I never had a doubt that the closer to nature your food is, the healthier you will be. What else could bring you closer to nature than cooking from fresh ingredients picked from a garden or a forest? When living in Russia 12 years ago, I remember we didn’t have the advanced industry of food processing. As a result we ate mostly whole foods. There is a common practice to have a garden and grow your own fruits and vegetables in Russia. Another practice is to harvest wild growing food such as berries and mushrooms. When my family came to the U.S. more than a decade ago, we were amazed by how different the American diet is from the Russian one. I noticed every time I went to the supermarket that most of the Americans primarily bought lots of white bread like substance, chips, sodas, ground meat, donuts, ice-cream, and so on. We also had a chance to witness how Americans are addicted to junk food. When we had our American friends visit Russia, they quickly became bored of the traditional Russian meals and tried to find soda at every place where we accompanied them.
Let’s look at what the cheap American food consists of. Common ingredients of junk food are corn syrup, white flour, soy by-products, hydrogenised oils, and artificial colors and flavors. These products are high in trans fat, free radicals and acrilamide (potent cancer-causing chemical). Michael Pollan, the American author, journalist and professor of Journalism at Berkeley, said in his interview with Bill Moyers, the presenter of the public television, “five crops we subsidize are corn, wheat, soy, rice, and cotton… And that our farm policy for many years has been designed to increase production of those crops [the junk food is made of] and keep the prices low”. There is common knowledge and scientifically proven that such a diet leads to food-related diseases as type-2 diabetes, obesities, heart disease, and some cancers. Pollan mentions following data:
…this generation just being born now is expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents, one in three Americans born in the year 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control, will have type 2 diabetes, which is a really serious sentence (Pollan, Interview).
Adoption of the governmental Agricultural policies, which led to this explosion of chronic diseases, did not come as a response to natural disaster or an outbreak of hunger. Somebody benefits from promoting this diet. That is the large Agricultural business whose goal is to rip off big profits from cheap produce. Governmental policies are taken hostage by Agricultural conglomerates. Michael Pollan gives an example of how it is done:
…the World Health Organization recommends that no more than 10 percent of daily calories come from added sugar, a benchmark that the U.S. sugar lobby has worked furiously to dismantle. In 2004 it enlisted the Bush State Department is a campaign to get the recommendation changed and has threatened to lobby Congress to cut WHO funding unless the organization recants (Pollan, In Defense 25).
In addition to negative impact on public health those monsters of Agriculture pollute the environment using fertilizers and pesticides, cause climate instability by producing greenhouse gases, and excessively consume fossil fuel (Pollan, Interview). The oligarchs of Agriculture play on the naïve and greedy human nature to feed people junk food:
…notice that the stark message to “eat less”… had been deep-sixed [i.e. thrown overboard]; don’t look for it ever again in any official U.S. government dietary pronouncement. …you are not allowed officially to tell people to eat less of it [a particular food] or the industry in question will have you for lunch. …it was easy for the take-home message of the 1977 and 1982 dietary guidelines to be simplified as follows: Eat more low-fat foods. And that is precisely what we did (Pollan, In Defence 24, 51).
Why should common people be kept on the rich man’s leash? Is it possible to use common sense and make such a domestic revolution in the name of their health and health of the next generation? “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”- one can read this on the front cover of Michael Pollan’s bestseller In Defense of Food: an Eaters Manifesto. The author believes that even a common man might make a difference by gardening, cooking, and buying local and organic food (Pollan, Interview).
In nowadays, the local food movement becomes more and more popular. What does it mean to eat locally?
According to the definition adopted by the U.S. Congress in the 2008 Food, Conservation, and Energy Act (2008 Farm Act), the total distance that a product can be transported and still be considered a ‘locally or regionally produced agricultural food product’ is less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the State in which it is produced (United States, Department of Agriculture iii).
However, the definition is not exact and differs dependably of zone, farmers and consumers (United States, Department of Agriculture iii). The USDA documentation discusses the advantages of local food systems that had empirical evidence. They “include economic development impacts, health and nutrition benefits, impacts on food security, and effects on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions” (United States, Department of Agriculture 42). For example, people will benefit by eating local produce because it is fresher, nutritious, and less processed; growing crops on community lands will increase food availability; reducing the distance of food delivery saves fossil fuel.
The best way to grow local food is to grow it organically. Here in the US it is not easy. As soils are not fertile enough and the climate is friendly for pests and diseases in many states, farmers have to use fertilizers and pesticides. My family used to have a garden in Russia. We continue to cultivate organic produce here. Because we can not find enough information about garden plants that vegetate well in Georgia we experiment by planting different varieties of fruit trees and bushes, berries, and vegetables. The best practice is to plant those species that may grow in this area without special efforts. Fig trees, blueberries, raspberries, kiwis, pears, tomatoes, cucumbers, Jerusalem artichokes, mustards, peas, radishes, asparagus, herbs, all of that we grow organically on our modest piece of land and enjoy it all year around.
However, “local” is not a panacea. Different cultures behave differently depending on the climate zone. Pamela Cuthbert, the editor of a journal for Slow Food Canada, in her article “Local Food Is Not Always The Best Choice” gives a demonstrative example why in some cases non-local produce is more preferable than local. Growing apples in the wet Ontario climate is challenging because of numerous pests and fungus while in dry regions farmers do not have to spray apples so intensively because pests do not tolerate arid conditions (Cuthbert 26,27). Thus buying organic produce brought from farther places may be better for the health, than buying local ones that are not well acclimated to the local climate and soil (Cuthbert 26,27). Trying to cultivate cultures, that are not sustainable in the local climate, farmers have to use the industrial schema of agriculture with the harmful impacts such as “environment destroying fertilizers and sprayed with pesticides” (Cuthbert 25). As a conclusion the author quotes “Lori Stahlbrand, head of the organization Local Food Plus” who defines local as a complex of such characteristics as “sustainability, animal welfare, labor practices, biodiversity and energy use” (as qtd in Cuthbert 28). Stahlbrand “pairs the words ‘local and sustainable’ as essential co-factors” (Cuthbert 28). If we compare definition of the local food mentioned above with the definition given by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), we can see now the latter appears formal and incorrect, while the one described by Stahlbrand is more thought-through. Defining the local produce only in terms of the mileage does not guaranty the desired benefits for what local food movement stands for, and leaves the back door for questionable practices of the big agricultural business.
Do the gardening and you will have fresh healthy produce on your table, exercise and intimate contact with nature. If you cannot do this for any reason, buy more organic and local products in your supermarket or farmer’s market, it will support the development of local food producers and undermine the production of junk food.
One more way to follow a healthy diet is to cook your own meals. Pollan encourages: “Cook. Simply by starting to cook again, you declare your independence from the culture of fast food” (Pollan, Interview). Indeed, for cooking you will need whole produce, better oils, and less salt and sugar. You can be creative and add to your recipe any desired ingredient. When you eat a donut in the rush you don’t pay much attention to the list of ingredients. However, when you make your own cookies you know what you put in a dough: butter, eggs, flour, sugar, but not that long, long list of chemicals.
If we look back at our ancestors, we would see they ate simple local whole food, they cooked. We have evolutionary adapted to such meals for tens or hundreds of thousand years. Our bodies and genes don’t know what to do with the new ‘Western’ diet. Turn your head back and gain the wisdom from your grand-grants! Think about the next generation. It is all in your hands!
Cuthbert, Pamela. “Local Food Is Not Always the Best Choice.” The Local Food Movement. Ed. Amy Francis. Farmington Hills: Greenhaven Press, 2010. 24-30. Print.
Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: an Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 2008. Print.
Pollan, Michael. Interview. Bill Moyers Journal. PBS, 28 Nov. 2008.Web. 15 March 2012.
United States. Department of Agriculture. Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues. Washington: May 2010.