For the Love of Food

Who doesn’t love food? It’s a bit hard not to dig digging in when your life depends on it. Plus, food’s just delicious. So what can be said about it? A fascinating, underrated place births it: the land. Without food, we can’t do business, play piano, tune into “America’s Next Top Model” or defend against telemarketing solicitations. As a consumer species, we are indefinitely and inextricably bound to the land. Without food, we are nothing. Now grab my hand, and we’ll take a waltz down the history of food in modern times.

After World War II, the fossil fuel-based chemical industry blossomed. From Saran wrap to baby bottles, chemical-based products – especially those derived from fossil fuel oil – nudged their way into not only American households, but the cultural consciousness as well. Oil-based chemicals found their way into our food system, too, as farmers and corporations began applying artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to industrial agriculture. In fact, large agricultural businesses, or “agro-businesses,” predicted that using such oil-based chemicals to remove pesty plants and bugs could revolutionize global food production. In essence, they said, their products could feed the world. Humanity bought it.

What, then, did the advent of industrial and chemical agriculture do for food? It created monoculture, which entails growing a single crop for mass production over large areas. These monocultures appeared in fertile soils worldwide, transforming ecosystems into factories of food production. In the current system, for example, the United States produces much of the world’s wheat. California produces most of America’s almonds. Brazil’s soaring beef and soy production have sent its economy skyrocketing. Thanks to globalization, out-of-season food is available to billions around the world, often at little cost. But as millions around the world are beginning to understand, monoculture comes with sharp ecological, social and economic problems.

The ecological consequences are harrowing. For example, the Brazilian beef explosion has stoked deforestation in the Amazon tropical rainforest, which creates 20 percent of this planet’s oxygen. Rubber and palm production in Southeast Asia have had similar effects on tropical forests there, harming global biodiversity. Similarly, harmful seafood harvesting practices caused by global demand degrade marine ecosystems, which preserve 50 percent of all life and produce half of our oxygen. Clearly, the current global food system threatens the very life-support systems that provide us with oxygen, filter our air and water, maintain our soil and give us inspiration.

More shocking, however, are the closely related social and economic ramifications of globalized food production. The U.S. has entered what is likely to be a gradual decline in life expectancy as a result of the most severe health crisis it has ever experienced. In 1950, 5 percent of our population was obese; in 2009, that number has risen to more than 30 percent. Why? Captains of the sustainable agriculture movement observe that the lure of cheap, unhealthful food invites “frugal”-minded folk to indulge. Continued consumption of mal-nutritious food, however, leads to more expenses in the long run because of long-term health problems associated with poor eating habits. Temptation and lack of nutritional knowledge leads to indulgence, which kills us. Even scarier, as the rest of the world becomes wealthier and assumes lifestyles of luxury and cultures of capitalism similar to those in the U.S., their diets change with them. See: global obesity epidemic.

What about the hungry? According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, in 2008, the number of hungry people on this planet increased from 850 to 925 million people. They also report that world grain supplies have decreased in the past decade, which is a strange thought when you consider America and Europe’s abundance of food. So, in a world where food easily travels from South America to the bellies of wealthy Westerners, why do South Asia and Africa experience rampant malnutrition and hunger? The problem, many say, is one of distribution, and it’s curable.

As with any large social injustice, a handful of people discover the harrowing truth and rise up to spread the word. Regarding corporate agriculture, we can count on the foodies over at Slow Food International to lead the way. Slow Food, the foremost global movement for sustainable agriculture, is rapidly gaining momentum. And students have caught on, too. Only a few months ago U.S. students created the Real Food Challenge (RFC), a national network that spans 300 institutions across the country, including our own. But wait, real food? Don’t we all eat that?

According to Kelsey Meagher, president of the Real Food Challenge at UCI, most students do not eat what should be considered real food.

“Food must meet four criteria to qualify as real. First, it must be humane, or produced in an ethical manner; equitable in that it fairly compensates those who made it; community-based; and ecologically sound, or organically grown,” Meagher said.

Increasing millions around the globe are asking themselves where their food comes from, how it grew, and frankly, how good it tastes. How we treat food – and thus ourselves – may well be the defining act of our time, so why not start now? Check out that massive farmer’s market near In-N-Out every Saturday. Happy eating!