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Monday, March 16, 2009

So Now it's the End of Food Too?

I took time away from reading the 2012 books to read one for my Master Gardener reading group. The End of Food is one of those books that will change your way of thinking. And yes, it's a bit depressing. But if you're paying attention at all, you know. Paul Roberts, the author, knows what he's writing about. A must-read for anyone interested in sustainability, food safety, globalism and the power of multi-national corporations.

One thing I learned that was very interesting and useful is that our bodies are designed to live through periods of feast and famine. For most of the time that humans have lived on this planet, we have not had food available all the time. There could be months when there was barely enough to keep us alive. So our bodies adapted to that condition and have not yet adapted to food being around 24/7 (at least in the 'developed' world). When we had plenty, we ate. Whatever fat we put on we were going to need for the famine period.

Our bodies are designed to store and hold on to fat, even if the fat is in excess, because the expectation is that we will use it up. Unfortunately (?) we never have a famine period (most of us). This is one reason why obesity is on the rise. Only a few years ago, an obese person was rare. Now, they are the rule, not the exception. You look around and almost everyone is over-weight to some degree. As many people are obese in the world as are starving. Both are problems. Roberts says there is no way to lose weight just by changing the diet. You must get more exercise. Your life must get much more active. In this culture of push buttons, remotes, cars, and instant gratification, that is not going to happen.

The focus of the book is primarily on the commodification of food. Food as thing. Food as source of income. How multi-national corporations control both the supply and the demand. How they pay for the best display areas in supermarkets, force other smaller companies out by making more and more products, and always seek the cheapest ingredients, no matter what the quality.

The other major revelation came in regards to E.coli and salmonella. Apparently these are considered 'natural' and uncontrollable in the food supply. Thus the consumer is expected to provide the 'kill step' that is, cooking, in order to control it. It is not feasible for the corporations who provide the food to the store to do this. So..... does that mean that if you get sick or die because of these bacterial pathogens, it's your own fault? Because you ate it? Or didn't cook it long enough? According to this book, there is salmonella in most meat you get at the store. Is this a case of 'let the buyer beware'? I know that the FDA is way under-staffed and that these days we import food from all over the world, but hey! wait a minute! It makes me not want to buy anything from the supermarket again.

Roberts says that the whole system is at risk of total collapse. Growers are maxing out, fertilizers and pesticides are maxing out. Transportation costs, marketing, advertising, the whole system as it exists is ready to fall apart. It is completely unsustainable and any and all changes in weather, economics, politics, energy etc. make its demise imminent. He does mention that farmers' markets, locally grown and distributed food are very important, but cannot be relied on to serve the majority of people. Over-population and high levels of energy consumption contribute the most to the problems.

The most inspiring part of the book was, for me, that last couple of pages. He says that another thing we can do, no matter where the ingredients come from, it to take back control over this part of our lives by preparing our own meals and eating them with other people.

"Food has, for better or for worse, served for millennia as a sort of umbilical link between us and the physical, natural realm. By diminishing this link between consumption and production, we have allowed ourselves to drift away from the real world, and to understand less, and to care less about its functions and condition."

As an anthropologist and a person who grew up in a bi-cultural home, I can attest to the significance of food to culture. Ask anyone from a traditional culture the importance food has and they will probably look at you like you're nuts. Even at the heart of Catholicism, there is a meal. The Mass is a celebration of the Last Supper where one eats and drinks of the body of Christ. Even the U.S. holidays, which are not that holy anymore, are centered around food. What would you eat on Thanksgiving if not turkey? (I once had a nut-based turkey substitute at a friend's house and I can tell you, it was not the same).

If you have ever lived or travelled for long in another country, you know that what you miss most is your favorite food. I used to dream about food and shopping at Safeway when I was in the Peace Corps in Zaire. I was not starving, but they just didn't have food I was used to. I remember to this day, returning to the States and going to a restaurant and having a piece of cheesecake. I can still see and taste it to this day and that was over 30 years ago. I really enjoyed it.

I highly recommend the book. Informative but not much fun. Provides incentive to start growing your own food whenever possible and buying from small local farmers even if it is more expensive.