“The species of animal you eat may matter less than what the animal you’re eating has itself eaten. The fact that the nutritional quality of a given food (and of that food’s food) can vary not just in degree but in kind throws a big wrench into an industrial food chain, the very premise of which is that beef is beef and salmon salmon.” – Michael Pollan
During my time in Peru, I had access to a kitchen, and so many nights I would cook my meals at home with ingredients I found at the local supermarket. All the usual staples were available (milk, eggs, rice, bread, beans), as well as some regional fruits and vegetables (whose names I won’t even try to guess at) and some U.S. brands such as Oreos, to which I treated myself when I wanted a taste of home.
Regardless of where I ate or what I ate, one idea kept nagging at my consciousness: the food here tastes different. Good different. The chicken tastes more like chicken. The eggs taste more like eggs. The milk tastes more like milk. All of the raw ingredients were delicious in a way that I hadn’t expected.
I had brought my Kindle on the trip and loaded it with several books, one of which was Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It came highly recommended by a few friends, and I had wanted to learn more about our food system in the U.S. In this book, Pollan explores the industrial food chain and compares and contrasts it with alternative food chains such as local and organic. He approaches the topic in a thoughtful and well-researched manner.
What particularly struck me was the experience of reading about the U.S. food system while living abroad and having a completely different food system with which to compare it. Since Iquitos and Requena are such isolated cities, relatively speaking, it is safe to assume that most of the perishable foodstuffs like milk, eggs, and meat were grown in the farms around me. As I was independently noticing the positive differences in the food in Iquitos versus in the U.S., I was learning about industrial food chains and how our food production system is driven more by lowering cost than by increasing quality.
“When you think about it, it is odd that something as important to our health and general well-being as food is so often sold strictly on the basis of price. The value of relationship marketing is that it allows many kinds of information besides price to travel up and down the food chain: stories as well as numbers, qualities as well as quantities, values rather than “value.” And as soon as that happens people begin to make different kinds of buying decisions, motivated by criteria other than price. But instead of stories about how it was produced accompanying our food, we get bar codes—as inscrutable as the industrial food chain itself, and a fair symbol of its almost total opacity.”
I used to be one of those people who believed that “chicken is chicken” and “egg is egg” and that it didn’t matter where my food came from – as long as it was chicken. Now I’m not so certain. Both for taste as well as likely nutritive quality, food that is grown or raised in better conditions and with better feeds will likely be superior to food that is not.
I was very careful with that last sentence not to intimate that one type of food chain is better than another. The larger point of Pollan’s book, I believe, is to compel us to examine how our food is grown – whether or not it comes with an “organic” label. Indeed, there are no real requirements or standards to calling something organic, and organic food is more and more being made in large industrial complexes now anyway. Moreover, I am not advocating for a complete overhaul of the industrial food complex. I am not naïve enough to think that we can support our current population’s food needs without it. But I do think that we can reform our current system to allow alternative food chains to thrive.
“We may need a great many different alternative food chains, organic and local, biodynamic and slow, and others yet undreamed of. As in the fields, nature provides the best model for the marketplace, and nature never puts all her eggs in one basket. The great virtue of a diversified food economy, like a diverse pasture or farm, is its ability to withstand any shock. The important thing is that there be multiple food chains, so that when any one of them fails—when the oil runs out, when mad cow or other food-borne diseases become epidemic, when the pesticides no longer work, when drought strikes and plagues come and soils blow away—we’ll still have a way to feed ourselves.”
Since my return to the U.S., I have been thinking a lot about the kinds of foods I choose to buy. It will be difficult, as I hope to strike a balance between cost (I am a poor med student, soon-to-be poor resident, after all) and quality. I hope to utilize more of my local farmers’ markets. I hope to be more conscious about what I put in my body.