Friday, April 1, 2011


            If it’s true that we are what we eat—and I believe it is—we are in BIG trouble.

            This topic came to mind as I chatted with the mother of a pair of young girls playing on the beach during the “Not-So-Super Moon” in March (see the “Let There Be Light” post of March 20th). I remarked how sweet-natured the elder daughter, a tall and shapely young woman, must be to play with her eight-year-old sister. “Hmmph,” the mom snorted. “She may look 16, but she’s only 11.”

A good read

            Oh, dear.

            Because my somewhat eclectic regular reading list includes various Frankenfoods alerts, I’m aware that growth hormones routinely fed to livestock destined for our tables are accumulating in our children. Puberty kicks in significantly earlier now than a decade ago, a disturbing development that some scientists believe may have a negative impact on lifespan. Based on what he sees in his practice, Tim’s cardiologist believes the current machine-dependent generation will die at earlier ages than their parents. Furthermore, the level of pesticides deemed “safe” when measured in human fat cells is creeping ever upward. Don’t know about you, but I find these observations worrying, especially when I think about my kids, and their kids.

More good reads
            Let’s talk sweeteners, a topic near and dear to my heart. Following a lively discussion we’d had about individual responsibility and the American obesity epidemic, Tim emailed me an article summarizing a Princeton study performed on mice that concluded high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—a prominent ingredient in nearly every processed food—caused significant weight gain. To be precise, 48% more weight than mice fed other sugars. Plus HFCS contributes to abnormal deposits of abdominal fat and high triglyceride levels. (Check out the article at The Consumerist website: type “high fructose corn syrup” in the search bar.) Besides, if you’re a connoisseur, you know that goodies like soda and chocolate and ice cream sweetened with corn simply don’t taste as good as those made with cane sugar. Then there’s the “improved” sugar beet our agri-business-controlled USDA approved earlier this year that Monsanto genetically engineered for herbicide resistance, although no environmental safety tests were conducted. In case you didn’t know, 50% of table sugar consumed in the U.S. comes from beets.

from "Frankenfish Phobia"
by Timothy Egan
(click on this one to read the caption)
            Read about the genetically modified salmon? Its marketer, Aqua Bounties Technologies, spliced wild, slow-growing Chinook salmon genes to less-tasty, farmed-raised, sterile Atlantic salmon with a dollop of a third species’ DNA, the eel-like ocean pout, for fast growth. ABT swears their laboratory creation won’t escape to foul the gene pool of the wild salmon. I have my doubts. The USDA is on the cusp of approving this frankenfish for human consumption, although it was evaluated as a—get this!—veterinary drug and not as food.

            Wait, there’s more! The busy regulators at Agriculture also gave the green light to corn and alfalfa genetically engineered specifically for ethanol manufacture, despite the fact of likely cross-pollination because of inadequate prescribed buffer zones. So what? So a nearby field of sweet corn would be rendered unfit for human consumption if contaminated by wind-blown pollen from these wonders of modern science.

            Then there’re the ancillary issues of fossil fuel-use in transporting produce bred to travel thousands of miles from farm to table, and water-table depletion and degradation in developing countries that keep you supplied with asparagus all winter long.

            Well, what can you do? you query. You gotta eat.

Michael Pollan

            Not asparagus in winter, I counter.

            In 2008’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Michael Pollan distills the conscious consumer’s role in just seven words: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

            To which I would add: “As locally grown as possible.”

            Easier said than done, of course, but it helps if you make an effort to educate yourself before you stick stuff in your mouth. Honest to Pete, I’m not being holier-than-thou here. I’m as ruled by taste buds and capricious appetites as anyone. A mass of contradictions, I read labels, but throw those Cashew Sandies in the cart anyway because I love Cashew Sandies with my fair trade, sustainably farmed green tea sweetened with Splenda.

            Fortunately, some organizations exist specifically to help you make sounder food choices, and to tell you where you can get them.

            The granddaddy of all the local, seasonal cuisine movements is Slow Food. Formed in Italy in 1986 as a grassroots response to plans to build a McDonalds at Rome’s Spanish Steps, it went international with the signing of the Slow Food Manifesto in Paris in 1989. Gustatorily, the movement promotes sustainable production methods and encourages small, local businesses to revive and celebrate local, seasonal food specialties. Politically, Slow Food opposes the usurpation and globalization of agriculture by multi-national business conglomerates.

            Interested? Learn more at the Slow Food USA website, linked here. I looked for chapters in my area and found seven in North Carolina, although the closest are at some distance, being in Fayetteville and Greenville. North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming don’t have any state chapters, so if you live there, you’ve got an opportunity to be the founding member.

Local Harvest's logo

            Since finding food grown within a hundred miles of your home (kind of the working definition of “local”) can be problematic, next on the list for wannabe locavores: Local Harvest. This site directs you to family farms, farmers markets, co-ops, grocery stores and restaurants in your area that sell and/or use primarily sustainably produced, in-season, local vegetables and fruit; humanely raised, grass-fed meats; chemical-free dairy; and health-and-beauty products. It also pinpoints Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in your vicinity, where members get a percentage of the harvest all season in exchange for money or labor. For example, $250 buys members a half-bushel basket of produce for each of ten weeks, May to July, from the Jones Family Farm CSA in Burgaw, NC.

            In North Carolina, agriculture accounts for a hefty chunk of the economy. With that in mind, the Cooperative Extension program of NC State University and NC Agricultural and Technical State University, the Golden Leaf Foundation and the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) have formed the NC 10% Project. Participants pledge to spend ten percent of their weekly food budget on locally grown products. The project administrators email a few simple questions weekly to members to track who’s purchasing what where, and making the statewide results available online. The site includes a list of seasonally available fruits, veggies and nuts and provides a source locator for produce, meats, dairy and eggs. I plan to sign up. (Fellow southeastern North Carolinians may want to check out Feast Down East, too. When they finally get the site up and running.)

            All three sites provide recipes for those of you who actually cook, and don’t just eat the stuff raw.

            Americans seem mired in an endless paradoxical quest for convenience, speed, and the cheapest prices. Michael Pollan says that, in Western diets, “food has been replaced by nutrients, and common sense by confusion—most of what we’re consuming today is no longer the product of nature but of food science.” Slow Food and the locavore movement strive to focus attention on mindful, as opposed to mindless, eating. As we grow fatter and fatter and become less and less healthy, maybe it’s time to join them.


Go look for Leo between now
and next Monday

            As I promised back in “Taking Time” (the March 16th post), here are the dates for the next Globe at Night citizen-science opportunity: March 22-April 4 (better late than never). This time the focal point is the constellation Leo, so I’m going to learn some new stars! The overall purpose is to map light-pollution. Those of us who live where it’s relatively dark get a spectacular show that’s easy to miss if you never take the time to go out and let your dark-adjusted eyes really see what’s up there. It’s easy to participate and to submit your results. Go to the website linked above for instructions, star maps, and fun projects for kids.

            Hope I’ve given you some food for thought (haha) on things both terrestrial and celestial. Thanks for dropping by.

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