by Yule Heibel on May 20, 2003

I had to decide between Art and Food for my daily blog, and opted for the four-letter word. Art has to wait till tomorrow.

By now every news hound in North America has heard that the first case of mad cow disease turned up in Alberta, which again raises the whole issue of industrial agriculture. Consider the Cattle car syndrome, which young cows on their way to feedlots tend to develop. “They develop a cough, pneumonia and drip mucus from their eyes and noses.” Caused by a coronavirus, Cattle car syndrome resembles SARS and comes from the same family of viruses. Airplane travellers subject themselves to similar conditions as the poor cows in cattle cars, and SARS-infected individuals have similarly spread the disease around among their fellow cabin occupants. It seems we are dehumanizing ourselves just as we are treating food production less and less as something having to do with sentient bodies, whether our own or other animals. And so, without further ado, several well-chosen articles to chew over while you wait for your microwave to finish defrosting the mystery meat.

Open Democracy starts the chain with a global perspective, Roger Scruton’s Eating the world: the philosophy of food. Although a co-founder of the Conservative Philosophy Group, Scruton‘s theses resonate with those of any dyed-in-the-wool pink-to-reddish environmental activist: “The place of food in the moral, political and monetary economy has changed radically in the last fifty years. The result has been a vast and potentially catastrophic loss of equilibrium.” Scruton identifies a plethora of “disequilibriating forces” which he traces to “developments in international trade, agricultural technology and food processing that have occurred since the end of the second world war,” going so far as to note that “The solitary stuffing of burgers, pizzas and ‘TV dinners’; the disappearance of family meals and domestic cooking; the loss of table manners — all these tend to obscure the distinction between eating and feeding.” In that moral argument, you can easily recognize the conservative in Scruton, but whatever your persuasion, you have to recognize his point. Yet just when you think you have his number, he launches into a section entitled, “Of wine and waistlines,” in which he mentions Kant’s “weakness for Medoc, which is not a weakness at all but a strength, [which] endears Kant to your editorial team, all descended from long lines of dipsomaniacs.” Ha-ha, cheers!

But speaking of waistlines, let’s hear it from the left: Linda Baker, in An Out-of-Whack Food Chain, describes the rituals of grocery shopping in upscale Portland, Oregon food emporia where free samples of exotic foodstuffs are the norm, while the homeless and poor on the street go hungry. When she takes her children grocery shopping, they can eat the equivalent of lunch in free samples, all without being hungry in the first place. As Baker puts it: “There is more than one way to disrupt the natural relationship between hunger and eating. One is to starve; the other is to stuff. In the United States, these are two sides of the same coin.” Meanwhile, today’s The Oregonian has an article about a Food Bank volunteer, Julie Massa, who hangs out in the dockets of Multnomah County Community Court with free food and information pamphlets on how to obtain food stamps and aid. She hands them out to the accused, for many of the people who come before the judge got into trouble in the first place because they were hungry.

Eating Low: A New Paradigm by Joseph George, a professional cook, advocates making the choice to eat more often on the low end of the food chain. And even though you can probably hear me cursing about making dinner from scratch day in and day out, I’ll add my own plea to stay away from processed food. It’s a capitalist plot! Just kidding, sort of. There likely is no plot; it’s just the logic of our stupidity propelling us along, which makes it all the more imperative for you to make decisions.


Betsy Burke May 21, 2003 at 5:03 am

Hi Yule,
Food is the most important topic in this country (Italy) and the women who can go shopping every day. Up until now, there’s been a great deal of pride in local products, but all that has flown apart. The milk comes from Germany and elsewhere, the olive oil is a mix of olives from Turkey Greece and elsewhere (all this with olive groves across the road from us), infected beef from France and so on.

And then last week, the cantina food (run by the municipality) that supplies to all the schools around here, served up some meat that smelled like fish. My daughter didn’t eat it, but those that did, and there were over 50 of them, adults as well, went to hospital. The municipality claims they’ve found nothing out of order. These lunches were originally provided to insure a hot lunch for children who might not otherwise have had one, part of a very solid infancy programme here in Tuscany, that also includes school from age two and a half and guaranteed medical care from before birth.
But that kind of post-war poverty is no longer the case, and as the wealth abounds so does the corruption. Now we’re suffering another kind of poverty. One of scruples and love for the microcosm.

Betsy Burke

Yule Heibel May 21, 2003 at 12:52 pm

Hi Betsy, great illustrations of what’s wrong with our “food chain.” I think you sum it up when you note that “as the wealth abounds so does the corruption.” Going back to poverty is certainly not an option that looks attractive, but how can we have accountability so that corruption doesn’t become the status quo? One problem, with multi-national entities like EU, FTA, NAFTA, etc., seems to be that control is taken away from the populations that are directly affected. Maybe we should take a close look at aboriginal populations on reservation lands to see where we might be going. A very few rich chiefs elsewhere, and whole bunch of poor Indians stuck on the reservation?

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