Sometimes, the most familiar things are the most foreign. We have never seen the hydrogen bonds in a water molecule, we do not know the generative origin of electricity or magnetism, and most people know what soil is. Still, there are so many organisms in the ground that we will never get to know all of them. There is a reason the root of “humility” is humble.
The same mystery is at play with what we eat. When it comes to food, we do a fantastic job of fooling ourselves. Food has become what is cheap and what tastes good, rather than what nourishes and regenerates. For sure, without discernment, we are eating dangerously.
The majority of what we eat is not natural. Food science and food marketing are at the heart of this phenomenon. According to the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), “food science is the study of the physical, biological, and chemical makeup of food; and the concepts underlying food processing. Food technology is the application of food science to the selection, preservation, processing, packaging, distribution, and use of safe food.”
What this means is that there is an enormous amount of money and energy being invested in making things that are safe to eat, but are not real food. No longer can we distinguish between foods that are fake or real with our senses alone. For instance, 70% of the average American diet is processed. More than 50% of what we eat is “ultra-processed”, meaning it is highly manipulated and contains additives.
To make the reality of our food system appealing, we are inundated with advertisements from all angles. Advertising is a form of communication used to persuade an audience to take some action, often against their own will and interests. Nowhere is the power of advertising more prominent than it is with food.
But the persuasion goes beyond marketing to the realm of incentive. The federal government spends more than $20 billion a year on subsidies for farm businesses. About 39% of the nation’s 2.1 million farms receive grants, with the majority of the payouts going to commodity crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice; and not food crops like fruits and vegetables.
In short, we are encouraging the wrong things. But it goes beyond that to the lobbyists hired by global food and agriculture corporations to manipulate the government into allowing the current posture of conventional agriculture. And round and round we go.
The result of this cronyism, lobbying, and deal-making is a sort of twilight zone where “natural” does not mean “natural”, and the billions of dollars being spent by global food and agriculture corporations in advertising is intended to confuse, not inform. The effectiveness of this type of food manipulation has allowed us to reach a terrifying crescendo of toxicity from artificial ingredients and pesticides used in conventional agriculture that has consumed the modern food system.
The toxicity is alarming. A recent FDA report tells us that traces of pesticides were found in 84% of domestic samples of fruits, and 53% of vegetables, as well as 42% of grains. And these chemicals were less prevalent in food imported from other countries. There are 72 pesticides banned in the EU still allowed for use in the US.
Then there are those chemicals that we are adding to what we eat on purpose. Artificial additives allow cheap food to avoid spoilage, look pretty, taste good, and also force the savvy food shopper to inspect labels and play detective. And for a good reason. The average diet in the modern world is not nourishing us; it is making us sick.
Over 45% of people in the US have at least one chronic disease. More than half of all people alive will get cancer. Autism is now being found in 1 in 38 children. All of these numbers are way up and getting worse. Our health is in a full-on crisis.
Making Smarter Choices
The most potent tool that we have to fight this crisis is how we eat. Food is one place that you can make a direct impact, not only in our health but on the agricultural landscape itself. But, as anyone that has undertaken a diet can attest, what we eat may also be one of the most challenging places for a change.
One challenge is that we have never been busier, and food options have never been more convenient. At any one time in the modern world, you can pull off the highway and choose from dozens of food establishments with food preserved for purchase, many ready to serve you a hot meal 24/7. Cheap food aims to seduce.
The convenience of cheap food, when combined with a compromise in the quality and compounded by toxicity, results in a perfect storm for public health. We have to face this reality one way or another. As a first step, we would be well served to follow the “precautionary principle”, or the idea that the introduction of a new product or process whose ultimate effects are disputed or unknown should be resisted.
It seems almost evident that healthy food should not contain artificial chemicals, yet there is no collective established understanding of this simple idea. So what is food? The concept of food is clear; we eat it every day. We know all about food, but do we understand the nature of food itself?
Are pesticides food? How about GMO’s?
Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are engineered in a lab by having their DNA altered to express traits that allow them to withstand herbicide treatments and even act as pesticides themselves in the case of GMO Bt crops. The FDA calls GMO’s “essentially the same”, yet the global agricultural corporations who bioengineer the plants are allowed to patent the genes and market them for profit.
Food Is Evolving
Everything eats food in some form. Food webs are formed globally in what is called “trophic levels”, or life levels. Think big fish eating the little fish. In the same way, ecosystems are shaped in the realm of animals; we hold the same impact over the human food web. How we eat has a tremendous effect on the world around us.
Food is not the same for all people. The modern human diet varies considerably from vegans who eat only plant-based food to carnivores who consider eating their vegetables to be a plate of french fries.
Competitive eater Joey Chestnut can eat 68 hot dogs in ten minutes. He can also eat 141 hardboiled eggs in only eight minutes. People like Joey have taken the human diet to an extreme. Food can be a competition.
Food is not what it used to be. As little as a century ago, food was local and wholesome by default because it spoiled if it traveled too far. There were limited technologies and no preservatives available that could keep foodstuff viable long enough to make food distribution a possibility.
Before the onset of the modern global industrial food system, people had limited options that were more clearly defined by seasonal availability, market access, and income level. Fast food wasn’t invented until the early 1920s, and food processing didn’t start to become the norm until the 1940s.
One of the best sources of data for how our diets have changed us is Weston Price’s book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (1939), where he chronicles the impact of the modern diet on aboriginal people. The influence of an empty diet of sugar and white bread is seen in the images and data that he collected in his world travels.
Food can also be a form of entertainment. Or a place of comfort and trauma.
Food can be different things to different people for various reasons, but without a proper definition of food, how do we hold ourselves accountable for eating it properly?
Even the literal definition leaves much to be desired. Merriam-Webster Dictionary calls food, “material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate, and fat used in the body of an organism to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes and to furnish energy.”
Put Your Hands Up…
How many who are reading this get hungry for chicken feet, tongue, huitlacoche (look it up), or, taken to an extreme, cannibalism. Does something become food merely when it is edible? In some cases, due to cultural differences, what one calls disgusting another calls a delicacy.
In the end, food is what you make it. It is a choice. We can choose to ignore the impact our diets have on our health and the world, or we can choose to view food as something more meaningful and vital to our potential as people.
Let’s grow our own where possible, and eat our ideals by using our buying power to purchase clean, local foods. Wendell Berry said, “Eating is an agricultural act”. Our food choices matter; the way we eat encourages the type of food that is grown. If we put our intentions to it, we can change the world for the better one bite at a time.