We have no idea what we eat
Updated: Oct 6
My best lecture happened just a few weeks ago. A former student of mine became president of a sustainability-focused student club for which he invited me to serve as a faculty advisor. As such, I was pleasantly burdened with the first talk of the semester.
A week prior to the talk, the club officers, including myself, gathered to discuss the logistics of running the club, specifically food choices for member meetings. After hearing the students mention pizza, I shifted in my chair. How do I tell them that I'll accept pizza only over my dead body? I took a deep breath. Local! I said. We need to serve local food. The awkward silence followed, and I knew I made a couple of enemies. Students love pizza.
If there is a mass event at work or school, you can safely bet your arm it's pizza. I'm not arguing that pizza isn't yummy or practical. There are not many foods that can deliver the same amount of calories as cheaply and deliciously as pizza. In fact, pizza has ingrained itself so deeply into the American consciousness that the American society wouldn't even be the American society without pizza. No birthday would be a birthday without pizza. No movie night would be a movie night without pizza. Pizza is dates and funerals, community events and home lunches, fundraisers and road trips. But there is one big issue with pizza. It kills. Slowly, painfully, and unremarkably. Pizza is hormonal imbalances, joint pain, memory loss, bloated bellies, heart attack, and... death.
So when a work email states that pizza will be served at a certain event to those who choose to show up in person, I always go with Zoom. It's not that I don't have self-control. I can't stand seeing people kill themselves.
I knew I wanted to give my talk to the club on food. I figured the students are young and impressionable, and that if I scare them just enough, they'll listen and maybe even change the world. I also decided not to be neutral or even diplomatic as I normally try. These students invited me to speak. It must mean they want to hear me. I decided that they will hear me. I will lay out the facts no matter how hopeless or devastating they are. My frustration with food was ready to unleash itself unapologetically. The urgency of the food matter couldn't be overstated. I couldn't be understated.
Nobody was on the phone. All eyes on me. Wow. In the five years that I've been teaching, I had never had this quality of attention in my classes. And, like a mad scientist, I seized the moment. I paced from one side of the room to the other, making strategic pauses and eye contacts. My hands acquired a life of their own and my lips smacked and stretched. My whole body spoke.
The federal government subsidizes a handful of crops that are linked to obesity and neurological and heart diseases. We are using the most fertile land in the world to grow corn and soy beans not for humans and with obscene amounts of chemicals. Nitrogen and phosphorus runoff makes most of our lakes and rivers unswimmable, unfishable, and undrinkable. It is more expensive to buy food without poison because we subsidize the use of poison! (Students gasped after this one). Pesticides are in everything, including your apples, oatmeal, and pizza. (Yes, your beloved pizza!) We are dying prematurely because there is no national food policy because the food industry is hijacked by a handful of mega corporations with a powerful lobbying arsenal.
When I stopped, the students didn't. They wanted more. They wanted to know every detail about the enemy so that they could also recognize and disarm it. They felt vulnerable. I felt vulnerable. Questions followed as well as disbelief. Their young, impressionable heads filled with a fog of realization that the food is not a nurturer but a killer, that food doesn't unite but separates, that food isn't sacred but damned. The food isn't food anymore.
If you think you have free will, think twice. Nothing you see in the grocery store is there because someone thought of your health or cultural food preferences. It all has been decided for you. To find foods that are place appropriate or just without poison is like a scavenger hunt: there is no guarantee.
Here in Tucson, prickly pear cactus has historically been a traditional food for the natives and Chicano populations, which together comprise almost 50% of the city's population. To find prickly pear patties or fruit, one must know where to look. They are certainly not as common as apples or even foreign-imported avocados. Yes, finding food grown locally is harder than finding food imported from thousands miles away. We lost logic a long time ago. The reason is simple—the agro-chemical companies that hijacked the food system and contribute to mass production of food-like substances can't make money off of something that requires no lab-designed seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, or irrigation. There is no money in natural things.
Which foods are the most contaminated? Can we wash pesticide residue off the fruit? How can we afford "good" food? What should we do? These are the questions I received from the students.
Eating healthily isn't easy. I've been trying to do it for years. It costs a fortune. You have to plan your life around it. Going out or traveling messes everything up. People judge you. People avoid you. But doing nothing supports everything as is. The issue is not how to most effectively remove chemical residue on apples or strawberries but how to stop using poison. We know that chemical-free agriculture can feed us, it's been feeding us for thousands of years. The issue is not how to afford healthy food but how to stop the spread of destructive agricultural methods that enslave the farmer and make them part of a monstrous system that devours everything that doesn't make a dollar.
Many argue that it is U.S.'s responsibility to feed the world, and that the only way to do so is through chemically-intensive production. This is simply not true. Many scientists have addressed this. What is true is that the farming practices that were imposed on the farmers under the disguise of feeding the world are actually ruining the world. In their race to produce the cheapest and greatest amounts of a handful of crops, a handful of conglomerates sacrificed the most precious resource upon which all life depends—soil. History is bound to repeat itself, but I'm not confident that this country can survive another Dust Bowl.
At the end of the presentation as the students slowly made their way to the food table, I watched. They loaded their plates with yellow bundles, which they curiously rolled from side to side before undressing and biting into them. For many, it was their first time eating tamales. Thank God it was locally made tamales and not pizza. They listened. Maybe they will change the world too.