Is there no end to our food myopia?

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, July 2016

The brave new world of GMO salmon joins other absurdities like flooding the fertile Peace River Valley.

April Caverhill illustrationWHEN IT COMES TO RANKING species dumb enough to skunk their own food supply, I’d say we’re far enough in front of the pack to be placed in a class all our own. Perhaps it all started some 30 centuries ago with the invention of currency, which turned everything into a measurable commodity and made way for the storing of wealth. The traditional fruits of bartering—fresh figs, fish and falafel, for example—had not been well suited for hoarding, but coins and tokens certainly were, and over time that changed everything.

Along the way bigger players jumped in and shifted the focus to yields and profit. That led to the 19th century invention of synthetic fertilizers and rudimentary selective breeding in both plants and animals. Then food scientists started tinkering in labs and factories, which launched much grand-scale chemical cookery and the advent of “processed food.” The best known food-like product is probably Kraft Dinner, invented in the US in 1937 and shortly thereafter selling up to 70 million boxes annually in Canada. 

Corporate cookbooks also gained favour at this time. After the troubles of the Depression and war, homemakers reportedly found it comforting to be guided by professional instructions (that invariably called for a can of soup or box of cake mix). Times were favourable for the rising food giants, and for the remainder of the century they rolled out ever more modern foods that kept us all full and happy. 

And so we moved forward, one seemingly good and sensible step at a time to the place we are today, which is a dizzying height above the fertile land where we once all stood so solidly rooted. 

Feeding the planet has become a $7 trillion industry that’s been reconfigured so many times it’s now largely owned by 10 huge companies, according to Behind the Brands, a comprehensive 2013 Oxfam report. Every brand you cherish very likely belongs to one of these conglomerates. And that’s not all. Could you handle knowing how deeply the tobacco industry has insinuated itself into the food business? No? I’ll leave that for another time then. 

The Oxfam report slams every single one of the Big 10 for exploiting the environment, the workers, the food supply and the consumer. Workers are routinely squeezed out of decent wages and now-epidemic diseases such as diabetes and obesity are being directly linked to the consumption of junk food and pop. It’s obscene that we’re being harmed so knowingly and wilfully.

All over the world we’re damaging the very systems that nourish us. In BC we have, among other degradations, the planned flooding of the fertile Peace River Valley and the ever-increasing threat to our food-rich coastal waters. Our government’s blinkered ambition to choose foreign coinage over local health and well-being is ruining us. (And this under the deceitful guise of helping China repair its contaminated environment.) 

There is no end to our food myopia. Last year in BC we ground 55,000 tonnes of wild Pacific hake into meal for poultry and farmed salmon after Russia, the anticipated buyer, became politically miffed and cancelled its order. That’s 55,000 truckloads of quality local food going into the grinder while we cross our fingers and eat mediocre farmed seafood from Asia.

Then there’s the brave new world of GMO. Two months ago Canadian grocers gained federal permission to begin selling genetically modified salmon. AquaBounty, an American company, will “produce” the altered eggs in PEI, grow them to full size in Panama where they’ll also be processed, and ship the fillets back to Canada for sale. GMO labelling will not be required. I don’t know how this makes sense, but do watch for unlabelled, giant, farmed, Atlantic salmon coming soon to a store near you.

The land-based scenarios are equally appalling. Clearly the industry doesn’t care about our health; they don’t have to because our need to eat keeps us tethered to them. But we can make choices and boycott the junk. We can support local food and farmland, and take advantage of long seasons and the option to garden. We can educate ourselves and help guide food policy. We must. Coins won’t save us when all the good food is gone.

Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic gets much of her family’s fruits and vegetables from her back yard garden. Gardening also also helps keep her healthy and sane.