Once upon a time, we humans knew where every single bite of our food came from. For about 2.5 million years, we knew either because we hunted or foraged for it ourselves, or because somebody we knew intimately hunted or foraged for it on our behalf.
Then came the Agricultural Revolution: About 10,000 years ago, for the first time, we started growing and storing grains in significant quantities, domesticating animals for food and milk, and amassing surpluses for storage and trade.
Our diets shifted dramatically as a result. But for a long while afterward, we still had a good sense of where our food came from. Because whatever we weren’t hunting and foraging, we were probably growing and raising for ourselves. Or we were getting it from someone who lived nearby — likely somebody with whom we had some sort of direct relationship.
Over the course of the past thousand years — particularly in the past hundred and most radically in the past 60 — all of that has changed. Very suddenly, in evolutionary terms, after millions of years of humans having a close, direct relationship with their food, that sort of relation-ship became exceedingly rare.
How did this happen? First, a great many of us moved from the wilderness and small villages into bigger cities, places distant from where most foods were found, raised, and grown.
Next, as trade advanced, we were no longer as dependent on local sources. As industrialization and mechanization advanced, we found more efficient ways of mass producing and processing raw ingredients into a wide array of food products with less resemblance to their original form.
It’s only in the past few generations that we’ve become accustomed to eating food grown, raised, or produced by total strangers so far away, and by methods so mechanized and industrialized that we often can’t even tell precisely (or even generally) what our food contains.
In the process, we lost track of where our food comes from — not just geographically but elementally. We lost our consciousness of the nature of food, of the places where our meats and plant foods originate, of how they are raised, and of the eco-systems on which they depend.
Where does meat come from? From the store. On a Styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic. Or from a freezer box, in microwavable nuggets. Where do vegetables come from? From a shelf, can, bag, or box — perhaps prechopped or precooked. And then there’s all those other things we eat: boxed, bagged, shrink-wrapped, factory-produced concoctions of various kinds.
Most of us no longer know how a lot of our foods look on the hoof or on the vine. As chef Jamie Oliver -famously illustrated, many of our school-age children can’t tell a tomato from a potato (much less identify which grows above ground and which grows below).
We don’t know much of anything about our foods’ life cycles, or the conditions of their development. We don’t know what inputs of human and mechanical energy were required to plant, raise, or harvest them.
And unless we are buying them directly from a farmer or some other source we know and trust, we probably have little idea what drugs, pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals might have been involved in our foods’ production.
There are a great many downsides to this — horrific animal cruelty, human-rights abuses, environmental damage, nutritional degradation, food waste, loss of eating pleasure.
Arguably, though, there’s one powerful upside: Our food is cheap. Very cheap, historically speaking.
We may complain bitterly about “whole paycheck” prices, but Ameri-cans today spend only a fraction of what they spent 50 years ago on food as a percentage of their total income.
And while we spend a lot more on processed products, prepared foods, and restaurant meals, Americans spend less per capita on home-cooked food than the citizens of virtually any country in the world.
Why? We simply don’t buy many whole foods, we hardly ever cook at home, and most of the foods we do buy come from the massive, -automated, efficiency-focused machine known as industrial agriculture.
The net result: Most of us have little idea what we are actually eating.
We’re not terribly invested in the quality, safety, fairness, or sustainability of the systems that produce our food. We are unaware of the true costs and externalities of the cheaply priced food products we see piled to the ceilings in big-box grocery stores. And that makes us — and our food systems — vulnerable indeed.
So, how can you build more care into your relationship with food in general? My top five suggestions:
1. Act in your own self-interest. Responsibly raised food is safer, more nutritious, and better tasting by far. It’s also way better for the air, water, and soil; for the pollinators and microbiota that support your food supply; and for countless other factors that determine not just your health but your quality of life and the stability of your economy, your community, and more. When you invest in sustainable, ethical food systems, you invest in your own vitality and in vitality on a grand scale.
2. Be willing to pay a bit more. Conventionally produced food is artificially cheap because the true costs are pawned off on the environment, taxpayers, underpaid workers, and more. You pay those costs and are exposed to those negative effects in a dozen different ways. So you’re much better off paying a bit more on the front end and enjoying the myriad benefits of higher-quality, responsibly raised food.
3. Be willing to pay a bit less. Most heavily processed products (like breakfast cereals, lunch meats, fast food, and soft drinks) are ridiculously overpriced relative to their nutritional value. Transfer some of your processed-food budget toward better-quality whole foods, and value-wise, you’ll be way ahead of the game. Procure local, seasonal, organic, and transitional foods from farmers’ markets, CSAs, and buying clubs, and you’ll enjoy even more exceptional food bargains.
4. Make a personal connection. Knowing even a single real-life farmer, or visiting the source of even one of your favorite animal or vegetable foods, can radically alter the way you think about the nature and value of food in general. Grow even a single tomato for yourself, and you’ll experience an incomparable thrill. By contrast, visiting, say, an industrial turkey-processing plant (or even driving by an animal-containment lot with your car windows open) can put you off -factory-farmed, commodity meats forever.
5. Accept the tension inherent in eating. Given how ugly our current conventional food system is, it’s understandable that a lot of people have been opting out of an increasing array of foods they see as unethical, unhealthy, or just plain unappealing. But that’s also given rise to a puritanical eating approach in which virtually nothing is deemed edible, and ortho-rexic self-starvation seems like the only alternative. Clearly, this is not the answer.
The truth is, there is no diet that is 100 percent “pure” or ethically perfect. Plants and animals die every day so that all of us — even hardcore vegans — can eat. (For more on that, see Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth.) And when we die, we become food for other creatures. You can find that horrible, or beautiful, or both. But you can’t avoid it.
Caring where your food comes from won’t fix everything. It can, however, make the whole process of eating more meaningful, more just, and more nourishing for all involved.