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How We Eat…

I presented the following as a talk at the Fauquier Live Energy Festival, September 29, 2007 in Warrenton, Virginia. ~Harvey

We live in an age of crisis unparalleled in our history. Any one of our numerous crises would alone pose tremendous danger, but they are rapidly converging to create interlocking and cascading effects. We practice an enormously destructive agriculture that is ruining some of the best soils in the world. Our way of life is polluting and squandering the water we drink, and accelerating the loss of natural habitat and wild species. The greenhouse gases we spew into the atmosphere have brought on changes in the climate that are no longer a future threat, but a terrible, unpredictable reality. These immense and rapid changes are related more than anything to our extravagant, wasteful use of fossil energies; and until our use of energy changes in fundamental ways, there will be no significant change of direction.

It's wonderful to be here today, inspired to believe there is yet hope that we can make the profound changes that are required, and to commit ourselves to being agents of that change. But I see two great obstacles as we strive to make a meaningful difference.

The colossal magnitude of our problems would dwarf even the most ardent efforts our government could make to resolve them—but as a matter of fact, our government is doing precious little to remedy them, selling out time and again to vested interests, blindly striving to protect “the economy” rather than our children's future. Absent meaningful action by government, how can we possibly believe that we as individuals can blunt the momentum of destructive change in the living systems of the world?

Secondly, while we may have the most passionate commitment to do what is right for our ailing planet, it is sadly true that good intentions and virtue only get us so far—realistically, we are not likely to make day-to-day choices “for the good of the planet” which do not intesect in a profound and visceral way with our own most deeply felt needs.

Is there a point of intersection where choosing what will meet our own deepest interests, and choosing what will benefit our world, are one and the same? I believe there is, encapsulated in a statement by Wendell Berry: “How we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.” That powerful statement points the finger of accusation, because eating in this culture has become a great act of forgetting. Forgetting that good wholesome food is the foundation of health, of community, of culture. Forgetting our sacred duty to nurture and safeguard our land; and abrogating that responsibility to a faceless, rapacious food system with its eye solely on the bottom line, blind to its ecological injuries and its prodigal squandering of energy resources.

But Wendell Berry's statement also holds out the hand of hope, the promise that making informed and caring choices about how we eat, how we value our food, what we demand for its growth and processing—will change “how we use the world” in profound and revolutionary ways.

Let's think for a moment about our own deepest interests where food is concerned. Politicians, bureaucrats, and corporate advertising assure us that the American food supply is the safest in the world. If that is true, how is it that contamination by E. coli in a single field in California results in 200 cases of serious illness, and several deaths, in 26 states of this nation? How is it that we read weekly about food arriving from China by the shipload, some of it contaminated enough to kill, as proved earlier this year by the death from canned pet food of thousands of pets and hogs? How is it that botulism contamination in a single industrial processing vat leads to the emergency recall of hundreds of thousands of cans of meat products from the supermarket shelves? Botulin is one of the most toxic substances on earth—you could engage in biological warfare using botulin as your weapon. Food safety?

What about food quality? Think of sitting at our mama's or grandmama's table, eating meals prepared by loving hands from fresh, wholesome, natural foods. At those meals, our very souls were nourished by the fundamental goodness of sharing such food with those we love. Those who have abandoned that precious heritage for hurried meals from supermarkets and fast food restaurants may well retain at a deep level an aching void that no amount of empty calories or glitzy pseudo-foods will ever fill.

But the question of food quality is foremost about the ability of our food to keep our bodies in the glow of good health, and to support the sound and vigorous growth of our children. If the food on offer to our citizens is of highest quality, why are rates of heart disease and cancer and obesity skyrocketing? Why are children suffering degenerative diseases once thought to be the exclusive real estate of the very old?

While there are certainly factors, environmental pollution among them, causing this decline in our health, none is more critical than the food we are eating, and feeding to our children. Much of it is incapable of supporting health—grown on depleted and demineralized soils, artificially processed to the last degree, and laced with a witch's brew of chemical additives and pesticide residues.

As for food security—have you filled your tank at the gas pump lately? The price of gasoline has more than doubled in the past couple of years. Globally, we are at or near the peak of production of petroleum and natural gas. No sector of the economy is more critically dependent on cheap, abundant fossil fuels than the industrial food system—from its machine-heavy, chemically-intensive production, dependent on fertilizers made from natural gas, and pesticides from petroleum—to its high-energy processing of foods—to its distribution, which moves every bite of food an average of 1500 miles from field to fork. So far the system has absorbed rising fuel costs without disruption. At a certain point of exploding energy costs and shrinking global supplies, however, it will surely break. Dependence on a complex, centralized, fragile system to bring us the one product most vital to our survival will then be revealed for what it is—astounding folly.

So much for the bad news. Can we hope for a bit of good news? Here it is: local food. Decentralized food. Sustainable, nurturing food. Such food is available first and foremost in your own backyard. If you are not growing a garden now—even if only a patio tub with lettuces, herbs, and scallions—please do so. Plant that seed, reconnect with the miracle of life, the promise of each new season, the fecundity and bounty of the earth. This is our natural heritage, our precious birthright—let us not trade it for the mess of pottage on offer in the supermarkets and fast food joints.

And what you don't grow for yourself, buy locally from small farmers you know and trust. Treasure their commitment to making their land and community a better place, and to providing you and your family the best food on the planet. Visit their farms—your eyes-on inspection of the source of your food will be worth more than a thousand government bureaucrats to ensure its safety. As for food security, it is far more likely to come from trusted neighbors who have your family's personal well-being at heart—than from an anonymous, complex industrial system subject to disruption by economic events beyond anyone's control. Discover how your food purchases from small farmers committed to a nurturing agriculture can help: to enrich soils rather than degrading them; to clean and conserve water resources rather than polluting and squandering them; to enhance natural habitat and protect species diversity; to sequester atmospheric carbon in the soil, rather than adding to it and accelerating climate change.

Your local sustainable farm is most of all a working model for the essential reordering of our use of energy, in which the driving input is the ultimate renewable energy—sunlight.

If how we eat determines how the world is used, we can help heal the world by choosing food with a face. Food we intimately and personally know. Food we can revere as a sacred gift.