Scientific American devoted their latest issue to the topic of food. Naturally, I read it cover to cover. Some of it was simply interesting, such as the article on how taste works or how calorie counting will never be an exact science. Yes, those official-looking numbers on the back of your Cheerios box are just estimates. Always will be.
The bits that really got my attention had to do with our current food system. Now, Scientific American is not a science journal, but the articles are about recent studies and are usually written by one of the scientists who did the study. They summarize and explain the study for those of us who need a little help interpreting equations.
I was struck by connections between the articles, and stricken by the brushing aside of those connections. The honeybee crisis, for instance. We are always told – and the SA article is no different – that there are many causes of the shrinking diversity and the demise of bees, that we don’t understand it fully, and cannot assign the fault to just one thing. While all of this is true, it’s also doublespeak for “no one is going to do anything about it, we’re just going to study it to death.” Yet every one of the causes of this crisis is a result of our monoculture system of farming. Pesticides. Shipping bees around the country from crop to crop. Feeding them sugar water and corn syrup. Destroying natural habitats and replacing them with acres and acres of one crop.
The first and most obvious solution is to restore native habitats and grow our crops around them. The bees will come. They’ll build colonies, they’ll interbreed, they’ll grow vigorous. In the process, they’ll pollinate our food. But only a few farmers are doing this. Folks, this problem is so serious, we should be racing each other to build natural habitats in our fields, all over the country. There should be a revolution going on.
All I see is a shrug.
Monoculture is behind, or perhaps neck-and-neck with, our food system. The article on soil fungus, which just barely begins to graze the intensely diversified life of Earth’s soil, could be a strong case for dropping monoculture if anyone had the courage to do it. But I see a disingenuous and troubling defense of this system in the SA articles. For instance, humans have always “processed” our food, even as hunter-gatherers. We cracked, pounded, cooked, and stored food even as we evolved into our current species. SA calls this “processed food,” in an attempt to lull us into complacently thinking that our modern fake foods are part of the same continuum. They even try to make that case for Tang and Spam.
What a joke. Are we really supposed to believe that?
Most annoying article title: Are Engineered Food Evil?
No, of course they aren’t evil. Using that word in the title is provocative and only contributes to the dissension. Politics is always lurking in the background of any discussion about our food policy. Except for when it’s front and center.
Food and politics are constant bedfellows. Nutritionist Marion Nestle devotes her entire blog to the topic and posts her own protest at Scientific American’s pandering to the status quo.
In some science fiction future, human live solely on food grown in laboratories, with most people having no idea what makes up the food they eat. Soylent Green comes to mind of course, but so does my own venerable Star Trek, with it’s high-tech replicator technology. Seriously – where does that “Earl Gray Tea (hot)” come from?
Despite my love of science and the possible futures SF gives us, I am always disturbed about this idea. Perhaps we can feed the world by genetic engineering. But our bodies are deeply complex organisms, evolving over millions of years with the soil, water, plants, and animals of the planet. I don’t think it’s possible to break the web that binds us. I’m afraid that if we keep going this way, it’s the path of extinction. Or at best, it’s the path to humans evolving into another species.
Which is bound to happen sooner or later. Right?