What We Don't Know

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, December 13, 1996

What do you know about the food you eat? Who grew your vegetables? In which country were they grown? Do you have any idea what chemicals were used to protect your fruit during its production and long-distance shipping?

Is your cheese made from the milk of hormone-injected cows? Is your pasta manufactured by the corporation connected to the deaths of 2000 infants every day? Is your turkey grown by one of the world's largest oil companies in huge windowless buildings, or your chicken by the business which destroys global fisheries? Was the beef in your hamburger raised in the rain forest or in four different countries? What portion of your food dollar goes to the world's largest tobacco pusher? Were the soybeans - a major ingredient in processed foods - genetically engineered? Was your garlic exported from China and then irradiated at sea? Or was your sugar produced under slave-like conditions somewhere in the Caribbean?

This is a grim list of questions, but it's really just the tip of the iceberg regarding what we don't know about what we eat. And, if we're good consumers, we'll go on just caring about brands and buzzwords: diet, light, low-salt, low-fat, high-protein, high-fiber, new and improved!

There are many questions we should ask about each food item we eat, but don't. How much did the manufacturer pay to put a product on the supermarket shelf? How much fossil and nuclear energy was used to manufacture and market that processed and packaged food? What are the hidden costs? How much do we pay in taxes to provide the energy, agricultural, manufacturing, advertising and waste disposal subsidies which make supermarkets and fast-food outlets possible and profitable? What will our health-care costs be in the future?

These are very hard questions and frequently, the answers are really depressing. Knowing the conditions of the people who actually touch our food in the global system, and the arrogance and greed of those who distribute and market it, would be equally depressing.

Part of the reason we don't know more about food is that our ignorance is good for the global food system's owners. They want us to choose based on brands and standardized categories. Whatever we want is okay as long as we don't ask questions about genetic engineering, food irradiation, farm laborers' working conditions, or the environmental and social effects of giant industrialized monocultures.

The surest course to knowing more about food - where it comes from and how it's produced - is to bring our eating closer to home. Start with a garden. It will provide a great education in food and plants, soil and sunlight, seeds and weeds, insects, cover crops, mulches, and varieties as well as in real flavor and nutrition. In caring for the garden we learn about the Earth's productive capacity, and the importance of balance and restraint. Eating directly from the garden teaches us about cooking and preserving delicious fresh foods.

Find the farms or farmers markets in your community or nearby. Purchase what grows locally and learn to make simple and delicious meals from food that is fresh and in season. At the Old Solar Farm, a week before the solstice, we're still harvesting potatoes, parsnips, turnips, Brussels sprouts and coldframe greens. Just growing sprouts on your kitchen counter throughout the winter is a good beginning. For what you can't grow or find locally, buy whole, organic and minimally-processed and packaged foods. Support the smaller businesses that you would like to keep in your community.

One of the major differences between the corporate/industrial/global food system envisioned by agribusiness and the USDA, and the local, community-based, ecological food system that we're creating, is what we need to know. For the big boys, our ignorance is their bliss. We become more dependent, and ignorant with each expensive development in food technology.

To recreate a local, just and sustainable food system, however, we all need to know more about what we eat, perhaps even know how to produce and prepare a complete meal. This is one of the reasons that home, community, school and even college gardens are popping up like mushrooms.

For gardeners and sustainable farmers, the process of feeding local communities builds a growing and joyful knowledge of the workings of Gaia and our essential and sensuous relationships with the Earth and with each other.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1996-1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.