Food for Thought: Tracing Our Food
Sometimes I think it’s important for us to sit back for a moment and think about where our food comes from. For instance, it’s interesting when we think about how we always have the same variety of produce, and all the same types of snack food, meat, and dairy products at each corner you turn in the supermarket, regardless of what time of the year it is. Besides seasonal produce and holiday food items, most everything we buy always looks the same and is grown or manufactured in the same place.
We are Industrial Eaters
With this in mind, most of us usually tend to disregard how our burger at McDonald’s got from “farm” to plate, and we don’t pause to think about how that same burger could have once, in its raw beginnings, shared a corn field in Iowa with the cup of soda we’re drinking, or with the soft-serve ice cream we’re about to have for dessert, or even with the bowl of cereal we had for breakfast. But are we okay with that? Are we okay with being unknowing, susceptible, industrial eaters?
On my flight to San Diego last December, I remember flying for a long time over seemingly endless acres of land perfectly square sections of land. Here’s a view out of the window of the plane as we flew over acres of farmland, somewhere in the Midwest.
In this way, I argue that we should, in the least, be observant of what we eat, in order to contribute to a healthy society. My intent is to thus illustrate that much of the food available to us is industrially made, manufactured, and processed. By exploring the effects of the Green Revolution, in terms of industrialized agriculture, I will use the concept of “industrial eaters” introduced in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma to extend my argument to an assessment of the current food culture here in the United States.
Are we okay with being unknowing, susceptible, industrial eaters?
Our system of agriculture in the United States has become largely industrialized. Back in the 1970s, biotechnology surrounding recombinant species, and the competition to create the next genetically-modified sugar beet, or the best variety of the “endless summer tomato” flourished.1 As also seen in the documentary, Food, Inc., the food industry in the United States is a huge economic venture, in which seeds for crops such as corn and soybeans are legally patented, and farmers have to plant their crops using the “proper” seeds, under the eyes of big corporations like Monsanto.
As described in The Omniovore’s Dilemma and Food, Inc., the homogeneity of our food system can be problematic, which is illustrated here by current food recalls that have sickened numerous people.
However, people such as Michael Pollan have investigated, and are investigating, the nature of America’s industrialized agriculture. As Pollan traces a McDonald’s meal from corn field to restaurant in his novel, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he also brings up the idea of “industrial eaters,” we who “have evolved into that supremely adapted creature: the eater of processed food.” For instance, he illustrates this notion by exploring the effect of the heightened knowledge in the sciences, and how the food industry has found out how to ruthlessly manipulate a kernel of corn into things like hamburgers, soda, and raspberry “flavor.”2
A kernel of corn turns into things like hamburgers, soda, and raspberry “flavor”
In this way, Pollan suggests, and credibly so, that we are the consumers of industrialized agriculture. While I agree with Pollan to a degree, I know that eating this way for some people is off the table, maybe because they instead opt for local, whole foods and stay away from processed foods. However, for others, eating well comes down to a matter of cost and feeding a family; still for others, it may just be that people are unaware that the food they are eating on a day-to-day basis isn’t the healthiest–it’s just the food that is available to them.
Based on the Nutrition Facts label of the bag of Sun Chips I had with my Take Four lunch the other day, corn is in everything! It shapes its way into a chip, as well as into more subtle ingredients such as corn oil and maltodextrin.
Processed Food and the Food Epidemic
In addition, as Pollan also illustrates, eating industrially is not all about “choice.” Rather, it has more to do with the notion that processed foods have been forced upon us and have unapologetically pervaded the food market as we know it. If we had a choice, we would turn our backs on this homogenous system. We would adapt–and evolve, as Pollan puts it–away from Cheez Whiz, and towards real cheese. We would reach for healthy alternatives, if they were more largely available to everyone. When you think about it, we didn’t evolve to drink 24 ounces of Coca Cola in one sitting. However, our bodies, just as is our food culture, are elastic–and maybe too elastic, since almost 40% of adults in America are obese.3
While obesity is only one of the concerns related to our culture of processed foods, it is an epidemic. In addition, this statistic also reveals the larger picture of food culture here in the United States. We have been forced to adapt to the manifestations and creations of industrialized agriculture, and we have been blindly persuaded to live in a food system of homogeneity, that of which churns out boxes of Oreos just as fast as the patented seeds are planted.
Almost 40% of adults in America are obese
Nevertheless, I strongly believe that we can do better. We can do better by encouraging healthy eating and adapting to be healthy eaters–not industrial eaters, but eaters of “whole foods.” Even eating a plant-based diet, or being “flexitarian,” will have proven benefits for problems such as climate change.4 In this way, we need to make sure healthy food is available to everyone and that everyone has the ability to purchase, and is educated about, eating whole foods. While not a small task, I don’t believe it’s impossible. Ironically, like all things, it all starts by planting the first seed.
1. “Risk, Regulation, and Our Food,” and “The Economics of Eating” in Hallam Stevens, Biotechnology and Society: An Introduction(University of Chicago Press 2016), 97–129.
2. Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History Of Four Meals. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.
3. The State of Obesity Report. State of Obesity. https://stateofobesity.org (accessed Oct 27, 2018)
4. The ideal diet to combat climate change. CNN.https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/18/health/plant-based-diet-climate-change-food-drayer/index.html(accessed Oct 27, 2018)