the welfare of ourselves and our communities.

The planet-friendly revolution of the '80s and '90s included the terms Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, which at one point were novel concepts, listed in order of importance. These are now commonplace terms, as people have globally accepted the intrinsic value of reduced general consumption for our planet. Regarding food, however, the landscape is far more complex. We have literally thousands of choices of what to buy and eat at our hands everyday, but how to positively affect our world is not as obvious. Another factor is that we've been living in a golden age of food -- we have been able to, until recently, get anything we want, anytime, anywhere, for a cheap price, not unlike the decades of diverse consumer products we have enjoyed. I'd like to mention some of things I'm learning about this, with respect to what we eat, and maybe provide some food for thought, as we find we are losing that golden age of food prices.

Organic food: At first I thought "organic" was about putting healthy things into my body, rather than synthetic chemicals. This was a noble pursuit of course, but in all honesty, I was not convinced that organic food was always better than non-organic. There wasn't much evidence to say that this was always the case. However, I think we can all intuitively expect that it would be better nutritionally and less toxic for our bodies, and certification helps us identify these foods. But I have since learned that organic isn't about only the health-benefits of the food you are eating. In fact, far MORE important in my opinion, is the often-missed fact that organic food is hands-down better for the environment - it requires zero chemical usage and has the potential to drastically reduce the toxins and pollutants that are accelerating the loss of diminishing fertile land resources. Land is kept more fertile when organic agriculture is practiced. Because this cuts off pollution to both the water table, in fact, it may be more helpful to our health indirectly, rather than looking at the nutritional content alone, let alone the health of farm labourers. On the down side, organic can cost a lot more, usually 10% to 40% more, as organic crop yields aren't boosted by chemical means, but I've asked myself how sustainably I am acting, and whether this new information should change my outlook. In fact it did considerably, and I am now willing to spend more to support organic choices wherever I can. I'm not alone: Organic food is the fastest growing sector of the American food marketplace.

Local and/or Seasonal: Again, here is somewhere I have grown. I understood the concept of supporting the local economy, and also keeping those who live near you in business because they are, for lack of a better word, more connected to me. Again, this is a positive thing. But what I have learned here was subtle too -- the other reason locally grown food and produce can make a difference, is because of the transportation costs of moving all that produce around the world. I can normally buy certain types of foods all year round, but if I don't consider that they have been shipped from somewhere farther away, then I also don't realise that it contributes to rising emissions, greenhouse gases, and pollution. If some pears come from overseas, I question whether I could afford the higher-cost locally grown ones, and usually I can. It is possible that overseas transportation environmental costs are actually lower than some local energy-intensive agricultural methods, so local isn't always better, but transportation is an important and ignored component of food production. Naturally this all means that I need to rethink my long-held attitude that I've had, which has been pervasively accumulated in our culture for decades, the attitude that "all the foods that I want should be available all the time". In fact, we have completely lost our appreciation of nature's seasons. Certain foods are in season at one time, but then not in season at other times. If I buy foods that are out of season, the environment automatically incurs transportation costs. For food that is in season, you can be sure that it will be fresher and taste better when grown locally.

Fairly Traded: This is a term that wasn't in my vocabulary 5 years ago. Although my attitude then was a common consumer attitude that things should always be very cheap, it has now evolved. When something is really cheap, I now have started asking myself WHY it is so cheap. There is rarely a free lunch (pun intended) -- if something is too cheap to be produced by people at a fair wage (coffee is a common example), then perhaps it was produced in conditions that do not respect human rights. Not to say that price is the only indicator, as there is fair-trade certification that attempts to help us understand the nature of the products we buy. I simply have evolved to consider the origins of what I am eating. My main learning here has been that simply everything we eat comes from SOMEWHERE and that this matters.

Consumers are used to ignoring the supply chain. I am now asking myself more and more how and from where that food came from. Mostly, I can't ignore the reality of what my purchases are supporting. Now that's not to say that I make these choices all the time (I'm sometimes willing to pay up to double the cost, but not much more), but I am right now undergoing the process of changing how I think. I think it will be a life-long process, and I suspect that my diet and buying habits will continue to change, as they have been for years now (it might surprise some of you that I don't drink soft-drinks/pop anymore). Sometimes it is uncomfortable to ask myself questions that I could easily ignore, but I cannot forget my responsibility to my greater communities. Just as in working, voting and family life, we all have responsibilities to something greater than ourselves, the same applies to food. I'm ready to admit I don't know everything, although I do know that I'm not ready to become a vegan. Yet, I am always ready to learn more about my food choices.


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