Eating with a Conscience
Author Michael Pollan is at the forefront of an increasingly popular movement of enlightened eaters and conscious consumers. This expanding movement has the power to transform our core values related to our food choices. According to Pollan, those core values are in serious need of revision, and changing our shopping and eating habits not only eases our conscience, it deepens our eating pleasure.
It used to be you ate what you ate and thought little more about it. Ignorance may not have been bliss, but it was palatable enough. These days realizing the ultimate impact of our many food choices can leave a lingering, bitter taste in our mouths.
Author Michael Pollan is deeply aware of the consequences of our individual and collective food decisions, and he’s busy enlightening others, too.
“What’s at stake in our eating choices is not only our own and our children’s health, but the health of the environment that sustains life on earth,” writes Pollan in his best-selling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin Press, 2006).
Pollan is at the forefront of an increasingly popular movement of enlightened eaters and conscious consumers. This expanding movement has the power to transform our core values related to our food choices. According to Pollan, those core values are in serious need of revision, and changing our shopping and eating habits not only eases our conscience, it deepens our eating pleasure.
“Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world–and what is to become of it,” Pollan reminds us.
On his journalistic quest to trace and document the sources, travels, and processing of four distinct meals, Pollan unravels and reveals to us the hidden journeys of our food. Along the way to putting dinner on his table, he discovers a few troubling recipes for disaster.
Many of Pollan’s discoveries affirm one sad truth. We have become a nation of eaters largely dependent on a mass-produced, industrialized food chain. This extensive food chain is based on a mere handful of commodity food crops, mainly corn.
In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the author “follows a bushel of commodity corn from the field in Iowa where it grew, on its long, strange journey to its ultimate destination in a fast-food meal, eaten in a moving car on a highway in Marin County, California.”
Corn has dozens of incarnations, dominating the North American food chain and popping up in one of its many forms in virtually all processed and fast foods. Chicken McNuggets, soft drinks, beer, coffee whitener, Cheez Whiz, mustard, and mayonnaise are just the beginning. Many food additives are also made from corn. Pollan reports that there are about 45,000 items in the average supermarket, and nearly 25 percent of them contain corn in some form. It’s no wonder that corn allergies and intolerances are on the rise.
Natural food stores’ shelves are also riddled with corny ingredients and derivatives. Vitamins can be coated with a corn protein, and so-called natural sodas are frequently sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. Many protein powders and meal replacement formulas include corn sweeteners and byproducts. Corn even shows up in non-food items like cosmetics, toothpaste, garbage bags, and disposable diapers.
This systemic dependence on industrial corn production is one of the factors leading to the loss of small local family farms in rural communities.
All around the world, small local farms are falling prey to big agribusiness corporations. The culture of small local farms is being replaced with mechanistic growing systems often based upon monoculture crops. This modern method of growing only one or two kinds of commodity crops on large tracts of land poses a serious threat to plant biodiversity (growing several varieties of the same plant species, one of Mother Nature’s brilliant strategies designed to ensure the long-term health and viability of our seed stocks).
Animals, too, have fallen victim to our industrial style of eating. Once raised rurally and more humanely, they provided meat, eggs, and milk to local communities. Today, meat and animal products are manufactured in confined animal operations. As Michael Pollan points out, it is no coincidence that these operations depend upon cheap corn to fatten their product.
Just as industrial eating dulls and numbs our culinary sensitivities, industrial farming disassociates and alienates us from the natural world. But what is the remedy for what Pollan calls “our national eating disorder?”
Slow Food Nations
North Americans have become a culture of habitual overeaters and overconsumers. Our bodies are overfed, yet undernourished. We gorge on empty, refined calories that fail to nourish and heal our bodies. Eating huge portions of excessively refined, processed, packaged foods has become the norm for North Americans, and we are paying the price with deteriorating health, skyrocketing health-care costs, and environmental damage.
Many other cultures around the world (such as the French, Italian, and Greek) have a much healthier relationship with food than we do. They also have a lower incidence of obesity, heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes. Their loving relationship with food includes the satisfying rituals of eyeing, touching, smelling, selecting, preparing, savouring, and sharing the eating experience.
The drive-through meals that are the foundation of our nation’s disordered eating leave us starving for the sensory fulfillment all stages of meal preparation can bring. We must get ourselves back to the garden, the kitchen, and the pantry if we are to retrain our taste buds and reclaim our true love for real food.
You read it right. The word is “glocal,” and it is a newly coined term for a new way of eating. Back in the ’80s, a revolutionary slogan admonished us to “think globally and act locally.” The concept of glocal eating is very similar: this hybrid word reminds us that to eat locally is to be globally responsible. The long distances food, even organic food, is shipped diminishes nutritive value and increases the environmental impact.
Researchers from the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Michigan calculated that at least seven calories of fossil fuel are burned up for every calorie of energy we get from our food. This means that a 400-calorie breakfast can actually cost 2,800 calories in fossil fuel energy. But eating locally grown foods conserves energy and reduces air pollution by requiring less fossil fuel in the transporting of our food.
Resolving the Dilemma
Hopefully, our omnivore’s dilemma of deciding what to eat will be influenced by the words of ecologist and philosopher Wendell Berry: “Eating is an agricultural act.” Michael Pollan adds, “It is also an ecological act and a political act.”
It’s true; eating with conscience makes everything taste better.
By shopping at local natural food stores and farmers’ markets, which feature local and regional products, we help the planet in several important ways. We contribute to a healthy relationship with local food producers, who tend to use more sustainable and organic methods of growing food and raising animals. When we buy food grown on local farms and gardens, we are supporting and developing a network of community self-sufficiency, the only real safety net we have in the face of emergencies and critical events.