Food Culture: Greed in the Age of Consumerism
by Jovana Djak
Photo by Lucia Gaspari
It seems as if decades of advanced education and emancipation hasn’t gotten us very far, at least when it comes to food. This may seem like a presumptuous statement, but we fell so accustomed to convenience and variety that our wants prevail our needs, making us quite irresponsible as consumers, as the sheer variety guides the choices we make. Year-round, many of us have access to fresh produce which, decades ago, was only seasonal and for the most part, local. We can have caviar and foie gras in most affluent societies worldwide 365 days per year, while baguettes from Paris are being flown daily into every major financial hub across the globe. We prefer buying honey from New Zealand because local honey “isn’t good enough”. Abundance and opulence have taken over, and as a result, our insatiable greed is directing what we buy, how much we eat, and then, throw a third of it away.
It’s as if we haven’t budged since 1955, when Erich Fromm, in The Sane Society writes about how we consume things in a capitalist world. We obtain things for the pleasure of possession, so we can consume a fantasy. That idea he applies to food and drinks among other things. By eating a fantasy we are losing contact with the real thing. “Our palate,” he writes, “our body, are excluded from an act of consumption which primarily concerns them”.
And that is exactly what we are doing today, with the plethora of options we have, taking whatever is available, without putting too much thought into it. Imagine if every time we purchased a food item, we asked ourselves: how does this impact the environment, and how does this impact my health?
As a society, we have become accustomed to being able to choose, and I strongly believe that the more the merrier, in this case, is not better. Until our choices are not remodeled by the government, then the only solution is to alter them ourselves to choose wisely.
Sustainability in this sense is twofold: How our diet impacts us-eating healthy, by avoiding packaged or processed foods, would imply that most of our foods come from farms and small producers, which would then be reduced to mostly fruits and vegetables, possibly meat and or fish, and grains, making our diets (from a broad perspective) healthy (depending on our actual sugar and fat intake combined with how much we exercise). But as a whole, one could conclude that eating simple, non-processed, locally sourced foods is in fact, the healthier option.
The second, and just as important, is how our diet impacts the environment. Currently, many of our diets involve unnecessary travel of the foodstuffs we consume. Even if we remove processed foods from the equation and only focus on the healthy stuff such as fresh produce, and some meats or fish, a large number of it is imported, and to be so, it had to travel hundreds if not thousands of miles to get to the shelves of our local stores.
That has nothing to do with education. We know that we should eat 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables, yet we don’t. The British government launched the “Five-a-Day” campaign in 2003 to encourage people to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, but a decade later, research has shown that only a quarter of adults in effect do so. Similar campaigns were done in the United States, France, Germany, and Japan.
Kids from a young age are taught about nutrition in school, still, they prefer pizzas and burgers when given the option. Given the option, a fair amount of adults would do the same.
The role of government policy in domestic agriculture and foreign import is of the essence, so when it comes to nutrition, that role goes way beyond education. Educating the masses is not enough. It’s about transparent food labeling, and most importantly, having access to healthy and sustainable food. That’s where policymakers need to influence and strengthen local agriculture in a meaningful way. Governments mustn’t submit to commercial pressure which affects our choices of food, or lack thereof. Regulations need to be rewritten, and interventions need to be made, in terms of access and price. It’s about equality, and ultimately, preserving a healthy nation. Ensuring a healthy nation would make a considerable impact on the environment as well.
When I lived in the United States, Peruvian organic asparagus was cheaper than the Californian counterpart. How long did that asparagus travel from Peru to arrive at its final destination in Washington DC? Did it come via air or boat freight? Did it have any stopovers, and if so, in how many countries? Clearly, that asparagus raised a lot of questions, and I was fortunate enough to be able to buy the Californian one which was almost double in price. The same was the case with other food items as well, where the imported stuff was cheaper than the local. That cannot be the case, because it shows that only people who are extremely passionate, read food labels, and have the financial means can make smarter food choices.
The food industry is extremely pleased with this situation, as profits have been skyrocketing for decades. But what about our health, about the small and responsible local producers, and ultimately our environment, our most immediate surroundings?
Smart food choices should be everyman’s right and not a privilege, and for that, we need an environment in which healthy, local, seasonal food is available to everyone, regardless of their purchasing power. Social class mustn’t be the decisive factor for buying smarter, eating better, and while we're at it, not leaving such a large footprint on the planet. Being conscious about the impact we have on the environment as well as being aligned with dietary recommendations should not be a hobby of the upper classes.
What can we do while we wait for our local policies to change? Until the day comes when buying local, seasonal, produce will be as cost-effective as buying imported? We can improve the decisions we make. I am certainly not suggesting that everyone should bake their bread or make their pasta unless they want to and have the time for it-buying imported Italian pasta in a lot of countries is inevitable, just as is the case with olive oil or wine in countries where production is scarce.
Our values need to change for our decision-making processes to improve. Reducing meat consumption would be a great start. I am not suggesting that we should all be vegan (I for one used to have a 90% plant-based diet for 14 years before going back to being an omnivore), but, one is able to make smarter choices when it comes to meat by eating only the meat which can be traced to organic, sustainable farming practices.
Let’s disregard and appreciate the small imperfections of organic produce coming from a local farm, which, in most cases will have a couple of bruises on it. There’s nothing wrong with a bruise or two on eggplant or zucchini, or a soft spot on a tomato, vs. that same produce, harvested unripe, shipped over to our local supermarket via plane or boat. We need to make a shift from the perfectly engineered foods that even after a week in the fridge look just as fresh, almost plastic, as they did the first day we bought it.
We need to start buying local seasonal produce instead of the globally cultivated produce that is available year-round. It’s a question of preserving health, the environment, and the local economy. We need to think about the people that were involved in the process, before the food in question got inside our shopping bags or on our tables; about the people harvesting the fruits and vegetables in faraway lands, making much less than minimum wage, or the modern-day human slavery that is happening on fishing boats around the world so we can eat imported fresh fish and seafood, all serving our exigencies. Modern food production, as a result of the industrialization and globalization of agriculture and food processing, is unquestionably unsustainable. However, modern-day food consumption isn’t either. We can blame industries and governments for the first, but we can only blame ourselves for the latter.
Going to the supermarket to buy blueberries in the middle of December or January to fulfill an irrational craving, maybe grabbing some low-fat or lean beef from Australia while we're at it, then placing those same items in a linen tote bag is antithetical. Just because some of us say no to plastic bags doesn't mean we're doing something, apart from feeding our own illusion. Saying no to plastic is easy. Shifting your diet is a lot harder. Shifting your diet involves time, effort, discipline, and mindfulness.
We need to stop being just as greedy as the food industry, and by doing so, we can make a small difference to the environment, contribute to the local economy, and make a huge impact on our health.
About the author:
I come from an artistic background-I have a degree in film, but my passion lies in food. For over a decade, I have been researching food in terms of history and culture, from crops to recipes,
and everything in between. I guess one could call me an amateur food historian.
I’ve devoted most of my time to food research. With a hedonistic approach to healthy eating and an Epicurious approach to life, I am making sense of the world one meal at a time. I see food as the preservation of culture and in a way, art-a way of capturing a fleeting moment.
Born in Belgrade, raised in Toronto, lived in Sarajevo, Washington DC, and Tirana, I am currently based in Dubai, from where I am involved in further research and writing about food.
My writing is focused on how food affects culture and how history affects food. I’ve also dedicated a large part of my writing to food sustainability, in both an ecological and cultural sense. Sustainable food to me represents being humble, aware of ourselves and the world around us. Sustainability doesn't only translate to the environment-food and sustainability are (or should be) synonymous. I like to look at sustainability from a cultural perspective; preserving the past to maintain the present. I like to question things, and seek answers; to explore and make sense of it all-it’s in my nature.
Every month, I will present a series of posts titled Zero Waste Cooking here at The Preserve Journal Blog, which will hopefully inspire readers to reduce their own food waste. Until a feasible solution is available as to how the food sustainability issue can be addressed globally, I believe that it is the responsibility of each individual to make small changes that will positively transform their nutritional habits, lives, and the environment.
Around that, I will also share pieces on food and culture, how migration influenced what we eat today, and how our food and cultures overlap.