Thursday, March 26, 2009

Think before you eat?

This post is about a book I had chance to read recently, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” written by Michael Pollan and is one of the New York Times bestseller. This would for sure raise many questions in your mind about your eating habits as has risen in my mind. I had never thought that we are eating only one crop again and again in one form or the other. Being an Indian we still have traditional eating habits related to morality and medicinal value; also it has been mentioned in our Ayurveda that “We are what we eat”. We are also diverting towards modern eating habits of taking more of the processed food in our diets and this is the major concern raised in my mind after reading this book.
An omnivore can eat just about anything nature has provided him but many of the foods offered may be poisonous and can even kill us. So, the author is always confused about, what should he eat? Author talks about the America’s national eating disorder, how they suddenly shifted towards meat and lying off bread and pasta, bankrupting dozens of bakeries and noodle firms. The extraordinary abundance of choice of food in America complicates the whole problem of what to eat? He thinks that like every other creature on earth, humans also take part in food chains though we modify the food by way of various technologies. He talks about the three principle food chains i.e. the industrial, the organic and the hunter gatherer. Each of these food chains includes a plant photosynthesizing energy to provide food at the end of the chain.
I like the industrial food chain most that focuses on a single plant: Zea Mays and would like to share my ideas about it. The journey starts when the author visits a supermarket and only thing which he finds close to nature is the section of fruits and vegetables. The description of the entire scenario has been given so beautifully that one could almost visualize the scene. This supermarket was a kind of biodiversity hub where one could find hundreds of different edible species brought from different parts of the globe. Author started to follow the industrial food chain starting from this point to a wide variety of places, though at the very end of each of the food chains he found himself in the farm fields of American Corn Belt. He came to a conclusion that American supermarket with a wide variety of choices had a remarkably narrow biological foundation of Zea Mays, popularly known as corn. “Corn is used almost in every food we or the animals eat, even in making sodas, fruit drinks, beer, coffee whitener, soups, syrups etc. About 45,000 eatables available in the supermarket are made of corn and every year 17,000 new ones are added.”
Author visited a farmer called George Naylor who was growing only corn and soybean while his grandfather used to grow a variety of crops along with animal rearing. Although the product of the field could feed 129 Americans but it was not equipped to support 4 members of Naylor’s family and lot of food items had to be imported. Owing to corn-corn and corn-soybean cropping systems and mechanized farming need for farm labor had also dwindled and people had migrated from that area in search of work.
Pollan also goes further to explain about how a virtual flood of cheap corn forces a farmer to think over lines of producing more. The way market requirement and government policies that are focused towards diverting corn for food processing compels a farmer to produce only corn are also elaborated to great extent.
Pollan found that “the golden river of American commodity corn passes through a tiny number of corporate hands”. The two companies Cargill and ADM together buys nearly a third of total corn produced in America. This corn after being milled, processed, exported and passed through the guts of cows, chickens and pigs, turning it into meat. Though cow is not by nature a corn eater, but due to surplus are fed corn, disposing off the American corn surplus. It has many adverse effects on the animal health as trapping of gas in the stomach, acidic stomach which is neutral in cattle, thus the animal feeds all rubbish and dirt further causing diarrhea, ulcers etc.
Pollan says that what doesn’t pass through gut of animals will pass through the “wet mills” to be processed in innumerable food science products by companies like general mills, Mc Donald’s and Coca-Cola. The starch in the corn is the major contribution to the industrial food chain, with an abundance of carbohydrate molecules. Food technology today has enabled scientists to construct any processed food from carbohydrates supplied from corn, protein from soybean and fats from any other plant. Technology has also allowed processing of wastes from one process to be used as raw material for yet another processed food or any other application, for example corn syrup which is a byproduct of processing is a cheap substitute of cane sugar. In the end only waste- water is discharged as waste.
The fact that processing adds self life and value to the food items is agreed upon by the author but he also mentions that this has also tempted people to consume more of a single plant. Another point which cannot be neglected is that flow of money is diverted from farmer to processor.
After being processed in various forms, corn moves to restaurants in attractive colors, shapes and packages, which finally reach us. McDonalds, KFC and other popular outlets supply consumer’s with pizza’s, burger’s, nuggets, French fries and many more food items all made from corn, which may be present as emulsifiers, binders, fillers, syrups, sweeteners or in other forms. But these food items also contain some synthetic ingredients which come from petroleum refineries or chemical plants, which are carcinogenic, mutagenic, tumerigen, reproductive effectors and if consumed at high concentration may even lead to death. To eat corn directly is to consume all the energy in the corn but when corn is used as animal feed 90% of its energy is lost. Growing more and more corn has depleted soil nutrients, reduced quality of water, reduced biodiversity and has degenerated soil health.
So, what do you think about this plant? It all depends on your position in the food chain. Corn has benefitted neither the farmer who grows it is nor the consumer who consumes it. But to a food processor this is the plant need to be worshiped. Corn is present in all the fast foods that are served and eaten in a flash. You are not totally satisfied and want to eat more, in spite of a full stomach. Thus, corn food chain offers not exactly cheap food but cheap source of calories in attractive forms. However in long run consumer pays high price for these cheap calories ending up with obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Consuming processed corn foods, affects not only you and your family, but the environment and most importantly the farmer who is also at a loss by growing it. I think it’s high time that we should open our eyes and see that consuming processed food is no symbol of social status as some people perceive it and absolutely nothing can replace the traditional foods. There was a reason why those foods had been there for centuries and there is again a very strong reason why these foods should be in the forefront again. Apart from serious issues concerning health there is a major problem of permanent loss of biodiversity.
We should therefore look forward towards maintaining a balance of our traditional eating habits with that of modern day processed food. Awareness and encouragement is thus needed for conserving our biodiversity in available food and traditional ways of eating. Several ways can be thought of doing so and one of them can be celebration of food festivals, for example The Yam festival, Ugadi Food Festival, Legacies of the Nizams - Food Festival, etc. These festivals have been able to create awareness amongst people about traditional food. This could also ensure a variety in the crops we consume, as narrowing down the choices available in foods would never prove beneficial. After reading this entire article do you still think that consuming more of processed foods would be a good idea in long run?


Ruchica Goyal said...

That was a great reading manpreet and i completely agree with you that we should really think before we just eat something for taste or out of habit. Well, the saying that we use folks and knives to kill ourselves is very well illustrated by your article and the book on which its based.

Hari Mohan said...

Manpreet’s review article on “The Omnivore’s dilemma” is indeed an eye opener. An important trait which distinguishes man from an animal is his ability to think and act. Many a times we fail to apply any thought when it comes to choosing the food we eat. Like animals we tend to gorge every other food stuff which appeals to our eyes and tongue with out any consideration for its compatibility with our stomach. Now, I am very clear about the possible social, environmental, psychological and economic ramifications that will be triggered if our diet is centered on a single crop. Thank you Manpreet!

Sahida said...

It is true that our food habits are changing with lifestyle but the value of traditional food can not be diminished. It is worth reading Manpreet’s review on “The Omnivore’s dilemma” on the day of Ugadi. I totally agree with Manpreet that a balance should be maintained between traditional and processed food. When I go to a supermarket for buying grocery items your opinion will help me to choose the right product.