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The Virtues of Slow, Natural, Organic Food – A Myth?

Leon Kaye | Monday August 16th, 2010 | 8 Comments

Plenty of evidence exists that suggest corporate agriculture exacts huge impacts on the planet. And thanks to the efforts of everyone from Alice Waters to the organizers of local farmers’ markets, we arguably have better food options than we did a generation ago.

But so much about our new food revolution has been based on the premise that food must be fresh, natural, and unprocessed. Many of us who search for artisan, authentic, and genuine foods and recipes do so out of the belief that we are returning to the foods of our ancestors, and we absolutely need  to turn away from processed and genetically modified foods. The reality, however, is that just about everything we eat today has already been genetically modified. And an assumption that we are simply going back to a time when life was simpler and everything was natural is just plain false. As historian Rachel Laudan explains, an insistence that food must always be fresh is modern-day wishful thinking.

As Professor Laudan explains in her blog and in the Utne Reader, wistful nonstalgia masks the reality of what fresh and natural used to mean. The food on which our ancestors subsisted would make us blanch: nuts were bitter and astringent; women would spend most of the day beating grains into gruels that were mushy and barely digestible; meat was tough, tough, and well, almost always tough. So over time, we developed hybrids of fruits and vegetables that were sweet, frangrant, and juicy; animals were domesticated and bred for their soft, tender flesh; and preservatives like salt, sugar, vinegar, and bacteria, allowed foods to taste better and last longer. Speaking of salt—as Mark Kurlansky explains in his book, humans spent generations finding the purest form of salt. That pricey Himalayan salt you swoon over, by the way, has dirt in it; it took centuries eliminating those minerals from what was once an expensive commodity.

Dishes that we deem authentic were in reality exclusive to urban aristocrats who for ages took the best ingredients for themselves. They left the remnants for the farmers, who generally were overtaxed, overworked, and  malnourished; they lived a painful life of subsistence.  As for the food and drink that ended up on the plates:  Ottoman dolmas, Korean teas, and some of your favorite Indian dishes were once the purview of the wealthy. Rustic foods like Italian (tomatoes from South America) and Korean (red peppers from Portugal) were transformed thanks to the introduction of foreign ingredients.

In the end, Laudan posits that hand-wringing over industrialized food is sometimes overblown. No pantry should be without canned tomatoes, one of the best canned  food options around, and the organic, free trade chocolates we may enjoy are not possible without machinery. Even the bogeyman, GMO, is not always evil: Stewart Brand has made the point that GMO crops are one way to feed a growing world, and can make it possible to grow food in drought-ridden areas while avoiding the use of pesticides.

The folks who Laudan describes as “Culinary Luddites” are reminiscing for a time that never was, and for a lifestyle to which few of us would return. Men and women have more opportunities today because we do not toil in the fields from sunrise to sundown, or do have to endure backbreaking labor to prepare food for large families—without the option of the Whole Foods hot bar in case the day’s meal goes awry.

Where slow food advocates have it right, however, is to understand where our food originates, and how to prepare it. In closing, Laudan writes:

What we need is an ethos that comes to terms with contemporary, industrialized food, not one that dismisses it; an ethos that opens choices for everyone, not one that closes them for many so that a few may enjoy their labor; and an ethos that does not prejudge, but decides case by case when natural is preferable to processed, fresh to preserved, old to new, slow to fast, artisanal to industrial.

Whatever your opinion is on slow vs. fast food, help is on the way. More companies are rethinking how their operations affect the planet; and more investors are interested in alternative agricultural methods to find a balance between corporate farming and backyard gardening. There’s hope for farming that offers economic economic opportunity while ameliorating its effects on the environment–whether it can improve working conditions is another matter.

Now for the real fun, make some popcorn, forward straight to the comments, and watch the fur fly!


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Categorized: Agriculture & Food|

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  • http://www.gentlegardener.typepad.com virginia rockwell

    MODERATION in all things, especially growing, cooking, eating and drinking is key. Don’t let the Perfect (and perhaps only ‘perfect’ in perception, not reality) be the enemy of the Good.

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  • Alex

    Why don’t you mention the bad side about pushing GMO crops on developing nations? The instances of suicide among Indian farmers has been linked to their inability to provide for their families after adopting GMO seed for commercial cultivation.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vandana-shiva/from-seeds-of-suicide-to_b_192419.html

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  • http://www.triplepundit.com/author/leon-kaye/ Leon Kaye

    Thanks for the comments. In the end, moderation is certainly key? Alex, why didn’t I mention the bad points about GMO crops? Because that quota has more than been filled. I am aware of the suicide problem among Indian problems, and GMO certainly is not a panacea, and that wasn’t imparted in the article in the 1st place. But look up Stewart Brand and read his thoughts. They have merit and are worth discussion.

    I’m with Virgina–moderation in everything is certainly no cliche!

    Thanks and keep reading! I had fun with this one–Rachel Lauden is an interesting person.

  • Michael

    A major point focus of the blog is rich/poor inequalities historically inherent in food consumption, a problem we still face today. But that’s precisely what real food advocates have been trying to change. Fast food restaurants are the only option in many towns without proper grocery stores. It is a vital issue because of one key concept Laudan does not address: choice. Many in this country do not have a choice but to eat processed food when they have no access to fresh food. That is unacceptable.

    When the author mentions five-hour corn grinding sessions and sausage horrors, she uses examples that would obviously be absurd today. Why would anyone advocate to repeat the worst of the past? Instead, we look to THE BEST of the past for inspiration in reclaiming control over what goes into our bodies.

    Laudan also ignores the fact that thousands of people are WILLINGLY returning to traditional methods of farming, processing and cooking food not because it will make them rich or give them secret access to the elite Slow Food world, but because it might actually be life-affirming work. Not all of us are happy working monotonous desk jobs, or as customer service reps or in minimum-wage retail.

    Further, the movement also looks to restore (or as Laudan may view it, initiate) dignity to farmers by advocating a better regulatory/competitive environment within the industrialized food system, a system thrust upon us not by evolution, but by an abundance of cheap petroleum-based fertilizer after WWII. This system that magically provides us cheap and (as in the case of corn and soy, over-) abundant food will simply not last much longer.

    P.S. Canned tomatoes, so praised in Laudan’s piece, are laced with BPA, a chemical linked to infertility, weight gain, behavioral changes, early onset puberty, prostate and breast cancers and diabetes in some studies.

  • Dan

    Hi,
    I think you are testing your readers about there understanding of GM food here:

    You say “the reality, however, is that just about everything we eat today has already been genetically modified”. This I sense you said
    accidentlly because the truth you actually mention later in the article “over time we developed hybrids of fruits and vegetables…”

    There is a significant difference between cross breeding one tomato with another tomato to find a juicy one (what we have been doing for centuries and is called hybridization or something like that) and the idea of injecting tomatos with fish DNA to avoid them having frost bite (modern Genetic Modification).

    I welcome your comment

    • Valentine Dyall

      Dan is wrong; there is no significant difference. The more that is discovered about genetics, the clearer it becomes that genes move between “species” a lot more than was once imagined. The current technology for moving specific genes is indeed new but the moving of genes by “natural” means has been going on for ever.

  • http://www.triplepundit.com/author/leon-kaye/ Leon Kaye

    I love the reactions to Laudan’s piece, and for more fun, go to the Utne Reader and NY Times. She wrote this 9 years ago in an academic journal and no one noticed. Now the reaction is hysterical. Call it what you want, but industrial food will not go away–we need to find a balance, as she stated at the end of her article.

    Canned tomatoes? Bring it! There’s risk in everything we eat and do–for the handful of times a month I toy with BPA risks, the lycopene in return is way worth the “danger.”

  • Valentine Dyall

    Leon Kaye wrote that “Even the bogeyman, GMO, is not always evil”. There is an innuendo there: are GMOs ever evil? Please make a case not utter bald and unsupported statements.

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