Food is extremely important for pretty much everyone. There are supposedly people throughout history who have reached a level of spiritual enlightenment that has enabled them to leave the need for physical nourishment behind, but that’s just something I’ve read. Everyone I’ve met so far eats food.
Or do they?
There is a phrase I started using a few years ago, to refer to a lot of the things that are being passed off as food these days. I call them ‘food substitutes’, and I do my best to treat them like candy. They taste good sometimes, and other times it can be hard to find anything else that is available to eat. On the rare occasion that I go through a drive-through in search of sustenance, I know full well that what I’m getting is really more of a substitute for the real thing. It will tide me over until I can get some actual nutrition in me, but it doesn’t really count as food.
One of the most difficult things to understand about all this is that some folks are altering natural products for profit, while others are trying to make the most of what we eat by modifying it in one way or another. The main reason we have the natural food selection that we do is because the latter group has been working for generations to improve upon nature, and they’ve done a pretty bang up job of it.
The fruits and vegetables we find in grocery stores have all been altered to the point that we would be hard pressed to imagine them when humans first started cultivating them. They were all much smaller, and far less diverse in both strain and nutritional value. The first farmers were surely surprised when they saw two crops that looked very different putting out seeds for a plant that never existed before their genetics were crossed. The first time someone genetically modified something, it was most likely a mistake. It was also a very long time ago.
It took me awhile to learn this. For a long time, I thought genetic modification was bad, and that the best path to health was by eating organic foods. I didn’t realize that both terms are a little misleading, or that they can each be split into so many different categories.
Genetic modification can be achieved through grafting, cross-pollination, and a number of other completely natural methods. It can also be practiced in a laboratory, where genetics can actually be spliced in a much more specific way. The first type is the reason that our modern day fruits and vegetables are big and juicy, and why they often have such intensely delicious flavor. Even just picking the most hardy plants to take seeds from for the next season is a form of genetic modification; and after many years of the practice, the crop barely resembles that original plant. Sometimes, that can be a very good thing.
You’ll never see a lot of plants in their natural form, because they have long since been replaced by a version of themselves that proved much more useful. They’re the produce you see in stores, and the seeds you can buy for your garden, and many of them are labeled as ‘organic’ although they are most definitely genetically modified.
But we’ll get to that.
The other type of genetic modification gets a bad name sometimes, since it is done in laboratories instead of in fields on farms. That’s misleading, however; since geneticists have far more potential control over what parts of the organism gets modified and which ones don’t. Manipulating a plant in this way is far more specific than manipulating its genetics through cross-breeding, and the results are more quickly forthcoming than the results you’ll get with selective propagation.
It turns out it isn’t the process that’s evil, in either case; it’s the individual manipulating the process that determines that.
If you are trying to get a product that provides more nutrition or grows more quickly or puts out more food for less effort, you come at this from a certain angle. Your approach is completely different if you are trying to make your crops travel better or all ripen at the same time, especially if you don’t mind losing nutritional value to achieve your goal. These genetic modifications are motivated by profit, and that’s a big factor for both farmers and scientists. If you think all farmers have perfect and unshakeable morality, you’re as much of a fool as someone who believes that all scientists are evil.
So, what does ‘organic’ really mean? It generally indicates the food was grown in soil that didn’t have any unnatural additives and was cultivated without the use of inorganic pesticides, and that this particular strain of food was only modified in the field over generations. That’s all well and good, as long as their motivations were pure in the process; but it isn’t a better version of genetic modification, and it can be easily argued that farmers give up more and gain less with their methods.
It’s also not uncommon for farmers to put that sticker on food that does not qualify for that classification, because they can charge more for it. Whether they get away with it because controls are lax or because someone is being paid off, the results are the same: it is commonly understood that many foods that bear an organic label are not organic at all, and many people have stopped paying more for something they can’t verify.
Then there’s corn.
Corn is not much of a food, as far as foods go. It’s difficult to digest for most people, and there isn’t much to gain in the process. Yet somewhere along the line it found its way into nearly everything that people eat in America, and the results are starting to show.
I grew up hearing folks say that sugar is bad for you, and I didn’t learn until later that sugar only becomes dangerous after it has been processed. In its natural form, sugar is very nutritional…it also has the same effect as other natural foods, in that it notifies our bodies when it is time to stop eating. We quit eating sugar almost entirely in the United States, and somewhere along the line it mostly got replaced with high fructose corn syrup. In addition to messing up the natural process of turning food to fuel, high fructose corn syrup is also able to highjack the part of our system that tells us when we’re full.
That means the most common thing we find in our food both clogs us up and encourages us to continue stuffing our faces. It’s hard to make people buy more food than they need, unless you can find a way to make it resemble an addictive drug more than it does food.
Now, that’s genetic modification at its best.
At least for the people profiting off the situation.
For the rest of us, it’s hardly an ideal scenario.
I have heard claims that people who get hooked on high fructose corn syrup to the point of altering their body type have brains that look much like that of a cocaine addict. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do know that food has been a source of great confusion in the sphere of public opinion as long as I can remember. This week something is good for you, next week it’s bad for you; diets get praised as the answer to everything in an article, only to get called out for causing health problems in the the next edition of the same magazine. We think we can trust esteemed scientists, then we find out they lied to us about sugar!
Hey, at least we still have the food pyramid.
Oh, right…we actually don’t still have the food pyramid. Now that I look ahead to what is next in the queue, I am reminded of yet another misleading bit of propaganda that managed to leave its mark on Americans in its own way. We’ll be talking about that next week, unraveling yet another of the myths that wove the tight fabric of unreality around me in my formative years. This one will be called…
’The food pyramid was wrong!’
I hope you loved this post, and that you come back for the next one! Thanks for reading, and have a great week!
All the best,