Saturday, October 02, 2010

Food Issues

Why do we eat what we eat? As children, we learn what we like to eat and what we fear to eat. But growing up, we think of more and more reasons to choose one type of food over another. Every time I buy a can of tuna I worry about what I might be doing to the environment and whether my decision has an impact. Every time I choose between cage-free or ordinary eggs I wonder whether this is important. Do I go to the Farmers Market? Like most Americans, I seek out milk without hormones, and try to avoid beef or chicken treated with hormones. I find it sad that big, dishonest producers took over the term "organic" and then encouraged a diluted legal definition of it, leaving small honest farmers in the dust.

As I thought about all these issues, I tried to work out a list of categories for making food choices. Here is my list:

Taste is the first driver for what we want to eat. A few foods may taste good to everyone, or nearly everyone, but the old expressions "no accounting for taste" and "do not dispute taste" apply to food, so I'm not going to try to discuss this choice.

Health is a reason that everyone agrees on: food should promote good health and maybe even long life. Above all we want our food to be clean and wholesome so as not to cause disease. From there, not much agreement, except maybe that we should all eat our vegetables. Scientific studies to date are are not definitive in telling us what constitutes a good or balanced diet. Can you be healthy if you are fat, or should you limit your caloric intake? Do "natural" foods promote health more than "industrial" foods? How much sugar is too much? Which additives, industrially created foods (like HFCS), genetically modified plants or animals, and chemicals are safe, which are bad, which are truly toxic? Are organic foods better for us? Allergies are real, but fear of them may lead to irrational behavior. Also real: contamination of eggs with salmonella, spinach with e-coli, and Chinese milk with industrial poisons.

Cost of food is an issue for many people. In the extreme, people may even have to put cost concerns above issues of taste and health. All the choices on my list from here on are considered luxuries for people in our society who can't afford expensive preferences, such as fair-trade coffee, organic vegetables and fruits, or net-caught tuna fish. Unscrupulous industrial food producers have made the situation even worse by violating even the most basic laws to make foods cheaper (such as the recent Iowa egg debacle). In other countries, food scarcity is much worse than here.

Social justice is a food issue because farm workers in the US and abroad, employees of chicken-processing plants and similar industries, and many others who work on our food are poorly paid and badly treated. We may have a bad conscience about food insufficiency in the third world, while not being able to affect it through food choices. Similarly, political motivations and machinations have lead to over-fattening school lunches and have made unhealthy food the cheapest and easiest food to obtain.

The global environment, including climate change, is a major issue in food decisions. What is the impact of mass agriculture, transport of foods over long distances, attempts to grow foods in inappropriate environments, and potential exhaustion of resources? Major environmental issues:
  • Big farms vs. small farms and eating local farm products instead of long-haul products are key issues for many people. The idea of a carbon footprint, or how much fuel does it take to raise food and bring an item to your table, is an effort to measure the impact on the environment and use of resources. The freshness, healthfulness, and tastiness of local and also of organic produce also plays a role in the choice of big-small or distant-local.
  • Pollution from many types of agriculture is another part of the same problem. Pesticides, feed-lot runoff, cattle near the spinach fields, etc. are all recognized dangers both to the environment and to food production. Pollution of food from other eco-disasters is also an issue, such as the impact of the Gulf oil spill on shellfish.
  • Genetically modified foods are beginning to be recognized as a danger to the environment -- for example, pesticide-resistant genes recently discovered to be escaping from GMO crops into nearby weeds.
  • Overfishing and overuse of the oceans is a source of many possible risks to the world food supply and the environment. Choosing which fish to eat is becoming more and more fraught as we read of the impact of mass fisheries, irresponsible and greedy behavior (such as using huge nets that kill unwanted or disallowed species), and the near-extinction of more and more species.
Animal welfare worries vegetarians and also many meat eaters. What constitutes ill-treatment of animals? Should humans cage them, slaughter them, hunt them, or take their milk, honey, or eggs?

Religious taboos are among the oldest dietary issues. Jews may have the oldest and most complicated set of laws for what to eat, but Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Methodists, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others also dictate dietary limitations. Some religious thinkers are combining religious food taboos with concerns for social justice, so this might be a more important issue in the future for religious people.

I only wish there were something so simple that I could do to make my own food choices easier and address at least some of these problems.


Jeanie said...

Ah, that's the rub -- lots of logical reasons -- but some contradict -- I mean, you MIGHT claim protein is a healthy reason to pig out on peanut butter cookies, but I'm not sure it holds up to anything other than taste!

Mae Travels said...

It comes down to priorities. Tuna tastes good,is cheap, and has lots of protein and omega oils -- but it's going to become extinct and take other species with it because of fishing methods. Exploited workers don't change the taste of the food they slave for either -- and we can ignore the cutting down of rainforests and kicking out the natives who used to live there. Local food may taste better and cost more.

So which reason will anyone prefer?