The Ancient Future of Food
Food is an enormous industry, and like all typical ticker-trading businesses, it follows the mantra of cost-cutting-bottom-line-gross-profit-margin-gains. This is measured most often not by the actual nutritional, social or ecological benefits, but by success in the stock market and with satisfied shareholders. Sales bonuses and market share are more significant than the number of people actually fed, or the sustainability of the farming and packaging practices, transportation or storage methods.
The industrial factory hit its stride during World War II. Food soon fell into the cycle of neatly packaged mass production, dictating to the urban world exactly Who, What, How, Why, When and Where we eat. The grocery store has morphed from a source for staples into a competitive marketing arena building “customer loyalty” first, and a healthy community a distant second. The hurried agendas of mega corporation brand building has resulted in supermarket chains charging expensive slotting fees that only the food giants can afford, and so justify in order to get their products premier shelf space. This reverse appetite is what makes virtually every grocery store in America look identical, with minimal local or regional product selections. Instead, they’ve become corporate showrooms. Greeted by colorful produce sections vaguely resembling a farmers market or fruit stand, aisle upon aisle quickly turns into gaudy advertisements housing “enriched” processed food products.
Supermarkets keep their prices low on “commodity” loss leaders like soda, milk and cereal, profiting on the slotting fees and marketing dollars the big-brands are happy to pay in building their bandwidth of religious supporters, who become so dedicated (dare one say addicted) to the product image and effects of the questionably nutritious foodstuffs. Customers are outright evangelical about their preferred brands, often without realizing the competing product is actually owned by the same parent company.
Why are we so fanatical about processed food? People are consumed by the role of being consumers. They rally behind brands like they’re family members. They even become incensed at a ten-cent price increase, a temporary out-of-stock item, packaging changes, or heaven forbid, the discontinued slow-selling item that may have been favorite to a handful of customers, but too risky for the corporation to continue producing as it can marginalize gross profits. Our nation was once divided by The Pepsi Challenge and again by the emergence of “New Coke.” Was a sandwich not a sandwich without Hellman’s or Miracle Whip? Is tonight a Domino’s or Pizza Hut night? Which is more popular, the Whopper or Big Mac, Lay’s or Ruffles, Milky Way or 3 Musketeers? What really is the difference? Why are we not as insistent about our carrots, romaine lettuce, or bag of rice?
Unlike our ancestors, our connection to food in less than the last century has come to be an association with certain flavor profiles rather than nutritional ones. But most important is the preference we have for the words and pictures used by advertisers to describe our meals. While civilizations like the Indus, Mayan, Incan, Egyptian had advanced agricultural systems, and they were by no means perfect, they certainly were not industrialized to the extent the processed food business is today. Communities still deeply understood and respected their relationship with food. Everything was consumed in its most natural state – whether cooked, dried, fermented or raw, there were no Doritos, Ho-Ho’s or Oreo’s. And diets contained another major difference from modernity: a high proportion of superfoods, added to diets in the way we now add fast-junk-food.
Where green beans, potatoes, steak and milk end, superfoods begin. Superfoods contain dense concentrations of nutritional value above and beyond our bodies’ daily requirements, and have long been sourced for optimal physical/mental health benefits. Unlike the farmed foods we rely on to provide the bulk of our sustenance, the accessibility of superfoods is usually much more complicated, thriving in smaller farming situations or only altogether wild harvested. Like the intensity they impart to the bodies they enter, they tend to depend on a deep interconnectedness to ecosystems, and an inability to proliferate without them.
As an example, honey (and all bee products) has been considered one of the most well known superfoods for thousands of years. Egyptian tombs have been excavated with containers of honey intact. The honeybee does not simply “make honey” but rather relies on thousands of flowers, zooming from stamen to pistil, and diligently working inside the hive to transform sticky pollen molecules into a sweet, nurturing nectar. Honey is one of the world’s most enzymatic foods, revered for everything from boosting immune system to relieving coughs. (In fact, a recent study revealed children under age six had better results using honey instead of over the counter cough medicine and efforts are now being undertaken to remove cough medicines promoted for infants from the market altogether .) Though one can be a beekeeper per se, it is impossible to remove bees from their relationship to an ecosystem to achieve the finished product. They cannot be row cropped like cabbage.
There are dozens - if not hundreds of superfoods hitting the health food and mainstream markets en masse due in part to the dwindling space between the industrial and wild worlds where they thrive, and perhaps because, it's just their time. There are different messages in potato chips than say Spirulina, a dense protein and vitamin loaded freshwater algae that was a consistent source of nourishment in Mayan culture as well across the Atlantic, by Kanembu tribes in Africa. Historically, we've listened much longer to the information in superfoods than we have to Twix bars.
Other superfoods on the rise include goji berries which have been revered in Chinese and Tibetan customs for their energizing and rejuvenating effects, as have roots like ginseng, foti, and mushrooms like reishi, maitake and cordyceps. High mountain Incan societies cultivated maca root for its energizing, warming and fertility enhancing properties. The tropical mangosteen and noni fruits are renowned healers. The Amazon jungle boasts the acai berry, loaded with antioxidants and omega fatty acids. Omega-rich fish, protein-packed lentils, cholesterol-lowering grains like quinoa, even corn and soy (before their genetically modified days) were powerhouses of nutrition. Chocolate, wine, tea and even coffee have well known nutritional values.
Though many of these foods may seem radically healthy (read: yucky tasting), they have much longer histories in developing the human species than Wonder Bread. Great empires were fueled on diets that today, most Americans would see as restrictive. Our taste buds have come to perceive deep-frying as an improvement on the magnificence of nature, which we somehow contend is otherwise bland and palatably unrewarding. The simple truth is that we are de-sensitizing from the natural world, and though this process is in and of itself “natural”, it may prove to be one of the more painful cycles for our species.
We’re just now beginning to feel the long-term effects of a society surviving on highly processed foods, hydrogenated saturated fats, high fructose corn syrup, food colorings, additives, flavorings, preservatives, antibiotics in meat and dairy and their fillers and by-products. Though we enrich our Lucky Charms and Spaghettio’s (whose website lauds this claim “Kids love the taste and Mom’s love the nutrition!”) it’s tantamount to dropping a B-vitamin in a bucket of Cool Whip. We’ve surrendered important nutritional building blocks that weren’t even understood at the time our factory farms began filtering into industrialized processed foods. Important scientific data didn’t even exist on the incredibly crucial Omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids until the 1970’s! EFA’s play a critical role in brain development, which may be why we are seeing so many cases of attention-deficit kids and increased rates of depression. As this data was only uncovered in the last thirty years, it begs the question, what else don’t we know about our relationship with food?
The standard American diet is significantly imbalanced in a top-heavy Omega 6:3 ratio, Omega 6 being found in animal and saturated fats which has blood clotting effects i.e. heart disease, and most people are not getting enough of the Omega 3’s, known for expanding cardiovascular flow. Of this tragedy Michael Pollan states in The Omnivore’s Dilemma “We may one day come to regard this shift as one of the most deleterious dietary changes wrought by the industrialization of our food chain.”
Yet alive in the pockets of our global culture, communities still exist whose diets are not made up of clever marketing efforts, excessive food miles, or state-of-the-art freshness-sealed packaging. As tramontane as it may seem, there really are people that have never eaten at – or seen a McDonald’s. They value their relationship with their food sources and have an understanding of the world vastly different from ours. Folks like Chris Kilham, aka “The Medicine Hunter” (profiled in the NY Times ) who have studied with many indigenous cultures are setting the tone for a resurgence of wild food, permaculture and the healing power of plants. Americans are crippled with drug dependencies from the fervently prescribed antibiotics for viral infections (virus are not bacteria) to seriously strong antidepressants and anti-psychotic prescriptions for mild episodes of depression and anxiety. The endless pursuit of youth sends men to Viagra and steroids and women to diet pills and Botox. All the while, food is the last consideration for many. Blaming things like higher price of organics, or unpalatable taste of vegetables, the time it takes to prepare a healthy meal compared to the 60 second microwaveable (un)conventional ersatz nutrition, Americans get sicker and wonder why. Our faint relationship with where our food actually comes – and why – has displaced a nation.
Mono cropping, the most prominent American farming method is rife with challenges that largely outweigh the benefits: pressure on the soil razes the land, non-cyclical crop rotation harbors more insects and pest, uses more resources, and produces nutritionally inferior food because the soil is too taxed, losing its mineral content.
Farmers face another devastating challenge – the threat of genetically modified (GM) seeds unintentionally pollinating their crops. We know little about the long-term effects of GM food on the body – or our ecosystems. We do know the effects on the bank accounts of companies like Monsanto. Creation of “terminator” seeds force farmers into a continual dependence on a corporate-run seed bank to do what nature has been doing forever. In her documentary The Future of Food, Debra Koons Garcia details the genetically modified (GM) food “business” and what’s left of the North American farmer. GeneWatch.org estimates that there are over 30 million acres of GM crops in the U.S. alone – almost ten percent of our total crop land (primarily soy, corn, canola and cotton) endangering farmers like Percy Schmeiser (he's Canadian) who are being sued for the inevitable effects of cross-pollination from crops like the Monsanto RoundUp Ready canola, which found its way into Schmeiser’s fields and forced him into a losing legal tangle with Monsanto, having to pay them for seeds he never wanted in the first place.
Like the desperation of the dying music industry suing its own customers for file sharing, big GM agri-business is denigrating the heart of civilizations around the world with their self-serving crop-Overlord bullying. Subsidization and globalization cause agrarian based cultures to lose their abilities to make a living, and potentially, even their birthright to do so. Michael Pollan also points this out in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: “Once the last barrier to free trade comes down, and the last program of government support for farmers ends, our food will come from wherever in the world it can be produced most cheaply.”
Quashing the rights to grow or buy something as indispensable as food is going to force communities to seek ways to not only preserve cultural heritage, but the integrity of the food they consume. And unlike the fate of the music industry as we know it, the health and proliferation of our species depends on a regeneration of our food sources. We simply cannot sustain on a diet of highly processed, soil eroding, genetically modifying, fossil fuel dependant, marketing gimmicks. But if nature has one tendency, it is balance. Superfoods are designed to slip into the cracks of our diets, filling in where we’re deficient. As globalization gives us access to all of these ancient superfoods found around the world, perhaps they also give us access to all of those cultures’ knowledge too, so we can remember what we’ve forgotten and build a hearty future, like we’ve done so many times before.
Image by Fr Antunes used via a Creative Commons license.Tweet