We Are What We Eat
By Jamey Lionette
South End Press
Monday 10 December 2007
Mass production of food is ruining our health, environment, and taste buds. How did this happen?
The following is an excerpt from "Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed" edited by Vandana Shiva (South End, 2007).
I am not a scientist, journalist, or other specialist. I sell food. I help run a family-owned and operated neighborhood market and caf that buys and sells predominantly local, clean, and sustainable food. I cannot speak about the reality of our food supply around most of the world. I can only can speak of what is happening in the first world, where, unfortunately, only the privileged elite can choose to put real food on their dinner tables.
Lately it seems every mass media newspaper or magazine, from the New York Times to Rolling Stone, has an article digging into the true filth that most food in the U.S. really is. Some people are actually questioning mass produced and monoculture organic food. Even Time magazine proclaimed "Local Is the New Organic" on its cover. Everywhere I turn people tell me that there is a new wind in the U.S.; that people are now concerned about eating local, clean, and sustainable food. From my vantage point in the market, behind the counter, I just don't see it. Yes, in Massachusetts there are more farms today than in the last 20 or so years, but fewer total acres than ever recorded. Farmers markets are becoming popular or perhaps trendy. Chain supermarkets are "listening to their customers" and capitalizing on cheap "organic" food. But the chain-supermarket owners are some of the same people who screwed up our food supply in the first place. How can we trust them?
Outdoor food markets are a mainstay in most cultures in the world and were once a given in our culture. Now most people go there to shop for the luxury food treats (locally grown food) and get their staples at the supermarket. I think that because of the Depression (when there was no money to spend on food) and World War II (when there was rationing and everyone was focused on the war effort) Americans lost their taste-buds. Along came the mass-produced foods of the 1950s at cheap prices. Supermarkets were a "progressive" thing, as suburban living was progressive. Rural culture and production was frowned upon as old-fashioned and primitive. Food from all over the world suddenly became available and at prices lower than local food. Protecting America's foreign interest, the beginning of what we now call globalization, became a new form of colonialism. Foreign resources, raw materials as well as labor, were now easily exploitable by the nation's new superpower status. As the economy grew, money filtered down to the managerial and to some of the working class and was coupled with an influx of cheap products made cheaply and available to most classes of the U.S. Consumerism took off. Our food changed as well, especially with faster transport and technologies trickery to extend the shelf life of food. Seasonal produce became available year round; exotic food (such as bananas and oranges in Boston) became readily available and affordable. Everything was cheaper, the shopping was more convenient, and exotic foods became staples in our diet. Small and local farms shut down or were forced into monoculture farming. A disconnect sprouted between our diets and our food sources. An orange, once a special and rare treat, became an everyday commodity.
Supermarkets are part of mainstream America's identity. Working-class people have little choice but to shop at conventional supermarkets. Middle-class people can shop at places like Whole Foods and appease their consciences with the notion that that food is safer and tastier than conventional supermarket food. And those of the flat earth society - middle- and upper-class people who do not believe that their climate is changing, that a global market is a bad thing, or that our food systems are in trouble - favor the conventional supermarket. However, both conventional and progressive supermarkets operate on the same model: mass-produced foods, made cheaply, and sold at cheap prices.
Supermarkets sell commodities. They buy mass-produced food from big business. This model of efficiency, which mirrored the production of things like automobiles and VCRs, is what created the mess our food supply is in. Efficient ordering and deliveries, no seasonal variety of stock, little to no blemishes (whether natural or from human error), significant quantities - enough to keep all those shelves constantly filled with whatever the customer might want. I describe this model as "I want what I want when I want it," and it goes against everything about food that is local, clean, and sustainable. It cannot be done at a mass level. [...]
People first bought cheap food because they either did not have enough money or felt like they were beating the system by spending less than they budgeted for food that week. Over time our budgets became based on the price of cheap food, so that now, during the rare moment of seeing real food, the price tag appears exorbitant. Our wages and salaries, our rent and utilities, all are tied to our cheaply priced food.
Many people who can actually afford local, clean, sustainable food buy it only when it is trendy, sold at boutique shops, or for a special occasion. Those from the class which struggles to afford mass-produced food certainly cannot afford the real price of food in the U.S.. One often-overlooked agent of gentrification and, after rent increases, one of the best ways to ruin a neighborhood is by shopping at chain supermarkets. Local neighborhood markets close or survive by becoming convenience stores. Farmers' markets become a trendy place to buy a few novelty items: "Oooh look at this peach. I bought it from a farmer!" Once the small markets are gone, only supermarkets are left. We are so out of touch with the struggle to get food, because of how much cheap food is available in the country, that we do not see a pattern of destruction.
The more we buy mass-produced foods, the more it empowers agro-business and the fewer farms there will be. The more we shop at supermarkets, the fewer neighborhood markets there will be. Already we are almost trapped by agro-business and its sales outlets. Soon, there will be no escape. As it stands right now, only a privileged few can afford real, clean, and sustainable food; soon, even the privileged will have little access to such food. The fewer local farms we have, the more expensive their food becomes and the more difficult it is for local farms to feed the local population. Once the farms are gone, only mass-produced food is left.
Hadley, Massachusetts, is known as having the best asparagus in the world. Though just an hour or so outside of Boston, it is near impossible to find asparagus grown in Hadley in Boston. Futures of the asparagus are sold; mostly to France and Japan, I am told. Instead of a wonderful spring vegetable for a local dish, Hadley asparagus has become a boutique item for other parts of the world. Yet in spring, summer, winter, or fall, asparagus flown in from Peru is half the price of in-season asparagus grown on a family farm in New England. And I must admit it seems a bit shameful to complain about such a situation in the U.S., when so many peoples around the world local resources have been diverted to produce food for Americans.
The late summer is tomato season in New England. The glory of a local tomato salad on a warm summer night in Boston is something which we can only enjoy a couple of months a year. The flavor of our farmers' tomatoes are spectacular. Especially when bought at a local shop or farmers' market, where we actually speak with the people involved in harvesting and distributing our food, people who are part of our community. These tomatoes were not sprayed with anything; the soil was not ruined by chemicals or monoculture farming. These tomatoes traveled only a few dozen miles and were grown outside, thus using only a little energy and creating little pollution. The farmer, part of our community, was deservedly paid and did not exploit anyone or the land. No one was ripped off during the whole transaction, and the tomatoes were available to everyone in Boston during the late summer months.
Yet the rest of the year we still expect to have fresh tomatoes available, and they are called for in many dishes. Fresh tomatoes are considered year-round staples. There is never any questioning tomatoes in March, their integrity or their source. We have become used to hydroponic tomatoes flown in from Mexico or Holland. Instead of focusing our efforts on bringing in tomatoes year-round to Boston, we should focus making the Northeast corridor able to feed itself now and in the future. At the very least, these factory-grown tomatoes do make our local tomatoes taste even more wonderful. We are so used to the mealy, flavorless (or artificially flavored) hydro-tomato that when we taste a real one, it seems so special. This is one reason why local farmers are not perceived as the people who raise our food, but as the producers of specialty items.
Another reason farmers are considered purveyors of specialty foods is their prices. Let us end the idea right now that local, clean, and sustainable foods result in a high profit for the producer and the retailer - trust me, there is absolutely no money in sustainable food. When food is handled as sustenance - not as a commodity - there is little profit to be had. That is why real food is so rare and so hard to come by now. The perverted twist is that it would seem logical that food transported for days around the world would cost more than something fresh and local. But quite the opposite is true. Nobody considers what the true price of real food is. Nobody is outraged that what most working-class people can afford, and even the middle class can afford, is nothing more than mass-produced, cheapened food.
There are, of course, the Whole Foods, Wal-Marts, Trader Joes, and other chain supermarkets trying to sell organic foods. Everyone knows these places are cheaper than local markets and farmers' markets, but rarely do people think about how supermarkets work. People are generally aware of the smaller mark-up chain supermarkets can afford, as compared with an independent neighborhood market, as well as all the corporate capital and funding behind them. But few often think about what is involved in producing enough of a particular food for every shelf of their hundreds or thousands of outlets across the region or country. You can't see the devastating effects of monoculture farming in the sterile and lifeless supermarket. The food looks so perfect and seems so abundant. And with such cheap prices, why ask questions? Sustainable farming does not have the ability to be mass produced; it cannot be sold at the level of a chain supermarkets. Corners must be cut to keep costs low, production must increase to fill the shelves, the laws of nature must be beaten by science to allow for year round production, and if the weather cannot yet be defeated, then the product should be mass-produced and imported from another part of the world.
Listen, Thanksgiving 2006: Whole Foods Boston was selling a "fully pastured naturally raised" turkey for $1.99/lb. That is painfully cheap. Was it trying to compete with the half-dozen small town turkey farmers still left in Massachusetts or the handful of farmers selling turkeys to their regular customers at the farmers' markets or through community-supported agriculture (CSA)? Probably not. Such consumers of locally raised food still have an appreciation for the tradition of buying a turkey from the same place every year or still get pleasure from buying their turkeys directly from their friend, the farmer, or a neighborhood shop. Whole Foods was trying to compete with the other big supermarkets, who sell cheap food.
Whole Foods (and the supermarkets imitating it) will be the death of the movement for clean, local, and fair food for many reasons, but this is an important one. By dropping the price so low, and using claims and slogans designed not by farmers but by slick salespeople, it has set the expectation that clean food can be as cheap as, or just slightly more expensive than, filthy food. Many people could afford to make the jump from Butterball to a Whole Food bird and, with that jump, assume that the bird was safer, more sustainable, and cleaner. So now any farmer charging a real price is seen as greedy or overpriced. Like Wal-Mart's cheap organic, Whole Foods has cheapened (in integrity, as well as price) naturally raised meats and clean food. It lowers the bar by allowing cheap mass-production and corner-cutting, all to sell cheap food that you think is something it is not. There is tokenistic buying of local food and various labels to suggest a certain quality to the consumer. Because we have so few local farms left, it is easy for a chain supermarket to buy some local food and appear to be supportive of local farms. For most people, this is the easy and convenient way to feel as though they are doing the right thing. But it was the supermarket in the first place that helped reduce the number of farms and transformed our understanding of what local farms are.
Organic food is by no means synonymous with clean food. What should we expect, considering a food supply which is mass-produced will be shipped all over the world? And how did the E. coli get into the spinach? Nobody knows. The apparatus is too big. We are concerned, but we are overwhelmed and more importantly completely removed from our food; we have no idea how to eat locally. I am sure nearly half of Boston goes months without ever eating a single bite of local food.
Are people buying store-brand organics duped or misled? Not exactly. The argument for mass-produced organic food is that at least it is a lesser of two evils. I would agree that mass-produced organic or mass-produced naturally raised is not as bad as mass-produced conventional food, but it is still bad. Are we content with eating bad food? Where is the outrage at choosing between bad and worse? Within the first world, on a day-to-day basis, there is barely a struggle to obtain food. But obtaining clean food is a struggle. And to complicate matters are savvy marketing and confusing legal and nonlegal claims. Do the research on what the USDA allows for the claim "free-range" or "organic." They are by no means what you would expect. To be labeled free-range, the law states only that once a bird is old enough to safely venture outside (fair enough, small chicks are at risk outside to predators, weather, diseases, etc.) that they can be kept inside as long as they have access to the outdoors. Often this means a small hole in the wall leading to a small, lifeless patch of land, which the bird never bothers going out to. And for organic - just a few hours outdoors (not necessarily free of a cage) and nothing but USDA certified organic feed. Great, but that feed may not be what that animal wants to eat at all. Mass-produced food and monoculture farming does nothing good for the land. It burns it up. It is not sustainable. Organic or conventional - if it is produced in favor of profit over sustainability it cannot last forever. [...]
This is our society. A society that has no interest in banning feedlots or the excessive/exclusive feeding of grains, hormones, animal by-products, and antibiotics to cows and seemingly covers up any connection with these practices to E. coli. Worse, our health officials and beef industry leaders come up with a chemical injection to kill possible E. coli and dabble in using pro-biotic injections to make our food "safe." What did you expect? These are the same people who actually believed that forcing cows to be cannibals in confined quarters-which gave us mad-cow disease-for the sake of cheap beef and high profits was not a bad idea. If you could witness how most of our food is produced, you would not eat it; you would be outraged. We are so far removed from our food.
People think that by washing the vegetable with water that all the chemicals are washed off. Even more absurd, many of these same people will buy bottled water because they don't trust the tap water to drink (but they think it is clean enough to rinse their food with?). People don't worry about chemicals possibly absorbed into the food and seeping into the land. People choose shiny fruit covered in wax and pesticide over the uglier, misshapen, dull-colored clean fruit from a farm because they believe it will taste better or is safer. How ludicrous is it when mass-produced food is just called "tomato" or "beef," but real food must be called "NOFA Certified Organic-locally grown on a small, clean, sustainable farm, free of all pesticides heirloom tomato" or "100 percent grass-fed/grass finished, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, animal-by-product-free, fully pastured, naturally raised on a small, local, sustainable family-farm beef." This is a society that has organic corn syrup! There is fair reason to be disgusted and outraged at our current food supply and culture of convenience that has created and perpetuated this mess.
It is nice to believe that eating is a revolutionary act, but sooner or later someone is going to have to call this system out. When a few people start ruining our food, we must take action against those people. When a system has failed, we must change that system. When we are perpetuating that system because of our laziness and lust for convenience, then we must change, or else we will collapse. I cannot think of any point in history when a food supply has been so dangerous. Food's place in our culture and community has faded into cheap traditions. Our planet's fertile land has decayed, been poisoned, and been transformed into factories while we have been too busy and out of touch with our food to notice. The people who know how to use the land to produce food have lost their place on the land, and we did not notice because we no longer know who produces our food. Our food supply is being linked to long-term damage such as heart disease and cancer. And now our food is killing us instantly. Not a week passes it seems that there is not some kind of deadly outbreak. What are you doing about it? We can easily envision a society based on sustainable food; most cultures throughout history have had sustainable farming practices. Basically, Grandma had it right and the progressive supermarkets had it all wrong. We do not necessarily have to turn back the clock and return to an agrarian society, but let's understand what Grandma was doing and realize that she was a lot smarter than we are today. She may not understand the complexities of the internet, but we are the fools who cannot even preserve our summer vegetables so we don't starve in the winter.
We must address the classic American attitude of individuality. Our culture, probably more than any other culture in the world, is based on the individual. Our economic system fuels this individuality. Look at our eating habits. Rather than supporting our community, we buy cheap food from far-away places in chain supermarkets. We do not realize what we are doing to our own community, because we no longer think about our community - we think only of ourselves. Eating can no longer be an individual act. It is not about whether an individual wants to get fat or die from gluttony.
Antibiotics are becoming less and less efficient as pathogens and virus mutate. It seems clear that this is directly related to the excessive use of antibiotics in our food supply. Roughly 75 percent of all antibiotics in this country are given to our livestock. Again, I am not a scientist, but it seems quite clear that even people who only eat antibiotic-free meats will find their medicine useless, as a mutated virus will resist antibiotic treatment regardless of what kind of meat was eaten. The use of pesticides can be equally harmful to the strict organic eater, as a personal choice at the dinner table can do nothing to stop the chemicals of conventional farms from seeping into the rivers and soil. We should all have a right to eat clean, healthy, and sustainable food. It should be a privilege to eat exotic and out-of-season food. Right now, however, we have the right to eat exotic and out-of-season food, and the privileged few can eat clean, healthy, and sustainable food.
When we fully realize or finally admit the effects of climate change, peak oil, and globalized food as our primary source of food, food from international sources will be more expensive than local food. How do we get back to where local food is normal and affordable, and food from far away is exotic and truly expensive? We have successfully wiped out most of the farms and do not have many farmers left. I can only hope that we can start supporting our local farmers-real support, not the tokenistic once in a while local treat. We must face the reality that urban sprawl must give way to farmland. We must realize that we cannot eat beef every day, but, at least when we do it won't kill us. This will involve spending more of our money, but soon the amount we spend on food will feel normal and not expensive. Americans pay less per capita than anyone else in the world for food.
It should be really easy for privileged people to buy fewer luxury items and spend the same percentage of income as other people in the world do on food, but the same cannot be said for the majority of people in the U.S. Most people in this country are dependent on their weekly wages and live paycheck to paycheck. Wages are set to allow people to survive so they can show up to work. There is little extra money put into that equation for clean, sustainable food.
We could hope that more farms will appear and there will be more farmers to provide enough real food for everyone at an affordable price. We could hope that supermarkets and agro-business would just take care of the problem for us and magically make good, clean, fair, sustainable food cheap enough to fit into our current model. Or hope that these same businesspeople who have ruined our food supply and who are wrecking our land will take their millions of dollars of profit and happily give it back to the farmers and small producers-people who see food as sustenance, not commodity. But that just is not going to happen.
As our food entered our economic systems it was transformed from sustenance to commodity, and I do not see how we can take it back while maintaining this economic system. We have to ask ourselves what we want, food or our current economic system. We need to realize that our system itself is not sustainable and has failed.
Jamey Lionette, a contributor to "Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed" (South End Press, 2007), with his family runs Lionette's Market and the Garden of Eden restaurant.