This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
“I was always conflicted about being from the South” says Andrew Beck Grace at the beginning of Eating Alabama, a documentary about attempting to eat local which I watched while I was in Alabama. This particular line rankled some of my relatives, “Why would you be conflicted about being from the South” one said, mere hours after he had said “I can feel my IQ dropping” as we crossed the border between Florida and Alabama (something that doesn’t make sense on any level considering the state of Florida).
Indeed, I feel like I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time myself not to make such cracks about the places and people of the South, a habit I picked up not in the North, but while young in the South, which I spent over half my life so far. Missed in the controversy about Paula Deen, was that some of the off-color jokes she admits telling were about “rednecks”, a term that some people have applied to Deen herself and one that speaks to an ambivalence that isn’t always introspective.
And sometimes it is brilliantly so, such as Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, a story I find myself reading often. A story that despite being short, I would struggle to write about all the meaning in it without filing a novel. Part of O’Connor’s brilliance was that she could do that in so few words.
The children in the story express their disdain for their home place early on:
"Let's go through Georgia fast so we won't have to look at it much," John Wesley said.
"If I were a little boy," said the grandmother, "I wouldn't talk about my native state that way. Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills."
"Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground," John Wesley said, "and Georgia is a lousy state too."
"You said it," June Star said.
Interestingly, nearly all the food in the story is modern industrial food- white bread, canned apricots, Coca-Cola. To me these emphasize that the story takes place in that very Southern-between place, of embracing modernity in its commodity capitalism form existing side by side with a profound consciousness of the past, often with two few questions asked.
Paula Deen fantasized about an “old fashioned” plantation wedding, the grandmother in a Good Man is Hard to Find fantasizes about visiting a beautiful old “Gone with the wind” plantation, a fantasy that ultimately leads the family to their doom.
Some people have pointed out correctly that if we harangued everyone who told jokes like Deen’s, we’d have few people left. But the fact that she said those things didn’t cause her downfall, it was the fact that unsurprisingly it was part of a hostile and miserable culture in the workspaces she and her family ran.
Admittedly I had been critical of Deen for far longer than this recent incident, who not only represented the transmogrified processed food that has unfortunately come to dominate Southern tables, but actively promoted the corporations behind it. For example, she was a spokesperson for Smithfield, a now Chinese-owned pork factory-farming conglomerate. The fastest way to kill a small town is to put one of their hog farms there.
But there has been considerable backlash against the downfall of Deen, which also isn’t surprising to me. Regardless of anything, her food represents a type of opulence which is OK among the kind of people for whom “elitist” (or even worse “elitist Yankee”) is a slur. Regardless of their income, I have been told by many that a place like Whole Foods is for “those people.” And Paula’s food is for people like them. It represents ease, choice, modernity, comfort, and plenty.
The Southern food which is almost impossible to avoid these days at ritzy restaurants in big cities is the food that many people once had to eat when they had few choices. Food made from scratch, from local ingredients that were once widely available, is now largely for rich college-educated city folk both symbolically and in reality. And like it or not, regardless of my roots, I'm "those people" now, and there isn't really going back on that, though I'm not always sure it's a good thing. There are things I've experienced that are amazing, but there are things I'll never understand in the way I would have if I had "stayed home," but it was a choice made for me when I was 15.
And probably some of that backlash is right. It seems like crocodile tears for some of these companies that once sponsored her to care so much about the matter. But in the end, the structures that made her decided she was no longer useful and spit her out. It is in the end OK for corporations (Cracker Barrel survived far more egregious accusations for example) to espouse such ideas, but not for their cogs. This is a time when a corporation can be redeemed, but not a person. Smithfield probably ran the numbers and calculated it was no more profitable to continue to stand behind her than it is to allow sows to give birth to their piglets outside a farrowing crate so small it doesn’t allow them to even turn around.
In A Good Man is Hard to Find, a character called The Misfit consumes the family. I won’t quote the story directly and spoil the ending, but instead I’ll refer to Alex Link’s excellent essay (sadly behind a paywall):
In place of the sentimentalized, commodified estate, the story gives us a commodified South that comes to life to consume the family in its tum. It swallows the family with a "satisfied insuck of breath" ( 129) with the help of the Misfit, the embodiment of Lefebvre's residual "incommunicable." As both a terrifying figure out of the tabloids and a perfect southern gentleman out of nostalgic fantasies like Gone with the Wind, the Misfit embodies the Romantic gloss that interposes itself between subjects and the South, as well as the means of transcending that interposition.
And Paula Deen, despite her willing promotion of that system, was just as much a product of it as anyone else. I remember making her recipes in my college dorm cooking club. We had a miserable cramped dorm kitchen. They were easy and they tasted good (don’t let people tell you things like that don’t, maybe they don’t have any fancy complexity, but my mouth still waters reading about them sometimes). Sometimes at the end of the day, looking at the pile of dirty dishes in the sink, I miss the times when I ate that way.
Cooking has become seen as an empowering act allowing you to take charge of your health and the food system. I want to believe that too, but if I, a young person without any children, find it hard to fit into my life, I don’t have much hope for it at least if things stay they way they are. When I learned to cook from scratch I lived in Sweden, where I maybe went to class a few hours a day, and that’s if I was feeling studious. It’s just the realities of the American economy that part-time work is untenable for a large majority of people (try finding health insurance and having a part-time job) and a 9-5 job often creeps onto other hours, consuming your life with after hours and commutes. Plus it’s hard for me to decide to spend hours in the kitchen when it means sacrificing social and intellectual pursuits.
Also whatever she was, at least Deen was not of the watered down politically-correct version of Southern cooking that has haunted the "those people" media outlets like PBS. You know, like collard greens cooked with olive oil and soy sauce, because butter and ham hocks are soooo bad for you sort of thing.
In Eating Alabama, you can see how time-consuming and somewhat socially isolating their eat only local project is. They spend an inordinate amount of time seeking out wheat and processing it themselves rather than questioning whether or not it belongs in Alabama any more than the fire ants or kudzu do. The amount of time they spend on it (as well as soybeans) only would make it more affordable than just eating even a fairly expensive alternative if you were seriously underemployed and your time was worth nothing. Plus, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in heritage grains advanced by chefs like Sean Brock and entrepreneurs like Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills. Alabama has its own McEwen & Sons organic cornmeal and grits. I don’t know if I’m related to them, but I a can vouch for their quality.
Though I didn’t spend very long in Alabama this time, I thought the selection of local quality food available was pretty impressive, but you can’t look to move there and just find exact local equivalents to foods you already eat like the couple in Eating Alabama seemed to do. Given the climate and geography, if you want to eat local easily you’ll find yourself eating more seafood and less of things like dairy, which coming from the Midwest where it’s not easy to find things like good shrimp I was more than happy to do.
Local gulf shrimp boil, local pecans, a game cookbook my grandmother had, boiled peanuts
Of course it’s hard not to have the oil spill in the back of your mind, that put a bit of worry onto the region’s oceanic bounty, but is only one of the shadows on the food system there. The relentless sprawl that has already rendered my hometown unrecognizable from my memories. The weight of cotton on the soil, the pesticides used to grow it showing up in foods such as rice grown in the region. And sometimes it seems like like nature itself has it out for the place, ravaging New Orleans, one of the few places I’d say is really proud of its old foodways to the point where it has resisted change better than most.
But the televisions networks that made Deen a star are unlikely to feature this food or its cooks. The Food Network for one exists to sell things at scale. If you wanted to make Paula Deen’s recipes in the far North of Wisconsin, you could. There was nothing in them you couldn’t get at a big grocery store or Walmart. To contrast, I can’t make a good crawfish boil in Illinois. The crawfish available here aren’t even close to being the same. Same with Edna Lewis' incredible cookbooks.
Just like there was no reason for the networks to keep her on when she became a liability to what they wanted to promote, there is no reason for them to promote foods and people that aren’t any good at promoting those things in the first place.
Today I saw the headline: Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?
Which is appallingly stupid considering that quinoa is trendy among many segments of the health-conscious crowd. Like many articles of this genre, it also wants believe consumers have more power than they do. What would happen in Western health nuts stopped eating quinoa? Would this benefit the people there somehow? I guess it's more fun to blame trendy dieters than to face larger issues of water scarcity (and water pricing and allocation) and middlemen. It's the same faulty line of logic that many vegans use when talking about meat.
It is a bit amusing to consider how consumption of far away foods lets us turn a blind eye to their production (it's far), which is why I tend to advocate food systems that bring people closer to their food production- and its consequences.
The article also details failed attempts to grow quinoa elsewhere. Interestingly enough, I was researching yesterday traditional foods of the Midwest, and I'm not talking about Chicago Hot Dogs, but about what people were eating and growing here in the 1600s and before. Turns out the form of agriculture indigenous to this region utilized a relative of quinoa - Chenopodium berlandieri. As a cultivated crop, only remnants remain and from what I can gather, nothing of the kind grown for seeds the way quinoa is grown now. A leaf-heavy version is eaten in Mexico as a vegetable.
But echoes remain. All those lamb's quarters growing out of your patio are ghosts of The Eastern Agricultural Complex- possibly feral ancestors of domesticated crops, which explains some of their tenacity as weeds. I would think it would be possible to re-domesticate through selective breeding. It already makes a fine salad. Wild food enthusiast Euell Gibbons found the grains even of the modern weed somewhat easy to harvest:
“In rich soil,” he said, “lamb’s quarters will grow four or five feet high if not disturbed, becoming much branched. It bears a heavy crop of tiny seeds in panicles at the end of every branch. In early winter, when the panicles are dry, it is quite easy to gather these seeds in considerable quantity. Just hold a pail under the branches and strip them off. Rub the husks between the hands to separate the seed and chaff, then winnow out the trash. I have collected several quarts of seed in an hour, using this method.
“The seeds are quite fine, being smaller than mustard seeds, and a dull blackish-brown color....I find it pretty good food for humans.”
I think this also brings me to question certain studies that have tried to estimate the amount of wild grains foragers could have harvested- the ones we encounter now might be feralized crops, not true wild seeds or grains. That might also be why many are less toxic than truly wild seeds/grains. It's probably worth soaking and rinsing though since like quinoa, it may contain high levels of saponins.
Another former crop, Sumpweed, Jared Diamond says was abandoned because it was allergenic and smelled bad, but that didn't stop modern farmers from reshaping rapeseed, a crop that seems quite far from edible with its high levels of nasty erucic acid, into canola, which is now a novel and strangely unquestioned ubiquitous part of our food supply. Plenty of other foods that foragers and agriculturalists eat are toxic when harvested- that is often a feature, not a bug, as it keeps other competing pests away. Humans are smart enough to detoxify through soaking, rinsing, fermentation, and other technologies.
It's interesting how so many Americans look to afar for interesting foods while ignoring the ones in our backyards.
There is also a legend that quinoa is "cursed" which is why North American production has been so difficult, but I find it more logical to think that the Chenopodium that is Quinoa is adapted to a specific environment that we can't offer. There is also some evidence that ancient northern Europeans cultivated a type of Chenopodium as well, remnants of that perhaps are seen in England's Pigweed.
People keep sending me The Myth of Sustainable Meat by James McWilliams. If you've followed this blog long enough you'll know I've blogged about James before. I'm also a regular commenter on his articles on the Atlantic. I've been enough of a nuisance that I've gotten his attention and he's written about me too.
Apparently the New York Times has an issue finding qualified writers to write on this hot topic. This seem to mainly employ a cookbook author, Mark Bittman, on the subject. Here we have James McWilliams who is a historian. I must say though, that he's learned a lot since when I first started reading him. Back then he was just pretending to be an anti-locavore and hadn't come out with his main motivation, which is animal rights. He even admits that sustainable agriculture works best when using animal manure as a fertilizer. But the rest is still just a hashup of his normal shtick over and over again.
Grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows. Pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming. It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.
Brazil is its own special situation, a perfect storm of inept government and corporate thievery. I don't think any sustainable agriculture advocates are saying we should get our beef from there.
And then we have a straw man, that is the idea that we'd have to take up almost half the country to produce grass-fed meat. Not only does that use a static 10 acres per cow, which is not always true, but it just wouldn't happen. It's just not a danger that our country is going to be taken over by cows. Never mind land-use patterns, when we switch to a more expensive model of production, demand will drop.
The chickens are a red herring. He mentions them again, saying how Joel Salatin has to use grain to produce chicken. I've written before that this model is unsustainable. It's not possible to produce truly pastured American-style chicken. But what about cattle, goats, and other ruminants? The attack on chicken is a total misdirection.
"Sustainable" agriculture is not a monolith. There are a variety of philosophies and methods that are very different from each other. It's possible to find good and bad at every farmer's market.
Finally, there is no avoiding the fact that the nutrient cycle is interrupted every time a farmer steps in and slaughters a perfectly healthy manure-generating animal, something that is done before animals live a quarter of their natural lives. When consumers break the nutrient cycle to eat animals, nutrients leave the system of rotationally grazed plots of land (though of course this happens with plant-based systems as well). They land in sewer systems and septic tanks (in the form of human waste) and in landfills and rendering plants (in the form of animal carcasses).
This is nonsense. The point is that the goal is to have a net positive on the pasture when you are grazing animals. Of course it's possible to do it wrong, to end up with a poor nutrient cycle, but then you are doing it wrong. And the animals reproduce so they are replaced. Some of the crop they fertilize also fix nutrients themselves. Simon Fairlie's book has an excellent chapter about this and about sustainable use of carcasses. Needless to say, humans produce waste not matter what they eat. And since I, like most Americans, don't have a septic tank, I don't think I'm contaminating one.
I would say that there are some efforts to do no-kill agriculture with animals, notably pioneered by a rich Indian family that owns a chain called Otarian, but I read about it several years ago and I don't think it ever got off the ground.
It's overall just a silly article that I'm sure will generate a lot of page views and forwards from smug people.
Some people have occasionally asked me to comment on the Danish fat tax. I do have a background in economics, but I didn't comment at first because I don't live in Denmark and they won't let me live there even if I wanted to. Oh, and based on my time in Denmark, it seems like they are used to paying more for everything anyway and their consumption won't change much, except canola oil will be used in most commercial/institutional food, but that was already happening. Scandinavia taxes alcohol through the roof and makes it difficult to buy. When I studied abroad in Sweden I got an email from the UI Study Abroad office telling us that some American students in Italy were giving us a bad name by binge drinking. I laughed. There was no way I could out binge drink the Swedes. And alcohol there cost a pretty penny.
But I was naive. Of course people are going to look at the fat tax in Denmark and consider whether or not such a tax would have an effect here. Marion Nestle has a letter in New Scientist: "let us congratulate Denmark on what could be viewed as a revolutionary experiment. I can't wait to see the results."
Unfortunately it's not going to be a very enlightening experiment in regards to the fat tax because while the fat tax is getting a lot of press, it is part of a general tax reform program that is levying "sin taxes" on all sorts of things from sweets to tobacco.
I don't object to these taxes, sometimes portrayed as "sin taxes" or "pigouvian taxes", but I think they are usually quite disingenuous and do not do what they are supposed to do. As noted in Marion's letter, the powerful lobbies in Denmark (which have very little power compared to similar lobbies in the US) got their products exempted and it just so happens that these taxes encourage the consumption of canola, a crop that the government there has been promoting for years.
And it prevents us from talking about the fact that it's not sugar or fat per se that's the issue, it's foods that people overeat and those are almost all processed foods. And the government has put together an institutional and regulatory structure that is an effective (and sometimes outright) subsidy on processed foods. From school purchasing to regulations requiring expensive high-capital equipment and facilities in order to sell food to the public, the whole system is rigged. And here is where I'm quite unlibertarian (or at least traditionally)- most of these industrial farms and processing facilities are allowed to destroy things they don't even own. If you don't own a river, you shouldn't have any right to destroy it. The EPA has some regulations that sort of say you can only dump so much toxic crap into various bodies of water, but they are anemic and poorly enforced.
If you tax saturated fat, companies with large food-science departments aren't going to suffer. They are going to figure out how to get saturated fat low in their cookies while keeping other palatability markers high and people are going to continue to overeat them. Anyone ever try to eat the recommended serving size for Snackwells cookies or Skinny Cow popsicles? I certainly never could.
I usually despise the use of the word privilege, since it's often used as a way to tell certain people their opinions aren't valid, but I think it's very much true that the companies that make industrial processed food are operating from a position of privilege. The regulatory structure is made for (and often by) them, they control political discourse through lobbyists, and they have contracts with the government to provide food to our schoolchildren and military, our jobs and lifestyles are often based around the assumption we will rely on processed foods.
“They’ve drawn Michelle Obama into negotiations on improving the nutritional quality of processed foods,” he explained, “which is better than nothing, but her original, and to my mind, much more effective focus was simply on real food—fresh produce, cooking for your family etc. There is reason to doubt that ‘better for you’ processed foods will do us any good. Think about Snackwell’s—the same idea, during the low-fat campaign. It was ‘better for you’ yet we binged on better for you products and got fat on low-fat. The same thing could happen again.”
We can't fall into their trap, which is to reduce debate about food to "fat," "fructose," and other properties of food rather than to actually talk about the food itself. Food itself is more complicated and its constituents can act in unpredictable synergistic ways (like the economy).
I think we should recognize the immense privilege processed foods have in our society and acknowledge their negative impact, and consider how that can be dismantled, rather than taxing isolated properties of food. We should also end subsidies on processed foods, from agricultural subsidies to school food buying programs. I'm not hopeful about this being done on a national level myself though. I know it can be hard for people to let go of the idea that there is one right way to do something and we have to force everyone in the whole country to do it that way, but I think it would be better of more food policy issues were decided locally rather than federally.
I'm going to call the paleo diet portrayed in the media the PaleoStrawman diet. It contains only lean meat and non-starchy vegetables. The meat comes from factory farms. The latest place it has showed up on is NPR, where anthropologist Barbara King contends that it is not the way to a healthy future for the world. She says she has interacted with paleo dieters online and has read Paleo magazine, but it doesn't show at all.
I think there are only a few holdouts in the lean meat camp. The no-starch camp is in its death throes as we speak, embracing a doctor who believes anyone who eats carbohydrates has diabetes and drfiting further into denialism territory. There is not a single paleo book on the market that I can think of that advocates eating grain-fed meat. PaleoStrawman has gotten considerable criticism from within the ancestral health community.
But in the end, it doesn't matter, because even if the paleo diet involved chomping down on grain-fed steaks all day, it would have nothing to do with our ability to feed the world.
We all want to believe our diet has the power to change the world, but it does not. If every person in NYC chose to stop eating grain-fed meat today, it would not help people in Africa. When grain doesn't go to the feedlot, it doesn't get sent to Africa either. Farmers would chose to grow less grain or grow it for biofuels. We already produce enough food to feed the entire population of the world. What is hurting poor countries is political corruption and poor infrastructure. What poor countries need is good leaders and investment in infrastructure and education.
As for vegetarianism and factory farming, sadly, the worst offenders in factory farming are vegetarian products such as dairy and eggs. Vegetarianism is more efficient compared to grain-fed meat partially because the industrialization of eggs and dairy has made these industries very productive. However, they are the most cruel and environmentally destructive animal industries besides the industrial hog farm industry. Jonathan Safran Foer, certainly no paleo dieter, recommends in Eating Animals that if you care about animals, conventional eggs and dairy are the first foods you eliminate.
As for the anthropology, it makes little sense to worry about australopithecines being vegetarian, a hominid with significantly different morphology. Or to worry about the local context very much. Of course people ate diverse diets then. You can eat a diverse locally-based paleo diet now. And for those of us in the North, it makes absolute sense to eat meat rather than trucked-in grain products. Solutions for world hunger do not have to involve the same diet for everyone. Sustainable solutions will be local solutions.
Wisconsin 2022. Things have gotten bad since 2011. The economy recovered somewhat, employment didn't. Outsourcing, automation, productivity per person, and general economic stagnation have produced a dire economic situation, particularly among young people. The dream of productivity gains allowing people to work less has turned into a nightmare. It's more productive to have fewer employees than to let people work less. Few young people are getting married. Fertility is dropping. Resource prices, particularly for fossil fuels and synthetic fertilizer, just reached an all-time high.
What do things look like? I think in 2011 we are at a crossroads: how to could we deal with a potential "Lights in the tunnel" chronic structural unemployment situation? More and more, this looks like a future reality. A full-time job might not be available to everyone in the future. The job system might collapse.
What will we rely on then? I think this depends on the regulatory climate. I think a favorable realistic situation would be that more and more people become self-reliant for basic needs such as food. For income they rely on various odd jobs and gigs. I see many people moving towards this system right now, including me. Young people with part-time jobs have more time than money, so they are more likely to engage in things like urban homesteading. They cook more at home and care more about things like eating good food, spending time with their families, and exercising. They are likely to live longer than their wealthier hard-working Boomer parents.
Unfortunately, the government seems to want to ignore or quash this sort of thing. For example, a Wisconsin judge ruling in a raw milk case said: "Plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to produce and consume the foods of their choice." He later went to work for Monsanto. Many government authorities are part of this revolving door that keeps the government in tune with corporations.
I wonder what sort of system that philosophy leads to? I'm afraid Martin Ford describes it in Lights in the Tunnel. It's a government-based economy where corporations produce everything and in order to keep the consumer system from collapsing (unemployed people are terrible consumers), people are supported by government subsidies that are tied to government-approved incentives. Ford isn't sure what those incentives would be, but thinks they might involve paying people to be eco-friendly or something. Sounds like a dystopia to me.
We are at a crossroads here. The Occupy Wall Street movement is a perfect example. I share OWS's distaste for the fact our government has largely been captured by a small number of elites and corporations. But what are we going to do about it? I have a feeling the government will put social programs in place to distract people from the fact it hasn't changed, that it's still captured. And those social programs are often cleverly disguised corporate subsidies. Notice they never fix the systems that are broken, they just pour more money into them. Universities fail to provide student with real skills, so let's pour more money into them so they can be the new beer and circus for the lost generation. Dairy farms failing? Put in place price supports and regulations that reinforce the failed high-capital industrial systems.
And then we have to "protect" people from everything under the sun, which is a great excuse for all manner of injustices. I wouldn't be surprised if by 2022 you can't buy non-irridiated raw meat at the grocery store because the government has to "protect" people who might not cook it properly.
I looked at it and thought that this is why my creativity is crippled. I am afraid. I am afraid to invest in the things I love, because I know they can be unjustly taken away. I'd rather just not have them in the first place than have my heart broken.
I've eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge and it has poisoned me. I've read Mad Sheep, which is about a farm family that worked hard to bring a rare breed of sheep to the United States and build a business around them, before the government seized and killed them all based on seriously doubtful science. I've read about Joel Salatin's struggle to build a business in a world of regulations designed for giant corporate farms. I've seen footage of armed raids on small farms because people sold things that the government doesn't approve of. I've had friends investigated by Animal Control and Ag & Markets, because someone reported them. Their business suffers no matter if the accusation is correct or not, and the accuser faces no consequences. They can't even know who the accuser was. I've known farmers who lost land to eminent domain because the government decided they weren't important enough.
Why should I bother to work hard? Or to plant walnut trees on our farm in Wisconsin that won't bear nuts for twenty years? What if in twenty years everything has been taken away? It's no wonder young people are occupying wall street insteading of getting out there and building new and interesting things.
So yes, I'd like to see the end of crony capitalism, but let's be careful what we ask the Leviathan for.
At the conference, Dunkel talked about her frustration working in West Africa, where for decades European and American entomologists, through programs like U.S.A.I.D. and British Locust Control, have killed grasshoppers and locusts, which are complete proteins, in order to preserve the incomplete proteins in millet, wheat, barley, sorghum, and maize. Her field work in Mali focusses on the role of grasshoppers in the diets of children, who, for cultural reasons, do not eat chicken or eggs. Grasshoppers contain essential amino acids and serve as a crucial buffer against kwashiorkor, a protein deficiency that impedes physical and neurological development. In the village where Dunkel works, kwashiorkor is on the rise; in recent years, nearby fields have been planted with cotton, and pesticide use has intensified. Mothers now warn their children not to collect the grasshoppers, which they rightly fear may be contaminated.
Fail. If you rely on insects you can be perfectly healthy. Near the equator, insects are an important food source for foraging people. There are even several species that are very rich in important fats. I'd rather eat locusts than a grain like millet, which is responsible for goiter in many Africas.
For more info on stupid food aid mistakes, I highly suggest The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good by Wililam Easterly.
What about all the people that can't afford grass-fed meat? Can't afford to stay home from work to breast feed? Can't afford to purchase whole foods?
These are tough questions that sideline many discussions about improving quality of life. They are important, but don't detract from the fact that there are many poor people who do manage to do these things and also from the fact that there are plenty of people with plenty of money who chose to feed crap to themselves and to their children. What does it say about our culture that there are P.h.D.s making $200,000 a year who are eating at Subway? Often these are people that have seen Food Inc. and read books like The Primal Blueprint or Omnivore's Dilemma.
I guess I know LOTS of these people since I work in tech. The WSJ reports that rich techies in Silicon Valley want cheap food. I remember my ill-fated effort to improve food at a certain local tech conference, which fell flat when I suggested we have something besides pizza and bagels. "What's wrong with pizza and bagels?" said the sweaty sysadmin with a beer belly hanging out from beneath his Linux t-shirt. Don't these men realize they'd feel better and possible get a date if they ate better? Don't get me started on what a lot of professors eat.
It's not just techies and academics though, a new study found that most people were unwilling to pay more for healthy food at restaurants.
On the breastfeeding front there is a sleek new formula machine that's just like Nespresso! It's an upmarket item. While I know many women don't have very many choices due to poverty, I seriously doubt the women using this machine are those women.
America has spoken: healthy food is too expensive and involves too many sacrifices and we don't want it.
In his latest editorial, cookbook author turned food expert (I don't know how), Mark Bittman argues that our instinct to gorge on meat is what is causing people all over the world to eat too much meat.
Once, we had to combine hunting skills and luck to eat meat, which could supply then-rare nutrients in large quantities. This progressed — or at least moved on — to a stage where a family could raise an annual pig and maybe keep a cow and some chickens. Quite suddenly (this development is no more than 50 years old, even in America), we can drive to our nearest burger shop and scarf down a patty — or two! — at will.
Because evolution is a slow process, this revolutionary change has had zero impact on the primal urge that screams, “Listen, dummy, if you can find meat you’d better eat it, because who knows when you’ll eat it again!” At some point our bodies may adapt to consuming unlimited quantities of meat or — a better alternative — our minds will crave less. Right now, primal urge and modern availability form a deadly combo.
We’re crack addicts with a steady supply. Beyond instinct and availability, there’s a third factor: marketing. When you add “It’s what’s for dinner” to the equation, you have a powerful combination: biology, economics and propaganda all pushing us in the same direction.
So do hunter-gatherers gorge on as much meat as they can possibly get their hands on? No. The human body is actually not very inclined to gorge on meat, at least lean meat. I made an impulse comment that got highlighted:
The narrative that humans are evolved to crave large quantities of meat is a false one. Hunter-gatherers regularly discard game that is too low in fat. When the Mbuti foragers are surrounded by large amounts of game, but they have no starch, they will say they "have no food." Anthropologist John Speth has written extensively on the false myth of protein. Protein in large amount is stressful for the human body to digest, to the point where it's possible for hunter-gatherers to die of rabbit starvation when they have only lean game. Human evolution is a continuous struggle for starch and fat, not protein.
I forgot to mention the other factor I think is the major one in the human struggle- water, which is important because protein also increases water requirements (so much for the idea that humans evolved to run for miles and miles on the hot arid savanna in pursuit of some lean antelope). In John D. Speth's magnum opus on the subject, he discusses this and in the end argues that hunter-gatherers that hunt this way like some San do it for cultural reasons, not to procure needed nutrients. It's more about sex than food.
So why are people eating so much meat? It's interesting to think about what KIND of meat people are now eating so much of. I pulled up my beloved FAOSTAT, the friend to everyone who does agecon, and ran some data on food supply kcal per capita a day in the US:
Guess mutton and goat were never very popular. Total meat consumption has definitely increased, but it seems like it's mostly from the ultimate crap meat: chicken. I'm betting it isn't roast chicken with French herbs either. I'd love to get data on this, but I know that most of the dark meat is exported. If anyone thinks we are evolved to gorge on white chicken meat, I'd like you to try cooking some tonight with very little seasoning. I doubt you are going to have the desire to eat much of it. Fortunately, companies figured out that if you bread it and/or fry it, it's much better. I wonder what percentage of chicken consumed is breaded/fried? Either way, I don't think the meat part here has much to do with evolution. The desire for fat and carbs is what makes us gorge on fried chicken.
China is interesting too:
Seems like pork is the major engine of meat consumption there. At least they have taste. I could definitely gorge on pork. Unfortunately, much of it is probably factory farmed.
These graphs are in calories, so it's quite amazing how poultry is above fat/pigmeat for the US considering that the latter is so much more calorically dense.
Let me know if you find anything else interesting in FAOSTAT!
So you've heard eating animals is bad for the environment. The scientific and economic reality is that sustainable food is more complex than cutting out animal products- some animal foods are good for the environment and sustainable to produce. An extensive academic treatment of what this means.