Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Worst Mistake

I think it is very human-centric to think that the currently most practiced model makes it the pinnacle of our specie's achievement. To be able to examine other plausible motives and outcomes requires a more objective ability to examine our biases.

Personally, I had the experience of growing up in a suburban environment, encouraged to use technology and revel in our human experience, getting back to our primitive roots camping in the summer at camp grounds boasting electricity, hot showers and washing machines. Oh, and did I mention the incredibly hot premed intern at the nearby fish hatchery? I digress...

A recent topic on Garden Rant got the most comments posted in a long time; the controversial comment was whether the act of gardening was "natural" or not. Many people contested that they felt closer to nature, and even suggested that the best gardens, with plants best suited to the soil and climate needs, could outcompete weeds, etc, once established, thereby not defying mother nature, but working in tandem.

I commented that as a species developed and shaped by natural selection, any actions we take is therefore "natural'. Our choices for selection in domesticable plants and animals stem from our very greed that is human-centric, and reflects very little on giving back to the world around us. The better we have become in our ability to breed for desired traits (GMO's, computer programming) using our heritage of tool use, the less we seem to look at the larger picture of the consequences.

As small hunter-gatherer forces, even using some light ag practices such as limited burns and dividing perennial plants to encourage more growth, had limited affects on an areas ecology. Allowed to be "fallow" for 1-2 decades could replenish the system. The current intensive use of our resources allows for no rest, and we resist strongly the attempts of nature to curb our abuse of our current system. In previous years, epidemics and famines controlled the population, but advances in hygiene, food production and preservation, and medicines mean that fewer die from previously normal causes.

Relying on just a few crops for the majority of our calories can still have devastating consequences - just review the statistics of the Irish potato famine in 1848 and subsequent years as just one common example. If asked if it is better to place all of one's future in one crop, or to diversify into many crops, most people don't need to think about the answer. So why literally change to an all eggs in one basket attitude?

In Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, he warns against exaggerating "people's readiness to accept better crops and livestock, and the constraints imposed by locally available wild plants and animals. Neither that readiness nor those constraints are absolute." (154)
For example, he also suggests that the move to agriculture in the Fertile Crescent was more a result from hunter-gatherers who had overexploited the local herds of gazelle, and had limited access to aquatic resources with limited rivers and a short coastline. Therefore, "the food production package quickly became superior to the hunter-gatherer package" and the switch occurred in as little as 3000 years. (142)

In other words, a turn to agriculture may have been directly related to relatively decreasing resources in the face of population growth. Sounds familiar...

More Thoughts On Nutritional Extremes

During the week I was reminded of the Weston Price Foundation.  Dr. Price was a dentist who spent vacations traveling to remote areas of the world to study "native" people with fabulous teeth.  Over and over he encountered people with great teeth and no dental care.  He compiled a list of characteristics of traditional diets, which included traditional ways of preparing foods, making foods that were very bioavailable and enzymatically nutritious.  

Some of the other blogs were very harsh on our own society's lack of control, focusing on our tendency to overindulge.  And yet, we are a society that often seems to embrace the very worst of our culture's  inventions, enslaving us rather than releasing us.  I have found my own difficulties in making my way - finding sources of raw milk, organic foods, wheat-free food choices, or even cheap options for clothing that doesn't involve Wal-Mart...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Nutritional Extremes

The holidays are over now, and it means that I've heard my years' share of Christmas classics, including my favorite, Do They Know It's Christmas Time At All, by Band Aid. The song was first produced in 1984 as a fund raising relief effort for famine-starved Ethiopia. At nine years old, my friends and I begged our parents for the album, which we had seen advertised on MTV. I'm not sure we really grasped the concept of people starving while we admired famous rock stars. We even play acted the video, taking turns pretending to be our favorite singers.

I'm not sure that as an adult over twenty years later that I really have any better grasp on what it is to starve. Sure, I ate my share of Ramen noodles in college, but then again, I liked Ramen noodles, so it wasn't a hardship. After all, I had other choices.

However, I do live everyday in world where the question is not, "Can I eat today?," but rather, "What do I want to eat today?." I often find myself in the same rut - not enough time to shop or cook, grumbling instead about eating fast food for lunch, and then making just about the poorest choice possible, all the while feeling victimized by the lack of wheat-free choices at most fast food venues.

I think that as Americans, we face two major points when it comes to our over consumption. Firstly, we seem to feel entitled to our right of many choices, with many people feeling they deserve that high calorie, feel-good treat. Secondly, it has actually become more expensive to eat whole foods than it has to buy highly processed foods with minimized nutritional value.

I have experienced the first for years. "I worked hard today, so I deserve ____!" Before I knew it, I needed those rewards, even when my clothes didn't fit anymore. The second was brought to my attention when I went through credit counseling several years ago. After going through our budget, the counselor suggested that we could save money by buying less fresh produce and more canned or frozen produce, or perhaps eating less vegetables altogether! He was very serious that we could save money by compromising, in fact that is exactly the compromise that many lower income families are forced to make.

In Barbara Kingsolver's book Small Wonders she writes, "The United Nations estimates that $13 billion above current levels of aid would provide everyone in the world, including the hungry within our own borders, with basic health and nutrition. Collectively, Americans and Europeans spend $17 billion a year on pet food."

What keeps us from spending that money on our our species rather than on pets? If the statistics are true, that we can produce enough food to feed all of the current hungry people, and assuming that we can affect a distribution system, then what is holding us back? I don't know the answer to that question any more than I can stop my self from eating wheat entirely. I can rationalize it, and still not make sense of it.