Food for Thought: Keep it Real (and organic)

“You are what you eat eats.” –Michael Pollan, author

Are supplements all they're cracked up to be? Or have we become too reliant on quick fixes that can't live up to the hype?
Are supplements all they’re cracked up to be? Or have we become too reliant on quick fixes that can’t live up to the hype?

In my last entry of this series, I left off questioning why we have in general become so reliant on nutrition in synthetic, encapsulated form. Now I’m the first to admit that it’s easy to get lured in by the supplement hype–compounds like resveratrol (typically found in wine, now synthesized into potent capsules), and concentrated fish oil come to mind as the most marketed recently. Who wouldn’t want to live longer (supposedly), or reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s?

I’ve definitely bought my share of vitamins and nutritional supplements over the years—some claiming to boost energy, others to ease stress or build immunity to illness—even though I know that there isn’t a lot of evidence backing up most of these claims. I get sucked into the marketing, like millions of other people looking to improve their health. So I can understand how the supplement business is raking in $23 billion a year and growing.

I believe there is a place for herbal remedies, natural supplements, and the like–but not as a substitute for a wholesome diet. There are certain herbs that have been used for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years for health reasons, and can be a useful addition to a healthy diet. But this is not how most people are using supplements. We get inundated by advertising from large corporations looking to cash in on a growing market, who have built a culture in which we obsess about consuming all of the “essential” nutrients in the formulated, synthetic doses the industry deems appropriate. And all the while the health and wellbeing of our society is actually declining.

Keep in mind that supplements are different from ‘superfoods’. Certain foods pack a strong nutritional punch (think dark leafy greens, berries, quinoa, and chia seeds) and are therefore considered particularly beneficial to consume, hence the honor of beeing deemed a ‘superfood’. While companies do indeed try to profit off of these foods as well, and there seems to be a new trendy superfood every year, the supplement market is where I see the most cause for alarm.

Enjoying a meal with friends or family can boost your mood and result in a healthier mind and body than eating alone or in a rush.
Take a tip from the French–enjoying a meal with friends or family can boost your mood and result in a healthier mind and body than eating alone or in a rush.

Do it Like the French

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and several other books, newspaper and magazine articles, and radio presentations, describes this as the ‘American Paradox’. It’s an ironic twist on the American invention of the term ‘French Paradox’, a term implying that we can’t understand how a culture that consumes daily doses of cream, wine, cheese, and fatty meats could have such healthy citizens, while diet-conscious Americans are falling victim to heart disease and diabetes at much higher rates. Really, it comes down to the very simple fact that French culture still revolves around natural, unprocessed foods, often locally and organically produced. In general, they do not obsess about whether they’ve taken 500 mg of this or that nutrient twice daily; rather they incorporate wholesome foods into their diet that balance the small portions of rich foods they also enjoy.

Muscle Milk was one of the protein supplement brands that was found to have unsafe levels of heavy metals like cadmium, lead, and arsenic.
Muscle Milk was one of the protein supplement brands found to contain unsafe levels of heavy metals like cadmium, lead, and arsenic.

The French also still appreciate moving–walking, gardening, cycling–natural ways to incorporate exercise into daily life in an enjoyable way. Instead of anxiously popping resveretrol pills in hopes of gaining an extra year of life, they sip on quality red wine in the company of friends and family. And I think they really are on to something–and have been for centuries. Conversely, the American tendency is to follow fad diets (i.e. Atkins, paleo, etc.) or buy dozens of supplements, oblivious to the stresses these synthetic versions of nutrients place on our bodies.

Many of the vitamins and minerals in supplements are in forms that the body cannot readily absorb. Even worse, unlike prescription drugs, dietary supplements do not have to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—which means the products don’t have to undergo clinical testing in humans. That saves the companies billions of dollars, but also means that the health claims are unsubstantiated, and in many cases supplements (including protein powders) have been found to contain unsafe levels of heavy metals or other toxic chemicals. There are a few recently added guidelines (as of 2007) to try to ensure purity and consistency in supplements, but the oversight is heavily lacking.

Not everything is better in capsule form.
Not everything is better in capsule form.

If you think about wellbeing holistically, our health is not determined solely by the nutrients we consume, but also by our mental state, our stress levels, and our relationships/support networks. The French culture (and others like it) is still at least partly defined by the art of eating slowly, and with company. It all flows together–when you eat in this manner, you tend to eat less, and enjoy it more, enhancing the benefits. And even on a purely nutritional level, scientific studies have proven time and again that nutrients isolated from the food source from which they are derived never seem to work as optimally as when the food itself is consumed. The benefits we get from eating fruits, nuts, vegetables and grains are synergistic because of a complex suite of complementary phytonutrients and dynamic interactions that we don’t fully understand yet.

Know Thy Food

Pollan takes the ‘American Paradox’ analogy a step further by describing our nearly complete estrangement as consumers from the food production process, and from the origins of our food. I believe that this is the fatal gap in awareness that allows the paradox to exist. Growing up, I was never consciously aware (nor was taught) that walnuts grew on trees or carrots grew in the ground. It didn’t affect me that the entire existence of bananas depends on a very few banana plants that are still able to produce seeds and thus keep the species alive (but just barely); to me, they were just always available at Albertson’s, every day of the year, in all their seedless glory.

A large banana plantation is being sprayed with fungicide in an attempt to control a destructive leaf virus that is devastating banana crops across the globe. Photo from telegraph.co.uk.
A large banana plantation is being sprayed with fungicide in an attempt to control a destructive leaf virus that is devastating banana crops across the globe. Photo from telegraph.co.uk.

The closest I got to agriculture was driving past southern California strawberry fields covered in pesticides (not that I knew about that as a child), day laborers hunched over the plants with bandannas covering their faces. I feel somehow deprived of a connection to the earth I should have been raised to respect; a connection that, if nurtured in today’s younger generations, has the potential to improve our understanding of natural systems and encourage a greater environmental ethic within each of us. But most of us are deprived of this knowledge partly by a culture of convenience, but also by an industry whose profits depend on our obliviousness to the destructive and wasteful processes that keep the system in place.

Our awareness of meat production is even more dismal, partly because the gruesome realities of ‘efficient’ factory farming are kept purposely hidden from the public. Pollan visits some of these sites, however, and in in The Omnivore’s Dilemma describes the sickly state of cows who are fed an unnatural diet of corn (which they can’t digest properly and therefore have constant stomach problems), antibiotics, hormones, and lard–yes, they are fed their own fat. It is a depressing state of existence, the result of capitalistic economies of scale that completely disregard the much more balanced and healthy processes and scales developed by nature. The cows are unhealthy, the people that eat the cows are unhealthy, and the land that sustains them all becomes contaminated.

Yet there exist tiny pockets of resistance to the chemically and genetically modified corn-based industry in America. Small holistic family farms that still allow their cows and chickens to graze in grassy pastures, farms that work with the seasons and for the land rather than against them. Pollan describes one such farm (Polyface Farm, the subject of many articles and documentary segments since) in detail.

Polyface’s owner, Joel Salatin, developed a farming system that is nearly 100% self-sufficient and provides meat, vegetables, fruits, milk and eggs to a strong base of loyal local customers. The meat from his animals consistently tests clean of the bacteria frequently found in Tyson chicken, plus is free of hormones, steroids, and other drugs pumped into factory-raised animals. Farms like Salatin’s don’t simply fulfill some whimsical ideal of organic farming–they actually provide insight into a very modern understanding of complex natural systems.  Salatin recently emphasized this point in a rebuttle to an editorial in the New York Times that declared sustainable meat production is a ‘myth’. Farms like Salatin’s defiantly cast off the artificial construct of NPK, the Green Revolution myth that by simply inputting measured quantities of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium into the soil, industrial agricultural outputs can increase indefinitely.

A chicken strolls in one of the lush fields of Polyface Farm as owner Joe Salatin looks on in the background. The chickens help fertilize the fields so that cows can graze on the nutrient-rich grass.
A chicken strolls in one of the lush fields of Polyface Farm looking for worms. The chickens help fertilize the fields so that cows can graze on the nutrient-rich grass, and provide eggs that owner Joel Salatin sells to local customers.

As the ramifications of the Green Revolution are now being felt in the form of droughts, pollution from pesticides and synthetic fertilizer, dust storms, erosion, exhausted fields, and famine, more and more people are finally starting to take heed of the alternative voices in agriculture. Voices that have for decades tried to remind us that the soil is not just an equation of simple minerals, but a complex web of living organisms–bacteria, fungi, insects–and non-living nutrients and minerals all in particular balance with each other to create soil quality. By stimulating this natural balance rather than wiping it out with chemicals, we can create a much more sustainable and efficient food production system, at scales that make sense environmentally.

Teaching children how to grow fruits and vegetables allows them to connect with nature and feel a sense of pride in producing their own nutritious food.
Teaching children how to grow fruits and vegetables allows them to connect with nature and feel a sense of pride in producing their own nutritious food.

Thankfully there is also a growing grassroots movement to re-connect children with the food we eat by developing school gardens and using experiential learning to teach children about everything from nature to nutrition, build confidence, and provide them with fresh fruits and vegetables that they are excited to eat. I am inspired every time I read about these programs, like the Garden School Foundation, or Bronx Green Machine.
The concepts of sustainable agriculture, the slow food movement, and mindful eating all link to an ethic of individual and societal wellbeing, an ethic that is yet to be adequately cultivated (or perhaps I should say returned to) in our culture.

I suppose just as we have become reliant on a reductionist approach to science, trying to understand the world in tiny fragments without always connecting these back to the bigger picture, we have also started treating our bodies like factories that we can manipulated with specific inputs–500mcg Vitamin C, 50mcg calcium–to achieve specific outputs–cure common cold, grow strong bones–without appreciating the wondrous complexities that really make us tick both mentally and physically. We don’t yet understand fully how all of the chemical and electromagnetic signals absorbed by our bodies work together to structure our physical and conscious selves.

We are, however, incrementally learning that the mind and body are intricately linked, and scientists are slowly realizing that ‘health’ is impacted as much by our attitude and mental state of being as it is by physiological determinants (or perhaps these are one and the same, ultimately). Dr. Bruce Lipton explores these aspects of medical research in a book called The Biology of Belief, which I’ll delve into in my next blog entry.

In the meantime, I think you can have you’re cake and eat it too (and why wouldn’t you want to eat a cake if you had one??), but if you ask me it tastes all the richer if you make it yourself with good quality ingredients grown in harmony with nature, and enjoy it with a special person. And maybe even with a glass of wine just for the pure enjoyment of it–not because of any particular wonder chemicals it may contain.

Where have all the civilized people gone?

Part 2 in my blog mini-series on how everything is connected 

My last post discussed the idea of connectivity with a focus on ecosystems, and how human activities are damaging ecological connectivity. This week I want to expand upon this concept based on an inspiring interview that ties together environmental conservation, human survival, democracy, gender equality, and climate change.

Vandana Shiva (left) and Jane Goodall during an interview about climate change, democracy, and the role of women.
Vandana Shiva (left) and Jane Goodall during an interview about climate change, democracy, and the role of women.

The interview opened the International Women’s Earth and Climate Initiative Summit last December, and featured Vandana Shiva, a prominent environmental activist and author, and Jane Goodall, renowned primatologist, author, and founder of the non-profit Roots and Shoots. You can watch the extended version of the interview—highly recommended if you have the time and patience—here (special thanks to Tyagaraja for initially bringing this interview to my attention).

“We need a new paradigm of what it is to live on the Earth.”

I came across this interview the same week as the NPR story discussed in my previous post, and the ties between the two were uncanny. Both women underscored the dire need for our society to undergo a global shift in thinking—a shift away from the ‘corporate patriarchy’, whose particular type of knowledge and power form a political structure of oppression and destruction, and towards a ‘diversity of knowledges’ that emphasizes compassion, interconnectedness, and well-being in the most inclusive sense.

Catastrophic floods in the Himalayan region of India killed thousands of people and destroyed countless structures and natural habitat. As Vandana Shiva discussed during a recent interview,  the severity of these floods is in large part due to irresponsible hydropower and development projects greenlighted by a corrupt government. Photograph: Indian Photo Agency/Rex Features
Catastrophic floods in the Himalayan region of India killed thousands of people and destroyed countless structures and natural habitat. As Vandana Shiva discussed during a recent interview, the severity of these floods is in large part due to irresponsible hydropower and development projects greenlighted by a corrupt government. Photograph: Indian Photo Agency/Rex Features

Shiva links the widespread ecological genocide occurring across the world with concurrent socio-cultural patterns that perpetuate social inequity (via gender, race, etc.) and violence. According to her, “We need to see more deeply the connections between human inequality and injustice, and the violence against nature.” Industrialized agriculture induces the raping of land, resulting in unproductive soil and loss of valuable resources. The destruction of productive land, whether forest or field, is the source of poverty for millions of humans, particularly in rural areas and developing countries. What is the consequence? Local farmers out of work, men and women who cannot provide for their families, who become frustrated, angry, and sometimes violent or desperate.

As an extreme example, Shiva points to Punjab, “land of the Green Revolution.” Here, the agro-industrial complex was introduced with great fanfare as a solution to all food production problems. The subsequent decades saw massive increases in violence, extremism, and deaths, much of which can be attributed to changes in agricultural practice—mechanization greatly reduces jobs leading to high unemployment; soil health declines rapidly with the intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides; food security declines as local crop varieties are replaced with monocultures of non-food cash crops such as cotton; and human health is threatened as exposure to toxic chemicals increases (the Bhopal pesticide factory explosion being an extreme, heart-wrenching example of this, in which thousands of people died from direct chemical exposure). Human inequality and injustice are often inextricably linked to violence against nature.

What’s more, the land impacts man just as much as man impacts the land. Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs, and Steel) has made a career out of documenting hundreds of such cause-effect relationships that outline a contentious history between humans and nature. From the ecological destruction of Easter Island to the fall of the Roman Empire and the Mayan civilizations, human-caused land degradation has led to political and social instabilities resulting in famine, mass migrations, and ultimately societal collapses.

An Indian cotton farmer inspects his crop. Bt cotton, which requires high investment in chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and water, has caused many local farmers to go bankrupt and even take their own lives due to pest infestations, lack of irrigation, etc. leading to perpetual crop failures.
An Indian cotton farmer inspects his crop. Bt cotton, which requires high investment in chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and water, has caused many local farmers to go bankrupt and even take their own lives due to pest infestations, lack of irrigation, etc. leading to perpetual crop failures.

“The concrete solutions are the most radical ones. The abstract has had its day.”

The problems with our current political and food production systems are many; but how are we to affect change? What new paradigm would replace our current broken system? It’s easy, even for those of us who are in some way involved in social or environmental movements, to feel overwhelmed in the face of powerful corporations, media conglomerates, and totalitarian governments. Luckily, fearless and charismatic leaders exist—even if they are far and few between—that embody the courage to not only speak out against corruption but to present alternative realities based on compassion and justice.

What draws me to individuals such as Vananda Shiva and Jane Goodall (among many others) is their ability to articulate an alternative approach to living, and to lay out, in great deal, the steps to move down that path. For Goodall, it begins with teaching children fundamental values based in love and kindness. How can a child show empathy for the environment, she asks, if they have never known and learned true kindness or compassion? It is a straightforward, yet critical, component to developing a more empathetic society.

jane Goodall with volunteers in her Roots and Shoots program, which engages children in solving social and environmental problems.
jane Goodall with volunteers in her Roots and Shoots program, which engages children in solving social and environmental problems. Image by: Wildliferesearch.org.

Both men and women are crucial to revolutionizing our value systems and political structures; but this particular interview focused on what women, in particular, bring to the table. And it was on this topic that Shiva again brought the concept of interconnectivity to the forefront:

“If there is one thing that women can bring to this discussion,” she stated, “in addition to those beautiful words Jane used of love and the capacity to have compassion, it is the capacity to see connections. That is the disease that the deeply patriarchal mindset has not been able to overcome; they can’t transcend fragmentation, and separation, and thinking in silos, and worse—thinking as if we are separate from the earth, and therefore masters and conquerors…”

According to Shiva, our world is treated as if everything is a commodity; everything has a monetary value, as if nature is dead and women are passive. We need to resurrect other knowledges—indigenous knowledge, ancient knowledge, women’s knowledge, local knowledge—as a counter to this dominant patriarchal paradigm. Its not that woman should take control (though I do believe woman need to play a more prominent role in political decision making), but that we all, man or woman, need to break down the barriers of what is ‘masculine’ and what is ‘feminine’. To be compassionate is not to be weak; indeed an act of compassion displays more courage and intelligence than any act of force or violence.

Vandana Shiva has founded non-profit organizations, community-based movements, and an Earth Institute dedicated to promoting local, sustainable agriculture. Here she is seen promoting  seed saving as an act of self-sufficiency and defiance against the corporate takeover of food production. Image credit: the Canadian Daily.
Vandana Shiva has founded non-profit organizations, community-based movements, and an Earth Institute dedicated to promoting local, sustainable agriculture. Here she is seen promoting seed saving as an act of self-sufficiency and defiance against the corporate takeover of food production. Image credit: the Canadian Daily.

Plant a seed, grow Democracy

Shiva and Goodall agree that representative democracy is failing in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Governments no longer listen to the people; they are owned by big business. We as citizens cannot sit by complacently, but must through our individual actions demand a more just direct democracy.

To Shiva, and many other social and environmental justice activists, the most radical action one can take is to grow his or her own food. “Every time we save a seed,” she says, “every time we plant a garden, every time we create a community, we are cultivating democracy and freedom and hope,” to which Goodall adds, “and empower our youth.”

Near the end of the interview, Goodall recounts a story of a farmer who has been growing genetically engineered tomatoes that are square, instead of round, meaning that more tomatoes can be packed into each truck that goes to market. ‘Yes, but these don’t even taste like real tomatoes!’ Lamented a friend, to which the farmer replied, ‘Who cares? Soon everyone who knows what a real tomato tastes like will be dead anyway’.

"Can they put us all in jail for growing tomatoes that aren't square? No they can't."--Jane Goodall, arguing that we should all grow our own tomatoes instead of being force-fed tasteless genetically modified square tomatoes.
“Can they put us all in jail for growing tomatoes that aren’t square? No they can’t.”–Jane Goodall, arguing that we should all grow our own tomatoes instead of being force-fed tasteless genetically modified square tomatoes.

Goodall was chilled by the story, but it also ignited her into action. Her response? We need to be growing our own tomatoes, and teaching our children how to grow them, rather than be force-fed resource-intensive, unhealthy ‘foods’ bred for uniformity rather than quality. This corporate-controlled agriculture is leading towards a system in which a few powerful companies own all the means of food production, putting local agriculture out of business or worse, making it illegal.

“If we all do it [grow our own food],” Goodall argues in her soft, composed voice,” even if its against the law, if we all do it can they put us all in prison for growing tomatoes that aren’t square? No, they can’t.” Oh Jane, the peaceful warrior, encouraging acts of defiance in the politest of ways. A quiet revolution! Brilliant.

One size fits no one

In the end, just as we have finally begun to realize that crop diversification is much healthier and more productive than large monocultures, we need to realize that diversity is what will help us solve our larger societal problems. There is no one-size solution to our social, economic, and environmental woes. If there is a key thing we can learn from grassroots movement, it’s that there are as many solutions as there are people on the planet (I’m echoing Goodall’s words here). Sustainability can mean a million different things, and have a million (or more) different solutions and innovations depending on the social and environmental context in question.

While we need to respect our shared ethics of equality and justice, a diversity of solutions will be the way to ensure resilience in the face of current and future obstacles to survival. The stakes are high, but I see hope in the eyes of critical leaders as well as in the younger generations.

Just as biodiversity is crucial to ecological resilience, a diversity of ideas and solutions will be essential for overcoming socio-economic challenges and achieving sustainability.
Just as biodiversity is crucial to ecological resilience, a diversity of ideas and solutions will be essential for overcoming socio-economic challenges and achieving sustainability.

In my next blog post I’ll discuss some of the theories regarding empathy and society, and how we may potentially evolve (culturally speaking, if not physiologically) in the future to better connect with our fellow human and non-human beings.