I had read some books about food earlier, and read two more during this period. Here's my food reading list:
- Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, by Marion Nestle. She has written a lot about food and food politics. I read this one a long time ago, as part of a work project I was doing. I came away with the distinct impression that our approach to food safety in this country is driven more by politics and what is convenient for our food industry than by what science tells us about how to best keep our food safe.
- Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser. This one has a definite agenda, and is trying to convince you of the evils of our current system. Therefore, I found it a bit one-sided and often found myself wondering about the counter-arguments that were never made. However, it was still an interesting read. I also read this one a while ago, but a bit more recently than the Nestle book.
- Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver. This book is a more personal story than the others. It documents how Kingsolver and her family lived on food they grew on their small farm for a year. I found it very thought-provoking, but also a bit sanctimonious at times. I also wanted more balanced information about some of the issues it raises- the author's opinions about food policy issues are often stated as facts. Kingsolver and her family clearly believe passionately that we should eat more locally, and they were able to make changes to live the lifestyle they believe in. It is less clear how to translate this into action that an average family could take.
- The End of Food, by Paul Roberts. This was definitely the most satisfying of the books for me. It presents a more balanced discussion of the issues, and includes plenty of references. If you only have time to read one book on food, this would be the one I'd recommend. It will give you the information you need to formulate your own opinions- although the author also presents some of his own opinions.
So, after all of that reading, what do I think about our food system? Well, I think it is under strain. I think that our approach to food safety is insane. I'd love to see a more rational, science-based approach. For instance, the way we feed our cattle favors the growth of the pathogenic strain of E. coli that causes potentially serious illness (0157:H7). Both Food Safety and The End of Food make the point that if we switch cattle from corn feed to grass or hay before sending them to slaughter, we could significantly reduce the risk of E. coli contamination. Corn feed leads to a more acidic cow stomach, which favors the growth of the of the 0157:H7 strain. This strain can withstand the acidic environment that kills the other strains of E. coli. Unfortunately, this also means that our own acidic stomach environment provides no protection against 0157:H7.
I also think that we are insane to routinely dose our livestock with antibiotics. We do this because it makes them grow a little bigger on the same amount of feed. However, we are essentially breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the process- bacteria will evolve to survive in the presence of the antibiotics. To decrease the risk of this practice, there are some antibiotics that are reserved for human use only. However, given the fact that many different antibiotics work by blocking the same bacterial processes, this seems like a poor safeguard to me.
I routinely buy organic meat, eggs, and milk because these are antibiotic-free. However, it is a lot harder to buy grass-fed beef- my local supermarket does not carry it, and neither does the speciality meat market down the hill from me. I'd have to go to a store in a different part of town to find it, and we frankly just don't have the time right now for that amount of shopping. Grass-fed beef is a bit of a hot item right now, though- several buger joints in town advertise their use of it. This makes me hopeful that I'll be able to buy it in my local stores soon.
Beyond the safety of our food, there is the question of whether we have food security- i.e., do we have enough food to feed everyone, and is that food supply reasonably robust? The End of Food argues rather convincingly that our food security is shaky. Our agricultural industry is very specialized and we are over-reliant on corn and soy. In fact, most farmers plant the same few strains of these crops, which have been optimized to work in our industrialized farm setting. Roberts argues that we should diversify our crops. He makes the case that more medium-size farms, all innovating in their own ways will provide us with a more secure food supply. There are aspects of our government's food policy that work against the development of such a system. I don't feel that I understand our food policy well enough to have firm opinions about how we should change it, but I do think that we should try to include all of the costs of food production in our system- including the environmental costs of our heavy reliances on petroleum-based fertilizers.
So what should I feed myself and my family? I do not have the time (or land!) to make the sort of changes Kingsolver documents in her book. Nor, frankly, do I have that level of interest in gardening. Hubby and I will continue working our office jobs, juggling the demands of work with the needs of our family. We do not have time to shop in four different stores to get our weekly groceries- most weeks, we're lucky to make it to the one supermarket. I have a picky toddler who likes store-bought chicken nuggets but turns her nose up at my home-made breaded chicken strips. I do not have the energy or the desire to fight her on this. I'm mostly happy that there is some meat she is willing to eat. (She also like bacon. She's such a health nut.) Given all of this, I've come up with the following ideas for how we might change our eating habits, once we emerge from the survival mode neccesitated by having a newborn:
- Eat less meat. Hubby and I both like meat, and we've gotten a bit lazy about including vegetarian meal options in our plans. Unfortunately, I'm a picky eater, too, and am not a big fan of beans (its a texture problem) or fish (I just don't like the taste). Still, I'm a grown up. I can try to get better at this.
- Eat less processed convenience food- within reason. Pumpkin gets to keep her beloved tortellini and chicken nuggets. But we'll try to introduce more home-made items.
- Try to buy more regionally. The End of Food argues that locally grown doesn't always make sense, but that it does make sense to try to buy food from your region. I think Pumpkin would enjoy a trip to a farmer's market now and then, and we would all benefit from trying to eat fruits and veggies that are in season in our hemisphere, rather than paying for items imported from the other side of the globe. However, we won't outlaw the imports- we'll just make them more occasional treats.
- Set up a backyard garden. I have an herb garden now, and we're working to make space for a bigger garden. I think it would be fun to have a garden with Pumpkin (and Petunia, as she gets older). Next on my list of things to grow are tomatoes and zucchini. We may also plant a citrus tree. Citrus trees are thirsty, but we can use our gray water to help water it.