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Created February 9, 2018 21:16
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Feelings about food (draft blog post)

My family attended a Quaker meeting in Frederick, Maryland when I was growing up, and many of its members were closely associated with a food co-op there. We would volunteer to run the register or stock shelves and do other admin jobs. I remember the strange smell of bulk food items like spices and grains mixing together. I remember the "weird" items that were like items you'd get in regular grocery stores, but were weird because instead of chocolate the candy bars were made with carob. I remember that the co-op was a strong component of the identity of the people who worked, volunteered, and shopped there, including the Quakers and my family.

As a kid at home in the '80s I distinguished between "regular" food items and stuff from the co-op, in that I was aware they came from different places and that things from mainstream groceries were more like with each other than things from the co-op. But they intermingled in our kitchen, and it was, generally speaking, not a big deal. We would eat tofu from the co-op and Corn Pops from Wise Markets.

When I got married and began to help run a household of my own, I already knew what food crowd I was aligned with. My wife and I shopped at Whole Foods and farmers markets seeking organic foods. We discussed food, food safety, and health regularly, in a way that I recognize was privileged and a function of our relative socio-economic advantage.

We interrogated and were mindful of these things in part because conventional food production practices were being seen as increasingly problematic in the 2000s, in ways that maybe had been true and known to some for a long time (hence the existence of the Frederick co-op), but were breaking through into a mainstream awareness. Eric Schlosser's and Michael Pollan's writings. Concerns about antibiotics, ethics, chemical load, and environmental impact. "Organic food" became a shorthand way of signifying a whole set of concerns, as well as a posture or orientation of a type of consumer, of which we were most definitely a part.

Food is an incredibly emotional topic. It's simultaneously extremely intimate and communal. It's mundane, almost crushingly so, and at the same time capable of being exalted. As we grew older, we started to notice the fault lines in our social circles around food. We noticed that a discussion about GMOs, for example, came pre-baked, loaded with assumptions, judgments, and incommensurate frames of reference and "facts." At a certain point, talking about food, for us, was no longer about health, safety, and enjoyment, if it ever merely was, but had become a tribal exercise as exhausting and fruitless as an online argument.

Most troubling for us was how hostile to science many "organic" food people and systems had become. We heard the same people promote anti-vaccination theories as would argue for or against this or that nutrient or farming practice. Looking back, I assumed my food co-op was more rigorous than it was when it came to the pros and cons of its foods versus the local Giant. This scientific illiteracy and rejectionism has always lurked in the organic food community. Perhaps it's understandable: science has been marshalled in favor of certain agricultural practices that have now been shown to be harmful. But most of the time, what's being marshalled is emotion and tribal allegiance in favor of an argument, and little or nothing evidence-based.

Now, when I hear someone complain about, say, "artificial" ingredients, my brain begins to shut down. Almost everything we humans do, including the organic crowd, with respect to food, is highly artificial. Artifice, the output of human endeavour, is used as an epithet, instead of just the normal course. All "natural" ingredients have been cultivated and bred and extensively interfered with. And of course, the entire enterprise of agriculture is itself so monumentally artificial it's hardly worth elaborating how useless this distinction is.

It would be far more helpful if we could talk about the specific risks associated with specific items. Instead of a list of banned types of ingredients that an organic store won't sell because they are "artificial", a probe of the associated health and environmental risks would give consumers a far more informed choice. Perhaps some of those risks are acceptable!

Part of why I care about this is that we are going to need to change the way we feed ourselves effectively over the next several decades to deal with climate change and population growth, and it doesn't feel like we're in a great starting position to address that. We're going to need GMOs, and better fake meats, and lab-grown real meats, and all kinds of unconventional new approaches to food production that is healthy, safe, and tasty to get there. If GMOs are categorically ruled out by the organic crowd, we're going to have fewer arrows in our quiver, and for no good reason.

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