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!