Saturday, April 18, 2009

The End of Food

It's been long overdue, so here it is: some of the stuff I got from reading Paul Robert's The End of are some Cliff-Notes, but I cannot emphasize enough how much info you'd be missing if you don't read it for yourself as well.

The book's subject in a tiny microscopic nutshell is the evolution of food (think anthropology of food, really) and its possible (likely) dark focuses most on what happened to our food production since the Industrial Revolution and-what I love most- he plays devil's advocate and understands that, just like with everything else in this world, things are not black or white, and that what makes sense in one area (e.g., vegetarianism) might not be as smart-or even feasible- practice in another (uh...e.g., ask an Eskimo about switching to a vegan diet...or even better, you try to survive eight months out of each year on a sea-veg-ice-cube-sucking-diet...kinda hard, eh?).

I'll do a chapter at the time with the quotes that rang home the most to me.

Before going into Chapter I, here is one quote from the prologue that I thought was great:

"Physically, food is so unsuited to mass production that we've had to re-engineer our plants and livestock to make them more readily harvested and processed (and even these updated materials remain so fragile they must be amended with preservatives, flavorings, and other additives). Our farming and manufacturing methods incur such enormous 'external' costs-from the farm-chemical runoff to the inequities of cheap labor to a choking surplus of calories-that the longevity of the system is now in serious doubt. Even the shift in cooking from the home to the factory, though it has left us free to engage in other pursuits, has also left us with far less knowledge of, and control over, what we eat."

Chapter I * Starving for Progress*

I am omnivorous, but from a purely animal lover point of view I find myself having the hardest time buying meat sometimes, even when I stick to buying humanely raised, free range, daily hugged, organic, ethically get the idea. From a nutritional stand point I get that there are many sources of protein in the veg kingdom (beans, edamame, spirulina, etc.) but in this chapter I found some info that was entirely new to me:

"...meat's real significance to human evolution was probably not the quantity of calories it contained but the quality of these new calories. Because animal and human tissues have the same sixteen amino acids (whereas most plant-based proteins contain just eight), animal converts readily into human: meat is the ideal building block for meat."

I am not saying to go out and only eat meat, after all industrialized meat production has serious drawbacks and although some find it efficient once it gets into our bodies, the road to produce it and get it to us is a highly ineffective one ("a cow needs to eat seven pounds of feed to gain a pound of weight" and that inefficiency is not even considering the oil costs to get the feed to the meat and the meat to our tables!). Nonetheless, I found this to be an interesting nutritional point-of-view.

Roberts also notes:

"All creatures choose feeding strategies that yield the most calories for the least effort (anthropologists call this optimal foraging behavior), and with fewer plant calories available, our ancestors naturally turned to animal foods as the simplest way to replace those calories. But what is significant is this: even if the move toward meat began out of necessity, the consequences went far beyond replacing lost calories. In the economics of digestion, animal foods give a far greater caloric return on investment than plants do. It might take more calories to chase down a frisky antelope on the veldt than to pluck fruit in the forest. But for that extra investment, Homo erectus earned more calories--far more."

In this chapter Roberts also covers the history behind how and when we began farming and what it meant then and now. For example, I had never considered of the societal impact that having a surplus of storable food could have. As early as 3500 B.C., Egyptian wheat farmers stored their surplus which became "accumulated wealth" that "radically transformed society." These extra rations provided trading material that formed today's commerce. In addition, because people did not have to constantly be hunting for food some of their time was free for other activities, "they could be builders, bakers, beer-makers; they could be soldiers and defend the new city-states, and priests and kings, to rule them."

I think that understanding how we got to be in the predicament we are in is crucial to planning our way out of this industrialized convenience-driven, sometimes unethical, environmentally costly, pesticide laden, inequitable, farmer exploiting, Walmart-loving situation we are in...yeah, I am not for the Walmarts of the world...more on that to come some other day...that's a whole other posting...and now I need to get my arse of this chair and go for a run.

Not done with Chapter I yet...more to come. well & enjoy your plantings!

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