|You Are ‘Where’ You Eat: Navigating the Ecological Landscape of Food Choice|
|Sunday, 14 October 2012 00:00 | Written by Guest Contributor | Commentary|
Most of us have got the message that “we are what we eat.” Francis Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet and Marion Nestle’s Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism go further. They have successfully made the parallel between healthful eating and good environmental stewardship. In this vein, it becomes necessary to “be where we eat,” as well—that is, to be geographically close to the source of our food’s production—so that we ourselves can monitor the environmental impact of our food choices.
It’s also important to be close socially, so that we can relate as equals in dignity with those who produce our food. The federal National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has given us a codified system with which to assess the relative quality of our chosen foods, but many would argue that for true accountability, you have to have a closer connection to the food. It is one thing to trust the green USDA logo; it is another to trust your farmer.
Comparing Oranges to Oranges
Did it travel to you via regional packing houses, unionized laborers, locally owned distribution truckers and family greengrocers, or was the orchard contracted by Whole Foods to produce 100 tons of oranges that day, with a huge truck loading up crop, picked by migrant workers rolling right from the farm to the regional Whole Foods distribution center, and then out to the six or eight area stores? The two oranges might have the same code on the colorful round sticker, but the processes that brought them to you are vastly different.
Each fruit is an individual. Watch experienced housewives shopping at a farmer’s market or produce section as they carefully select individual fruits that meet subtle quality criteria. The selection is a sophisticated interaction with the potential food; we practice using our senses, measure the weight of the fruit in our hands, and look for a certain sheen. If you have experience harvesting fruits from the tree, you will know that the fruit on the south side of the tree ripens first due to the increased sunshine there. Trees planted on a slope where the cool air drains away will also set earlier fruit.
Grapefruit growers, out in their orchards to test the crop, will usually taste only the ‘flower-side’ half of the grapefruit; this is the ‘distal’ part of the fruit with a sweet, pure taste.
‘Knowing your farmer’ may at first seem like a picturesque notion for nostalgic foodies. But in fact it is the basis of a relationship with the people in whom we have placed our trust—trust that they will feed us and trust in the knowledge that they have of the land they farm. Engaging with these people brings us socially and relationally closer to the land that nourishes us—and removes the risk of anonymity in our food.
Knowing the Landscape
Imagine the Mediterranean landscapes we love to look at, a matrix of olive orchards, vineyards, dairy farm pastures, olivestre forests/hedgerows, flax, oak forest for foraging pork, wheat, citrus, fig, pomegranate fruit orchards, cypress trees, lavender farms, vegetable production, home gardens and sunflowers. This mixed land use expresses the diet of the culture it supports, but the crops also support a large number of workers around the year. And different ecological conditions favor different crops—wine in Europe most often takes the southern exposure, wheat uses the valley floor, higher altitudes that cannot support row crops are suitable for grazing, and alpine flowers make summer cheeses particularly spicy.
The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker are a part of this landscape; the embedded professions of the region’s food system produce a unique, regional cuisine. In this way, the land is managed with care—each place, each set of conditions informs its stewardship. Rotations, diversity, mixed habitat for domestic and wild animals, native vegetation remnants, protected riparian areas, self-sustaining rural households… this is what traditional agriculture looked like, and what sustainable farming strives for. But of course we have to develop our taste and appetite for the produce that come from such systems and bioregionally specific processes.
Being Discerning About Food
Michael Pollan reminds us in his article, "Is Corn Making Us Fat?," that most folks erroneously think that corn is corn is corn. As a consequence, our country will this year plant 90 million acres of corn, most of it genetically modified. Worldwide, genetically modified crops currently cover roughly 252 million acres, or 6.2% of the world’s total cropland. This growth occurs largely in developing countries, which currently host about 40% of total GM acreage. These monocultures are energy and capital intensive, ecologically damaging, exclusionary of indigenous agricultural practices and unaccountable to end users. The corn market is dominated by hyper-huge processing companies that churn out high fructose corn syrup by the trainload; a low price has made it omnipresent in processed food, and a major contributor to heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
It is this destructive land use, exploitative labor practice, mechanized production, transnational shipping, chemical dependency and genetic determinism that has manufactured a Coke. While it may indeed be cheaper than an orange bought from a farmer at a market or from a truck that brought it from a local farm run by a family that depends on relationships to stay in business—the quality, value and care of the production of that orange make it a worthwhile investment in our landscape.
Recognizing the difference between efficiency and integrity will help us make the distinction between a food culture that is consistently destructive, convenient and petroleum addicted, to one that reinforces considerate stewardship of functional and sustainable rural economies—and gives future generations the privilege of the same choice.
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[This piece, provided courtesy of the Society for Agriculture and Food Ecology (SAFE), was written by Severine von Tscharner Fleming, SAFE’s founder. - Ed.]