Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Thoughts about the future of food

I have thought a lot about The Washington Post's Future of Food conference, which took place a few weeks ago. In his keynote address, the Prince of Wales raised terrifying issues about our current systems of raising food, including massive losses of arable land to desert every year, ongoing depletion of water supplies, increasing global demand for food as the population increases, and skyrocketing prices for food with attendant social unrest. Add to this the issues that Eric Schlosser raised about the tens of thousands of farm workers being acutely poisoned by pesticides every year and the statistics we've all seen regarding the rise of obesity and obesity-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and so forth, and you are looking at big, fat, scary mess.

Becoming overwhelmed and complacent in the face of such enormous problems is easy--almost inescapable. But giving up, bowing down to the inevitable, and dancing on the deck of the Titanic as it sinks aren't really options. Human beings have faced enormous, seemingly intractable problems before and found ways out of them. It requires care, courage, will, and persistence. Nothing mysterious, but traits that are a natural outcome of experiencing and coping with being alive.  

In his seven steps for rescuing the earth, poet, farmer, and activist Wendell Berry suggests some ways to move forward are to focus on local solutions and place responsibility for getting it right on every individual, rather than relegate the work to government and policy. He says, "For humans, local adaption is not work for a few financiers and a few intellectual and political hotshots. This is work for everybody, requiring everybody's intelligence. It is work inherently democratic."

Further, he says, in a statement that moved me to tears, "we must make local, locally adapted economies, based on local nature, local sunlight, local intelligence, and local work." In other words, respect the place where you live. Be changed by it. Belong to it. Let the idiosyncrasies of your home imprint themselves upon you. Look around, do you know what's in season right now? Can you tell at the grocery store? Do you know how the weather that you have been experiencing for the last week has affected what's available at the market?

It's hard to explain why the idea of connecting to a place is so powerful to me. Admittedly, my emphasis on localism is more emotional than logical (although I think the Prince of Wales made some good ecological arguments), but I am not sure that's so bad. Emotions are important and valuable influences; it's when we don't understand them and their effects on our actions that they become misguided or dangerous. Localities shape people and cultures in ways they aren't necessarily aware of; they add character, texture, depth to who and what they are. They contribute to the formation of individuals, just as weather patterns, geology, flora, and fauna create unique landscapes. Individuals are works of art and nature. They are sometimes hard to get along with, have edges, aren't always attractive or appealing, rarely agree with you, can be stubborn as weeds--and yet I wouldn't have them any other way. Because they are also funny, delightful, thought-provoking, interesting, textured, rich. They are the difference between a commercial strawberry--big, bright, perfectly shaped but with a watery taste of Essence of Strawberry #XJ909--and a local strawberry--small, often deformed, but sweet with a what-is-that flavor, so elusive, so fleeting, so lovely, and so evocative of this place and time.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that eating locally isn't just about politics and saving the world. It's about art and life. It's a way to go deep and rich. Because local food doesn't taste like industrial food. It isn't packaged like industrial food. Like individuals, it sometimes comes in odd packages, is hard to deal with, doesn't fit the mold of the recipe you have. But, it is special and sweet in a unique way, it makes you think, it forces you to be creative and adaptive. In other words, it makes more out of you.

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