Sustainability question more than just food for thought

(February 27, 2019)

We are what we eat.

Every day, a new headline reminds us of this fact in some way.

Recently, Canadians got a new version of Canada’s Food Guide, requiring grade-school teachers to redo their health curriculum, but likely having little effect on how we eat compared to before. General guidelines like these either repeat what people already know, or mystify those whose dietary choices are driven by other things than directives from Ottawa — things such as prices, availability, marketing and what the kids’ friends are eating at school this week.

What we eat — and therefore who we are — is also intertwined with social-justice issues. For those with little money (for food or for transportation), if they are living in an urban “food desert” where the convenience store is a one-stop shop, healthy food choices are a fantasy.

In northern communities, where pop, chips and hotdogs are readily available and preserved forever, fresh vegetables are exotic, expensive and unfamiliar. Governments prefer to medevac people south for medical treatments that are the consequence, at least in part, of poor diets, instead of supporting efforts to make good food locally.

Then there are the too-frequent stories about produce, in particular, contaminated with harmful bacteria. It might seem like carelessness is the culprit, but such contamination is a fact of life in the factory farm system, where food is grown in mass quantities, often in distant places that have lower hygiene standards or where a lack of clean water undermines what the system requires.

When there is a problem, it is harder to pinpoint the source, and it can affect entire industries across the whole North American continent (romaine lettuce, anyone?).

We could use computer tracking to absolutely identify the origin of every piece of fruit and who sprayed or picked it, where and when, but we don’t. Allowing individual consumers access to that kind of information makes large food manufacturing and distribution companies — especially their marketing departments — uneasy.

Marketing is intended to persuade us to buy what we should not eat, in greater quantities than we can use, at prices we can’t afford. And by starting with the kids, marketing has been doing a marvellously effective job of undermining that school health curriculum for at least a couple of generations.

These issues all compound larger and more troubling ones, spreading across the planet, only periodically breaking out into headlines that flag what lies ahead.

The global population continues to rise. That means we will need more food, often in places where there is already not enough to eat. Political instability, combined with water shortages because of climate change or pollution, makes it hard for the small farmer to harvest a good crop of what he (or, most often, she) has planted. If you can’t make a living on the land, then people everywhere move into cities — in the developing world of the global South, these mega-cities make Winnipeg look tiny and well-planned.

Around the world, in places a lot like Winnipeg, we waste enough food every year to feed a billion people. Given the huge amount of fresh water that goes into food production, and the equally massive greenhouse-gas emissions involved in moving it onto our dinner table, this has equally huge implications for managing climate change.

From the standpoint of sustainable ecology, we simply can’t afford to produce this food, in the quantities a growing population requires, if it will be wasted. Combining malnutrition with obesity (as they often are, in the West), those misdirected calories could also mean the difference between life and death for the hundreds of millions of people around the world who don’t have food to eat every day.

Yet behind that story, there is another, as well. We are what we eat, but what we eat first has to be grown and harvested or produced. The Earth’s biosphere is at risk right now, because of our continued assault on ecological systems that have maintained a balance for millions of years — until now.

Some belated response (likely too late) was made to ban the use of neonicotinoids that have helped wipe out populations of bees and other flying pollinators. But there is a bigger story, in recent studies of the catastrophic die-off of all kinds of insects, with industrial agriculture and its use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides identified as a primary culprit.

As a result, the soil on which we depend, in too many places, is literally dying. If we are what we eat, then the resulting loss of soil micronutrients will affect both our own health and that of our children, regardless of whether or not we follow Canada’s Food Guide.

We need action, from government, industry and ourselves, to change all these things. It’s not good enough to consider these concerns just food for thought.

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