I love food. I love the flavours, textures, aromas, and nutrients. I love the stories behind the food. I love when my little balcony garden is thriving and I can pick greens two minutes before I make a salad. I love snipping fresh herbs to cook with, and hanging the rest to dry for use in winter soups. I’m still very new to growing food, so occasionally the seedlings die and I have to learn from that. Sometimes, the last few plants that survived a storm are eaten by bugs. Sigh. It happens. Until I’ve learned to grow food reliably, and until I have access to enough soil to support this household, I’ll be buying most of my food from farmers …like most other people in the global north.
Have you seen the documentary Food Inc? If not, today may be the day to watch it. If you eat meat and don’t know precisely who raised the animal, how it was raised, what it was fed, how it was killed, how the carcass was processed (into steaks/filets/burgers/bacon/wings/sausages), who was hired to complete this work and how they were paid and treated… well, odds are you’re eating horrendously cruel factory meat and should watch this documentary to catch up on what you’re putting into your mouth. Apply that to dairy and eggs, too.
If you eat vegetables or grains, there are equivalent considerations: who grew the seeds and how, who grew the plants, how and where; what fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, infrastructure, fossil fuels, and tools were used; when and how was it harvested; how has it been stored and shipped? Are the seeds owned by a corporation, or are they public? Have those harvests undercut farmers in other countries, leading to unemployment and famines? Have those harvests been deliberately introduced at low cost (or free, under the guise of food aid) to other societies to create market demand for those products?
Subsidies and incentives blow food prices out of relationship from the nutritional value of the food and the dollar cost of farming: in a popular example, “a McDonald’s burger that costs about $5 to purchase would actually cost $13 without all the subsidies” (Common Ground). While we considering subsidies, growing just the patty took the same amount of water as a 90-minute shower (Just Eat It), the cow’s methane belches contributed to the 24%+ of total greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture (IPCC 2014), and the poor cow’s digestive system was turned into a breeding ground for deadly-to-humans E. coli colonies that were washed downstream to coat spinach and other produce.
Some of us have enough discretionary income (money we can spend on whatever we want) to buy vegetables on a regular basis; some of us can choose to buy all-organic foods and more-ethically-raised meat. Many of us, however, are in financial situations that severely restrict our food choices: our goal is simply to eat something, whatever we can afford this week. With the exception of deliberate fasts, longterm hunger feels awful. Hunger after months or years of malnutrition feels downright terrible. So yes, it’s completely understandable that low-income consumers will buy whatever’s least expensive, even if they feel ashamed of the corporations that they’re supporting. Those of us who can make respectful and responsible choices should make those choices. Those of us who can engage in collective action to shift subsidies toward nutritious and responsible foods should do so, so that those of us who are focusing on day-to-day survival can also afford healthy and safe foods.
Neoliberalism puts financial and political power into the hands of massive corporations, giving them deep influence on governmental policymakers and legislators. That drives these imbalanced subsidies and the ‘food aid – oh I mean free samples‘ ploy. That’s also where we get madness like massive corporations suing small farmers for (unintentional) patent infringement even though “53% of the world’s commercial seed market is controlled by just three firms – Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta” and “In the US some 93% of soybeans and 86% of corn crops come from [patent-protected seeds]”.
We as consumers have some influence: ‘voting with our dollars’ has some effect, as we see in grocery stores shifting to offer more organic options and large corporations buying organic companies in response to consumer interest. We can direct our discretionary income to local, organic, ethical, farmers …which will result in us eating more-nutritious food, which is definitely a bonus. We can choose to eat far less meat (or none) and have the excellent side-effect of reducing deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.
We can work with local food rescues. We can join community gardens, gleaners, and collective harvesters to reconnect with food, how it grows, how much effort goes into tending it, and how truly amazing fresh food tastes. We can grow something, anything, in window boxes and balcony gardens; we can tear up our lawns and plant food. We can share delicious meals with our friends, family, community, and colleagues.
The closing statements in Food Inc are these: maybe something here will resonate with you? “You can vote to change this system three times a day. Buy from companies that treat workers, animals, and the environment with respect. When you go to the supermarket, choose foods that are in season. Buy foods that are organic. Know what’s in your food. Read labels. Know what you buy. The average meal travels 1,500 miles from the farm to the supermarket. Buy foods that are grown locally. Shop at farmers’ markets. Plant a garden (even a small one). Cook a meal with your family and eat together. Everyone has a right to healthy food. Make sure your farmers’ market takes food stamps. Ask your school board to provide healthy school lunches. The FDA and USDA are supposed to protect you and your family. Tell Congress to enforce food safety standards and re-introduce Kevin’s Law. If you say grace, ask for food that will keep us, and the planet, healthy. You can change the world with every bite.“