Urban and Rural: Eating between the lines

The urban-rural divide is a hot topic these days. We mostly hear about it in the context of politics, but it’s a phenomenon that impacts all of us and is of critical importance for any discussion of sustainable food and agriculture. As someone who lived the first half of my life in a commuter town in New Jersey and the most recent half of my life in suburban Atlanta, I have limited perspective on both urban and rural life. I’m the product of suburbia, that pleasant but bland swath of space that’s neither urban nor rural, where SUVs and minivans move kids from one location to another and strip malls act as the town-center. In considering my next career move and what part of the country I’ll live in, I’m not a huge fan of suburbia; both the urban and the rural life appeals to me much more. But perhaps my suburban background gives me a good perspective of the urban-rural divide and what that means for leading a sustainable life in general.

suburbs-2211335_1920

Besides creating a lifestyle hooked on the automobile, what I think suburbia lacks for me is a connection to place. In the rural United States, there is a strong connection to the land, whether it’s to cornfields, mountain ranges, apple orchards, or sweeping plains. Perhaps that sounds overly pastoral but compared to suburban existence, it’s certainly true. The landscape is defined by its people and the people are in turn defined by their landscape. In the cities, there is a similar connection to place. Every graffitied wall seems to have meaning to someone, every street corner to someone else. The neighborhoods have individual identities while the skyscrapers unify them under a symbolic cityscape. Both urban and rural people have the chance to feel a “sense of place”. However different their backgrounds and lifestyles maybe, however opposing their values and politics, urban and rural people seem to share a strong understanding of their surrounding environment.

So, where does food fit into all of this? Having a sense of place and an understanding of environment is critical to valuing sustainable food. Food is a product of environment. We need to see that a bag of potato chips doesn’t just come magically from the shelf at Walmart, we need to know that a McDonalds hamburger patty actually comes from cattle, we need to learn that while our city might not be in a drought, the regions that produce our almond milk might be having a water crisis. One would expect that rural residents might see, feel, and understand these connections quite easily. But I think urban residents as well have the potential to extend their sense of place to where their food comes from. I recently came across a thought-provoking TED Talk by Denver architect and urban planner Brad Buchanan. Check it out:

Brad exudes a passion for having a “sense of place”, both as a proud urban Denverite and as a cattle rancher in rural Colorado. While most of Brad’s presentation isn’t about sustainable food, I think he sheds light on the necessity of bridging the gap between urban and rural places. Suburbia is an attempt to bridge that gap, by creating safe, quiet communities for people to raise their children “closer to nature” (i.e. lawns, gardens, and trees) while maintaining the convenience of a nearby urban area. Personally, I think the suburbia model is failing, both culturally and environmentally. I believe that to advance food sustainability for an increasingly-urban population, we need to focus on improving our urban spaces rather than on expanding them outwards. We should instill a ” sense of place” in the future generation by advocating for mixed-use development, giving cities a connection to their surrounding rural regions, and emphasizing the importance of the environment in food production.

Obviously suburbia won’t go away and it’s a stretch to imagine an urban existence that is truly connected to the environment. But I think more and more we’re seeing people in cities seeking that connection; there’s the “locavore” movement, the push for urban greenspace, urban community gardens and farms, etc. These aren’t the only answers to feeding cities sustainably, and cities will continue to rely heavily on the rural environment as the true backbone of our food system. This is why I believe that sustainable food is the perfect point at which to bridge the widening urban-rural divide. As a country, we can’t lose sight of our surrounding environment. Realizing that the food we eat is a product of our environment, no matter how rural or urban our own existence, might just bring us one step closer to a sustainable food future.

The Diet Question

I was eating dinner out last night with several friends and some of their other friends when I was asked a question I get pretty often: “If you don’t mind me asking, and I hope this isn’t too personal, why don’t you eat meat?” As much as I focus on food, agricultural sustainability, and environmentalism as some of my main interest-areas, I typically keep my dietary rationale to myself at the dinner table. There are several reasons for this:

  1. I try to avoid coming across as judging others’ food choices when I in no way do that (I mostly just care about what food I’m putting in my own mouth).
  2. Diet is both a highly cultural and highly individual choice and can bring up quite personal subjects (i.e. environmental ethics, animal welfare, health issues, religious doctrine, etc.)–and can be uncomfortable to discuss for some while eating.
  3. Personally, I view my food choices as tiny votes that add up over time both for my own well-being and the well-being of the environment. I’m happy to share my votes as a jumping-off point for discussion but not as a vehicle to “convert” others.

I do, however, want people in general to become more comfortable discussing their dietary choices, the background behind their food, and the major challenges and solutions for sustainable agriculture. The dinner table is a potentially great place for this, and I hope to learn more about how to best start these sorts of conversations in the future.

italian-cuisine-2378729_1920

Part of the reason for my own discomfort in discussing these topics is my own personal conflict with diet. The diet I eat right now I usually call “sugarfree plant-based” (some might call it pescatarian), and I’ve been at it for about a year and a half. I try to focus more on what I do put into my body than what I avoid eating, though inevitably I have several restrictions. I mostly look for high-energy/protein sources from plants (beans, nuts, rice), throw in some healthy veggies and leafy greens, and turn to eggs, cheese, and seafood either when I’m craving it or when it’s the most convenient option. Right now I am living at home with my parents so I’m back to eating more eggs, dairy, and seafood than when I was on my own for the past year. They are already very accommodating of my food choices, and I don’t want to complicate family meal prep even more.

My personal “diet journey” started long ago over a life-long conflict with sugar. I have always had an insane sweet tooth. As a little kid I would binge on straight packets of Swiss Miss hot cocoa powder, sneak chocolate baking morsels from the basement pantry, and concoct a beverage I called “maple milk” mixing about 3 tablespoons of maple syrup into a glass of milk and proceeding to chug it down. In high school, both my sister and I were tested and diagnosed with insulin resistance (also known as pre-diabetes). We were advised to consume a sugarfree diet to stabilize our blood sugar levels, help reverse the insulin resistance, and prevent the progression to Type 2 Diabetes.

sugar-2263618_1920

I struggled for several years with the sugarfree diet. I would start it, go cold turkey, and then regress and go on binging sprees inducing lethargic comas of sugary stupor. I was an addict. Sugar controlled all my other food choices, my daily energy levels, and my emotional stability. When I was eating sugarfree, I was eating healthily, and I took care of my overall physical and emotional well-being. When I was eating sugar, I let everything go, turning junk food into meals, staying up late into the night, and dragging throughout the day until my next dose of sugar. I finally got control of it and for the past year I have maintained a highly stable sugarfree diet.

My other major dietary choice has to do with the environment. A year and a half ago, I had already started reducing my meat consumption at college but finally decided to stop eating it altogether. I have continued eating eggs, dairy, and seafood throughout this transition period and right now, I am very comfortable with my diet, and feel good about the food choices I make on a daily basis. When I’m back on my own again, I do hope to continue transitioning to an even more environmentally-friendly diet, possibly cutting out eggs, dairy, and seafood even more. I could see myself easily going full vegan in my life on my own but still maintaining a more flexible vegetarian diet when eating with others. I am always conscious of my diet being a burden on others’ cooking plans, or over-complicating social gatherings or outings.

I’ll certainly write more going forward about my personal choices related to meat consumption, food environmental footprints, and sustainable diets, and I’d love to hear from anyone about your own food choices and diet journeys!

Bacon is Complicated

Last night I watched Bong Joon-Ho’s recently-released Netflix film Okja. An extremely complex movie, Okja is thought-provoking, weird, disturbing, and delightful. This moving story of the connection between a girl from rural Korea and her “super pig” companion, Okja, throws the issues of the environment, animal welfare, urban-rural divide, and powerful technology under the mainstream spotlight. What I most enjoyed about the movie is that it does not present a single answer to these questions. Instead, it leaves room for discussion and prompts careful consideration of our current food system.

animal-1867180_1920

There are three main players in this film: the Natural (Mija and her pig Okja bonding in Korean wilderness), the Technological (the well-intentioned but destructive Mirando Corporation), and the Activist (the Animal Liberation Front, the wrong answer to the right question). Apart from Mija and Okja, no character is completely good or bad; most seem like satirical goofballs, if not antagonists. The Mirando Corporation CEO wants to feed the world more sustainably but lies about the super pig’s genetic origins and covers up the swine farm conditions. The Animal Liberation Front activists want to save Okja and the other super pigs but are themselves idiotic, self-righteous, and abusive. In the end, “the natural” survives but so too do the Technological and the Activist forces. With no true winner of the struggle, “Okja” is perhaps a perfect reflection of the obstacles we face in agriculture, sustainability, and technology today.

Besides the obvious questions of environmental and animal ethics, Okja reminded me of something I’d learned about during my time at veterinary school: Enviropig. A genetically-engineered line of pigs created by the University of Guelph, the Enviropig was developed to excrete less phosphorous in its waste, and therefore produce pork more efficiently and sustainably (see diagram below credited to http://www.uoguelph.ca/enviropig/images/Envirogpig-Model.jpg). The Enviropig project lost funding in 2012 and the story seems to end there, but its production raised important questions about genetic modification in animals as one solution to sustainable meat production.

Enviropig-Model

It’s difficult to wrap our minds around all of these questions and issues. Bacon is complicated. However, going forward, I think films like “Okja” and projects like Enviropig will be beneficial in their own unique ways. One thing I hope to see more of is a distinction between environmental and animal ethics in the realm of agricultural and food sustainability. Often these two issues are muddled and misidentified. Both important issues, they should be considered separately before bringing them together. A GMO pig might be more eco-friendly but ethically-questionable. An organic, “free-range” pig might be more humane but have a higher environmental footprint. Here, the natural and the technological, the animal and the human, the corporate and the activist all come together. It’s at this junction where we’ll find the best answers to a sustainable food future.

Planning for the Future, Learning from the Past

I’ve just returned home after a lot of traveling around the country. I had the chance to spend a week hiking in the three gorgeous national parks of Washington, and I also got to check out Seattle and Portland while I was out there in the Pacific Northwest. After an additional week of family time in the Adirondacks of Upstate New York, I’d say right now my commitment to the planet is replenished and possibly overflowing with a love for wilderness, wildness, and all things “nature”.

Here’s a moment I captured at sunset on the Olympic coast of Washington:

DSCN5186

While on the road (not staring at spectacular sunsets) I was able to dive into a really intriguing book titled 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann. I love learning about the pre-Columbian history of the Americas, so this book was the perfect eye-opener for me to many of the advanced societies that flourished here prior to European colonization. One topic this book really got me thinking about is the history of food and agriculture in the Americas.

The history of human societies, cities, and civilizations inevitably circles around the invention of agriculture. Without agriculture, we would be living as hunter-gatherers, and there would likely be no cities, complex governments, or advanced technologies. (Note: There are of course several groups of people who successfully maintain a hunter-gatherer lifestyle despite their neighbors’ ever-expanding and sometimes destructive modern world. Without agriculture human existence is certainly not “less than”). Agriculture has allowed people to stay in one place and to fulfill different roles in society, but it has also taken a toll on the surrounding environment, on wildlife, on “wilderness”.

The title of this blog is 12,000 Years Young for a reason: in order to restructure agriculture and food consumption so that they are more sustainable and better for human well-being, animal welfare, and environmental health, we must plan for the future by learning from the past. What can the several independent “inventions” of agriculture circa 12,000 years ago teach modern farmers, scientists, politicians, business leaders, and everyday consumers about how to grow and eat food more sustainably?

In 1491, Charles Mann outlines the major agricultural developments that allowed multiple civilizations to flourish in the “New World”. Mesoamerican societies such as the Mayas and the later Aztecs thrived off of maize, beans, and squash; early Peruvian societies such as the Norte Chico developed a complex economy based around cotton production, trading textiles from the inland for seafood from the coast; the subsequent Incas rapidly expanded and colonized the Andean region off of a surplus of potatoes, quinoa, and llama meat. One quickly gets a sense of how much of our modern existence is built off of these developments. Mann mentions in his book that about three-fifths of modern-day crops originated in the Americas: corn, beans, squash, potatoes, quinoa, tomatoes, chilis–all delicious foods we take for granted today.

corn-1869703_1920

But beyond these specific staple crops, agriculture has advanced incredibly due to many of the techniques used by pre-Columbian societies. The most well-known example is the Three Sisters method of growing corn, beans, and squash together, replenishing the soil through legume cultivation. (Note: The story of the Plymouth Pilgrims learning to plant fish-heads around corn is possibly something Tisquantum–“Squanto”–actually learned during his time in Europe, but another interesting agricultural technique nonetheless).

I’m personally excited to learn more about the agricultural methods that allowed human existence to change so drastically beginning 12,000 years ago. I hope that in developing sustainable technologies and innovative solutions for modern-day agriculture, we can learn from those who came before us. This doesn’t mean we should regress to a local, minimalist approach to farming, which though an important movement is not sustainable or scaleable to feed our future world. We should instead learn from the economically and technologically complex food systems of the past to inform our own advancements. It’s difficult and perhaps impossible to preserve the wildness and wilderness that I’ve recently visited without planning for a better future, and I believe that future began 12,000 years ago.