Everyday we consume and use food, often never knowing exactly what we are eating or how it arrived on our plate. Whether it’s a house salad or a dinosaur-shaped chunk of chicken, the truth about our food is something we don’t know and would rather ignore. The ethics of eating are hardly a new topic, but as consumers it is our responsibility – not our right – to know what we eat.
Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle sparked a movement in the early 1900’s describing the horrors of the meat industry that resulted in the Food and Drug Administration. Since, there have been many advances in the industry. Nowadays, at least you probably won’t find a hand in your hamburger. However, food ethics have been simplified to what we eat (vegetarianism, organic foods) rather than addressing morals of the origins and effects of the food industry as a whole.
Things are never straightforward as these solutions and as I began to learn about the largest and most important industry in America today, startling truths are often revealed. Almost two years ago I began reading books and watching documentaries with names like Salt, Cod and Banana. While my diet has not changed at all, with the basic conclusion that no matter what I eat I will still be consuming at a cost to others, the environment, I have gained a greater appreciation for what I eat and a better understanding of civilization and the importance of food in the development of humanity.
One of the most interesting stories is that of the banana. Did you know that we now eat a totally different species of banana than our grandparents did? This explains why people no longer go around slipping on banana peels, as modern peels are less slippery. The historic and now extinct Gros Michel banana species, larger and tastier, was replaced by the Cavendish species in the 1950’s after the Panama disease wiped out the banana crop all over the world. The Cavendish is still vulnerable to extinction from disease as each banana is essentially a clone of the other, and scientists are still fighting to find a new, more virulent breed.
Even more tragic than the extinction of the fruit is the foundation on which the banana industry was built. “Banana republic” does not refer to mainstream luxury-clothing line, but rather to the empires that American industrialists built in Central America. American’s mainstay of a breakfast dish comes as a result of exploitation, bribery and the occasional massacre of workers to maintain a cheap labor force. It is largely due to the politics of these banana barons that a large portion of Central America is still considered developing and trying to recover from decades of corruption.
Other examples are just as fascinating and revealing of the world today. The tomato industry is huge in Florida and has resulted in tasteless, sub-par products. It has also resulted in modern-day slavery; it is likely that at some point you have eaten a tomato picked by a slave.
Coffee, beer and tea were all popularized in part due to their effects, but largely because they provided means to ensure a sanitary supply of water to early civilizations.
The corn industry in America today is so heavily subsidized that it has resulted in most farmers only growing corn rather than other staple crops, hence corn syrup is used to sweeten virtually all American products. How much food affects the economy and world politics is surprising to realize, though it makes perfect sense.
I am not arguing for changes in food habits or for or against any movement, I am however arguing for more awareness on the consumer’s part. So often we just accept what we are told without investigating it ourselves. This past year we were all told that “pink slime” was poisonous and would lead to untimely deaths. However, in reality pink slime is a leaner, cheaper, more conservative and safer alternative, which though heavily processed is still not harmful (according to the industry). Though the truth is most likely in between the two, the bad press led to the shutdown of three of the four factories that produce it.
The food industry not only forms a large part of the economy providing money and jobs for workers, it is also the basis on which policies are made and allegiances are drawn.
Our resources are precious and should be understood and valued, and used with the burden of that knowledge. Now when I eat, I at least know some of the cost and realize what it means to be a consumer: to consume.