Food. Glorious food. How I love it. I love toasted old grain bread generously covered in peanut butter with banana slices and a ‘lil bit o’honey drizzled over top. I love veggie burgers with cheese, lettuce, pickle and tomato, and I love love LOVE Montreal bakery bagels – do NOT ask me to choose a fav as I love Fairmount and St Viateur and St Lo with the même intensité. Yet, my relationship with food has been… convoluted. I’m no ‘foodie’ by any means, as I tend to see it as a way to not starve more than anything else, but I do like to enjoy not starving. I never really thought about it while I was growing up … you know, you have the same diet as your family for the most part, even if it includes lima beans. So, if they eat meat, you eat meat… even liver… even if it makes you want to vomit. I was actually so suburbanly naive; I didn’t know there were other diets available until I was in high school. It was only at the age of 15, working kitchen staff at a sleep-away summer camp, when I began to take control of what I was eating. A bit of an idealist back then, I became one of those “I don’t eat animals cuz they’re cute and I love them” vegetarians. Buuuuuut, I would eat spaghetti with meat sauce and spit out the meat whilst wearing leather kicks….
Now that I am so much older, and three years into my fourth attempt at some sort of vegetarian diet, I have realized there are many factors to consider when it comes to food. . . maybe too many factors. This past week’s research has been overwhelming, and somewhat paralyzing in terms of actually eating. And I dunno how far below the surface I’ve scratched. I knew some stuff, about pig farms and the methane seepage, inhumane treatment of animals, exploitation/etc of workers, and that almonds need a LOT of water. But now I know about how much conflicting info there is about GM foods, and I read about Asian workers basically being held captive on American fishing boats, who work 20 hours a day and are paid $6000 a year (compared to the $28k Americans make doing the same work). I read of a myriad of food fraud instances, such as how ground coffee has been cut with sawdust and ground acorns and roasted corn, how honey has been thinned with beet sugar and corn syrup and some antibiotic called chloramphenicol which is linked to fatal bone marrow disease, and of how a lot of what people are told is tuna is in fact some fish called escolar, or what is referred to as the ‘ex-lax fish’ because of the gastro havoc it causes and that said fish has been banned in China for the past 40 years due to its’ toxicity. I read that most of us have actually probably never tasted ‘real’ pure olive oil because the majority of what’s on the market has been mixed with soy or peanut oil; that baby food is cut with cement and chalk dust; that sugar has been laced with fertilizer; and, that, apparently, criminal organizations are targeting the food market, intercepting the supply chain and deliberately altering the food, to their monetary benefit of course.
Phew! As I write this, the least I can say is that it has left me hungry, as I dunno what to eat anymore. The advice frequently given by ‘experts’ is to buy at farmers markets, ask where the food came from and read the labels, looking for the ‘trusted’ logos and such. But with all the different issues, it feels as though I would need a cross referenced list of every thing I need to take into consideration, look for and ask. I don’t ask much of my food really, I just want to eat healthy and feel good, both physically and conscientiously. I don’t expect that my veggie burger is going to taste like the hamburgers I used to enjoy, but I do expect it to be made of what it says in the list of ingredients and that the company who made it treats their employees, and ingredients, with respect. I don’t want to be eating ‘blood cashews’ that drug addicts in Vietnam are being forced to shell, I don’t want to eat broccoli that has a massive carbon footprint because it was imported by plane or boat from thousands of miles away, and I don’t want to eat animals that have been confined to spaces so small they can’t stand up, lie down or turn around. I want to eat food that has been picked by workers who aren’t falling ill due to the sprayed herbicides and are getting fair wages, I want to eat food that isn’t going to give me cancer or otherwise make me sick, and I want to eat food that’s agriculturally sustainable. I also want to eat food that isn’t going to cause me to go into debt to purchase.
Truth is I’m a bit selfish, so giving up the life I have and moving to a farm and spending all day, every day, tending to food is not a viable option. I doubt I’m alone in wanting to shirk the responsibility of having to till the land, plant the seeds, water, weed, de-bug, harvest and only then getting to enjoy the fruits of the labour. Nor do we want to have to clear the land, build fences and stalls, get the animals, feed and otherwise take care of said animals, then slaughter ‘em when it’s time to bring home the bacon. Unlike other creatures, many of whom seem to exist to eat and procreate, and eat solely to exist and procreate, we humans want to do other things… like post pictures of our food on social media.
As eating 100% healthy, ethically and sustainably is pretty much impossible without buying the farm, the best advice I came across is to make food choices that align with one’s personal values, and to prioritize those. Because even though we may share some values, what’s important to one person is not going to be universal. Even amongst those who have similar diet preferences. For instance, I could be seen as a bit of a contradiction as I don’t eat any animal or dairy products except for eggs; I will kill those tiny flies n’skeeters that wander into my home or land on my body but can’t stand the thought of animals being killed; and I eat avocados on a regular basis, even though they may be associated with drug cartels and deforestation in Mexico, which I am against. Also, I live by the adage that anything is possible. For me, that includes the possibility that plants and trees could have as much consciousness as animals, albeit in a different way. I just figure if ‘experts’ got it wrong so many years ago regarding the world being flat, amongst other things, it’s possible the experts today don’t have the ability to detect the secret life of plants. En tout cas, I’ve realized that, like food activist and author Lierre Keith said: “There is nothing you can eat that doesn’t involve death. For something to live, something else has to die. Our only choices are the death that’s a part of life, or the death that’s killing the planet”. I choose life.
There might always be those who are more interested in making money than the health and safety of other beings or the planet. And the extent of what they will do to get that money could be pretty depraved. I have no doubt criminal organizations could be destroying the environment and playing with lives, just as I have no doubt that governments could be doing the same thing. Whether it’s through the lack of regulations, actively trying to find ingredients to put in foods that could help control the people or the population, or through the propaganda we’re force fed from an early age. Food is big money, in the USA alone $3trillion was spent on food in 2016. We are all consumers and we’re all affected by what goes on in the food industry to some extent. And if our food production isn’t sustainable, it won’t matter if one is vegetarian or not.
So now, I’ve adopted a traditionally Buddhist trait, which is to eat whatever is put before me, to a certain extent – I won’t eat lobster, or lima beans, or liver to name a few foods. (Buddhists are vegetarian but when monks wander with alms bowls, they eat whatever is put in them with much gratitude). It started last year at a dinner where there were no vegetarian options – everything had pork, chicken and beef in it. Exhausted, after working 5 straight 12-14 hour days with little food, my body did not object to the consumption of plates full of said pork, beef and chicken. And rather surprisingly, my mind did not object either. I believe all I could think about was how delicious it was and how grateful I was. My conscience wasn’t thrilled but I didn’t beat myself up over it. Since then, I’ve only been in a similar situation twice, anne frankly simply enjoyed the food.
In a world where there may or may not be any absolute truths, there are those who believe they know what is right and will try to convince others of their truths. I have no problem admitting I don’t know what the right thing is when it comes to food. I know what I like and after all this research feel like I know more about the food industry, but also can’t help but think how blissful ignorance is. For now, I have made a few changes, such as only buying eggs that come from free range chicken farms – they cost twice the price but they do taste better and it has alleviated much of the ethical dilemma I felt over eating them for the all-important B12 vitamin; I’m also reading labels differently, looking for places of origin and logos that are said to be associated with ensuring the product is what it says it is; and I’ve switched to free trade whole coffee beans. It’s a start and as Lao Tzu said: “the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”.
Little changes may not seem like much as we figure out how to balance our ethical, environmental and political concerns with our desire to be physically healthy in this crazy world, but it reminds me of the story of the hummingbird. In the story, there’s a forest fire from which all the animals had fled. As they sat by the edge of a stream, watching the fire rage, feeling helpless and sad, they noticed a hummingbird fly over the fire and let a single drop of water fall. Then they watched as it returned to the stream, dip its beak in the water and fly back over the fire to let another drop of water fall again. The scared animals watched the tiny hummingbird do this for hours, murmuring how small the creature was, commenting how useless it was, until finally the bear boomed, “Hummingbird! What do you think you are doing?” The hummingbird hovered above the water for a moment and replied “I’m doing what I can”.
* according to the FDA (Federal Department of Agriculture in the USA): a 16oz jar of peanut butter can legally contain up to 136 insect fragments and four rodent hairs.