The End of Simple Eating
We are part of a complex, but fragile, food empire.
Posted Jun 08, 2010
It's a cliché that the only subject in the human repertoire comparable to food is sex. There's an impressive corpus of literature that rightfully twins them, from Keats's earthier poetry to the sun-dappled kitchens and humid bedrooms of magical realism. The table and the bed are the bases of human families, after all, and the act of eating is as intimate as biology gets, just as the act of dining is as socially charged. We're used to thinking of food in terms of our bodies, our senses, and our emotions.
But as everything else in the modern world, something that might once have been personal has necessarily turned very complex. Whether we admit it or not, what we choose to eat has turned into a public statement on everything from our views on animal welfare issues to our stance on energy policy to our fear of industrial toxins. Unless we live off the grid and spend lots of effort fertilizing our own beans, we are all part of a giant "food empire" that binds farmers in Kenya to airplane carriers in Germany to oil men in Texas and shopping carts in Maine. To eat in a modern way, we must belong to the modern system of producing, processing, delivering, and selling food.
This is a problem.
Most people are aware that there are deep, institutional and technological flaws in our food system. That's why there are recurring headlines about E. coli outbreaks in hamburger, or about baby food recalls and dangerous tomatoes. But there are larger problems than mass poisonings. Some of these came to light in 2008, a year of record harvests, but also of an international panic that led the UN to declare a worldwide food emergency. From Bangladesh to the Caribbean, people rioted as shops slammed their doors shut and governments either flung open their commodities markets or shut them down in fear of running out of rice.
This happened during a year of plentiful food. As the effects of climate change begin to take hold, we may not be so lucky.
We are part of a complex, but fragile, food empire. As stable as it seems when we stroll down the produce aisles of our scentless, air-conditioned supermarkets, taking our pick of the radiant peppers and persimmons brought to us by modern agriculture and airplanes, we're facing a food crisis. We're not only at risk because of our reliance on the illusion of cheap fuel and unlimited water, we've built institutional flaws into the fundaments of our means of food production.
History has seen many food empires. None have been as complex as ours, but we can learn a great deal about our own risks from how these past empires rose and fell. First, to expand, a food empire must meet three criteria. Farmers must produce a surplus. The food empires must have a means to transport this surplus to a buyer. And it must have a means to exchange the surplus, like a marketplace or a trade protocol. All successful food empires-from ancient Sumeria to the 19th-century British Empire-have met these criteria.
But then something happens. Deforestation. Soil exhaustion. A climactic disaster. All food empires contract, eventually, or they have since the dawn of agriculture. What makes us different?
Historically, food empires wear out their soil. Farming necessarily damages the earth, and even though we've seemingly overcome this limitation with synthetic fertilizers, many scientists wonder whether our nitrogen pellets will always work. Historically, too, food empires rely on long periods of lucky climate, of mild sunny skies with a goodly amount of rain (but not too much). Thanks to climate change, we have to question whether the weather forecast will dry up our crops or wash them away. Finally, food empires have always grown when farmers specialized-producing only fruit where fruit grows best, or grain in places where wheat naturally flourishes. In the past, this has meant over-specialized fields susceptible to drought and insect plague, a prospect that's especially worrying in today's vast landscapes of corn and soy.
Not to mention, the fossil fuels we need to concoct our fertilizers are getting more expensive, and harder to extract without poisoning, say, the Gulf of Mexico.
All this adds up to interesting times for our food empire. And interesting times for us, the consumers of the most truly consumable product that exists.
Food-its growth, possession, trade, and control-has always been the basis of societies. Today, the simple act of biting into an apple resonates with a dizzying host of social, environmental, and political implications that would have stunned our ancestors, who thought that eating was a personal matter.
Eve's little nibble has never seemed more fraught.