Thursday, January 22, 2009

food privileges

I finished reading Raj Patel's book Stuffed and Starved last week while I was in Whitehorse. A lot of it was not entirely new to me, in concept if not details, but it still made me think a lot. The main point of the book is that what the globalization of the world's food supply has done has been to concentrate the power, money and means in the realm of food into a virtual bottleneck of wholesalers, processors and suppliers, leaving producers and consumers largely at their mercy, and ensuring that the only concerns in food production, on a large scale, are yields, cost of purchase and cost of final sale, and the greatest possible difference between the latter two. In other words, profit. Sustainability is so not even on the radar, and the fun new thing is Monsanto, who is in bed with everyone including food distributors and governments and thus holds a big old virtual club over all the producers' heads... and Monsanto, as we all know, is pretty keen on the GMO/pesticide combinations. Wholesalers keep driving down prices, Monsanto comes in saying "wellllll if you plant OUR stuff, you can squeeze an extra hundred pounds per acre (or whatever)" and what choice does the farmer have? Plant the GMO, or watch his family starve - because there's only one buyer for his stuff. That's what a bottleneck does, and that's what the globalized system has done. (Patel also points out the really horribly shocking suicide rates for farmers in developing countries, and if that doesn't shake you a bit then you have no soul.)

Well duh, it's a big old "laissez-faire" system after all - except it really isn't, since governments, especially ours and that one a bit further south keep pumping money into grain crops, which incidentally have about the highest profit margins for processors - and the lowest level of sustainability. The only thing keeping soils only remotely fertile is rotating with soy, which has the side effect of pumping OUR diets full of the stuff in ways that are barely foodlike, and of upping the protein content in animal feed to the point that they can be churned out bigger, faster and less healthily than ever before. Yay.

Anyway. You should read the book, it's very illuminating, especially Patel's analysis of how food aid has been used as a very strategic weapon directed at the developing world, and why ever-increasing amounts of food available in the developed world mean ever-increasing amounts of poverty in the developing world.

The main thought that I was left with at the end of it was that actually being able to choose what you eat is, in our world, a privilege enjoyed by very few, even those who actually believe that they do choose. Indian peasants, for example, know that they don't have much of a choice - they eat what rice and vegetables they can afford to not sell. But North American consumers often think they have a choice. After all, they walk into a grocery store and there are thousands of products to choose from. The thing is, all those products were chosen (or forced by price issues) by whoever runs the grocery store (and ultimately, those are very very few people), and the choices available to THOSE people are limited by the supply chains that they're linked into, and the people who actually grew the products had no choice about what they grew, who they bought the seeds from, and what price they got for their crops.

Moreover, most of the products in the "middle" of the grocery store consist mainly of 3 ingredients: corn, soy and wheat, and most, if not all of the meat and dairy also consists of those things too, only second-hand. In the produce section, there may be some variety in species, but the origin of everything is likely to be wherever is cheapest to produce things. In our grocery stores, that's Mexico and California (also Mexico. Don't fool yourself thinking that produce from California is produced by Americans earning fair wages. It's virtually all grown by impoverished Mexicans only possibly legally employed by huge corporations (the same ones that operate in actual Mexico) that pay absolute crap. With no health benefits or compensation for pesticide-related illness.)

Moreover, grocery stores evolved in a manner that effectively trained consumers how to shop in the most consuming way. My own mother refuses to go in the grocery store (granted, only on "old people's day") without going up and down every single aisle, regardless of what she actually needs. Many people - myself included - try to fool themselves that they are immune to the display tactics and marketing, but we all occasionally (or not so occasionally) fall prey to the lure of a new product, a new flavour, temptingly placed RIGHT in our way as we make a dash just for the milk. Which, incidentally, is why dairy cases are always at the back of the store - because that's what most people "dash" in for.

But the thing is, I don't need to go into the grocery store every week. I actually have other options AND I know about them, and how to use them. I have a freezer full of meat obtained from local farms, a local-purchasing small butcher and my fabulously awesome moose-hunting sister (with help from my husband). I can, and do, buy most of my vegetables from local farms. We eat relatively few grains - I buy a loaf of bread from a local bakery once every couple of weeks, organic oatmeal every couple of months, and I keep some organic (local if I can get it) flour on hand if we neeeeeed treats. The milk that Rowan and I drink comes from our cow. We froze a pile of fruit last summer, and we can still get local apples, pears and kiwi fruit. I have a multitude of egg sources, and Choux Choux makes bacon from up-island pigs. I do even forage occasionally, from parks and my own garden.

I'm not a complete purist; Stirling doesn't get the good milk for his tea, and I do buy Buck Brand oranges in-season from Thrifty's (the blood oranges are excellent). Occasionally a package of chips or a cookie from Bubbie Rose's will find their way into our house, or a piece of fruit leather or a package of Baby Bels will be required as a bribe. About once a month we'll eat pasta. But largely, we eat local.

And I KNOW how damned lucky we are to even be able to do that. Isn't that crazy??? That MOST people in the richest country in the world cannot be fed by their surroundings.

In Whitehorse, by contrast, there is a farmer's market that runs during the summer months. That's pretty much June, July and August. If you're savvy, you can buy local meat or go out and shoot it yourself. Eggs you can get if you know the right people. Vegetables in the middle of winter? Either you're the world's most amazing gardener (aka my late father) and you can grow enough to fill the freezer and the root cellar to get you through the winter, or you hit the Superstore. Grains? Well, my sister (as previously mentioned) grew a cup of quinoa, and I think some people are experimenting with rye. The potato crop in the territory largely failed last year. Could you live on home-grown and wild food, eschewing grains, getting your vitamin C from cranberries scrounged from beneath the snow, living out of your freezer and losing ten or twenty pounds between September and May? Well sure. But why would you, when your next-door-neighbour is out munching Doritos as he tinkers with his snowmobile?

This is where the other part of food privilege comes in: knowledge. I'm coming to realize that I have it good not only because I live somewhere that I can get a lot of good, ethically produced food that I don't pay too much for and the producer gets a fair price for - I'm also blessed to have been raised by people who firstly gave a crap about what they ate, secondly knew a LOT about food and nutrition and thirdly had the means, will and ability to do most of it themselves.

I posted a while ago on a discussion board about how sick I was of all the slavish adhering to the dubious wisdom of food gurus and nutritional studies and scientific research, blah de blah blah and why couldn't people just eat good sensible food, listen to their own bodies and realize that nutritional science was reductionist and limited and etc. etc... it made sense, what I wrote - but what I got in response was a bunch of people saying "ok. But we have NO CLUE what even constitutes good sensible food - we were raised by people who thought WonderBread was healthy because it had vitamins in it - we don't know what it feels like, to be healthy - we have no choice but to trust someone or something, because we can't trust our instincts."

It follows, from this, that looking outside a grocery store for food is so outside the box for most people that it's approaching unthinkable. Food comes from a grocery store - end of story. And that, unfortunately, is where all the food revolutions will end, I think... in the space of three or four generations, the entire developed (and, increasingly, developing) world has been trained to look in only one place. People will bemoan the cost - both in dollars, and in ecological harm - for buying salad greens from California in nasty plastic clamshell packaging - but they will never question either the need for salad greens in the first place OR that they must obtain them from the grocery store. And, on their way home, they will no doubt (given that they live here, anyway) pass hundreds of pounds of perfectly edible, tasty greens in parks, common areas and relatively clean roadsides, just sitting there, loaded with vitamins, minerals, and flavour, and completely free and sustainable. But the their first thought if someone suggests picking them will be "Ew, what if a dog peed on it?"- completely forgetting the whole e-coli-spinach fiasco of barely a year ago that resulted from the very common practise of spraying "organic" crops with the run-off from factory-farmed animals, of which pee was by far the least offensive part.

They'll buy bread made from GMO grains containing GMO canola or soy oil and all kinds of dough conditioners and stabilizers and preservatives because the words "WHOLE GRAINS" are splattered all over the package, while never considering that bread need not be actually packaged, preserved, marketed - or even eaten at all.

Don't even get me started on WalMart's approach to organic foods.

I don't know if I have a solution to this. Haul kids off to local farms whenever possible, then point out to them that NONE of the food they saw growing will ever see the inside of a grocery store? Start leading grocery-shopping field trips for other household food purchasers? (This has actually been suggested to me...) I just don't know. I don't know how to make people care about food. Or, how to think about food in a way that doesn't simply serve the huge corporations.

Maybe, slowly, the people like Michael Pollan and Raj Patel and Barbara Kingsolver who keep nattering on about this will sink in. Maybe Barack Obama will have a spine and yank the corn subsidies in the States, and Harper or whoever else is in charge here will follow suit with the wheat ones here. That would go a LONG way to reforming our food. I'm not necessarily against subsidies, but for crying out loud - CORN??? Does something that makes junk food even cheaper really need subsidizing? Subsidize diversified farms. Heck, completely bankroll corn farmers as they transition to something a little more healthy and sustainable. But stop with the damn corn.

I think that's enough for now. I guess the main point of this post is: grocery stores suck. And most people have no choice, either by virtue of circumstance, their own mental worldview or both, but to use them, and because of that, the world is pretty doomed.