“GM or Death”: Food and Choice in Zambia | Christopher M. Annear

from Gastronomica 13:1 (originally published in Gastronomica 4:2)

Food is complicated nourishment that feeds more than the belly. As recent events in Zambia have shown, it has the capacity to make (or break) relationships before even a morsel is raised to lips. Last year Zambian president Levy Patrick Mwanawasa sparked international controversy when he banned genetically modified (GM) foods from entering Zambia, including in the form of famine aid. Since then, contentious debate has ensued that transcends questions regarding the relative virtue of GM foods, both in terms of nutritional safety and geoeconomic prudence. The potency of President Mwanawasa’s words and the strong international, almost exclusively Western, repudiations to his declaration reveal a tenuous relationship between African and Western donor countries over the topics of food aid and food values. What he has shown, in effect, is that food can constitute political poison even when gastronomically edible.

Mwanawasa’s GM food remarks drew—perhaps even courted—criticism from beyond the borders of his midsized south-central African country for his purported insensitivity to the food needs of his own people. Due to the effects of El Niño on the past two growing seasons (2001, 2002), southern Africa has been reported to be a virtual famine zone. Therefore, the posited relationship between food and affected African countries is often discussed as if it were linear and axiomatic: the hungry continent requires food, any food. In this article I discuss the paradox that, on the one hand, debate is encouraged concerning the possible health risks of certain foods for people who can buy it; yet, on the other, donor governments deny the right of choice to those people in countries who receive it at no immediate economic cost. I examine two ideas central to this controversy: one, that the privilege of food choice is present only in prosperous, industrialized countries; and two, that food is conceptualized symbolically, culturally, and ethically in a variety of ways. In sub-Saharan Africa this is no less the case than in Western countries, yet when Africans attempt to exercise choice concerning GM foods they are told: “Beggars can’t be choosers.”1 Such sentiments suggest that Africans are denied the right of free food choice because Western nations, many of which are also aid donors, have already tacitly determined the relationship of food pathways to and for Africa.

The news reports and opinion pieces published in response to President Mwanawasa’s decision have been less refutations of his argument against GM foods than comments on his perceived arrogance and ignorance at denying food to “his own starving people.” While this Western response to African hunger has been seen before, Mwanawasa’s initial declaration, and perhaps even more his stubborn adherence to an anti-GM stance, is rather less orthodox. In order to better analyze Mwanawasa’s political position this article will do what many others have not: it will reserve judgment long enough to examine the social, political, and gastronomic environment in Zambia that helped to generate the president’s antagonistic posture, articulated in one editorial as the choice between “GM or death.”2

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We Are What We Eat | Paul D. Swanson

The Origins and Current Legal Status of “Natural” and “Organic” Food Labels

The cook plays an important part in the nourishability of food. Meals which are lovingly prepared with a profound desire for the welfare of the eater always benefit the body and mind more than do meals which are commercially prepared, or which have been prepared by someone who is indifferent to or dislikes the proposed eater. No one should cook when in a state of indifference, agitation, sorrow or anger.

From The Hidden Secret of Ayurveda, by Dr. Robert E. Svoboda

The most famous gastronome of them all, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, wrote in Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante (1826): “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.”: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” For some, such as Adelle Davis — Time magazine characterized her as “the high priestess of a new nutrition religion” in December 1972 — the consequences of our food choices are stark: “As I see it, every day you do one of two things: build health or produce disease.”

How do we know if we are supposedly building health, rather than unwittingly producing disease by what we consume? We resolve what economists call “informational asymmetry” by relying on food labels, brands and trademarks to confirm the authenticity and quality of our foodstuffs. But making “correct” food choices can be daunting and baffling. In her groundbreaking book, What to Eat, Dr. Marion Nestle estimates that there are around 320,000 food and beverage products available in the United States; and that the average supermarket stocks about 30,000 to 40,000 of them.[1] While we may not understand the true origins or makeup of what we put on our tables, most baby-boomers can tell you in a heartbeat that Rice Krispies go “snap, crackle and pop,” Lucky Charms are “magically delicious,” and Wonder Bread helps “build strong bodies in 8 ways.”

Two of the most symbolic words in food promotion nowadays are “organic” and “natural.” Generally defined, “natural” means “present in or produced by nature” and is not something “altered, treated or disguised,” but rather “faithfully represents nature or life.”[2] “Organic,” in its most abstract sense, means “simple, healthful, and close to nature.”[3] Both words hearken back to a pre-industrial age and share Edenic, utopian connotations. They imply a general distrust of chemical engineering and manufacturing processes. If we are what we eat, are we not closer to “nature” if we incorporate natural and organic foods into our diet? That is the compelling allure and implicit bargain of consuming organic and natural foods.

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Where is My Jetpack? | Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

Why Futurists Should Stake a Claim in Lab-Grown Meat

In 1931 Winston Churchill claimed “fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” Churchill’s prophecy may seem like just another episode of futurism unfulfilled, but there is a chance that he was only off by a few decades. Since the Industrial Revolution we have tried in vain to create a “food of the future” which would keep pace with growing populations and avoid the mass malnutrition and starvation feared by Thomas Malthus. Some scientists and technology trend-spotters think we are now very close. They point to early 21st-Century research that might realize Churchill’s vision by producing in-vitro or “vat” meat, pieces of animal protein cultured in petri dishes or “bio-reactors.”1 Seemingly ripped from the pages of science fiction novels (Margaret Atwood and William Gibson are only two of the most prominent authors who have described artificially-grown animal protein), “vat” meat has been touted as a solution not only to mass malnutrition in the developing world but also to the cruel treatment of livestock. The organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) currently offers a one million dollar prize to the team who can bring a convincing cultured chicken product to market in 2012.

From Eindhoven, The Netherlands to Tokyo, Japan, scientists are attempting to culture the future of food. This future would be made of millions of cells of protein grown from a small sample – in some cases, a single cell – taken from a food animal, usually a cow, pig, or chicken. While the motivations of the scientists involved vary, all are aware of the growing human population (expected to rise from the current 7 billion to 9 by 2050) of the enormous environmental impact of the livestock industry  (which accounts for about 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions) and of the fact that we face not just population growth but the expansion of the middle class, especially in growing economies like India and China, where becoming middle class often means acquiring status markers like a meat-rich diet. Michael Specter claims that between 2000 and 2030 meat consumption will likely increase by 70%, far out of proportion with population growth.2 This would, of course, have commensurate effects on our use of grain; according to geographer Vaclav Smil, in 1900 only 10% of the world’s grain was fed to animals but by 1990 that had risen to 45%, and such change would be greatly outstripped by the mid-21st century.3

Creative Commons licensed from Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/lobsterstew/132240555/).

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The Other Side of the Valley | Barry Estabrook

from Gastronomica 11:4

By San Joaquin valley standards, Tom Willey’s farm is so puny that I sped past it without noticing. My mind had been swept away by the region’s agoraphobia-inducing sense of infinite vastness. Ruler-straight byways traverse miles of almond trees planted on precise geometric grids like perfectly drilled soldiers. Those give way to tracts of grape vines trellised in parallel rows stretching to the horizon, followed by green oceans of lettuce, onions, tomatoes, and alfalfa running to the base of distant blue-gray mountains.

There is a gritty majesty to San Joaquin, the southern half of California’s Central Valley. Route 99, the freeway that bisects it, thunders with the traffic of tractor-trailers that haul equipment in and agricultural products out 24/7. The geography beside the highway is marked by grain elevators and storage silos that soar like medieval turrets. Enormous piles of almond hulls (sold as cattle feed) rise in conical mounds as tall as five-story buildings. I passed warehouse after warehouse, each big enough to be an airplane hangar. Farm equipment dealerships broke up monotonous gray and whites with the yellow, green, orange, and scarlet hues of tractors, plows, combines, dump trucks, bulldozers, and Rube Goldberg contraptions whose purpose I could only guess, all seemingly designed to be operated by a race of giants.

On the surface, the San Joaquin Valley gives no hints that it is home to some of the most innovative food producers in the country. On a seventy-five-acre “patch,” as Willey aptly calls it, T & D Willey Farms grows fifty different varieties of produce: “everything from artichokes to zucchinis.” (More typically, his nearest neighbor raises a single variety of wine grape on 750 acres.) “Conventional farming approaches are just too brain-dead for me,” he said, in the cluttered bungalow that serves as his head office. “As an organic farmer, you have to be out ahead of the game. You have to be studying insect ecology and soil microbiology. It’s fascinating, challenging, and intellectually stimulating.”

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Going to Extremes | Darra Goldstein

from Gastronomica 11:3

Many years ago, at the height of the Cold War, I landed a job with the United States Information Agency as a guide for exhibitions about American life that toured the Soviet Union. The great Kitchen Debate between Nixon and Krushchev took place at the first exhibition, “The American Home,” in 1959. The year I signed on, in 1978, the theme was “Agriculture USA.”

Our stateside training took us to Illinois, where we endured ten intensive days of lectures on topics from agricultural credit and finance in the U.S. to plant diseases and new methods of irrigation. We also visited several mega-farms that demonstrated the latest technology. There was no question: American productivity would leave the Soviet farmers in the mud. I remember my first sight of an industrial pig farm—the huge holding ponds for waste, the cold, metal-slatted floors where a desperate sow tried to nurse her piglets comfortably. From the heartland we headed to the usda Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland, to learn about plant genetics and germ plasm. Our training ended at Esskay, a Baltimore slaughterhouse and sausage factory, which makes the official hotdogs for the Orioles and the u.s. Naval Academy. I can still hear the screams of the pigs as they were shunted onto the disassembly line.

My job in the Soviet Union was to tout the glories of efficient American agriculture to the poor, hungry Russians. And so, for a good year of my life I participated in—and to some degree believed in—our industrial food system. My thinking has changed drastically over the years (I think it began at that Baltimore slaughterhouse), but even though my politics and eating practices are aligned—we make sure that our meat is local and humanely killed—I’ve lately been troubled by how polarized the discourse about food has become. Either American food production is big and bad (“corporate farming,” “the agroindustrial complex,” or simply “Big Ag,” the abuses of which I’ve seen firsthand), or it is small and heartwarming—the farmers’ markets, the csas, greenhorns choosing the life of the soil over the corporate rat race. Our national conversation has descended into argument: Either you are on the side of might (the existing American food system), or on the side of right (the locavores or, as my husband the organic vegetable gardener calls them, the locabores). Both sides are blindered. Industrial is pitted against local; growers are either laboratory dependent or committed to “natural” practices. Such extremes lead to cynical decisions, like the waving of green and sustainable flags by corporations that are anything but environmentally concerned.

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