Food for a small planet

What do people eat across the world?  An excellent photographic answer to this question was provided by Californian photographer Peter Menzel who visited 24 countries for the book “Hungry Planet” .   The thing I found most interesting from his photographs was the difference in the percentage of whole food vs. processed food that make up diets across the world.  Americans eat mostly processed food and very little whole food.

The Ahmeds’ extended family in the Cairo from Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 118). Food expenditure for one week: $68.53 USD.

The first book I read about the connections between agriculture, government, food, health, and the environment was “Diet for a small planet” written by Frances Moore Lappe in 1971.  I woke up to the reality of food production and converted for a time to a vegetarian diet.  Eventually I settled on my preferred diet which includes smaller amounts of high quality meat along with mostly fresh plant based food; vegetables, fruit, dried legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. I changed my diet because I wanted to eat food that was better for my health and better for the environment.  There is a reason why obesity has become an epidemic in America, it is because of the food we eat.  Compare the difference between an American and a European lunch.  The Italian lunch contains more whole foods and more importantly less sodium and high fructose corn syrup.

I learned to cook from my mother and grandmother but I learned to cook  vegetarian meals as an adult.  My mother and grandmother had grown up on a small family farm where most of their food was produced, all of it high quality.  I grew up in a rural community where my parents produced some food from their garden but bought  more from the grocery store.  Slowly over my lifetime agriculture and food have changed and the USDA and university Department of Agriculture have been a large impetus for that change.

My mother and grandmother cooked from scratch and even today this is the most economical and healthy way to make meals for our family.  In a more recent article Lappe wrote “In writing Diet for a Small Planet, I learned one simple truth: Hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food but a scarcity of democracy. But that realization was only the beginning, for then I had to ask: What does a democracy look like that enables citizens to have a real voice in securing life’s essentials? Does it exist anywhere?”

I think the answer can be yes, but it depends on our choices in the food we buy.  The most democratic thing about food is that many of us can choose what we eat.  Granted, food deserts are real, but for now I’d like to focus on the population who enjoys a wide range of food choices; many grocery stores and online shopping as well as local sources, farmers markets, and the possibility of back yard gardens and chicken coops.  Why do we believe we can’t control the source of our food?  We decide how to spend our money!  We can reduce industrial agriculture simply by not buying their products.  We can choose to spend our money more wisely.

Let’s start with the basic layout of a grocery store.  If you want to eat less processed food avoid the middle aisles and stick to the perimeter of the grocery store.  Most of the whole food is located around the perimeter of the store (meat, dairy, and produce).  Most of the shelves along the aisles contain the processed food products.  If our goal is to eliminate support for industrial agriculture and food manufacturing we must shop around the perimeter and avoid the processed food.   All food has been processed to some extent, so how much processing should we avoid?  I love Michael Pollan’s definition of processed food; if the ingredient list has more than five items its processed food.  Reading the list of ingredients should become a habit.

Corn and soybean are the main agricultural crops grown in the U.S. and they are used to manufacture many food ingredients.  Food manufacturers use these ingredients to make their products.  For example Kellogg’s corn flakes are made from “Corn (88%), sugar, salt, barley malt extract, vitamins (vitamin C, vitamin E, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, folate), minerals (iron, zinc oxide).”  You can also buy corn meal but if you read the ingredient list you find one brand contains  “Enriched Degerminated Yellow Corn Meal (Degerminated Yellow Corn Meal, Niacin, Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid).”  and another contains ” Organic whole grain yellow corn meal.”  Degerminated means they remove the germ of the corn, the part that contains the most nutrition.   So choosing the organic whole corn meal is the better choice.

The cost of basic ingredients is often much more economical than buying it already made for us.  We buy microwave dinners because they are convenient but they cost much more than the basic ingredients and contain much higher concentrations of sodium and sugar.  This is the profit margin that goes to food manufacturers.  A box of corn flakes contains about five cents worth of corn and costs upwards of $4 a box.  A bag of corn meal can make corn mush, corn bread, corn pancakes, etc. and we get much more food value for less money. 

Buying whole food means cooking with whole food.  For those people who have never cooked with basic ingredients you could start with one meal a week and work up.  How does one take a whole chicken and fresh vegetables and make a pot of soup?  Start with a recipe and work from there!  If you are limited for time you could invest in a pressure cooker.  Then check out the multitude of online videos, cooking shows, and recipe books available or ask a friend who knows how to cook chicken soup.  It does require that we learn but since humans are uniquely adapted to learning and we enjoy using our hands this is part of the fun.

Once we have learned to cook a few meals we begin to develop a pantry.  If we make soups we know we need potatoes, carrots, celery, and onions.  We may also keep a few herbs and garlic on hand.  If we make biscuits we know we need flour, salt, oil, and baking powder.  Our pantry contains the basic ingredients we use to for cooking meals.  Over time as our experience grows we keep certain basic ingredients on hand at all times so that we can assemble a meal at a moment’s notice without having to run to the store.  A deep pantry involves storing larger amounts of things such as pasta, dried beans, powered milk, nuts, seeds and canned goods.  We might buy a 1 lb. bag of dried beans or a 10 lb. box.  We might buy flour in a 5 lb. bag or a 25 lb. bag.  It all depends on how fast we use it.

Cooking with basic ingredients is absolutely necessary if we want to reduce and eliminate industrial agriculture.  We need to stop purchasing their products, i.e. processed food!  If more people stopped buying processed food then food processing companies would no longer be needed.  We would eliminate their profitability.  The other value of making food from basic ingredients is that we can control its content; we can make it healthier for us.  This also means few if any meals at fast food restaurants.  We have the ability to make a meal without needing to go to the store or a restaurant and in emergencies this is important. 

This is just the first step…learning to cook with basic ingredients (whole food).  The next step is meat, eggs, and dairy.  We must learn to eat less meat, eggs, and dairy because most of this food comes from industrial factory farms that have replaced small family farms.  If we want to avoid CAFO farms we need to select organic meat or perhaps a local farmer who sells meat.  We will spend more, but if we use less in our meals we spend about the same overall.   The more customers who buy organic food, the more choices become available.  Organic products are also free of many chemicals we don’t want in our diet.  Stores now routinely carry free range chicken eggs.  It is also very easy and enjoyable to grow chickens in our backyard (as long as local ordinances allow it).  A small flock of chickens are easy to care for and will produce a steady supply of high quality eggs.  The decisions we make with respect to meat, eggs, and dairy have an effect on our health as well as the health of the environment.

This is how we change the world; we start by changing our habits.  Industrial agriculture like all industrial production is controlled  by large corporations and if we withhold our support for corporate products we withhold our support for corporate control.  We control the money we spend.  It’s really as simple as that.  We change the economic system when we change how we spend our money.  Corporations are very sensitive to market studies.  When the market signals that it wants something different, corporations do what they can to provide it.  That is what it means to have a free market!  We are (hopefully) free to spend our earnings on the products we select and if demand is high the market tends to provide us with them.  This is how Americans can vote with our money.  In the process of changing our habits we change the way business does business.  The majority of the consumption of resources is done by the world’s most developed economies.  We are the population who consumes the most processed food!  So if we change our consumption patterns we can change the world’s economy.

3 Replies to “Food for a small planet”

  1. My favorite line?
    It does require that we learn but since humans are uniquely adapted to learning and we enjoy using our hands this is part of the fun.

    Patently obvious, but no less significant.

    I wonder, if we had to share with our friends and neighbors a list of what we had for dinner (or any other meal for that matter)… if in time a certain change in behavior would come about??

    1. Clem,
      That might be fun but it seems like social media does a lot of this sharing and it has lead to much shaming and harassment of people for their choices. I wouldn’t want the pressure! But I enjoy attending and hosting pot-latch meals, where people cook more things from scratch. We get a chance to taste what others are making and share recipes. I also like to be in the process of cooking when my friends arrive. It’s interesting how easily people move into the kitchen and offer to help. I don’t think we ever grow tired of making and sharing meals with friends! I think it could become the glue that re-bonds communities together.

  2. Hi Jody,
    I agree, being directly involved in producing food, even if it is only a tiny portion of oneʻs needs is a activity with many benefits – re-connection and re-learning happens in the process. Thanks for making the case for it.


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