Use the Force against the Dark Side of Food


Remember when food was just food? I don't. But I try to imagine it sometimes. I grew up in the throes of fast food, Halloween candy, and plates of bacon at breakfast buffets only to learn that I was just another victim of the food processing industry. Food issues are fascinating if for no other reason that they instill a constant sense of humility.

It took me traveling to South America to realize that popcorn could be made on a stove rather than in a moist microwaveable package. It's all very embarrassing.

But I am a human and his highly engineered crappy food is designed to appeal to that fallibility. Even our ethics shake under the heavy weight of our marketing friendly appetite. It's no surprise that people would want to do something about the mess of factory farms, overfishing, and trans fats. Enter the ethical food lovers, farmers markets, food co-ops, and organic labeling. Enter, for instance, Jonathan Safran Foer's latest book Eating Animals, which has turned actress Natalie Portman into a vegan activist and is just in time for Thanksgiving. Safran Foer's book also sparked a week-long discussion about ethical eating at the Huffington Post, including Daniel Pauly's piece on our love affair with fish.

With all this information about food, I have been compelled toward ambivalence. On the one hand, the issues are compelling and require large-scale change. On the other hand, the potential obsession about what we put in our bodies can lead to a sophisticated brand of narcissism.

To avoid becoming an eco-douchebag, an individual's convictions about personal consumption and disapproval should really be expressed vertically up the supply chain (to chefs, store managers, and seafood suppliers) rather than simply laterally (consumer-to-consumer reproach). We should not engage only as consumers or peers but as citizens and activists and community members. It should not be about organic food for "me and my body" but for my community, my country, my planet. We should be demanding that things change.

That is why Alice Waters, in addition to being a chef, founded Edible Schoolyard. When Patricia Majluf didn't like that anchovies in Peru were being wasted on fishmeal , she didn't say: anchovies are tasty and I shall eat them. No -- she got the entire country onboard. Imagine if the erudite HuffPolloi teamed up to demand Trader Joe's stop buying unsustainable seafood? We are under siege by the most enticing, least expensive calories of all time and the way to combat them is vertical agitation.

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I don't see any grounds for ambivalence in what you've written. On the one hand, we have issues that any reasonable person can see are compelling and urgent (vast suffering, possible human extinction, etc.). On the other hand, we have the fact that it's annoying to get nagged about stuff ("consumer to consumer reproach").

When someone is doing something bad, it's not wrong to point it out to them. Are we supposed to just sit there and watch when we see someone behaving unethically? When someone notices you doing something bad, you're SUPPOSED to feel guilty and ashamed. In that situation, the problem isn't the obnoxious person with the audacity to criticize you instead of "agreeing to disagree" and "respecting your choices." The problem is you, doing something wrong.

Everyone is not supposed to feel good about themselves all the time. That's a myth we're trained to believe so people can sell us things. We aren't children. We're responsible for our moral choices. If you can't eat something and hear about where it came from without feeling uncomfortable, you shouldn't be eating it.

By inverse_agonist (not verified) on 13 Nov 2009 #permalink

I do remember when food was just food. I remember the huge gardens, the massive efforts at canning and preserving the harvest.

I also remember the slaughter of the pigs, the cows, the chickens, and the deer and elk. I remember the stink of the cellars where potatoes and onion were stored...

And I don't miss those days at all. My mother and father spent a lot of what we now call leisure time growing, raising, hunting, and preserving food for the family.

I have not forgotten the skills I learned in childhood and I have certainly not forgotten my mother's joy at not having to spend most of every day engaged in them. I am striving to pass these skills to my children and grandchildren... as well as other self-reliance tools, but I sincerely hope we never have to go back to subsistence living.

Just because a lot of vegetarians are also obsessively scrupulous about various aspects doesn't mean individual change is worthless. Each person has a ripple effect and we all vote with our dollars. It is possible to eat simply, low on the food chain, much like the majority world does. I've even worked out a system that covers a whole made-at-home-from-scratch diet. Easy, tasty, includes convenient frozen servings, healthy, and very cheap.

Lynn Shwadchuck

There's such a thing as a Nerds "Rope"? I've seen it all now.

> popcorn could be made on a stove rather than in
> a moist microwaveable package ...

Scary. I was in my 20s before I learned how to make it in a heavy pot on a stove, rather than in a wire basket over an open fire!

I heard someone on NPR last week comment that most of us could cope with most things if we were dropped into the 1950s, or 1920s, or 1890s -- and the greatest changes would be found in the kitchen, where most of us would be utterly at a loss trying to cook as our great-grandparents did.

ENOUGH WITH GOING AFTER TRADER JOES! Whole Foods is ten times worse than Trader Joes - they just played ball with Green Peace's idiotic campaign that is not based on any real evaluation of a companies sustainability - but rather if the company acknowledges Green Peace or not.

I buy farmed raised Pangasius and Striped Bass from Trader Joes and when I go into Whole Foods all I see if their MSC certified Chilean Sea Bass and Atlantic Cod.

In honor of your reference to "Using the Force."

Grocery Store Wars... "We are living in dark times...."

The good news is that fifteen years ago, this sort of discussion was hardly taking place. When I used to talk to others about the wonderful world of "Organic" food, I often felt I was an alien from another planet...

By Chris Martell (not verified) on 16 Nov 2009 #permalink

Maybe it's growing up on a farm that produced both milk and chicken meat (cows made the milk, not the chickens), but I never had any illusions about where my food was coming from. And I wouldn't become a vegetarian for ethical reasons. Environmental reasons? Maybe. Maaayyybe. Pretty sure we could make meat sustainable, though.

Vegans are just being ridiculous, though. Except maybe in the US. My dad was horrified when he toured a Minnesotan dairy farm.

The challenges we face are multiple, most of them directly caused by our bloated population. Six-plus billion voracious, tool-and-weapons-wielding apex predators scouring the planet daily, demanding to be fed. The scale of it boggles the mind.

No species on earth has ever changed their eating habits in order to save their ecosystem. Until now, if a species overpopulated, it overran it's ecosystem, destroyed it's food sources, and suffered a devastating decline or even extinction.

With technological advances, we've staved off the devastating decline artificially. For a while.

Making the changes is interwtined with the challenges of fighting poverty, educating the impoverished masses, and convincing those with money and power that it isn't just all about struggling to exploit resources and keep the poor out of their awareness.

Getting everybody to stop eating fish, for example, is going to be about as successful a strategy as getting everybody to practice abstinence so they don't get AIDS.

Come one, everyone and do the right thing: stop having sex and stop eating meat and fish! Why won't everyone just see the light and get on board?

I don't think it's that simple.

By facing crises we learn to re-think our approach to living on Earth. When the fish run out, people will find new things to eat. When the money runs out, people will look to other sources such as trading things with their friends to get what they need.

As for the people who are supposed to be helping manage the economy on a grand scale, the Wall Street bankers and their buddies in the White House and on K Street have shown us exactly how much foresight and altruism they have about helping anybody, that is except helping themselves to other people's money and buying places at the most expensive meat and fish consuming exatravaganzas they can finance for themselves.

It's going to get worse, much worse, before it gets better.

Hopefully those of us that make it through the traumatic changes coming will have a post-WWII style moment where we look up out of all the destruction, and say "Gee, we almost just destroyed the whole freaking world. Maybe, just maybe, we don't want to do this again."

That seems to be the moment when people understand they need to change. Not back when they were comfortable enough to ignore all the warning signs.

send a letter to the President and each of your elected officials to urge reform of agricultural policy at

By Winston "Dub" Riley (not verified) on 17 Nov 2009 #permalink

Jennifer Jacquet wrote in the O.P.

"We should not engage only as consumers or peers but as citizens and activists and community members. It should not be about organic food for "me and my body" but for my community, my country, my planet. We should be demanding that things change."

I wish consumer, community and citizen activism could make a difference but with one in every six people on the planet going hungry, producers just can't hear you.

Peruvian hipsters adding anchovies to their ceviche out of national pride is a nice gesture but that really does nothing to effect the change you describe.

I am with yogi-one on the fallout from the population bomb and fear the sustainable food utopias people are describing are tenable only in the aftermath of global plague.

I'll temper this deeply depressing post with....Ruhlman's popcorn:

By Prometheus (not verified) on 17 Nov 2009 #permalink

Wait until you learn the truth about making applesauce. (It's not rocket science.)

We only have ourselves to blame for our food system. Bad harvests in 1915-16 caused the price of food to skyrocket 20%. Urban voters demanded gov't action. We were importing wheat and beef from Russia. Our entry into WWI increased the need for a reliable, national food supply. Additionally, a national agenda aimed at increasing exports of manufactured goods relied on cheap food to keep labor costs down. Finally, technologies such as refrigeration made the long distance fresh food transportation a realistic option. It's a long road from 1916 to microwaved popcorn, but the line of reasoning hasn't changed. Cheap food is "in the public interest", convenience is something people will pay for (especially when they have two jobs and no time to cook).

We the people were actively involved in creating this system, we're going to have to be equally active changing it.

I always like indignation about the food industry. We do not need the Whole Food "organics", nor do we need the health food industry's food supplements and pills. We need to eat real food that comes from uncompromised soil. Ideally it will be from our own yards but when it cannot, it can be from the farmes who sell their wares at the local market.

Limit the food that comes in a package.

All you "loving" concerned people that talk about how overpopulated the World is need just go ahead and do the right thing...

Kill yourselves now you greedy Eugenics brainwashed fools!

If you don't want to die now then maybe you could read about how a Developed Industrialized Nation will automatically lower their birth rates to below replacement level.

Currently the "Western" countries enjoy a 1.3 average birthrate.

It takes at least 2.0 birthrates for stable replacement.

So if you feel that preventing the rest of the World to develop and pull themselves out of starvation is a good thing for the Earth.

You should go hang out with Ted Turner, or Henry Kissinger, or just do Earth a favor and lead by example and just die already.

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