The disconnect in our food choices
by Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2006)
The disconnect between the farm and the table has skewed our perspective. I believe its why our food systems are so screwed up. Its not because we are irrational and immoral people. Its simply because most of us don’t know where are food comes from.
It doesn’t make sense to me that people are all out of sorts over foie gras and lobster, but eat mass produced chicken and eggs from caged birds with their beaks cut off, and beef from corn-fed feedlot cattle, both much more troubling in essence and scale. Its not uncommon to meet affluent, educated people who are against the seal hunt, but eat endangered tuna, wear fur coats, and shop at Walmart. I can’t imagine them getting away with such incongruent behavior in other aspects of their lives. It all comes down to the disconnect.
When you know how a cheese is made, it seems reasonable to pay the price. You would never think of ordering your green beans over the internet from a stranger when your neighbor grows beautiful green beans. Because people don’t look at a package of skinless, boneless chicken breasts and picture what its life was like, they don’t feel sorry for it. Meanwhile they see the lobster alive and kicking, and scream bloody murder when they see it put into boiling water. Or they are grossed out by the idea of an oyster, eating something alive. They may eat chicken nuggets and wieners, but protest the sale of foie gras. They buy a glossy, perfectly shaped bell pepper, ignorant (or not) to the fact that its attractive appearance is the result of pesticides, industrialized mass production and problematic monoculture. They buy lettuce that comes from miles because it looks nice and clean in its package, instead of supporting a local farmer for a fresher, more nutritious product with a bit of dirt on it. They buy something because of the convenience, the packaging, or the price, without realizing the consequences of their purchases on the environment, or that workers were underpaid for these artificially low prices.
What influences people’s food choice rationale? Taste, education, nutrition, availability, price, trends, so many factors, its a complicated picture. One thing is for sure, it appears to be a very personal thing, and there isn’t enough common sense involved.
First of all, when it comes to the living things we eat, there’s the issue of what’s morally ok to eat. Sometimes what gets the green light is based on where a certain animal or foodstuff is situated in the hierarchy on the food chain. But there often isn’t much logic at play here either. Yes to the dumb turkey, absolutely not to the cute bunny rabbit. Many argue that.there are lines easy to draw between an oyster, a fish, and a mammal based on level of consciousness. They say its the natural order of things. Others care more about how humanely the animal was raised, how it was killed, and if it is from a sustainable source. Many follow a scheme based on religion or tradition. Availability and necessity are all others people care about, the lowest price, whatever they can afford. Still others at the other end of the spectrum think its about the ability to feel pain, in which case, all living creatures are out.
However, with most omnivores, what seems more important in determining whether someone will eat something or not, beyond their ethnic origin, is how far the consumer is from the source. The less people know about where their food comes from, the less they seem to have a problem with it. Isn’t that f-ed up? You’d think it should be the opposite, for health and safety reasons if anything. With a local purchase, you can support someone who you know does things right, you are voting with your dollar, you have control that you don’t have in a mass market. Also, I think that just being close, being aware of an animal’s life and death, might make you feel better knowing it was humanely raised and so suffered the least possible. It might also make you appreciate and have more respect for the animal, as the Indians demonstrate in their rituals that thank the animal for giving them its life. If the truth unsettles a diner so much, than perhaps he/she shouldn’t be eating it in the first place, its hypocritical.
If people really knew how everything was produced, they would make very different choices, undoubtedly. Why isn’t this information more available? It takes full time food detectives like Michael Pollan to even get a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes. Its our food supply, and we know very little about it. Its not surprising that we have so many conflicting opinions about our food.
Its a complicated affair to be fully in the know, especially in this new globalized economy with most people living in cities, far away from the farm. And with our busy lives, the many other things to think about, no one can be expected to be perfectly virtuous in their food choices. I just think people should be more informed, so that they can make their decisions based on something more than what a celebrity says or what the ads suggest. Afterall, we make food choices everyday, and they impact our bodies, our personal lives, as well as those of our neighbors, both nearby and around the globe, not to mention our eco-system and planet.
We’ve been too busy in our modern, over-taxed lives trying to be efficient in getting food on the table fast, trying new exotic ingredients from afar and buying processed food, we unconsciously let major agri-business and advertising take over, and lost track of what was going on in our backyards and supermarkets, and ultimately what’s going into our stomachs. We can reclaim control over our food supply by asking questions, following the lead of organizations like Equiterre, Slowfood, Organic growers…. and just ultimately following our palates and good sense. I encourage you to use your head people.