In his 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan asked the question, “Where does your food come from?” He wrote,
“Imagine if we had a food system that actually produced wholesome food. Imagine if it produced that food in a way that restored the land. Imagine if we could eat every meal knowing these few simple things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what it really cost. If that was the reality, then every meal would have the potential to be a perfect meal.”
In 2016, when Penguin published a tenth anniversary edition of his book, New Food Economy interviewed the celebrated author, asking him whether he thought his book had had an effect on the way food is produced and marketed, and how much had changed in the previous decade. His answer to both questions was “not much”. He did however concede that the market (in the US at least) for organic and local product has been growing strongly, and that the alternative food economy (as he called it) is gradually being co-opted by the main food economy. He told New Food Economy,
“One of the good things about having a handful of large companies dominate the food landscape is that monopolies can sometimes move quickly to change the system. When you persuade McDonald’s or Walmart or KFC to change what they do, you can rapidly drive a lot of change throughout the food system. Ultimately, I think many of the values that seem alternative now—cage-free eggs, for example—will be mainstream very soon. I think you’ll have major fast food chains switching to organic at some point as a marketing matter—and it’ll work, and others will follow suit.”
“This is how change comes to America, right? We tend to make progress by co-opting challenges, rather than by revolution and replacement. There is no question that you’ll see this alternative food economy gradually co-opted.”
This is certainly something that we have seen over the past few years: sustainability has gone mainstream in terms of both the environment and human and animal rights. However the biggest challenge is still to come: to get (wealthy) consumers to pay for it. As Michael Pollan told New Food Economy in 2016,
“Still, the alternatives we’re talking about will probably never be as cheap as conventional food, partly because those low prices didn’t reflect the true cost of product. We pay for conventional food in other ways: in public health, in damage to the environment, in taxpayer subsidies. As we reform the system, I think we’re going to see that the low cost was illusory. You can’t really produce food that cheaply, without charging the real cost to the environment or the public health.
That, I think, is the big challenge of the food movement: to democratize sustainably and ethically produced food.”
Describing his relationship with nature, there is one thing that Michael Pollan wrote in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that I particularly liked,
“The single greatest lesson (my) garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world. ”
I was thinking of this when I picked up a copy of Mr Pollan’s recently published How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics. This surprising new book describes the history of psychedelic drugs, such as LSD and psilocybin (from magic mushrooms), and looks at the new research being done around the effects of these drugs. Mr Pollan uses himself as a guinea pig, starting with some dried up magic mushrooms. Under their influence he rediscovers a connectivity with nature that he lost as a child. He writes,
“I stepped outside, feeling unsteady on my feet, legs a little rubbery. The garden was thumming with activity, dragonflies tracing complicated patterns in the air, the seed heads of plume poppies rattling like snakes as I brushed by, the phlox perfuming the air with its sweet, heavy scent, and the air so palpably dense it had to be forded. The word and sense of “poignance” flooded over me during the walk through the garden.”
For many city dwellers (and I count myself in that category), our main—and sometimes only—connection to nature is through the food that we eat. It is no surprise that we need to maintain that connection. But to do that we have to know where our food comes from, and that its production doesn’t inflict damage on the environment, or cruelty to animals or our fellow human beings. Food is not only our connection to our agricultural past, but also to our environmental future.
My favourite quote from How to Change Your Mind is from Huston Smith. Michael Pollan writes,
“Huston Smith, the scholar of religion, once described a spiritually “realized being” as simply a person with “an acute sense of the astonishing mystery of everything.”
The author argues that when we treat nature and the environment as an object to be studied—and mastered—we are losing sight of the fact that we are in, and connected to, nature. We have no choice in the matter: everything we do that alters nature alters us in turn.
In his book Michael Pollard interviews Paul Stamets, a world expert on mushrooms and advocate of medicinal fungi.
“Mushrooms have taught me the interconnectedness of all life-forms and the molecular matrix that we share…. I no longer feel that I am in this envelope of a human life called Paul Stamets. I am part of the stream of molecules that are flowing through nature. I am given a voice, given consciousness for a time, but I feel that I am part of this continuum of stardust into which I am born and to which I will return at the end of this life.”
Whether or not you need psychedelic drugs to feel this connectivity is another matter—and perhaps the subject of another blog.
All images from Pixabay under creative commons