A Study in (Agri)Culture: How Our Contemporary Food Culture Blinds Us to Our Exploitation of Nature

Before We Begin:

I began this project with the intention of examining society’s tendency to pit people, culture, and modern civilization against nature, animals, and the environment. I had hoped to tie this phenomenon to food—in terms of how it is produced, consumed, regulated, and understood in America—and contemplate how our relationship to what we eat often reflects this constructed opposition. I soon realized, however, that such a topic, so broadly entrenched as it is in our lives (even when we narrow our focus to food), is far too expansive for a single ten-page paper. So instead I’ve decided to narrow my focus even more and look specifically at food culture. Specifically, I’m interested in how so many of our traditions involving food are based on our exploitation of nature and how these practices and beliefs simultaneously blind us to the existence of this humans vs. nature opposition.

Contemplating Culture:

Culture, or the system of beliefs, practices, and ways of life of a particular group of people, is part of us from the moment we are born. It helps us to bring meaning to the world around us, allows us to connect with others, and aids us in understanding ourselves as individuals. In every society, food is a prominent cultural entity, strongly linked to religion, celebration, comfort, and tradition. Over time food culture in all societies has changed dramatically, particularly in recent decades as our world becomes increasingly globalized, westernized, and industrialized. In societies of the past when subsistence agriculture was the norm, food was at the forefront of nearly all aspects of culture—employment, temporality, religion, morality, honor. Chinua Achebe illustrates this reality in Things Fall Apart where we see the people of Umuofia living both off and with the land. Without the specialization and technology of present day, food production was constrained by the seasons and weather, its consumption dependent on personal labor, and its value a reflection of the people that produce and consume it: “When a man is at peace with his gods and his ancestors, his harvest will be good or bad according to the strength of his arm” (Achebe 17).

But in modern America, most individuals are severely cut off from the production of their food. Modernity has promised us domination over nature and it has kept its word. Today, we are urbanized and capitalist, we have the opportunity for both physical and social mobility, and the technology we possess is ever increasing (Singer 21). Most of us no longer have to participate in the cultivation of what we eat and our meals are no longer restricted by what can be grown locally or even naturally. Consequently, our cultural practices concerning food have shifted away from something symbiotic to something exploitive. Instead of honoring the earth for providing a successful harvest with an annual feast, today we feast on a regular basis, sometimes with no better cause than a football game (Achebe). Instead of dining on crops we nurtured ourselves, we rip open bags of Doritos, devour boxes of mac-n-cheese, and consume two or three hotdogs in one sitting. Yet, in many ways we are unaware of the significance of this shift and the disconnectedness it represents. Instead, we consider our relationship with food to be normal, a natural part of our contemporary culture. And so we never question the fact that we don’t know where our food comes from or how it gets to us. We consider the bounty of our grocery stores—the endless supply of cereals and soda, the constant availability of tropical fruit, and the range of meat so plentiful that we can have it on our table at least twice a day—to simply be part of who we are, a marker of our American way of life.

Such a perspective and easy acceptance of this “culture,” however, may be keeping us from seeing the truth. Most of us are blissfully ignorant of the fact that our current food system is destroying the environment, ruining our health, and cruelly torturing billions of animals each year. Evidence of the sinister nature of the food industry is everywhere, we encounter it at every single meal, but most of us never take the time to consider what the cows had to go through before they were turned into our burger or what exactly all those chemicals listed on our fruit snacks package mean. Our modern relationship with food has become naturalized as cultural, and so our curiosity is checked, leaving us to continue on as eager participants in a system that is causing serious harm to our species and our planet.

Speaking from Experience:

I was born and raised in a rural farming community in Central Oregon. Until I was ten years old I lived on a small ranch in “the country” about 10 miles outside of town. We had a six-acre pasture for our horses and alpacas. Our neighbors were farmers who grew wheat, carrots, and mint in their expansive fields. The tick of irrigation sprinklers and buzz of crop dusters were the soundtrack to my childhood. While my brother and I never participated in 4-H, many of our friends did—raising farm animals to show and sell at the annual county fair. Future Farmers of America was the biggest club at my high school and several of my peers’ senior pictures featured them holding up an elk they had successfully hunted.

We were surrounded by food production and it was all so incredibly unremarkable. Sure, we were proud of our farmer–cowboy culture, but we didn’t kid ourselves into believing it was anything particularly special or peculiar.

I maintained this perspective even after I began college. While I started to realize how disconnected my friends who grew up in cities and suburbs were from farming culture, I still didn’t give the culture itself much thought. And then I went to Thailand for a semester abroad and for the first time in my life, studied agriculture. We learned that Thailand is among the world’s heaviest users of pesticides, met with both organic and non-organic farmers, and spent a day working at one of the few “green” markets in the northeast with our host families. We also did some serious reading and in our large reading packet there was a section titled “US & International Context.” The information conveyed in this group of articles, papers, and reports completely shifted my views on food production and consequently, my understanding of my home.

It was then that I first learned about how corrupt the American food system is, the hugely negative impact that our current system has on the environment, and just how much American agricultural practice affects the rest of the world. I was shocked—How could this be the first time I was hearing this? Why had I never wondered about those chemicals being sprayed in the fields or how having such an elaborate irrigation system in the desert might disrupt the local ecosystem and wildlife? Why had I never considered the fate of the cows I drove past every day or the salmon in the hatchery we’d occasionally visit? I grew up literally surrounded by crops with a slaughterhouse down the road. But not once did I ever truly consider these things or their political, economic, and environmental implications. Why?

An Introduction:

In addition to Michael Pollan’s 2008 New York Times article, “Farmer in Chief,” the piece that stuck out to me the most from my Thailand agriculture readings was titled “Paying the Farm Bill.” This article, published by the Environmental Law Institute in their journal, The Environmental Forum, details the costs (both tangible and hidden) of the American agricultural industry. Like Pollan, the article’s author, William Eubanks, subscribes to the idea that educating the public is the most effective way to change the current food system. He even quotes Rachel Carson’s declaration in her 1962 book, Silent Spring: “The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts” (Eubanks 56). It is with this attitude that he approaches his article and reveals to his readers the treachery that is the Farm Bill:

“It is a law that affects all aspects of the ecosystem and the lives of the people who inhabit it and depend on it. In addition this legislation drives public health policy in the United States and is a predominant reason that our nation suffers from record levels of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and asthma. This statute also implements policies that result in severe malnutrition and hunger, both domestically and abroad. The law strips rural communities of their senses of identity, cultural values, and heritage. Lastly, this measure encourages overproduction, trade distortion, and depression of world market prices, which drive immigration toward the United States from the developing world. Most people will be surprised to learn that the statute is the Farm Bill” (Eubanks 56).

His approach was certainly effective in catching my attention. I care deeply about each and every issue he addresses and he’s right, I was surprised to learn that something called the Farm Bill was responsible for such far-flung atrocity. He goes on in his piece to explain the logistics of the Farm Bill—how it was originally designed to help small farmers after the Great Depression but was eventually manipulated (mostly at the hands of Earl Butz) into assisting corporate megafarms dominate the industry—as well as its specific impact on the environment, climate change, and public health (Eubanks). He even ultimately offers a solution: rewrite the Farm Bill and subsidize sustainable agriculture (Eubanks).

While I appreciate this article for introducing me to these issues and convincing me that they are something I not only should, but must, care about, I also recognize how much Eubanks leaves out of his argument. Julie Guthman, in her article “If They Only Knew,” criticizes Michael Pollan for his education-leads-to-change mentality and tendency to place responsibility on individuals rather than corporations and policymakers: “Those who employ this rhetoric will argue that such an unveiling of the American food supply would necessarily trigger desire for local, organic food, and people would be willing to pay for it” (Guthman 263). She acknowledges the reality that simply informing the public does not guarantee their participation in an alternative food movement they do not feel socially or culturally connected to and points out that “voting with your dollars” (an approach also encouraged by award winning documentary, “Food Inc.”) is not a luxury that all Americans can claim (Food Inc.). Similar criticisms can be applied to Eubanks’ perspective—it is overly simplistic and disregards the diverse spectrum of positionality found among Americans. Beyond this though, I am also unsatisfied with his explanations for why so few of us have heard about these issues.

Throughout his article Eubanks offers a few reasons for why so many of us are uninformed, including “[The Farm Bill’s] deceptive name prevents the public from recognizing its true costs” and “American taxpayers are disconnected from the programs supported by federal taxes” (Eubanks 56, 60). But personally, I think there are many more serious forces at play here working to keep us in the dark. For one, reports like his are out there and easily accessible. People like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser are working hard to provide the public with well-researched information about the true nature of our food industry. But this doesn’t change the fact that if I hadn’t been assigned to read their work for a class, I likely never would have encountered it. The truth is, the questions they answer just weren’t questions I had been asking. In communities like mine, agriculture represents our history, our livelihoods, and our way of life—what was there to question?

Discourse, Stories, and Ethnocentrism:

In his book, Eating Animals, Jonathan Foer proposes an explanation. He claims that our relationship to food is largely governed by stories—narratives that we hear from childhood on about what we, as a family, society, species, do and do not eat and why we do or do not eat those things. And these stories, he notes, are something we “cling” to, something we “depend on to define us” (Foer 5). How we understand our relationship to food, it seems, reflects how we understand ourselves. No one wants to think of themselves as hurting the environment or torturing animals so we keep these realities at a distance and out of our thoughts because to acknowledge them would mean acknowledging ourselves and our culture as cruel and irresponsible.

Foer too had a moment of “how-in-the-world-could-I-have-never-thought-of-that-before-and-why-on-earth-didn’t-someone-tell-me?” (though at a significantly younger age than my own) when a teenage babysitter explained to him how the chicken he was eating had been “hurt” (Foer 6). But while this information convinced him to become a vegetarian, it did not convince his brother, and Foer admits that he himself went back and forth in his eating habits for years. Clearly, it isn’t as simple as just hearing the truth. As Foer notes in his final chapter, when it comes to food there is a paradox, particularly when we consider how it fits into cultural traditions like Thanksgiving: “what we do to living turkeys is just about as bad as anything humans have ever done to any animal in the history of the world. Yet what we do with their dead bodies can feel so powerfully good and right” (Foer 249). For most of us, these feelings of goodness and rightness are far more powerful than the other side of the paradox and succumbing to them—choosing to forget rather than to remember, as Foer would say—is far easier as well.

In many ways, the stories that we tell ourselves about food can be considered an example of what Michel Foucault would call “dominant discourse.” As Sarah Mills explains, discourse is the set of structured and regulated utterances that circulate socially constructed “truths” that often prevent us from conceiving of alternative realities as even possible (Mills). Perhaps this is why so few of us seriously contemplate our food or why even when confronted with the ugly truth, we are unwilling to accept it. The dominant discourse declares American food culture to be normal and natural, and so it is almost impossible for us to understand it in any other way, even when we are exposed to facts to the contrary.

Perhaps, though, this lack of curiosity about our own way of life is to some extent an inclination of human nature. Anthropologists often note the tendency of people to view the world ethnocentrically—“the view that one’s own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it” (Sumner). Ethnocentrism is something that must be intentionally avoided in anthropology because it prevents us from understanding and learning from others (a task that is better achieved from a relativistic perspective). In the context of food culture, however, I now recognize another major problem with the ethnocentric perspective: it also prevents us from understanding ourselves. Most of us, it seems are more than willing to judge the practices and beliefs of others but rarely judge our own practices and beliefs. As a result, we may never contemplate the negative impact of our own cultural practices, allowing something like our current food industry to develop largely unconsidered and unopposed.

Considering Crawdads and Childhood Nostalgia:

David Foster Wallace’s Gourmet Magazine article, “Consider the Lobster,” provides us with a useful example of a cultural practice that goes on un-contemplated by the average participant—the Maine Lobster Festival. In his piece, Wallace describes a celebration that attracts people from all over, gathering to communally consume “over 25,000 pounds of fresh-caught Maine lobster” (Wallace 50). He then goes on to prove to us just how little these festival patrons are engaging with what they are doing by truly “considering” the lobster—how and why it is prepared and consumed and posing questions that are both “complex” and “uncomfortable”: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” (Wallace 60, 61). While Wallace ultimately claims not to judge those who participate in the Maine Lobster Festival, he does offers them (and all his readers) the chance to engage more thoroughly with what they are eating and sets an example of what food and culture awareness can look like.

In reading this, I immediately saw myself in the festival attendees. Several years ago my town hosted its first annual crawdad festival. It took place (and has ever since) in the park in the middle of the town. The day begins with a parade, followed by hours of performances by local musicians on the main stage. Local craft vendors set up tents to sell their creations, there are kids games throughout the day, and under a large canopy at one end of the park sit a dozen boiling pots full of crustaceans. A huge line forms throughout the day as people from around the state come down for the crawdad feed.

I have been to at least three of these festivals in recent years and while I didn’t consume many crawdads myself, I also didn’t consider the celebration of their consumption to be anything more than what it seemed—a fun day of community festivities. I had grown up with similar festivals all my life and the parade, live music, and local vendors made me feel both connected to my neighbors and nostalgic for the days when I was one of the children running around the park. The impact of childhood experiences, I’d venter to say, is for most of us, extremely powerful. Childhood is the time when we are most impressionable and are first introduced to Foer’s stories and Foucault’s discourse. It is also in most cases a fairly happy time, something that, when we are grown, we look back on fondly. This is a tendency that food advertisers have long taken advantage of. As Eric Schlosser notes in Fast Food Nation, “Hoping that nostalgic childhood memoires of a brand will lead to a lifetime of purchases, companies now plan ‘cradle-to-grave’ advertising strategies” (Schlosser 43). And as unintentional as it may be, the same logic applies when we consider how our parents, community, and nation fed us as kids. We become attached to a certain kind of food culture before we can be expected to criticize it and when we do reach an age at which we could reasonably engage with this culture, our attachment prevents us from doing so. So when we attend something like a crawdad or lobster festival and are reminded of happy-go-lucky days gone by, we fail to contemplate what our participation in festivals like this actually means.

Seeking Solutions:

When it comes to shifting our food culture away from destruction and towards mindfulness, it’s clear we have much to overcome. We are up against a whole host of political, economic, and social structures that reinforce the current culture and surmounting them means confronting the practices we perceive as natural and normal. Yet, doing so is clearly not impossible. There are those that have successfully torn down the veil that prevents us from seeing the negative consequences of our current food system. Jonathan Foer, Julie Guthman, and David Foster Wallace are among them. But there are also individuals like Ron Finley and the people of Farm Sanctuary who are working to promote a new food culture that respects the environment, other living things, and ultimately, our own species. Farm Sanctuary actively works to “inspire change in the way society views and treats farm animals, and promote compassionate vegan living” by rescuing abused farm animals and inviting the public to learn about their individual stories and establish personal connections (Farm Sanctuary). Finley, on the other hand, has reimagined vacant lots and parkways in Los Angeles as critical spaces for “food forests” and given the African American community agency in the alternative food movement by reframing gardening as both “gangster” and an important form of political protest (Finley).

While it is important to recognize that there many structural forces (socioeconomic and otherwise) that limit the ability to mount such counterculture efforts to individuals with some level of privilege—thinking and acting outside the dominant discourse and accepted culture requires this—the efforts that do exist can give us hope. Being exposed to the perspectives and knowledge expressed by these changemakers has altered how I personally relate to food and the kind of food culture I’m willing to participate in. Perhaps such exposure will do this for others as well. And if enough of us dedicate ourselves to cultural change, perhaps we’ll someday secure a food culture we can be proud of.

 

Sources:

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1959. Print.

Eubanks, William. “Paying the Farm Bill.” The Environmental Forum. July/Aug 2010: 56-75. Print.

farmsanctuary.org. Farm Sanctuary, Inc. 2016. Web. 3 May 2016.

Finley, Ron. “A Guerilla Gardener in South Central LA.” Online video clip. TED. TED Conferences LLC, Feb 2013. Web.

Foer, Jonathan. Eating Animals. New York: Black Bay Books, 2009. Print.

Food Inc. Robert Kenner. Participant Media, 2008. Film.

Guthman, Julie. “If They Only Knew.” 2008. PDF.

Mills, Sarah. Discourse. Routledge, London, 1997. Print.

Pollan, Michael. “Farmer in Chief.” The New York Times. 9 Oct 2008. Web.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. Boston: Mariner Books, 2002. Print.

Singer, Ben. Melodrama and Modernity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Press

Sumner, William. Folkways. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1906. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. “Consider the Lobster.” Gourmet Magazine. Aug 2004. Print.