Are We Really What We Eat, or How We Act? | Civil Eats

Are We Really What We Eat, or How We Act?


It is often said: You are what you eat, and increasingly in this day and age we come to define ourselves by our food habits.  Are you a vegetarian or a vegan?  Are you a compassionate carnivore or a junk-food junkie?  Are you a locavore?  A raw foodist?  An omnivore?

We choose these labels for ourselves because they in many ways reflect our core values. Do you believe that ultimately it is the local connections that you make in life that matter?  Locavore it is.  Do you believe that all life, from the cows in the field to the ants running through your kitchen cabinets, need to be honored and not eaten?  Vegan is the choice.

But in addition to these personal reasons, many of us eat the way we do because we believe that it makes a difference in the greater world.  We believe that if enough of us “vote with our fork,” we can change the very food system that feeds us.

In a blistering new essay by Derrick Jensen in the July / Aug issue of Orion magazine, he starts by asking us: “Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery?”

His point is that individual consumer choices are not a substitute for working toward real political or social change.

Jensen continues:

I want to be clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.

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I believe Jensen’s is a powerful argument, but only slightly less so when it comes to food.  For example, he writes:

We so often hear that the world is running out of water. People are dying from lack of water. Rivers are dewatered from lack of water. Because of this we need to take shorter showers. See the disconnect? Because I take showers, I’m responsible for drawing down aquifers? Well, no. More than 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. The remaining 10 percent is split between municipalities and actual living breathing individual humans.

To make a difference we need to change that 90%.  So that short shower might not be the solution, but changing our agriculture system just might, which in turn will surely change our eating habits.

This leads to the next point:  instead of putting so much political emphasis on what we eat, maybe we should spend more time writing letters to our representatives and organizing to change the system directly.  Let’s spend our eating energy on growing, buying, and cooking what’s healthy and tasty for our families, and hopefully have some time leftover for direct engagement.

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When it comes to our food, it’s clear that we need to be doing both simultaneously.  Just be sure to finish that grilled summer vegetable sandwich before your homemade pesto gets all over those letters.

Chef / Ecologist Aaron French is the Environment Editor at Civil Eats. He is the chef of The Sunny Side Cafe and is writing his first book "The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook" (Voyageur Press, 2011). He has a Masters in Ecology and is currently working toward his MBA at UC Berkeley, with a focus on sustainable business practices. Read more >

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  1. ...we are what we eat & what we eat eats us ... meat bloodDNA morphs us into beef-bullies, piggish porkers, chickens, crabby & fishy & salty & nutty & seedy persons
    ... salts tighten and constrict, which makes us uptite, tense & angry
    ... sticky foods clog & suffocate my body organs, cells and pipes
    ...sticky foods include pastes = flour+water= papierMache paste = pastry = pasta = bread
    ... other major stickies include bacon, butter, cheese seeds, nuts & peanut-butter ... elvis was bloated & killed by eating too many of his favorite food, which was a bacon-banana &peanut-butter sandwich fried in lard (google "elvis sandwich"?)

    ... it's simple physics ... if it's finger-lickin' good, it's bad for me

    ... 2 B a sweet-heart, eat sweet fresh red ripe berries, cheeries, grapes, mangoes, melons, peaches, plums and live oxygenated water
    ... 2B a sour-puss, eat sourkraut, sourdough, cabonated drinks and any dead food, which includes anything that needs 2 B cooked

    ... bible genesis says that we are given fruits bearing seeds for our "meat" ... fruits, not seeds (= nuts = grains = corn = rice = beans = peas = soy =sesame )

    ... only way to know fer sure is to test all this myself, 'cause you can't be/live anything anyone says unless you have tested your own body ... 'nuff said
  2. Uncle B
    Sadly, the huge water contamination problems are in the processing of "Fast Foods" convenience foods, frozen foods, bottled foods and the like!In a decentralized system like ours with suburbs,exo-burbs and living even further out, the commuter and the food freezer are king! We need factories that offer Dorm living to cut transportation costs, feed workers en masse at one location with fresher foods and bio-gas their poop for energy for the factory!Give the worker the chance to choose! How many very expensive personal cars are considered absolutley necessary to get to work? Is this huge subsidy of our corporate world fair to the worker? How much faster could he pay down a mortgage if he didn't have to own a car to get to work? Why can't factories be fair and give us dorms, cafeterias and busing to their obscure locations, and let us decide when to buy a car - possibly after housing is paid for, children's education looked after? We Americans subsidize the same corporate bastards that rape us with poorly built, over - priced, products, loaded with planned obsolescence and ready to hurt our ego's with unnecessary model changes! Perhaps Chinese products will not, due to their commie origins, be so exploitative , and give us a fair chance, much as the higher quality, longer living Japanese cars have done! The "American Dream" an advertiser propagandists wildest commission generating crock of crap ever foisted on American folk, and swallowed hook, line and sinker! has us eating to unhealthy obesity, we are famous the world over as slovenly and gluttons with bigger than normal bodies, and even bigger fatter asses! Yet, we play follow the leader, and memorize every catchy tune, every glossy page, every sit-com innuendo, ruining our health and nation for the sake of being "Up to Date" and "In". Like Bugs said,"What a bunch of maroons!"
  3. We have to avoid either/or labeling. We are typically not one thing or another but rather more likely to act one way or the other. The key is "more likely". The urge to categorize people is one of the most damaging parts of our current society. It is also, IMHO, one of the reasons that polling is so terribly flawed right now. If I am asked if I support the President and am not given an option on the particular issue or whether I support/not support him from the left or the right. Rather I am asked for a pure, binary yes/no. This doesn't work to build either informed discussion or a civil society.
  4. I totally agree that it will take wholesale systemic change to address the problems in our food system. However, I also believe that politicians use consumers as an excuse for inaction,i.e. "the voters don't really want local or organic food or they aren't willing or able to pay more for it, etc." It's the same with energy conservation. Until we show them with our daily consumption patterns that we want change (i.e.local food, mass transit, etc.), politicians won't vote for systemic change. So keep voting for better food three times a day, and keep writing, phoning and calling your elected officials demanding that they start subsidizing healthy food more, and uhealthy food less.

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