Formerly Known as Food

The Price of Domestication

We were dogsitting this past week, and, whenever it came time to feed the critters, I would find myself philosophizing about the price of domestication: in exchange for a steady food supply, wolves/dogs gave up their freedoms. On the plus side, they wouldn't starve. On the minus side, every day they must eat the same bowl of kibbles. The kibbles have been pumped up with pleasing synthetic flavors and a smidge of actual meat by-product, but it's still a little bowl of kibbles, twice a day, day in and day out, getting more and more stale the longer the bag sits out.


It's a dog's life.

But I was also reading Kristin Lawless' Formerly Known as FoodHow the Industrial Food System is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture and discovering some uncomfortable parallels.


Like dogs being domesticated, we've made a deal of questionable benefits. In exchange for convenient, always-available food, we've handed over our ability to choose what we eat. Yes, some of us can afford to be choosier in our groceries, but it's gotten harder and harder to avoid that darned bowl of kibbles. The corn, soy, canola, synthetic flavors, emulsifiers, sweeteners, preservatives, pesticide residues, packaging plastics, oxidized fats, antibiotics, and so on, are everywhere. Buy organic all you like. You cannot escape.

Some days it's all too much, and you just want to stay in bed.

Some days it's all too much, and you just want to stay in bed.

The book makes for some grim reading. There are the usual alarming facts about rising obesity, metabolic syndrome, and allergies, which we've almost become inured to, but what was newer to me was the discussion of cumulative effects of pesticide and chemical build-ups in fields, foods, and oceans, as well as permanent changes to our microbiota caused by diet-induced extinction. Did you know that DDT, banned way back in 1979, is still found in the umbilical cord blood of newborn infants? Discouraging, to say the least. Or that TBT, an organic pollutant used in paints and coatings for boats back in the 1960s (and since banned), has nevertheless so leached into our waters and been biomagnified up the food chain, that we're eating it today. So what, you say? Well, TBT is an "obesogen," causing animals in studies to "have more and bigger fat cells...They're eating normal food, and they're getting fatter." As an added bonus, TBT-induced weight gain can be passed down generationally.

Fine, fine, you concede. There's nothing to be done about the DDT, but I just won't eat seafood. Oh, but TBT is just one kind of "organotin" we are exposed to. There are others,

used in the linings and sealings of food cans, in polyvinylchloride (PVC) plastics, as fungicides and pesticides on crops, as slimicides in industrial water systems, and as wood preservatives. Like many other classes of chemicals, organotins were wrongly deemed environmentally safe for many years -- and they appear to be everywhere in our environment.

And remember the BPA fuss? Because it messed with our hormones, public uproar got it removed from baby bottles and water bottles and such. Sad to say, the plastic compounds used as replacements still have endocrine-disrupting characteristics. Plastic in food and drink packaging is unavoidable nowadays. Buy organic all you like, and 90% of the time, it's still being delivered to you in plastic. 

Lawless makes a very compelling argument for breastfeeding but recognizes that women who have to work outside the home and who don't have the most understanding schedules or workplaces for pumping breast milk face impossible situations. In fact, Lawless points out relentlessly how economic and social class constrain food choice, from gestation onward. Some of us can't simply "choose" to breastfeed and buy organic and home-cook our meals:

When food movement leaders say the solutions are to eat whole foods and buy organic, they leave out the crucial fact that we need to collectively reject the production of poor-quality processed foods and stop the production of dangerous pesticides and other environmental chemicals that contaminate many foods. Critics do not often articulate this omission, but it is largely why the movement is perceived as elitist, and rightly so. If the food movement's solutions are market based and predicated on spending more for safer and healthier food, they ignore how impossible these solutions are for most Americans...The food movement has allowed these [crappy, processed] products and additives to exist alongside a cleaner and safer food supply for the privileged few.
Food movement leaders also emphasize the importance of home cooking and cooking whole foods from scratch. Yet many fail to mention that the majority of Americans do not have the time, money, or resources to cook meals from whole foods at home. And when these leaders do acknowledge that lack of time to cook is a problem, they usually address it through providing better ways to cook healthy foods quickly.

I plead guilty to all of these charges.

What solutions does Lawless suggest, if you haven't already succumbed to despair? I admit, I was paralyzed by her solutions. She called for some fairly reasonable measures, like longer paid leave for new moms and household-skills classes for all, but then ventured into suggestions that made my eyes widen: universal basic income, paying people to cook at home, shorter work weeks, and so on. I just didn't see where all the money would come from. Yes, I agree our health as a society would improve, but it's hard to fund programs based on "we'll save money later, years down the road."

I liked better her mentions of urban farming programs on unused land, which has been done successfully in places like Milwaukee and Detroit, although the thought of sending inexperienced college kids out to run them made me think of Chairman Mao sending out all the academics to do the national farming and finding that--whoa!--they didn't actually know how, and now everyone's gonna starve! I guess if this FoodCorps hired the kids who'd done 4-H and had a little experience, but that's a dwindling pool nowadays.

In any case, I highly recommend the book as an eye-opener. And, if you've got the time and money, invite someone over for a home-cooked meal of whole foods, cooked and served on glass and metal.