Friday, January 04, 2008

Where does our food come from?

Have you not always wondered about the origins of food that lands on our plate? I know I have -- especially in the US, more than India.

In India, figuring out the food chain was relatively easy. First off, our family was entirely vegetarian. My father hails from a village not too far from where we lived, and his brothers and father were wholesale traders in fruits and vegetables. My father has always been passionate about finding the best (and cheapest -- but that's just with every Indian ;) and freshest vegetables, and I have always attributed it to his formative years, spent helping out with the family business. So, the food chain to trace for us was relatively easy. The pieces that were missing were -- what seeds, fertilizers and manure the farmers were using at the farms our vegetables came from. The land of Punjab -- the area where I grew up -- is known for its fertility, and as far as I knew and read, farmers were using the traditional methods of farming. As a result, what food we ate depended on what season it was, and how the rains have been that year and so on. Man had not taken over Nature in determining what food we ate. I believe this is still the case there, though it is changing.

In comparison, there is a feeling of mystery behind food we get in the US. First off, the farmers' markets are relatively rare. So the food is mostly obtained at the supermarket. At the supermarkets, irrespective of the time of the year, you get the same food. Potatoes and onions, apples, oranges, bell peppers, you name it -- what season it was, or how the weather had been that year never mattered when it came to determining what to eat. At first glance, it seemed all positive. This is what a developed country is about -- industrialize the agriculture, empower the farmers to grow and feed what people want. A little naive, don't you think?

A recent book I am reading -- Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan -- attempts to trace the food chain that gets hidden behind the meals we eat. It is an enlightening read, and I very strongly suggest that you should read this book. You will never look at your food the same way again.

There are several observations that the book arrives at that are worth remembering. I note them here for lack of a better place to remind myself of these later.

1. Everything is connected. The author makes this zen-like observation about farms -- and he doesn't extrapolate it to anything else. But it is hard to not think about everything the same way.

2. We are what we eat. I recall Hemant telling me this once upon a time. This is true of the meat you eat as well -- the cow that's fed on chemicals and corn will lead to beef that has those compounds, and they will end up in you. It is surprising how apathetic we have become as a civilation about what we eat.

3. Food is a primary reason behind how large our brains are. Koala bears evolved to have a very small brain because they only eat eucalyptus leaves -- and as a result their brains shrank over time because they didn't need to work hard at trying to figure out how to get the food. Humans evolved with a much larger brain because of the complex nature of our meals. This does make you wonder if apathy towards food is going to end up making you dumber.

4. Not everything is suited to be done at large scale. This is especially true about farming. The scalability comes in dumbing down the process, and being able to repeat the same thing again and again.

1 comment:

rmathew said...

You might also be interested in the following articles:

1. "Chemical Generation - Punjabis are poisoning themselves" from The Economist.

2. "No Bar Code" from Mother Jones.