Sunday, January 27, 2008

In the End, the Best Thing is to Cultivate One's Own Garden

In response to the posts related to our faraway food production, I would add that the modern convenience of our food system has many other important costs beyond the unfortunate reliance on fossil fuels, including effects on our culture, our nutrition, and our national security.
Food is by nature a cultural entity. Witness the various and diverse styles of cooking that developed in different parts of the world, related to the geography, climate, and local and seasonal availability of particular foods. For example, in Texas we are proud of our barbecue, just as we are proud of our roots in cattle ranching. Food plays an important part in families and communities - Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas hams, spring asparagus, summer watermelon, fall pomegranates. These foods lose their meaning when they become readily available all year long. And as a society we become disconnected from the land, the seasons, and life in general outside our front door. It should not come as a surprise then to find that we treat the environment poorly given that we have so little direct relation to the land we live on.
Good food is important for human nutrition. Nowadays, the primary focus of modern agriculture is on quantity, not quality. Farm Bureau's applauded themselves last year to note that, relative to the average paycheck, the amount of money spent on food per person in America was at an historic low. However, most of America is, by the standards of pre-modern man, malnourished. As proof of this statement, it is striking to note that pre-modern societies had almost no dental decay, and that their dental arch had enough space to accommodate all their teeth, including the wisdom teeth. Research in the 1920s and 1930s by Weston Price demonstrated that as primitive societies converted to modern foods (i.e. refined flour and sugar) overcrowding of teeth and dental cavities were prevalent in the next generation of children born. Nutrition directly affected bone development. We are not often reminded that in the early 20th century dental cavities were the single largest degenerative disease in modern society. It is commonplace nowadays to assume our wisdom teeth will be pulled and that most of us will need braces and require fillings for cavities, but it has not always been this way.
Flour is an excellent illustration of this point. A grain is composed of the germ, bran, and endosperm. Most of the nutrition is in the germ and bran. However, for the purpose of modern trade and commerce whole flour spoils too quickly. Thus, the germ and bran were separated out and white flour was born, which can last virtually indefinitely, but which is primarily starch and has very little nutritional value. In the early 20th century in America, when this was accomplished, diseases related to extreme vitamin B deficiency became prevalent. However, by then flour companies were making a lot of money selling the germ and bran as livestock feed to fatten up animals. So rather than leave them in the grain, enriched white flour was developed, whereby vitamins and minerals were artificially added back, but which is still inferior in nutritional quality to whole flour. Thus, for the sake of international trade, which relies on cheap oil, we adopted as a society to eating devitalized flour.
The emphasis on calories above all else, and the motivation for continued profit in agribusiness is directly related to the increased caloric consumption per capita in America. This increased caloric diet along with depleted nourishments in the food is directly responsible for our current diabetes epidemic. Thus does our food system and its relationship with cheap oil place even more reliance on our already bankrupt medical system. By subsidizing corn and soy, we indirectly subsidize soda pop, candy bars, and fast food. Altering our farm bill subsidies is far more important for addressing diabetes than any medical research we are currently undertaking.
Finally, food is of importance for national security. Perhaps the most important national resource that we inherited as a nation was excellent soil health. Yet we have prescribed little value to the health of the soil now that we rely on fossil fuels as cheap fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and to run our tractors and farm machinery. And each year we flush more and more soil down the Mississippi. As our soil health has depleted, our food has become intimately reliant on fossil fuel not only for transportation, but also for production itself. The danger inherent in producing food dependent on a nonrenewable resource cannot be underemphasized.
Modern agriculture pays primary attention to the levels of Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorus in the soil because these are the primary ingredients necessary for fast plant growth. A complex web of soil biology and nutrients is reduced to N, K, and P - Fast growing plants are not necessarily more nutritional, and in fact there are often less vitamins and minerals in the food that we eat with respect to the past. For example, there are diminished vitamins A, D, and K in the butter that we use today because cows no longer eat fresh growing grasses from healthy soil.
Note that I am not taken to romanticizing the past. Pre-modern agriculture and life often required a great deal of work and time to obtain food. And no doubt there were many other problems and immoralities in such cultures. Advances in medical science with respect to biological disease, improved women’s and human rights throughout much of the world, and greater amounts of leisure time are indeed excellent benefits in the world today. But I do believe that there is much that we can be critical about in our food system, and by being critical and creative we can construct alternatives and solutions. In the end, as a method to protect national security, obtain proper nourishment, and develop a better sense of community and relation to the land we live on, I believe it is best to cultivate one's own garden.

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