Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Drag The Food Chain

Are you eating seasonal enough? What IS "seasonal enough?" It's been a question I've been trying to answer since I wrote The Body Friendly Zen Cookbook, and a recent article I found and wrote up has made me think about this even more.

I recommend you to look at any species in the world, and how tied they are to their specific foodstuffs.  Change the temperature of part of the ocean (as we're finding) by a degree and the plankton and krill change, then the balance of different species shifts as species populations change in size.  It's why and how evolution works.  And yet we think we occupy a privileged place in this schema, we are exempt from ill effects caused by rapidly changing (and generally poorer) dietary habits...

No single member of a species "gets used to" a change in the foodstock.  Some individuals may be marginally more tolerant or intolerant of a particular change, but the species as a whole won't be adapted to the change in foodstock for many generations, if at all.  It happens faster for krill since their generations are shorter, but it does slowly happen.

The speed a species evolves in response to a stimulus seems to depend on what the stimulus is.  Some things like intelligence seem to have taken a very very long time generationally, while our adaptation to food sources changing seems to take only (!!!) several hundred generations.  What I think this means for us is that if people were eating certain foods or preparing them certain ways 5,000 to 10,000 years ago and we're still doing so to this day, then that has probably been assimilated into our food regime by now.

So eating foods out of season is generally not something our bodies are well adapted to yet, as we didn't have means of preserving or storing many foods 5,000 years ago.  Exceptions are salting, drying, fermenting, and smoking, provided that's also done to the same kinds of foods and used in much the same way.

In a lot of ways, we are a very experimental generation, our diet has had so many factors added to it in a very short time, and we're still not close to finding all the effects that this will cause.  Some effects seem pretty clear-cut to me, the scientific community may argue back and forwards that it's cellphone radiation or exhaust smoke or pollution in groundwater or additives in food but I'm pretty convinced - we started processing our food differently only in the last few hundred years, and in that time we've seen a surge in a range of illnesses which were never common before.

Hundreds of years ago the noble folk suffered an increase in the incidence of many and painful kidney stones.  Why?  They were living in the same air and water as the less fortunate, under the same sun, among the same animals and plants.  Why did they have this odd disease?

Turns out, the stones were caused by excessive consumption of bicarb and milk of magnesia and other acid suppressing products, most of which have a tendency to build up mineral deposits.  And when you begin to wonder why such affluent people might have needed to take so many products to soothe an irritated digestive system, you don't really need to look far, do you?  This was happening as the wealthiest people found newer and more imaginative ways process foods and preserve them beyond their seasons, were exploring the world and bringing home new foods that had never been part of the diet, and consuming a far richer diet than people had ever had.

I'm not saying that you need to bury your head in the compost heap and only eat what grows in your own garden in the windowbox.  Far from it, I believe that humans came to be where we are because we did adapt to a range of foods and preparation methods.  Don't forget that preparation and preservation methods were originally survival mechanisms, they enabled us to live where other species starved.  But it's always a trade-off, until the species as a whole adapts.

I like being able to grow some vegetables all year around thanks to knowing how and when to plant them, I like having flour and cereals and grains available all year around, and I like having a wide range of meats available pretty much all year around.  I believe that by having small quantities of many foods around all year around, we may have become better adapted to the omnivorous, out-of-sync diet we now have.  I also believe that as soon as the first hunters figured out how to dry meat and smoke and salt it to preserve some for future use, we we began to adapt towards our synergy with a wide range of foodstuff.

But what we're not used to as a species yet, having had only two or three generations to begin changing towards it, is the never-ending list of preservatives and bleaches and additives in our food.  Consider it - we are destroying an ever larger portion of the Earth's resources in order to add "value" to our food chain.  Much of what we dig up and smelt into transportation and refine into fuel is used to ship foods that we're still not used to eating, to places where they'e never been seen before this last few centuries, and we're using up even more chemicals and making even more pollution to make those foods grow where they never would have before, using more chemicals to promote their growth and inhibit local insects and pests, and then adding some more of those chemicals and additives to the food so that we can store them longer to spread them around the world farther...

Maybe the improvement of the species, to the point where we will be able to eat pure chemicals, is a noble pursuit for some.  But it won't help us, our children, their children, or indeed a lot of generations to follow.  maybe we shouldn't, anyway...

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