By Katarzyna Gajewska: Despite the high importance of food quality to human health and wellbeing, we have so little say in defining the conditions of food distribution and production. Mass-scale production results in food poor in nutriments and in need of preservatives. The use of sugar causes damages to physical health. The industrialization of agriculture destroys soil quality, which leads to low nutriment density in produce. Despite all these problems, industrial food still thrives and causes further damages to health and environment. Certainly current initiatives to develop food commons are a step forward to induce change. However, radical change of the food system necessitates the consideration of individual choices and promotion of new (old) mentality around food. Demonstrating underlying culture and conditioning that keeps us in the current situation can help in developing this approach.
Slavoj Zizek once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. It seems that building an alternative food system is trapped in the same conundrum. However, we can help our imagination by juxtaposing the current organization with the way ancestral tribes and populations have organized their food provision. In the 1930s, it was still possible to examine the traditions and social organization around food. Weston Price, a dentist who decided to study nutrition of isolated indigenous populations, conducted case studies in several continents to demonstrate the impact of food on dental health. He published the results in a book, now open access. On this occasion, he also described some of their customs regarding food provision. The general conclusion of his work is that the industrial food causes caries, underdeveloped dental arches, and insufficient nutriment supply. Another finding of this comparative study is that each population indifferent of the geographical circumstances had the adequate knowledge and motivation to find body-regenerating nutriments within the natural resources of their geographical area. Weston Price observed that our ancestors would make a lot of effort to enable their bodies to re-build rather than only to supply energy. This freed them from the necessity to depend on dentistry to the same extent as modern populations.
Weston Price’s findings about isolated communities’ organization of food provision are anecdotal but give an idea about indigenous culture and social structure surrounding food provision. The anecdotes demonstrate that the tribes and isolated communities under study conceived food provision as a communal affair. For example, isolated villages in the Swiss Alps had a communal bread oven to prepare monthly supply for the family. Also the livestock was grass-fed on the communal land. Furthermore, inhabitants’ diets based on awareness of food’s nutritional value. He cites many examples of in-depth knowledge of remedies and food of high nutritional value among the members of isolated communities. This knowledge seemed to be common and applied in daily life rather than limited to the experts. In Swiss example, the special properties of dairy products made from milking in June were known by the community. Furthermore, some groups had distinct rules regarding nutrition for young people to be married and become parents, pregnant women, and new-born babies. In some Masai communities, marriages were scheduled for the period when girls could use milk from cows fed by rapidly growing young grass (known for its high nutritive value). In Pacific Islands, women informed the chief about their pregnancy so that he could appoint one or two young men to take care of daily delivery of nutriment-dense food to expectant mothers. Ancestral communities recognized that they cannot afford to leave nutritional choices to the individuals because the consequences affected the entire community. We can extrapolate three elements of food provision from this anecdotal knowledge of ancestral populations, which may be implemented as part of crating food commons:
- In-depth knowledge implemented in everyday diets and preventive approach to health.
- Commonized resources to assure food provision and reliance on local resources.
- Collective responsibility for providing the adequate nutrition to maintain good health of the members with special focus on parents and children.
Unhealthy choices in the cultural context
The choice in regard to food is twofold: 1) Low quality and fast to prepare food is widely available and 2) imaginary selection of remedies in case one suffers from nutrition-induced diseases. We are tempted by the easy supply of many food choices. This distracts from the decision to engage in improving its quality.
The choice is very limited and illusory. As consumers, we are limited to choosing between “strawberry or chocolate cake,” an example cited by Slavoj Zizek as an illusion of freedom given by the capitalist system. Despite the limitedness of this choice, we are so attached to it. There is so little freedom in the organization of life under capitalism that following one’s easy to satisfy whims, not necessarily a healthy choice, seems like the only possible expression of one’s freedom that can be executed in daily life. Contrary to the ancestral communities, food has become an individual choice, a result of mood, need for distraction, fashion, dietary theories, or ideologies. One would rather buy products (passive consumer attitude) rather than make a real effort to boost the production of nutriment-dense food (active prosumer attitude).
The system of industrial low-nutriment food thrives thanks to the conditioning into immediate gratification. According to Simon Sinek, the younger generation is particularly affected by the habit of constant gratification because of the access to ongoing stimulation through the social media. Our physiological constitution makes it also difficult to pursue the right choices. Roy Baumeister’s study shows that humans have a limited reservoir of will and self-discipline. Being on a diet and resisting the temptations of easy to get junk food requires using up a lot of self-discipline. Since much of this reservoir is spent at work, it is difficult to keep healthy habits.
Individualized and atomized consumer choice, even if motivated by an ideology, does not question the entire system. Vegan movement can exemplify this point. Vegan option fits very well into the logic of capitalism. Observing the conditions in the production of animal products, one can hardly see any other choice than turning to a vegan diet. However, avoiding animal products does not require much effort. The market has identified an opportunity to supply meat-replacing products. Changing the supply side would mean so much effort that it is simpler to switch to vegan diet. Certainly transforming vegetables and beans means some effort and planning ahead. However, all these products are liberally available and there is no need to leave one’s consumer routine, so the choices that are defined as being oppositional may be shaped by the supply of the market. It is an interesting exercise to review one’s personal convictions with the lens of their conformity to what the market offers. An ex-vegan political activist, Tasha, points to the contradictions of the vegan diet. Although vegans would consider that they protect the planet, they do not consider the consequences of producing and transporting such industrial products as soy milk, tofu, nuts.
Nutritional deficiencies affect mood and vitality. This may result in resignation and submitting to the status quo. Also many addictive substances such as sugar used in industrial food make changing diet difficult. In this way the industrial food perpetuates itself and generates its own ideological buttressing by silencing indignation and potential opposition.