In food production, as in so many other areas of life, maybe it’s the little things that matter most.
Americans are getting bigger. There's no doubt about it. At 5 feet 8 inches and 150 pounds, I was one of the biggest kids in my freshman class. It was that fact, rather than my doubtful athletic ability, that earned me one of about 40 spots on our High School football squad.
That's because the coach wanted to impress opposing teams with our size.
But today I have grown. At a couple inches under 6 feet and 195, I am dwarfed by as much as four inches and 40 pounds. My grandsons are bigger and stronger now than I have ever been.
Is that because they have “bigger” genes or have human diets changed that much over the years?
Volumes have been written about modern diets, rich in sugar and salt, by writers like Mark Bittman, who recently wrote a New York Times column titled "The Drinkers Manifesto".
Bittman has devoted much of his writing to pointing out nutritional deficiencies, especially the presence of high fructose corn syrup and other applications of corn in modern fast food diets. In his drinker’s manifesto he qualifies perceived overindulgence in distilled spirits, pointing out that national health costs from obesity are nearly 25% greater than those of alcoholism.
(For the record, corn-hater Mark left out that a lot of the alcohol humans consume starts out as corn.)
What's missing from the food debate are new revelations regarding the human biome and ways bacteria interact with our bodies to make us healthier … or not.
The probiotic movement has been around for years. That's why some people eat types of yogurt that are believed to help digestion and sustain favorable fauna in the gut. Research supports that.
Bacteria can harm or hurt. That's also why we have antibiotics, to help eliminate infectious bugs that attack our bodies. But now researchers say we need the right bugs, not only for good digestion, but to keep us healthy by advising our bodies on how to behave. They've gone so far as to say that good bacteria communicate with human brains and the bodies they inhabit, to call for antibodies–or call them off as with autoimmune disorders–or even help ward off cancer.
And there is proof that some conditions, like autism and its side effects, can be improved simply by changing or adding bacteria located inside the bodies of autistic people.
So what does that have to do with what we eat?
Over the years we've come to rely on antibiotics for meat and fish production. We've even used antibiotic resistance as a tool in the production of new varieties of genetically modified crops. As we ingest more of these things, could they be subtly altering the genetic landscape of our human biome?
For instance low-level feeding of antibiotics in meat production is a common and approved practice. Besides helping ward off disease, antibiotics added to feed have been shown to increase appetites of animals that consume them. No one knows why exactly, they simply eat more and gain weight faster. Then we dump antibiotic laden manure and chicken litter from those operations back onto our soil, where it nurtures crops.
But some also finds its way into our water.
What if antibiotic use in food does more than what most critics worry about, which is that we’re creating bacteria that resist antibiotics? What if a more harmful and immediate result is increased appetite, cravings or disease set off by a reaction from tiny creatures inside us in response to small amounts of left over chemicals originally fed to animals or plants that became our food?
What if those creatures inside us respond by making us less healthy, or even sick?
So far that possibility has been ignored by regulators and the health community at large.
Critics of our food system (like Bittman) universally condemn availability of foods that contribute to obesity. In his “drinkers manifesto” he points out that alcohol, with its empty calories, has no nutrition label as sugar-laced soft drinks do and cites one opinion (backed up by Benjamin Franklin), that perhaps alcohol is proof of a God’s love.
Franklin is widely misquoted as to his choice of alcohol. What he said ran a little deeper than just love of beer. These are Franklin’s exact words as interpreted from their original French: “We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana, as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy!”
What's missing from some modern diets is more than just nutritional balance. It’s understanding of the tiny, natural biological interactions that take place every day in the course of food production. Most of it seems boring and lengthy — invisible to the human eye.
Crops and livestock mature over months. Fine wine works the same way. Just as the automotive industry relies on thousands of imported parts delivered when they're needed, our food industry is working to speed up delivery of prepared meals across a plastic countertop to waiting consumers.
We've placed our faith in an industrial food revolution based on low wages, cheap ingredients and corporate tax dodges.
There's a religious hymn dating back to the 19th century, "All Things Great and Small".
It begins like this:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
Ben Franklin may never have realized the important contribution bacteria made to the conversion of grape juice to wine, or even his own good health. But he understood the connection that exists between our world and what we eat.
And that sometimes respect and faith, even for the smallest things, can be very important to us all.
Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.