5 Myths That Might be Influencing Your Perception of the Food System
When thinking about the future of agriculture, one fundamental question you might ask yourself is simply “what should we eat?”.
There is so much privilege inherent in this question. The fact that we have our choice among a multitude of options is something that should not be taken for granted.
Modern agriculture has afforded most of us in the developed world year-round options of tasty and nutrient-rich food to be purchased and consumed at our convenience.
This same system that affords us this privilege is often under scrutiny. Documentaries, articles, books, and blogs are published attacking industrialized agriculture.
Don’t get me wrong, the system is far from perfect.
But what is often lost in these narratives is the mind-boggling feat these systems are designed to accomplish: maintaining a constant supply of desirable and safe food conveniently available at affordable prices to a rapidly expanding population.
It wasn’t until I read this article by Dr. Rachel Laudan that I realized that some criticisms of modern agriculture are based on the idea of a past that never actually existed.
Separating fact from fiction is very important for having productive conversations about the future of agriculture. Among many enlightening points that Dr. Laudan makes on the podcast, I jotted down five of the myths that she identified in her food history research.
Five Myths About Food History
“Native” Cuisines. In her book “The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage” Laudan traces back the origins of foods now considered “local” to Hawaii. She discovers that the staples of the island are actually cuisines that traveled with settlers from other other parts of the globe. She mentions other notable cuisines such as Italian pasta, Mexican cheese, British fish & chips, and American hamburgers that are not really native to the cultures they are now associated with. Laudan’s findings call into question what foods are actually native.
“All Food Used to be Cooked in the Home”. I’ll be first to admit that this was a myth I subscribed to before speaking with Rachel. I thought that at least prior to World War II, all families cooked and ate their meals in the home. Not so. There are several examples throughout history, according to Laudan, that homes did not even have kitchens and food was prepared elsewhere. Eating outside the home is not a new phenomenon.
“Fast Food is a Product of Industrialized Agriculture”. You can call it “fast food” or you can call it “street food”, but regardless it has been around for a very long time. The convenience of buying prepared food that can be eaten quickly has been a part of many cultures throughout history. “I understand that ‘processed’ is a word of disgust and disdain. We use that word for things we don’t like” says Laudan, “but that said, everything we eat has been processed.”
“Fresh” Food. Some seem to assert that if they just stick to eating fresh fruits and vegetables that they are somehow eating a cuisine more aligned with history. This is also a myth. Historically, SOME of these foods might have been available for very short periods of time. “I don’t think most people understand that in order to have FRESH food”, says Laudan, “that we’ve constructed some of the biggest and most expensive human constructions ever that go technically by the name of the cold chain”. This goes for both organic and conventional products.
“Our Food Never Used to be Engineered”. This is a big over-arching theme here. Since the beginning of agriculture, we have engineered our food in some way. Perhaps through genetics, growing practices, or processing the food after it has been harvested to improve storability, palatability, flavor, etc. “Almost everything we eat has been transformed from its natural state” says Laudan. This transformation has been taking place for thousands of years.
I have always been (and still am) empathetic to both the perspective of the need for industrialized agriculture to meet our extremely demanding needs, and the desire to build more localized food systems.
I have written before that I don’t think one should have to decide between GMO and organic , and I think the same is true in the case of industrialized agriculture and local food systems. They both can and should exist.
I have never believed that local food systems need to prove they can feed the world to be worthwhile. There is clear value in strong local food economies. At the same time, I do believe we have industrialized agriculture to thank for affording us the luxury of testing and exploring alternative food systems without needing to meet immediate caloric demands.
“Never in the history of humankind has there been such a range of safe, tasty, nutritious, enjoyable food available”, continues Laudan. “Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, Alexander the Great, you name any great person in history and they would have been bulled over to see that anybody more or less…in the middle class can eat better than kings and emperors in the past.”
Make no mistake, there are negative externalities to systems that provide so much abundance for so many people. But in the exploration of how to constantly improve the sustainability of agriculture, it’s also important to realize the efficacy of agriculture is better than ever.
We should look for ways to get better, but efforts to turn back the clock based myths to a past that never existed is not the way to go.