||“What’s for Dinner?”:|
How What We Eat Has a Deep Effect on Our World
by Joseph Matanoski, Ph. D., Associate Professor of Biology
“What’s for dinner?” How did such a simple question become the source of so much angst and confusion? There was a time when decisions about what to eat were simple and straightforward. What we ate was what we could obtain locally, was abundant and fresh. Now, the cornucopia is stuffed with a diversity of items from across the nation and around the world and seemingly anything that pleases our cosmopolitan palates can be obtained. However, in the last two decades we have begun to awaken to the consequences of our food decisions. What we choose to put on the table has ramifications far beyond pleasing our taste buds and includes nutritional, environmental, ethical, and cultural effects.
It seems intuitive that what we eat will impact our health. Yet, until very recently, the consuming public and even many physicians and public health officials paid scant attention to the role nutrition plays in the overall health of the individual. Simple directives like eat a “prudent diet” were the extent of nutritional recommendations. Nutrition and food research have only transitioned to the realm of accepted scientific dogma since the 1970’s. Unfortunately, because there has been a paucity of nutritional research, each new study has had a disproportionate influence on the public’s eating habits. Thus, we swing wildly among what we consider healthy eating. Saturated fats lead to coronary disease? Then, let’s eliminate fats from the diet. And, farmers, food processors, marketers, and retailers are happy to respond to our new found preferences with low fat and even no fat alternatives. Then, we’re told that the way to lose all that weight is to “cut the carbs.” Virtually overnight, the innocent slice of bread has become public health enemy number one. Until the body of nutritional data grows larger, we will have to deal with these pendulum swings in food choices and the onslaught of food fads they spawn. Get used to hearing about antioxidants, trans-fats, omega-3 fatty acids, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, or whatever the nutritional term derived from the latest study happens to be.
Less obvious to the consuming public is how what we choose to eat affects the health of the environment. Prior to World War II, much of what we ate was produced if not by us in our own backyard, then at least by neighbors whom we knew. We could visit the farm which produced our breakfast in the morning, and sit down with the farmer who lay last night’s dinner before us in the afternoon. We could see Sunday dinner growing in the fields outside our kitchen windows. But, increasingly, food production has become industrialized and selecting this week’s meals means pulling them off the supermarket shelves and tossing them in the cart. We have become largely disconnected from the production of what we eat. And with that change has also come consequences for the environment.
In small scale food production, the farm acts largely as a simple closed system, sun and water coming from the skies above and nutrients from the soil below. In addition, the small farm is a biologically diverse system, with numerous plant and animal species grown to satisfy the tastes of the local consumer. However, scaling up this operation requires planting one or a very few species and at a much higher density to be economically viable, so dense in fact that the soil can’t possibly supply the needed nutrients. It needs supplementation and that comes in the form of fertilizers. Often, fertilizers are applied in abundance to ensure high yields, the excess running off into surrounding waterways polluting them and causing explosive growth of algae. Their decomposition robs the water of oxygen suffocating every other living thing. In addition, agricultural policy creates incentives for ever larger yields exacerbating the cycle of excessive fertilization and runoff pollution.
Unlike the small farm, the product of the industrialized farm does not stay local. Rather, it is shipped off (also requiring large inputs of fossil fuels) to food manufacturers to be processed into the items we see on supermarket shelves, often stripping out many of the naturally occurring nutrients, and, perversely, adding nutritionally empty calories (e.g. high fructose corn syrup) in exchange. At the same time, complex, nearly unpronounceable, chemicals are added to preserve the food’s freshness during the lengthy period between manufacture and consumption. The result has been an acknowledged deterioration in health standards in the U.S., from the obesity epidemic to the rapid rise in adult onset diabetes.
The scaling up of animal production also has consequences both environmental and ethical. No longer can a few animals be grown on grassy pastures. To be economical, growth of cattle, pigs and chickens has to be rapid and on a feed stock that is cheap. Animals are moved to feedlots where they are quickly fattened to market size. The animals mill about quite literally in their own waste until they reach the appropriate size. Furthermore, concentrated feeding leads to abundant waste, for which there are few good solutions. Instead of a few animals depositing waste on a grassy pasture where it can decompose and enrich the soil, feedlot waste is collected in holding ponds, which can release excess nitrogen to the air and pollute areas many miles away. Worse still is when there is a catastrophic accidental release of the waste into nearby waterways where it clogs them with a malodorous toxic sludge. There is also the ethical consideration of confining animals in such high density and under questionable conditions.
Michael Pollan has been a leading voice explaining the consequences of food decisions. Through his writings, he guides us through the labyrinthine process of deciding what to put on the dinner table. For example, he has distilled down the essence of the nutritional science and added a dash of some age old folkloric advice to come up with sixty-four simple rules for better, healthier eating. Some are obvious (“Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.”), others are fun (“Drink wine with dinner.”), while others are harder to swallow (“Eat less.”). At the same time, he has laid bare the industrial process that creates much of the food we consume today shining a light onto the environmental and ethical consequences of our food choices. In short, he has become, as the New York Times describes him, “the nation’s food conscience.”
Professor Joseph Matanoski, Ph. D., is an Associate Professor of Biology in Stevenson’s School of the Sciences. Specializing in the field of behavioral ecology, he teaches courses in ecology, animal behavior, environmental science, evolution, and marine sciences.