“I live in an apartment in the city, and I am dependent on nameless, faceless strangers to grow, process and ship my food. It seems as if unethical and unsafe practices grow in direct proportion to how far we have lost the trail of accountability, so I don’t always trust them [food corporations] to put my family’s best interest over concern for their bottom line. I don’t like feeling helpless, as if every trip to the grocery is a crap shoot.”
– Vicki Williams, a columnist for USA Today
The food we eat is at the center of numerous debates with regards to possible health problems that come about through the evolution of our food with the introduction of technology and modernity. What we used to eat 100 years ago may be the same, but how it’s produced, has definitely changed as our world has advanced. This so called advancement has caused us to lose touch with our food, where it comes from, and what goes into it. Today, I want to detail 3 issues that shape our current food systems and may have impacts on our health and safety.
ISSUE ONE: GLOBALIZATION
If we take a look at the traditional food system model that was used 100 years ago, we would see that it was a relatively basic system. It started off with planning/pre-production (planting potato seeds), production (growing the potatoes until they mature), simple processing (if necessary; picking and cleaning the dirt off the potatoes), distribution of the final product (going to the farmers market to sell the potatoes), consumption (us buying the potatoes from the market, to use for dinner), and finally waste input (potato peels go into composts).
This simple system was referred to as the ‘closed loop’ system, because only two or three people were involved in the entire process: the farmer who grew, processed, and most of the time distributed the food, and the consumer who finished the cycle off. It was a simple cycle that supported local farming, but also provided us with fresh and nutritious food.
As our world has gotten bigger, the food model transformed from a closed loop system into a global food system. The process of creating our food went from being straightforward to utterly complicated and hectic – mainly because now we are producing on a massive scale, for a global food economy. Whereas before most of the steps in the system were performed by 1 or 2 individuals, today we have hundreds and thousands of individuals involved in producing our food – including corporations, governments, and transport agents.
To get a clear sense of the global nature of your dinner plate, go to Extra Foods this weekend and take a look at where all of the fruits and vegetables are coming from – mandarins from China, peaches from America, mangoes from India, and the list goes on. The issue isn’t the variety of foods that have been introduced to us through globalization – some people may see that as a plus. Rather, there is concern that foods grown for global markets lack a great deal of nutrients, because the focus of growing them isn’t nutrition, but rather shelf life, so that they can be transported over long distances. (Norberg-Hodge, 52) Globalization isn’t bad, per say, however, it is through globalization that our food diversity has been minimized (issue 2), and our agriculture was introduced to various chemicals to speed up planting processes (issue 3).
ISSUE TWO: DIVERSITY
Believe it or not, there is an aesthetic aspect to the food we eat – we choose food based on how it looks like, before we actually taste it. We believe that certain foods should look a certain way, or else something must be wrong with them. But in reality there are more varieties of our common foods than we even know exist and, ironically, if we were introduced to these varieties many of us would probably reject them. This is because we have become so disconnected with agriculture, partly because our food has become so globalized, that “heirloom varieties of unusual shape or color are not considered to be real foods at all.” (Norberg-Hodge, 52) Looking at an example will make what I am saying a bit more clear.
Let’s explore tomatoes. Our choices of tomatoes at the grocery store are quite limited: Roma, Plum, and Cherry tomatoes. But, did you know there were purple, yellow and even zebra tomatoes?! So many actual choices, but why are we so limited at the store? Our everyday selections of food are so limited because as our food system grew larger and larger, we began specializing in only certain types of food items (usually, the cheaper and easier ones to grow), making others practically foreign. You may be thinking, “Why should I care? As long as in the end, I end up getting a tomato, what’s the problem?” If we think of it that way, it’s true that it doesn’t seem like such a big issue. However, we must understand that all our food is connected to each other, just as all species are connected: the loss of one ‘species’ will effect the survival of another, thus putting the entire ecosystem at risk.
The issue extends past tomatoes, into a larger problem – losing one food ‘species’ could, essentially, bring an end to other food ‘species’ which could end up causing a food crisis (think of the domino effect: one falls, they all continue to fall). We need diversity in our food system, so that we can grow and maintain our food supply. If we lose one plant, that could be the end of some animals, which could bring an end to much of our meats, dairies, and proteins, which then causes a collapse in the food system. When we look at the bigger picture, the puzzle starts coming together more clearly.
To Be Continued…