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Fast Food & Fighting the World’s Food Source

I recently finished reading a book called Feeding the Future. Subtitled From Fat to Famine, How to Solve the World’s Food Crises, it is the second book in a series of books and CBC television shows called the Ingenuity Project.

Each chapter in Feeding the Future discusses a different issue surrounding our food supply, and each is written by a different expert. While common themes are evident throughout the book, some writers express dramatically different viewpoints from others, which is somewhat rare and refreshing. Information is provided and discussion is raised, but the reader is not beaten over the head by one “right solution” to complicated issues. The book is made cohesive by an interesting timeline of food history facts, and a forward written by Eric Schlosser of Fast Food Nation fame.

Coincidentally, almost as soon as I started reading this book, a number of very timely news stories broke and helped drive home the importance of some of the issues being discussed.

In a chapter titled “Saving Agriculture from Itself”, Stuart Laidlaw writes about the clash between industrial farming methods and traditional methods, and how the latter is beginning to make a comeback after being nearly forgotten in recent decades. No sooner had I finished this chapter than a dairy farmer named Michael Schmidt went on a hunger strike to fight for his right to sell unpasteurized milk in Ontario.

Schmidt had been selling his milk through a “cow sharing” program run from his Glencolton Farms dairy for some time. While technically illegal, his activities had remained under the radar until the Ministry of Natural Resources raided his farm on November 21 and seized all his equipment.

From there, the debate written about by Laidlaw came to life in Toronto newspapers, with headlines expressing viewpoints from the different sides. Foodies and celebrity chefs put their support behind Schmidt, agreeing that unpasteurized milk tastes better, and that organic, small-farm local products are better than hormone and chemical laden products shipped thousands of miles from industrial facilities. Government and industry officials condemned the idea of drinking unpasteurized milk as foolhardy, pointing out the risks of E. coli contamination, and liability issues for those who sell it. As I type this, Schmidt is currently 21 days into his hunger strike, but the government has yet to show any sign of changing its mind.

Both sides of this debate have merit; like with many things, there seems to be something of a pendulum effect in play, and we are best off when the pendulum sits somewhere in the middle rather than at either extreme. Industrialization and modern farming practices brought us many good things: less frequent food poisoning, great productivity, food variety all year round, and cheaper costs. But, when these practices are taken to the extreme, other negatives creep in, many of which are touched on by the writers in Feeding the Future.

Monoculture farming – that is, planting vast fields of only one crop – leads to increase pest infestations, which can then only be defeated by applying potentially dangerous chemicals. Obsession with productivity leads to soils being over-farmed until they are stripped of all nutrients, which must then be replaced in the form of artificial fertilizers derived from petroleum. Corporatization of farms and processing facilities means that all our food comes from only a few common sources, and that it almost always must be shipped thousands of kilometers to the customer. Only hardy crop varieties that can withstand shipping are propagated, often at the expense of flavor and quality, and many previously popular varieties of vegetables and fruits are on the verge of extinction to be replaced with only a handful of bland choices.

A number of recent food poisoning incidents in North America have highlighted how dangerous everyday foods can be if not dealt with properly. After the California spinach scare earlier this year, Taco Bell is now receiving some bad publicity after many people were sickened at a number of their locations. The culprit was initially though to be green onions, but now the suspicion is falling on lettuce. Again, however, nothing is simple: some blame the perceived increase in such incidents on our industrial agricultural methods, while others point out that the contaminated spinach was organically grown and are suspicious of those methods.

Feeding the Future discusses these issues in depth, along with others such as the economic aspects of commercial farming, and how some farmers are returning to local markets and forming co-ops to sidestep the international system. Both sides of the argument over Genetically Modified crops are well represented. The obesity epidemic is also discussed, along with potential solutions to the rather awkward problem of having half the world malnourished while the other half gorges itself to death.

And, of course, throughout the book the close relationship between our food supplies and the natural environment of the Earth is evident. Much of the environmental destruction we cause happens when we are trying to feed ourselves, whether it be from polluting land and water with fertilizers and pesticides, dredging all life out of the oceans, or needlessly trucking food across the continent before we eat it.

This book is definitely a worthwhile read; in many ways, it takes a natural and slightly more technical look at many of the same issues raised in Fast Food Nation, and would make a great companion to that book.

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