Environment / Food / Health / Organic / Pollution

Organic Food: Not just for tofu-munchin’, granola-crunchin’ hippies

Sorry for being so sparse between entries folks. I was traveling around Europe for 6 months, and have meandered my way into the US after stopping in Canada. I was thoroughly lost in learning about and admiring the beauty of Europe and the Mediterranean, especially in terms of food. What I’m writing about next is a five-part series on the modern food system in the West, what exactly is wrong with it, and why a major change in the way we eat is in order.

Part 1: So Far Gone

Part 2: Meet your Meat

Part 3: Fruits & Veggies

Part 4: Dairy and Dispersal.

Part 5: The Return Home.

Part 1 – So Far Gone

In order to offset some of the heavy fees levied on travelers these days, I was working in Europe primarily through an international movement called WWOOF (www.wwoof.org). The acronym stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms – largely self-explanatory. Those interested work on a chosen farm in exchange for room, board, and the opportunity to learn organic farming practices. The farms themselves vary from single-product farms, to family dwellings or agritourism. As with anything, it has its obvious flaws and difficulties, but is overall an amazing way to both travel and learn about new cultures, farming practices, and natural eating.

I confess my primary expectation was for the hosts to be truly dedicated to the North American concept of ‘organic’, i.e.,vague certifications with cute symbols. To my astonishment and admiration, organic in Europe mostly meant common sense. Grow your own food in the garden without spraying or pesticides. Watch after your own animals. Share what you grow with your neighbor that doesn’t grow the same produce, and vice versa.  No tactics employed by massive corporations attempting to keep our dollars while pretending to be environmentally friendly.

Now, I will grant that I spent a large portion of time working in Spain and Italy, both with climates favourable to food production, but the European’s unassuming premise of primarily self-sustainment in regards to food struck a chord within me, and food has become extremely important to me over the past year.

Choosing Organic

Really, why should organic eating be anything but common sense?  Why do we accept that all our food products are mass produced, processed, bleached, genetically modified, sprayed with dangerous chemicals, and arrive in neat, dyed packages? It’s bizarre that we even have a term to describe what should be the only way we eat food.

When I was 15, I took my first voyage abroad to Trinidad. My family lived fairly rurally, and the first thing that hit me was that I had to walk to the water for well. It seems funny almost to write it as a Westerner, but it still is a reality for most people – taps and immediate hot water aren’t everywhere – and surprisingly water doesn’t magically spurt from beneath your house. There is a massive system and business involved in bringing the water to your house (another topic altogether).

Anyways, one particularly sweltering tropical evening, my aunt sent me to fetch chicken. I followed the directions she gave me, and ended up at a small barn with a large yard, staring in confusion. Where were the spotless pink chicken breasts, softly lain on a white wax backing, encased in a beaming yellow styrofoam tray, and vacuum sealed with glassy plastic in the large sterile refrigerated aisle? All I saw were a hundred chickens, several large machetes, a bloody table, and some sort of boiling kettle.  After getting over my initial shock, I pointed mutely in the yard when the rubber-booted man asked what I wanted. I then watched the chicken that had been in the general vicinity of my fingers aim have its neck snapped, boiled, plucked, cut, and wrapped up, and I was headed back to my aunts with a still-warm package of what had 10 minutes ago been a squawking chicken.

That was my first wake-up call as to what food actually was. I felt a bit guilty about it being killed, but realistically I had been eating chicken my entire life and had no idea what a real chicken even looked like. I had no clue what the food in the supermarket went through before it got there. I remember growing a bean in a paper towel in first grade, but apart from that, food had never been touched on in our school education. My mother was one of the ‘healthy’ parents (I was the kid with the whole wheat sandwich and carrot sticks, not the Wonderbread PB&J with a bag of Dorito’s), but even then, it’s difficult to teach your children in a city about maintaining cows and how to create a market garden to feed your family. The entire system of food production in the West is a maniacal business that generates billions of dollars yearly, both in chemically-saturated junk, and in health care issues when people end up in the hospital as a result of eating poorly.

In addition to generally having no idea what our food is, we also don’t really care where it comes from. I started playing the “How many countries” game when I eat – how many countries in the world contributed to the food on your plate?, and it daily amazes me. Bananas from Mexico, rice from Thailand, pasta from Italy, kiwis from New Zealand. The pollution involved in long-range transport is almost as bad as the factory pollution involved in mass production. What happened to the days when only the kings and queens could afford food that had sailed across the planet to reach their plate? It may be elitist, but it’s a lot better for the environment than the constant international shipping that goes to serve the western middle classes on now.

Just for fun – why don’t you think about the food on your plate at least once today. Where did it come from? How did it live? How many chemicals are in? How many hormones has it been dosed with? Am I eating bleach? Was this animal covered in shit for most of its life? Could it even walk or breath without gasping? What sort of cancers do people commonly get from eating the preservatives found in this food? How many illegal workers were underpaid and abused for it to get here? How many farmers were exploited? Is the money I paid for this going to the person that sweat 12 hours a day to grow it, or to pay for that 16 year old son of the corporate owner of Tyson to get a new BMW?

As a side note, I am not really going to be getting too heavily into fast food. I believe Eric Schlosser does an amazing job covering the history and problems of this industry in his book Fast Food Nation, for those who are interested.

Next week: Meet your Meat

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6 thoughts on “Organic Food: Not just for tofu-munchin’, granola-crunchin’ hippies

  1. Naomi, this is such a great blog…it’s so important for people to be aware and educated about what they eat. From a biologist’s perspective, you literally are what you eat, and the very cells of your body are made from the material you put in your body. From a spiritual perspective, your energy flows more easily if you are eating good food, and I strongly believe that eating good food is the foundation for better interactions with fellow humans, an awareness of one’s surroundings, and the ability to see beyond the now and plan for the future. Kudos to you!

    • Thanks Heather. I agree with you completely, I don’t know why it’s quite so hard for people to grasp that we are what we eat, and the problem continues when they raise their children the same way. Hope to see more comments from you in the future!

  2. Good article. I think a lot more people might venture down this path if they found it easy to do, but most people in an urban setting won’t go too far out of their way to integrate it into their lifestyle if it involves too much effort. It’s also complicated by the fact that mechanized food production maximizes efficiency and makes it cheap – notably resulting in our societies eating way too much, and way too much junk. On a positive trend, Eat Local movements, urban gardens and the like seem to be making steady progress. We have a festival in Hamilton called Localicious celebrating this. One day I’ll no longer be a freak show at the office for eating my bowls of vegetables.

    • I agree that this is also part of our generation’s general problem – instant gratification. Why spend 3 months growing something in your backyard when you can walk into the grocery store and buy it as soon as you want it? It’s a surficial view of the food industry, and leads us down a dangerously short-termed path. The counter-revolution is returning, urban and community gardens are becoming popular. What’s even better is some of these gardens are feeding homeless shelters and food banks – the urban food experience can be healthy for all.

  3. This reminds me of the quote about exercise, variations of which are attributed to cartoonist Randy Glasbergen or Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby. Glasbergen’s version is the blunter of the two: “What fits your busy schedule better, exercising one hour a day or being dead 24 hours a day?”.

    I think the same could be said for food. Fast food may save you time now, but you’ll pay for it later with your health, or perhaps more abstractly, with your environment. I’m not just talking Big Macs either. Does anyone really need pre-sliced and packaged-in-plastic apples? Don’t apples come in their own packages straight off the tree? It’s all about adding “value”, and guess who pays for that “value”. You do, as a consumer. Congratulations… you just ate an apple. Now where does that plastic wrapper go?

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