Food for Thought

How much should we think about what we eat?

For all creatures of consumption, food is the primary element of survival. The physiological necessity and psychological urge to find a meal permeates behavior, creating a specific identity for each organism based on consumption. From the beginning of the human evolution, about one to two million years ago, the key elements of life were similar to those of any other species: reproduction, shelter, and food. Survival and life were synonymous. Consumption was based on necessity and desperation. Initiated by the evolution of mankind’s mental abilities, our definition of life has evolved. In our modern world, life not only pertains to survival, but also the quality of existence via spiritual or social connections. Focused on accumulating experience, the majority of our first world society takes the basic means of our survival (food) for granted. The thoughts we rarely think about, this automatic part of our existence, are profound: what is the importance of our food? should our existence as beings of higher thought and abilities require us to appreciate the means of sustaining life more deeply?

The flow of energy is an undeniable cycle between life and death. From one medium to another, the transfer has been cherished by various religions and communities for the extent of human history. In various sects of Buddhism, thought centered around the consumption of food permeates daily life. Before eating, Buddhists follow the “Five Contemplations While Eating”, in which they evaluate the significance and impact of each meal. By drawing connections between the origin, means, and purpose of their food, Buddhists determine their right to consume and tie themselves emotionally to the pass of energy associated with eating (Ohlsson). This example of religious devotion seeks to find the importance of each meal in regards to their lives. The meaning produced by these contemplations are significant beyond typical thought because they are derived from spiritual ritual and devotion. Although, conclusions made about the importance of food can be determined regardless of the influence of religion and have equal or greater significance. As consumers, we owe our lives to the organisms that came before us in the cycle of energy. Beyond the metabolic transfer of stored energy and other substances, can we find connection to the previous life we have stolen for our benefit? It is our duty as consumers of a higher intelligence to recognize the sacrifice of a food source in order to support our own lives. Despite these connections, is it possible for humans of today’s society to make a emotional reflection on the exchange of life from one medium to another?

Shielded in our concrete jungles and plastic suburbias, commercialized industry has pushed food production to the outer limits of our society. Shipped or flown across oceans, trucked cross country, and stacked endlessly on white, illuminated shelves, processed products hardly resemble or reflect their origins. By presenting our food in such a distorted form, we have distanced ourselves from the significance and nature of each meal. John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Missouri Columbia, argues that “through the simple act of eating, we become interdependent with the land and with each other. We become interconnected with the physical energy that permeates the earth and everything upon it and the spiritual energy that transcends the earth that gives our lives purpose and meaning. We are more than consumers. We are co-creators of the ecological, social, and economic world in which we live out our lives and in which those of future generations must live out theirs as well. Our food choices carry with them tremendous responsibilities, which for the most part, have been blissfully ignored.” Without this connection, derived from the consumption of clean, unprocessed foods, in which their origins are known and appreciated, it is impossible to maintain the connection between ourselves and the responsibilities we face as the overwhelmingly dominant predator in our modern world.

Increasing commercialism has severed our understanding of the balance in nature. The relationship between predator and prey has been a fragile system since the beginning of time. Over or underpopulation of specific species can have a direct relationship to the success or failure of others, usually pertaining to the hierarchy of the food chain. Our rapidly expanding global population coupled with the increasing demand for rare and exotic foods, overconsumption is a frequent issue. Our evolution in the consumption of food has distanced us from the importance of staying in tune with nature. “The agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and, most recently, the technological revolution have all had the effect of distancing us from, or placing us in opposition to, the world we once occupied exclusively as hunters and gatherers. In doing so, they have also made that world of natural — as opposed to human-made — ecosystems increasingly marginal and irrelevant. Unfortunately, when the wild becomes irrelevant, when it no longer holds a meaningful place in human hearts and souls, its continued existence becomes profoundly threatened” (Serpell). Coupled with this indifference towards nature is the neglect of species susceptible to the behaviors of humans. As a duty to our Mother Earth, it is required of us to protect not only the special and rare ecosystems, but also the common ones we take for granted or never see. Our ability to understand these problems and the fragile connections requires us to act or at least understand.

Despite this seemingly encompassing issue, there are people that seek to reconnect and rebalance the natural ecosystems of our world. The “Sustainable Chef”, Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne, Australia has adapted his world famous menu in order to create a more sustainable collection of food items. Originally, his menu featured a local fish whose population was dwindling as a result of overfishing. After taking fish completely off the menu for numerous years, Shewry added a new type of local fish which was not being caught at such a high demand for his menu (Mcginn). By thinking critically about the impact of the food choices in his restaurant, not only was Shewry able to maintain his local ecosystems, but he was able to reestablish the lost connection between the table and the ocean. His effort is a prime example of a small change in lifestyle derived from the wish to appreciate food as more than nourishment, but as a separate life that contributes to your own. Although the course of the food industry inhibits the reversal of the separation of source and product, if we can begin to think more about the items we consume, other than a calorie count, we can better appreciate the origins and facilities of our own life.