Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hunger and obesity, how food could make or break an empire.

A few days ago I promised to share some of my thought about The Economist’s Special Report on The 9 Billion People Question. There is a lot of good information from this report and it’s hard for me to get a handle on how to tell you about the complexity of our food situation. How do I help you start in this conversation without committing you to the mistakes that so many, including myself, have committed?
I don’t pretend to be a scientist, and I wish to leave the scientists to tell their stories. I want to share how I observed the information, and hopefully this will inspire you to think about your own relationship with food. I will start with a famous Roman historian, Livy.
What chiefly makes the study of history beneficial and fruitful is this, that you behold the lessons of every kind of experience as upon a famous monument; from these you may choose for your own state what to imitate, and mark for avoidance what is shameful....

On the first few pages of The Economist’s Special Report on food, the editor referenced a potential outcome as the Romans have seen.

“The food industry has been attracting extra attention of other kinds. For years some of the most popular television programmes in English-speaking countries have been cooking shows. That may point to a healthy interest in food, but then again it may not. The historian Livy thought the Roman empire started to decay when cooks acquired celebrity status."

I was immediately drawn to this passage. I had always suspected there is something wrong with shows like Iron Chef and Chopped. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy those shows immensely because chefs give me ideas. Chefs are inherently philosophers who practice their art for the benefit of others. Chefs are expected to utilize what they have and provide us with a pleasurable experience. There is an old Chinese movie about a father’s deep passion as a chef and how he hopes to teach lessons about life through food. But in the end, he lost his battle and lost his sense of connection because he had immersed himself too deeply in food. For food, he had given up his sons and daughters. That’s how I see chefs, as people who would take what resources we have and transform other’s relationship with life itself, but without getting lost in food.

Shows like Iron Chef and Chopped puts the characteristics of what Livy would think to be “shameful” on a pedestal. There goes the empire.

Take for example, the judges on Chopped would regularly lay down their thunder on a contestant who had left the fat on a stake, or failed to remove the stems from a plant. When I was growing up, my grandma would force and coerce me to eat the fatty parts because it’s a “shameful” thing to let that go to waste. I also remember a line from a poem I had to memorize in Chinese, “each drop of rice is a drop of sweat from the farmer’s hands.” To me, leaving even a single grain of rice in my bowl is beyond salvation. But shows like Iron Chef welcomes cooking methods that waste gallons of milk to just boil a single piece of fish.

I hope we are not doomed to Livy’s advice. I searched the web and found this entry on The Atlantic: The Moral Crusade Against Foodies. I highly encourage you read through this article. Don’t buy everything they are selling, but at least reason through some of it on your own.

Then, I want to remind you our goals here at The Green Elephant: we are not here to advocate for some food fads. We are not here to tell you about trendy recipes. We are here to talk about food, our environment, humanism, and Sustainability. We hope to bring as many solid resources like The China Study to your attention and help facilitate a process to bring quality information to you.

A few weeks ago I wanted to see if I could blog for a local food website in Bloomington. They responded by thanking me for my interest. They politely told me their interest is with organic farming and food recipes. My Sustainability focus does not fit with their missions as “Indiana Public Media.” I explained that there is a holistic conversation about our relationship with food that defines our choice “for [our] own state what to imitate, and mark for avoidance what is shameful.” I received no response.

I hope you have caught my point by now. I want us to think of food in terms of Sustainability. I want you to help me define how we relate to food and how that impacts our relationship with others (Human Rights), our consumptions (Business), and our production (Environment). This is not about just food, it is about FOOD. There are food deserts, food inequalities, injustices and problems we set out to remedy with technology. How we do that is by building and facilitating that conversation in ways to make the right kind of choice. At the end of the day, fancy $100 meals do not make us any more sustainable. But eating sensibly, locally, and honestly will give us an alternative.


  1. I'm getting your point. Although these shows are promoting food from a strictly culinary art perspective, there should be an angle or at least a bit of concern for Sustainability as you said.

    - solar energy webmaster

  2. thanks for entertaining my immature thoughts. cheers.

  3. Sustainability and the economic viewpoint on hunger and poverty doesn't seem to raise much attention in a first-world country but instead eyes on the opposite- obesity, which has claimed more lives in our generation than it did in previous decades.

  4. a large sum in health care cost. sometimes I think politicians arguing against universal health care miss point about our healthcare system. If we had more available preventive care, outreach for living health, i think we would have a less cost issue at the back end.

    thanks for the comment

  5. And add to that- the nerve they have to reduce the budget for healthcare INSTEAD of creating a fair matrix in taxing the rich- who they fancily call "job creators." This destabilizes our economic standing, exacerbating it by not seeing the inevitable costs of a nation with a less-than-needed preventive care system.