One Thing to Do About Food: A Forum
By now it's practically a given that most people who produce food know nothing about gastronomy. In the past sixty years even the word "food" has been slowly emptied of its cultural meaning--of all the know-how and wisdom that should be naturally bound up with it. Industry and the production ethos have robbed people of the knowledge of food and reduced it to pure merchandise--a good to be consumed like any other.
So now gastronomy is seen as little more than folklore: diverting, yes (and nothing wrong with that), but vacuous, detached from our everyday lives. In fact, gastronomy is much more complex and profound. Gastronomy is a science, the science of "all that relates to man as a feeding animal," as Brillat-Savarin wrote in The Physiology of Taste (1825). It is a different kind of science, an interdisciplinary one that wants nothing to do with the ghettoization of knowledge or balkanization by specialty.
With its historical, anthropological, agricultural, economic, social and philosophical aspects, the science of gastronomy asks us to open our minds to the complexity of food systems, to think again about our own approach to our daily bread. It asks us to give food back its central role in our lives and the political agendas of those who govern. This also means returning to a respect for the earth, the source of all sustenance.
And it means a return to a sense of community that seems almost lost. We are always members of at least three communities at once: local, national and global. As global citizens, yes, we are destroying the planet--its equilibrium, its ecosystems and its biodiversity. As local citizens, though, we can make our own choices--choices that influence everyone's future. By producing, distributing, choosing and eating food of real quality we can save the world.
Gastronomic science tells us that the quality of food results from three fundamental and inseparable elements that I call the good, the clean and the just. This means paying attention to the taste and smell of food, because pleasure and happiness in food are a universal right (the good); making it sustainably, so that it does not consume more resources than it produces (the clean); and making it so that it creates no inequities and respects every person involved in its production (the just). By bringing food back to the center of our lives we commit ourselves to the future of the planet--and to our own happiness.
Farmers may have strayed down a wrong path, but it isn't just agriculture's mistake. An addiction to treating the symptoms of problems rather than correcting their causes is an unwise choice made by our society as a whole. But the attitude that makes organic agriculture work could be the impetus for re-forming society.
The best organic farmers follow a pattern at odds with the pattern of chemical agriculture. As they become more proficient at working with the biology of the natural world, they purchase fewer and fewer inputs. Many purchase almost none at all. They use the natural fertility-improving resources of the farm by employing the benefits of deep-rooting legumes, green manures, crop and livestock rotations and so forth to correct the cause of soil fertility problems rather than attempting to treat the symptoms (poor yields, low quality) by purchasing chemical fertilizers. The same pattern applies to pest problems. By improving soil fertility, avoiding mineral imbalance, providing for adequate water drainage and air flow, growing suitable varieties and avoiding plant stress, organic farmers correct the causes of pest problems, thus preventing them, rather than treating the symptoms--insects and diseases--with toxic pesticides. Their aim is to cultivate ease and order rather than battle futilely against disease and disorder.
Like chemical agriculture, our economy is based on selling symptom treatments rather than trying to correct causes. For example, the medical profession peddles pills, potions and operations rather than stressing alternatives to destructive Twinkie nutrition, overstressed lifestyles and toxic pollution. Governments spend billions on armaments to prepare for wars or wage them (symptom treatment) instead of committing themselves to diplomacy and cooperation (cause correction). Although successful organic farmers demonstrate daily why correcting causes makes so much more sense than treating symptoms, this is not widely appreciated. If its implications were fully understood, organic farming would certainly be suppressed. Its success exposes the artificiality of our symptom-focused economy and shows why society's most intractable problems never seem to get solved.