For the past four weeks a group at St Laurence has been studying the nature of our ever-changing food supply in Canada. We have engaged this study as a faithful response to the Anglican Church's call for the food security needs worldwide. Of the 5As for Food Security, Availability, Accessibility, Acceptability, Appropriate, and Agency, we chose two: is our food Appropriate, free from harmful chemicals, and is it readily Available? We decided we could not advocate for secure food worldwide unless we knew well the history, production, and nature of our own food supply, at least one developed country's response and policy to feeding others.
We chose the book, Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, read a few chapters each session, and highlighted what Alberta and Canada are doing for food security. In this article, I will barely skim the surface of what we studied.
First, our national unstated policy in the first four decades of the 20th Century was simply to fill the bellies. Protests in the 1930s and WWII prompted Canada to survey and publish, the first Canadian Food Rules to encourage healthy dietary patterns as a patriotic duty to "Eat Right to Feel Right."
In the 1960s, we again updated our food education and knowledge commensurate with our growing population and began industrial farming across N. America. This started the corn-based industrial food chain with chemical fertilizers and monocultures, one crop farms, mostly corn. Cows became corn fed rather than grass fed, margarine was substituted for butter, and gradually food stabilizers and emulsifiers made mostly from corn were added. Today those corn additives have reached into all processed foods, beverages, meats, vegetables, fruits, breads and dairy. At that time Canada also shifted to monoculture crops growing wheat, corn, meat, and lentils for export. Now Canada has become dependent on the US for fruits, vegetables, and produce and these must be brought in by Fossil fuel refrigerator trucks and planes.
Organic foods also emerged in the 1960s as an alternative to industrial farming. Eschewing chemical fertilizers, herb/pesticides and hormones, people began growing their own food in small plots, community gardens, back yards, or joining metropolitan buying clubs and attending farmers' markets. Gradually food producers, ever vigilant to consumer needs and wishes, began eliminating the harsh chemicals and planting large tracts of land in organic vegetables, thus organic empires were born.
Recent skirmishes between Earls and beef producers in Alberta impressed on us the number and amount of antibiotics and growth hormones used in large cattle production and also in chicken production. They are used to minimize the deaths of animals/birds confined to small cages and feed lots where close proximity promotes disease. And these chemicals are passed on to us harming our natural immunity to disease, viruses, and infections.
Being sceptical of labels and packaging, we struggled to understand the various words used in labeling, "certified", "certified humane," "sustainable", "grass fed" (how big are pastures?) free range chickens, vegetarian chickens (no grass, just grain?). We studied the logical world-view of industrial farming-efficiency, use of language, (hogs, chickens, beef as "production units"), and the savagery of slaughter houses. We contrasted this large scale efficiency with a particular family farm in Virginia that was based on ecological, political, ethical, sustainable, and even spiritual premises. The farm was small, 100 acres of pasture and 450 acres of woods but produced huge amount of food from eggs, broilers, stewing chickens, cows, hogs, turkeys, and rabbits. Still, the small scale of this kind of farming serves a much smaller number of people. Pollan suggests that supporting local farmers is one way to change the large food industry. Certainly having organic food produced by industrial farming, even though it is brought in, is a tribute to citizen action.
The omnivore's dilemma revolves around what is safe to eat for humans who are capable of eating everything. As we discussed, so much of our food is laced with chemicals (antibiotics, growth hormones, artificial fertilizers, GMOs, etc.) that are disguised to taste good. These have been added gradually over the last 50 years, changing both the food quality and the farming industry itself. Safe food depends on education and good thinking to weigh the safety against costs and availability of good food.
The tools to help us are a sense of taste, covering a range between sweetness and bitterness. Another is a sense of disgust or "the fear of incorporating offending substances into one's body" (p. 292) Cooking is the omnivor's cleverest tools. We take pleasure in eating a variety of cooked foods that have transcended bitterness, sweetness, and disgust. In an attempt to rely not on expert opinions, advertizing, or diet books, we have concluded that eating locally grown organic food as much as possible is in our best interest. Limit or eliminate processed foods that are full of additives. A set of rules about eating habits also might help: eat small portions, don't go back for seconds, don't snack, try not to eat alone and make meals a social occasion. Slow down, shop on the periphery of the grocery store for fresh produce, and know that nutrition is more than filling the belly.