Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Eating as a Moral Act

As you may have already gathered, I am passionate about food. Especially home-grown food, or failing that, food grown as close to home as possible, as sustainably as possible. This morning's breakfast includes an egg laid by Crow, my little black Araucana hen, and some whole-grain toast baked by me, with nary a flake of white flour in it. Not the best bread I've ever eaten -- I'm learning -- but it's a whole heck of a lot better than any supermarket bread. (the egg, on the other hand, is perfect). It also includes store-bought organic bacon (I don't remember if local, and no longer have the original packaging) and store-bought cheese (I don't remember if it's organic, and probably not local). In my dream world, I would be raising my own hogs (they make great rototillers, too!), and milking my own goats to make my own cheese.

[Instead, for now, I'm applying for government jobs -- but that's OK, I'm lucky enough to have a pension ahead of me, at age 55, at which time I will be able to do all the hobby farming my little heart desires. Meanwhile, I have my garden and my chickens and my kitchen. Anyway, the job and money situation is outside the "scope" of this post, as we bureaucrats like to say. This one is about food.]

I am also pretty passionate about food, where it comes from and how it's produced, beyond my own kitchen and back yard. This morning I checked out La Vida Locavore (added to my blogroll at right), and found this post about a letter from the big chemical ag industry (MidAmerica CropLife Association) to Mrs. Obama complaining about her organic garden. I love this:

Starting in the early 1900's, technology advances have allowed farmers to continually produce more food on less land while using less human labor. Over time, Americans were able to leave the time-consuming demands of farming to pursue new interests and develop new abilities.

In other words, the decline of the family farm is a good thing, see? Concentration of farming in a few very rich and government-subsidized hands, the same hands that wrote this letter, is a good thing. Oh, and:

Many people, especially children, don't realize the extent to which their daily lives depend on America's agricultural industry. For instance, children are unaware the jeans they put on in the morning, the three meals eaten daily, the baseball with which they play and even the biofuels that power the school bus are available because of America's farmers and ranchers.

And a very visible backyard food-producing garden at the first family's home, the White House, also involving school children, is part of the problem? not the solution?? Mega-farms, on which few Americans "have to" work any more, are the solution to kids not knowing the agricultural origins of their food and other products? And get this, this paragraph makes my head spin:

Much of the food considered not wholesome or tasty is the result of how it is stored or prepared rather than how it is grown. Fresh foods grown conventionally are wholesome and flavorful yet more economical. Local and conventional farming is not mutually exclusive. However, a Midwest mother whose child loves strawberries, a good source of Vitamin C, appreciates the ability to offer California strawberries in March a few months before the official Mid-west season.

Strawberries are one of those foods that are really not at all "tasty" when shipped out of season. And wholesome?? The conventional ones carry a very high pesticide load, rated 6th out of 47 by the non-profit Environmental Working Group. Even EPA recommends peeling fruits and vegetables to reduce (not eliminate) pesticides -- mmm, peeled strawberries, anyone? Speaking of storage, though, strawberries (easily home-grown!) freeze beautifully. And "local and conventional farming is not mutually exclusive", as if "Mrs. O -- you can use chemicals on your White House garden, too!"

What's the big deal about some pesticides on those California strawberries? FDA says they're safe, USDA says they're safe, so who is Regina Terrae to tell you to avoid them like the plague? Regina Terrae is sceptical about FDA and USDA assurances. But About.com says that "pesticide exposure may increase the risk of birth defects. However, that elevated risk is typically due to occupational or environmental exposure to pesticides", NOT to eating the strawberries while pregnant. And we've already seen how conventional farming uses "less human labor", and how "Americans were able to leave the time-consuming demands of farming." So no worries about "occupational exposure", right?? Ha -- of course that's not true. Even the seemingly plasticized, juiceless strawberries bred for shipping long-distances are too fragile to be mechanically harvested. Strawberries are one of the most labor-intensive crops around. As I googled around trying to find a link to post to back that last point up, finding it mentioned over and over but always in passing, I got drawn in to this 1995 article (note, the link is a PDF file) in the Atlantic Monthly, detailing working conditions damn close to slavery in some cases (in the form called "debt peonage", in which the worker sells his or her "soul to the company store", in the immortal words of the coal-miner's lament, 16 Tons). And then I also found this NIH study showing that even when they follow all the government-mandated safety regulations perfectly, strawberry farmworkers go home with "significantly higher levels of exposure" to pesticides, and that they carry at least some of that home to their families.

But they're not Americans, by and large. No, "Americans [have been] able to leave the time-consuming demands of farming." They're mostly Mexicans, mostly undocumented. The Mid America CropLife Association may not recognize that as "human labor" (or else how could they bring themselves to treat the laborers so miserably?), but I do. And I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb to suppose that the kind of folks who read my blog, by now are about ready to sit down and write their own letter to our First Lady, begging her to please plant some organic strawberries in the White House garden, and maybe one to the President asking him to see what he can do for our migrant farmworkers -- immigration policy and health & safety standards. And to keep pushing back against poison farming!

If you need a little more food for thought before putting those letters in the mail, consider the "Ethics of Eating" as laid out by the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, and the U.S. Bishops' "Catholic Reflections on Food, Farmers, and Farmworkers". My church has its faults, God knows, but we do have a strong social justice tradition, and it is well reflected at those two links. Also, fellow blogger Acooba has started a series on The Alchemy of Love that explores the mind-body-heart-soul connection with some emphasis on how what we eat affects more than our bodies. I invite you to reflect on eating as a moral act.


  1. Hi Regina,
    Thanks for the link! Eating as a moral act is a wonderful concept! I am so inspired by Michelle Obama's example - if she can find time to plant a garden perhaps I can too. About the impact of pesticides: The book Anti-Cancer by David Servan-Schreiber talks about his exposure to pesticides as a child in France playing in the countryside. Also, my dad first came to America in 1958 as an indentured laborer from Guyana, So. America. In addition to the incredibly hard work in the fields, he faced a number of health challenges, including contracting tuberculosis. When his "contract" was over, he was given enough money to basically buy a new suit and pay for his plane ticket home.

  2. Hi Regina,

    Pretty scary stuff. It's enough to make me want to go dig a garden.

  3. Hi Regina,

    Thank you so much for this post...more people need to know what goes on with their food.

    When I first started my blog, I planned to write a lot of stuff about this topic but so many readers became turned off. I think people don't want to know...it scares them too much.

    Great post!

  4. Thanks for the comments, folks.

    Acooba and Michael, yes! Plant a garden! You'll never regret it! (well, actually, some days you may wish you'd never thought of it, but by the end of the season, I promise you, you will be glad you did it)

    Acooba, I'm sorry to hear that your own father was a victim of our industrial ag system. Although he worked in the U.S., it reminds me that whether our food is grown here or overseas, in this global industrial food web, most the farm workers are oppressed just the same.

    Nadia, I guess if I ever actually draw more readers, it's going to have to be people who can stand to look at the injustices we support by participating in the American / global marketplace. It's the nature of this very personal blog ... I'm really not interested in saying what people want to hear, I'm here to say what's on my mind. Comfort the afflicted ... afflict the comfortable.

    And my own conscience needs the pricking. I was out of fruit so I went to the grocery store yesterday to buy bananas and frozen fruit for smoothies (first food I've bought since I started "eating down the fridge"). I was tempted to buy the conventional berries ... so much cheaper ... but having just written this post, I couldn't. And thinking about it, the organic ones cost what berries SHOULD cost, the conventional ones are the ones priced artificially low!

    Think Globally ... Eat Locally

  5. Hi Regina,

    It is funny...I was raised with organic vegetables and when I became an adult, I continued buying only organic. Of course, everyone always comments on the cost and that I should not be so extravagant. But the ironic thing is that organic is what farming originally was until corporations took over and became more concerned with profits than quality of food.

    As for your comment about blogging, you have a very valid point. That is why now I sneak in food pieces here and there on my blog. I am not giving up on the cause...I am just bringing awareness in a way that does not alienate people. Apologies for not making that clear in my prior comment. :)

    Hope all is well and smoothies are awesome. My personal favorite is acai, banana, almond milk and peanut butter.

  6. Sorry, Nadia, I didn't mean to sound so chiding! Your blog is great, and of course you're right, you catch more flies with honey and all that.

    Hugs (sorta like the Queen and Michelle)

  7. No worries, Regina. You did not sound chiding at all! :)

    Hugs to you too and hopefully ours won't cause a controversy! :)