Does the Source of Food Matter?

[imgbelt img=just-food-oysters530.jpg]A new book argues that we need genetically modified crops and non-local food supplies. Reviewer and farmer Richard Oswald sees “pragmatism” differently.


Christopher Seufert Photography

Wellfleet oysters served at the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fisherman’s Ball, Chatham, Massachusetts

As any good debater knows, the way to win an argument is not by promoting the other guy’s views. McWilliams the centrist really has little good to say about local food until he gets around to aquaculture. “Aquaculture operations,” he states, “can be more easily incorporated into areas that are unsuited for other forms of food production.” In fact aquaculture is about the only locavorian pursuit he promotes.

When I read McWilliams’s advocacy for freshwater aquaculture, it reminded me of so many other farm products that have become the raw commodity from which corporate food chains manufacture our food. It seems so easy to say that fish are the answer, but I have witnessed over the years the grinding and reforming of chicken, pork, and beef, the camouflaging of our food so that the original product is unrecognizable. I’m talking about chicken nuggets, preformed pork cutlets, or hamburger patties made from meat scraps gathered from across state lines and national boundaries. If they could see these foods in their original form, consumers would never buy them let alone eat them. So manufacturers make these food products look like something else.
Is it so hard to imagine that the same thing can come to aquaculture?

Sausage is always best when made by the people who plan to eat it.

A recent New York Times article (October 4, 2009) tells about contaminated beef that led to the food borne illness ultimately responsible for paralyzing Stephanie Smith from the waist down. All she’d done was eaten a hamburger. Our current food system readily trades profits for the health of some consumers, because food inspection fails to hold large corporations truly accountable. Corporations have become responsible for much of our food manufacture and distribution, and both they and our government accept that fact as reality.

[imgcontainer left] [img:just-food-buffet320.jpg] [source]UWEC

A banquet of local Wisconsin foods, served last April in Eau-Claire, included parsnip apple soup, chicken and wild rice casserole, acorn squash, and more.
At some point in the corporate food model, profit always seems to trump consumer health and safety. Some foreign food companies recently took tainted food to new heights of disgust with things like melamine and lead, but our own domestic food oversight relies more on corporate integrity than practical enforcement of broken rules. As the banking crisis pointed out to us, it is a rare corporation where integrity exists at every level.

Do food miles matter? McWilliams says no.

In World War II, did it matter to Europe if food wasn’t available locally? Did it matter to the people of West Berlin during 1948 when East Germany blockaded the city? Would food miles matter if we have another oil crisis like the one in 1973 when OPEC stopped exporting oil to the US?

Without a doubt, they would.

Did they matter when giant livestock producers started producing hogs in the southeastern US and found that soymeal from South America was cheaper than the domestic product located hundreds of miles closer?

Only to their profits.

During times of war or crisis, having an abundant food supply located 1000 miles away from the people who need it is like saying a drowning man has plenty of air to breathe — he just has to figure out a way to get it.

Corporations haven’t managed to gain control of our air, but if they do, be prepared to breathe from a long distance, because profits earned for essential services are best concealed by a shell game that begins with hiding both profits and partners.

Some books leave me hungry for more, this book does not. I believe the world has many exciting possibilities when it comes to food, but the most exciting food, the food I like best, still comes from the fruit trees in my front yard, our home garden, and even the farm pond in the pasture where our cattle graze. While only a portion of what we eat originates from those places, for me they are still the best, most trusted places on earth.

For any reader who’s hungry for data, who believes as James McWilliams does that the stuff we fuel our bodies with is ‘Just Food,’ this book is a cornucopia of facts and figures. It is realistic to a point but disappointing, for what it fails to say; that clean water and air combined with a source of wholesome local food are just as essential to human life on earth as having people to grow it.