“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” - Ernest Hemingway
For the past couple of months, I’ve been chipping away at reading Wendell Berry’s Bringing it to the Table, a plainspoken and mindblowingly well-conceived collection of essays written over the past four decades that has taken me so long only because its format encourages me to read one piece in its standalone entirety, then mull over it for weeks before going back to the volume (also, since the beginning of the month I’ve gotten 296 pages into a nearly 400-page work of fiction I’m reviewing on freelance. It’s excellent, but it isn’t food-related). Berry is incomparably bright and straightforward and logical and kind, articulating insights in the 1970’s about farming, agriculture and food production that we still haven’t taken heed of, despite serious consequences.
“We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.” - Wendell Berry
One of the side effects of our unsustainable food system comes from the fact that we expect all food to be available all of the time. We have chosen to largely ignore seasonality and locality in our diets, requiring huge amounts of resources to be used to transport food around the world all year round. As fuel prices rise, so too do food prices: the UN’s Food Price Index rose 2.2% in February, to hit a record high since the FAO started price monitoring in 1990. Anthropogenic climate change not only is influenced hugely by our dependence on fossil fuel but also contributes to rising food prices by enacting extreme weather changes, floods and droughts that cause crop losses. In an ideal world, food production would be smaller-scale, based on polyculture, and recognize that land and soil thrive when treated as unique living ecosystems (genius loci, the wisdom of the place) rather than industrially mechanized to inefficient results - basically, agro-ecology. Sustainability is synonymous with efficiency and practicality. This is not in any way an anti-tech argument, but a pro-tech one: let’s use our wealth of technological thinking and resources to build towards a system of land use and food production that benefits individuals, businesses, our health and the world.
I love red bell peppers. I love their color, their sweetness; I love that an entire one only sets me back 30 calories and is chock-full of nutrients. Unlike green and yellow peppers, which aren’t as far along in the ripening process, red peppers contain through-the-roof levels of antioxidants and vitamins. But what if, instead of buying an out-of-season, organic red bell pepper that was grown in Mexico in April for nearly $5/lb, I ate only those fruits and vegetables that my local environment produces now? (What if I learned to love turnips, instead?) What if all the produce I could choose to buy was organic, because we chose to recognize that what has become a greenwashing marketing term was once the only and still the best way to farm produce? What if government subsidies, instead of being bought by beef and corn lobbies to fund unsustainable and destructive farming practices, were used to steer agriculture in the right direction, encourage innovation and support small-scale farming that can make healthy, plant-based diets more affordable for consumers? What could we make of our food systems, if we chose to? What then?
“Connection is health. And what our society does its best to disguise from us is how ordinary, how commonly attainable, health is. We lose our health - and create profitable diseases and dependences - by failing to see the direct connections between living and eating, eating and working, working and loving. In gardening, for instance, one works with the body to feed the body. The work, if it is knowledgeable, makes for excellent food. And it makes one hungry. The work thus makes eating both nourishing and joyful, not consumptive, and keeps the eater from getting fat and weak. This is health, wholeness, a source of delight.” - Wendell Berry