The act of eating is so fundamental to our daily lives that most of us take it for granted. When we do engage with our food, the questions that usually pop into our minds are ‘how will this taste?’ and ‘how much will this cost?’ But another basic question that seldom gets asked is ‘where does this come from?’
This is probably because we were never taught to ask that question, and that is probably because we never really had to. Only two generations ago the public faith in the goodness of our food was largely well-placed – our animals were raised with freedom of movement and minimal medical intervention; our fruit and vegetables were not dependent on pesticides and herbicides for survival. But in the time that has passed since our parents were children, modern agriculture has evolved into a highly efficient industrialised system that prioritises productivity and profitability further and further ahead of humanitarian concerns.
That may sound dramatic, especially in South Africa where the image of heart-and-soul farmers watching over their cattle in the fields remains largely uncontested. But even in this beautiful country, feedlots, battery farms and chemically-managed crops are becoming the norm. Those well-meaning farmers do still exist – and you can meet him or her here – but in the face of public demand for cheaper and cheaper food, they are fighting increasingly hard to maintain their commitment to traditional farming and animal husbandry.
Asking the question, “where does this food come from?” is simple enough, but few are prepared for the reality that hides behind it. To consciously question what we choose to eat, requires us to face the fact that the people who create our food are not necessarily motivated by our better health and wellbeing. It requires us to expand our perspective, to recognise that what we see on our plates is not just a meal, it is a snapshot of the ongoing struggle for balance between a great diversity of interests: individual, social, physical, economic, political, psychological, spiritual, environmental. To ask this one question is to take the greatest accountability in the simplest gesture – it is to acknowledge that every time we put food in our mouths we are making a statement about what we believe in, about which systems we uphold and which we reject.
But this is not easy.
As humans trying to operate successfully in an increasingly connected and complex world it can seem onerous to shoulder even more responsibility. It is difficult to accept that the steak in front of me might be from a beast that lived in extreme pain and bewildering fear, or that in eating this cereal I am supporting the worldwide control of grain production by a handful of large corporations. It is certainly easier to retreat into a type of willful forgetting, to pretend that we aren’t aware on some level that there is something wrong with a system that encourages us to eat more for less. But, as Jonathon Safran Foer says, “not responding is a response – we are equally responsible for what we don’t do.”
To eat more consciously is to live more consciously. Asking “where does this food come from?” indicates an intention to better understand our world, and to play an active role in shaping it into a more positive place. As humans we are engineered to avoid the truth. But it is because of our humanity that we are able to face it. There is no perfection here – nobody gets this totally right – but it has never been more important for us to try.
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