“As far as I have heard or observed, the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched. In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.“
I am chopping dozens of lemons for the nutrition department of Bay Park Hospital in Oregon, Ohio. First I cut them lengthwise, then I cut off the top and bottoms, and lastly I slice the remaining lemon into orderly pieces and place them in a large plastic container. Citrus quietly mists up from the knife which is just dull enough to require my focus on the grain of the peel, my fingers close to the blade. The hour smells fresh, like a pleasant soap you might find upon entering a clean bathroom. Happy chemicals exploding out of each tough yellow fruit.
I am thinking about divisions, be they of lemons or people. Yesterday I read an article a friend showed me by one Mark Lynas, which posits that the time for debate over genetically modified foods has come to an end; that in his estimation, the science had shown definitively that GM foods are safe; that futher pushback against GM foods sets dangerous roadblocks to fighting global food insecurity and hunger.
* * *
“By the words necessary of life, I mean whatever, of all that man obtains by his own exertions, has been from the first, or from long use has become, so important to human life that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosopher, ever attempt to do without it. To many creatures there is in this sense but one necessary of life, Food.”
One summer, I attended a dinner at a buddhist temple. When my friends and I arrived, we were shown to take off our shoes and led quietly to the dining room, which contained happy people about to begin their meal. The room was orderly and cool; it was a ground level kitchen with a foundation in the earth. Sitting at the table that was now filled with steaming dishes of quinoa, curried vegetables, and bright green salads dotted with shining dried cherries, we were told that for the first few minutes of the meal we would eat in silence.
I remember my plate. It is certain that no human has ever eaten the exact same thing as another. Our plates radiate unique chemistry. Here the proteins dance in the germ of the grain; lipids and sugars glaze the salad greens, their chloroplasts and vesicles fading imperceptibly, full with water as a river. My mouth is a taproot. My mouth is a weathervane, an electric fence. I am lit by my plate, the flavors are encoded messages – like poetry, stanzas from the sun to the earth and finally there, in that cool July kitchen, when the meal trembled up out of my mind, filled the space above my head and hid in the rafters. To take away a sense – the dance of conversation, the newness of strangers – was to dampen the treble and turn up the bass. Food is life. I forget sometimes.
* * *
“With a little more wit we might use these materials so as to become richer than the richest now are, and make our civilization a blessing.”
One of the most amazing discoveries I made as a student taking Intro to Biochemistry is that not only do we have an almost total understanding of Escherichia coli, but that scientists use segments of its DNA as implements of will in the same fashion you and I use a hammer or a shovel. We know more about E. coli than we do about some stars, even though the stars trace our history. E. coli is used to supply vital insulin to diabetics – an inserted gene allows the bacteria to breathe it as easily as I might exhale.
Agrobacterium tumefaciens is an organism used to modify plant DNA. This is another bacteria, which although not known to the layman, may be known to the gardner. It is the cause of the plant disease known as Crown Galls: small tumors that form at the base of the stalks of some flowers and other herbacious plants. The mechanism for the creation of these tumors is novel. A. tumefaciens inserts some of its own DNA into the DNA of the plant. It does this somewhat randomly; I throw a stone into a river from a dock, it skips or sinks or splashes. DNA is just the script, and the plant runs its machinery along the newly edited ribbon, which is thrown out of sequence: instead of growing a stalk, the plant puts its energy into growing a tumor, which, put simply, is life without reason. To dissect and know A. tumefaciens is to add another shelf to the shed where the rakes are kept. Cut out the virulent plasmid – the slice of bacterial DNA that causes the tumors – and the potential use of A. tumefaciens to plant biologists looms microscopic, crawling with cilia.
A. tumefaciens is used in the creation of a variety of GM crops: Soybeans, cotton, corn, sugar beets, alfalfa, wheat, rapeseed (canola), and golden rice.
* * *
“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already too easy to arrive at”
The biggest crops in the United States are Corn, Soybeans, Wheat, and feed crops for cattle, chickens, and pigs. When I first realized this, my reaction was “When do I eat corn?” and “Tofu is fine, but that sounds like a lot of soybeans…” and then I think more about what’s on the shelves at the grocery store. Soybean oil is the most often consumed oil in the United States; check the label of any prepared food like tortillas, crackers, peanut butter or chips and you’ll see it, usually next to high fructose corn syrup.
The current push by the United States Government is to have half of any meal you eat be fruits and vegetables – the more colorful they are the better. In early fall, I peeled back the leaves of a cauliflower plant growing in a garden and saw the math of fibonacci spirals peering back at me. From the dark dirt comes the beauty of radial symmetry, but still only 33% of Americans meet the recommended daily intake for vegetables. How can we cultivate a love for good food?
There is a technique known as mindful eating that is used to root people in the moment of their meal, and has been effective in treating binge-eating disorder and obesity. Stop and think about your food, look at it. What can you say? What can you smell? What can you see? When you bite into your food, acknowledge its taste, its texture, take your time using your senses the same way you might stand in the warm breeze on a beach or listen to music on your headphones, intently, focused. Mindful eating is not difficult, but it’s opposite to culture. I ate a slice of zucchini bread while running to catch the bus this morning: it was good, I think, but I was probably looking at traffic. I once sat in a fantastically decadent restaurant in Philadelphia with good friends of mine, and we got our moneys worth: every bite seemed to take minutes. The portions were small but the flavors were not. We put our forks down between each bite almost naturally – the food demanded our entire attention. My body surges with limbs made of meals; I wish it was a simpler matter to connect the grooves of my fingers to a particular moment of soup or salad.
* * *
“Is not this railroad which we have built a good thing?” Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is, you might have done worse; but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt.”
The lemons are chopped. I set about cutting cake to put in plastic containers for the cafeteria. They’re beautiful cakes: some with nuts, some with carrots, some filled with frozen cream. We take the old cakes off the shelf and toss them – they expired yesterday. I can’t help but think about energy. Sunlight turning into sugarcane, cocoa, wheat, cows milk, butter, and finally into cake, baked in an oven and stored in a freezer, and its final destination is the trash compactor, and beyond. It seems like an injustice to sunlight but thats the way it usually goes.
According to the National Resource Defense Council, the United States wastes 40% of its food annually, which ends up doing little to curb hunger but breathes out powerful methane gas into the atmosphere. Frosting a chocolate cake was the highlight of the day. We cut off the unsymmetrical ends and threw them away.
It may be that there is promise to be found in GM foods, but I wonder at some of the problems they purport to solve – they seem to be problems of economics and the current market. The current market is killing us in droves, and I am no exception – as a teenager, my own obesity led to an ecchocardiogram of my heart. I was over 300lbs, my features stretched across my face like an over full balloon. In the pipeline now is a soybean oil that contains omega-3 fatty acids, which provide a prophylactic effect against heart disease, but soy oil in the American diet exists for the vast majority as an industrial cooking oil for deep fried foods, cupcakes, granola bars, white breads and cereals – this is not the way to solve heart disease, this is a brilliant marketing campaign.
* * *
I am the time I spend. Time spent being and moving and taking, chopping lemons, heating frying pans, frosting cakes, balancing my economy. I invest in my awareness. Food is too personal – it fills more than my body, it hints at origins of energy. A sense that food is more than a commodity is necessary. Yes – it will be modified in unknowable ways, but to provide a counterbalance of thought and research that does not needlessly demonize but objectively evaluates when possible and subjectively when necessary provides an element of humanity, of art, maybe, into our great biological need. We cannot only wear lab coats and we cannot only have feelings – food is too important: it deserves our undivided humanity.
“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”
* * *
All Walden quotes are from Economy, with the exception of the last, which is from Where I Lived and What I Lived For.