Vision, Intention, Action! Planting the Seeds for a Healthier Food System

A friend of mine recently forwarded me an email from a website called The Vision Alignment Project.  The document she forwarded could best be described as a manifesto or vision for our global food system.  I’ve quoted the main points below:

We see a world where all foods, everywhere, are healthy, beautiful, and delicious; where every morsel is filled with life-force energy which makes us strong and vibrant so we are able to live active, fulfilling lives.

We see the food cared for, every step of the way, as it comes from the Earth to our tables; where the farmers and gardeners have realized that the energy within the food is directly related to the love that went into growing it; where people bless … the plants as they grow because along with seeding, fertilizing, watering, and cultivating the plants, we have learned that … intending blessings for every plant is an equally important part of the farming process, and that it insures the energy we receive from the plants is of the highest quality.

We see additives, addictive agents, preservatives, processing, and packaging no longer needed because we, humanity, have evolved to a point where we are only ingesting clean, fresh, live foods….

“Vision without execution is hallucination.” (Thomas Edison)

Overall it’s a vision worth striving for—goodness only knows we need a drastic overhaul of our food system.  But there are a few things missing from this vision.  First, the vision or intention does not seem to acknowledge the reality of our current global food system.  It paints a romanticized image of rural and farm life and ignores the uglier aspects of a system (corporate interests and politics) that, as Raj Patel points out in his 2007 book Stuffed and Starved, all too frequently negatively impact farmers’ livelihoods, dignity and ability to put food on their own tables.  Second, there is no mention of how the good folks at the Vision Alignment project propose to transform their vision into a reality.  Much as we might like to wish otherwise, it requires more than just focusing on the positive and intending that a specific outcome or vision unfolds.  It takes action.

These days it seems as though an increasing number of individuals have been lulled into believing that simply thinking about–or clearly envisioning–what they want will “make it so” through the laws of attraction and manifestation. It would seem almost as many people have been seduced into complacency and not taking a stand for social and economic justice issues through this line of new age thinking’s flip side of “your thinking makes it so”—thereby subtly blaming victims for the tragedies and struggles in their lives–or failing to take action because allegedly “what we resist persists”.

Rather than dwell on the short-comings of such thinking, let’s take the main points in this vision, and figure out what we need to do to make the vision a reality.  I’ve drawn the background information primarily from Raj Patel’s 2007 book Stuffed and Starved, and I’ll note where I’ve pulled information from other sources, as well as offer some resources for additional reading.

“We can chart our future clearly and wisely only when we know the path which has led to the present.” (Adlai E. Stevenson)

If we are to bring about the kind of changes to our food system envisioned by the vision alignment project, we need to understand how our current system evolved, and recognize that it is deeply entangled with politics, economics, corporate interests, environmental sustainability and social justice issues.   I’m inclined to agree with Patel that most of us don’t have a clue about how our food system really works.  Yet instead of being encouraged to be knowledgeable consumers, we are dissuaded from asking too many challenging questions about where and how food is grown and produced.  Instead, we see concerted efforts to redirect our focus on the apparent increase in the variety of foods that are now so readily available to us at prices much lower than their true cost to produce (Patel, 2007, p.8).  In his book The Value of Nothing (2009), Patel gives a great example of this under pricing of our food as it relates to fast food such as hamburgers. He notes that if we took into account all of the environmental and human costs, our hamburgers should actually cost close to $200, not a mere three or four dollars.

Understanding how our food system works and why we end up with so many unhealthy foods in our supermarkets means identifying the true power-brokers and decision makers in the system.  The major decision makers are the food production companies who have strategically placed themselves as middle-men in the system and wield considerable control over both the farmers who grow our food and the choices that we as consumers have (Patel, 2007).  Much as we might like to believe otherwise, “our choices are not entirely our own because, even in the supermarket, the menu is crafted by the power of food corporations.” (Patel, 2007, p.2)  A lot of money goes into both marketing research that tells corporations how to manipulate consumers’ tastes and food preferences and cost analyses that determine how to get food into the supermarkets as cheaply as possible.  Common sense should tell us, though, that some-one, somewhere, is bearing the brunt of our low food costs at great expense to themselves.

How many of us stop to consider the role of food production companies in the system, let alone question the insidious consequences of their decisions for farmers’ livelihoods and consumers’ health?  We’re beginning to get a much clearer idea of how our food “choices” are affecting our health and well-being, but I don’t think we hear quite as much in the mainstream media about how food corporations’ decisions and market capitalism shape the agricultural sector. According to Patel, farmers are constrained by the dictates of the market which is anything but a level playing field–and even less so for farmers and farm workers in the global south.  Farmers in the global north and south frequently carry depressingly high debt loads (often to the point of driving farmers to suicide), have few choices as to whom they buy seeds from (there are only a handful of large corporations who own most of the global seed supply), what crops they grow, or even how they grow those crops.  Frequently these crops require the heavy use of petro-chemically based fertilizers and pesticides which exact their price both in money and the well-being of humans, animals and the health of the soil.  The economics of agribusiness favours a system of monoculture (growing only one crop) farming, as well as suppressing wages of farmers and the workers on their land and opposing (sometimes brutally) workers’ attempts to organize and fight for better working conditions.  My friend Pete McCormack has written some excellent essays on the food system, factory farms, our “junk food nation” and the struggles of farmers and farm labourers to organize for better working conditions. I highly recommend checking out his blog essays (or “blessays“ as I like to call them). You might like to start with one of his essays on the United Fruit Company.

Real food isn`t made in a chemistry lab

Now let’s consider the next desire in our vision of a new and improved food system: a world where there is no longer a need for additives, preservatives, artificial ingredients, processed foods, etc.  We’ll start by taking a look at what is actually available in our supermarkets.  In the first chapter of his book, Patel notes that while there are only a half-dozen varieties of apples stocked in supermarkets, there are 40 or more different kinds of cereals (2007)—most of them loaded with sugar, artificial colours and flavours.  Like Patel, I’ve noticed that the selection in most supermarkets seems to be weighted (pun intended) in favour of highly processed convenience foods—made of long lists of ingredients I would expect to find in a chemistry lab not my food–over an abundant variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Both Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan have written extensively about their concerns with the type and quality of most of the “food” (or food “products”) available to us, and how this relates back to the politics and power of food corporations.

Study after study has clearly shown that a diet based on fresh produce and minimally processed foods is much better for our health and has the power to prevent or reverse obesity and many of the chronic inflammatory diseases directly linked to the standard western diet. You would think that public health officials and governments would be scrambling to support, encourage or mandate changes to the kinds of food available to us–if only because it would cut the costs to health care systems in the long run.  And yet, the junk food aisles continue to occupy the lion’s share of “prime real estate” (the centre aisles) in most supermarkets.  Why? The succinct answer is subsidized commodity crops—corn, rice, wheat, and soy, to be precise— (See Pollan’s 2008 article “Farmer-in-Chief” for a detailed explanation of how these policies emerged.) and a powerful food industry lobby that not only determines what foods appear on supermarket shelves but also seems to have a big hand in shaping nutritional guidelines and nutritional labelling policies, according to Pollan’s 2009 article “Rules to Eat By”.  If we want to see nutritionally empty food and a long list of artificial flavours and additives disappear from supermarket shelves, then it’s up to us to vote with our wallets and taste-buds.

Snow White should have asked why that apple looked so beautiful…

The vision alignment project envisions food that is beautiful, healthy and delicious. The irony of this statement is that it is in fact the most beautiful looking produce that generally turns up in supermarkets—but it limits us to varieties of fruits and vegetables hardy enough to withstand waxing, spraying, and long distance transportation at the expense of freshness, flavour and nutritional value.  If you’ve ever picked fruit off the tree or bought organic, locally grown produce from a farmer’s market, the one thing it usually is not is “beautiful” in terms of visual appeal, although it is generally much tastier and more nutrient dense because the length of time that elapsed between harvesting the food and getting it to market is considerably decreased.  Even vegetables and fruits that do travel well with minimal processing to preserve freshness and look “beautiful” may well be blemished from the perspective of the human, animal or environmental costs associated with their production.  There’s a good chance that very little love (except of profits) went into the growing and harvesting of the crops.  This leads me to the third major point from the Vision Alignment Project’s intention that I wish to address.

Produced with love and blessings

I’d bet most of us have had the experience of eating a meal that was prepared with love, care, and attention to detail, or made with vegetables or fruits that we have grown in our own gardens. We know how much tastier and nourishing that meal seems to be compared to the convenient, fast-food that we grab on the run at lunch time.  My hunch is that if we put some time into investigating how much of our food is grown (e.g., underpaying farm labourers or aggressively blocking their right to organize for fair and safe working conditions) or raised (e.g., the conditions in which most factory farm animals are kept), we would realize that very little love goes into the growing, raising or other processing of our food before it arrives in our supermarkets.

Patel devotes several chapters in Stuffed and Starved to the trials, tribulations and indignities endured by farmers throughout the world.  Other books that speak to the ethics of food production—from unsustainable agricultural and fisheries practices to the eye-opening and horrifying conditions of factory farm animals—and the deteriorating quality of our food and food choices include The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason (2007), In Defence of Food by Michael Pollan (2009) and Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should be Good, Clean and Fair by Carlo Petrini (2007). Some of these books are not easy to read.  One book that is easy to read and provides a nice balance between serious discussions and a light-hearted recounting of some of the funnier events that unfold in the day of a small farm is Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life, by Brian Brett (2009).

We must create the changes we wish to see in the world

If we want food that is blessed and grown or raised with a loving attitude, we have some serious work ahead and some challenging choice points to face.  Are we willing to stand up and challenge large corporations that mistreat and devalue humans, animals and the land in the process of giving us what we claim we want (inexpensive, easily accessible food), while ensuring they rake in handsome profits to keep shareholders happy?  How willing are we to sacrifice low costs and the convenience factor for food that really is grown and raised ethically and with reverence for both the humans who do the work and the conditions in which our food is grown or raised?  (On a personal note, I willingly pay over $6 CAD for a dozen eggs from a farm that is certified by the SPCA as cruelty-free.)  Are we prepared to take a stand and support farmers’ and farm labourers’ demands for fair wages, decent working conditions and the right to organized labour (i.e., become unionized)?  Are we also willing to challenge and eradicate the massive economic inequalities that left approximately 9% of the Canadian population (in 2004), 15% of the U.S. population (in 2009) and 15% of the population in developing nations (in 2009) with inadequate funds to buy food?

If we want a new global food system rooted in fairness, ethical, humane and sustainable practices and food that is healthy, nutritious, beautiful, and filled with positive, vibrant energy, we are the ones who must create the changes we wish to see, through voting with our feet, mouths, and wallets.  So what steps can you personally take to bring about these changes? Read on….

Six ways to help transform the vision into reality

Here are six actions you can take toward transforming our food system.  It can feel a little overwhelming to take on too many new actions at once, so I’d recommend just choosing one and see how it works for you.  If you’re not ready to implement changes just yet, simply becoming aware of how individual choices play into or help to change our food system is a bigger step than you might give yourself credit for, so be kind to yourself.

  1. Learn about the food system. I heartily agree with Adlai E. Stevenson about the importance of understanding where we`ve come from so we can more effectively change our future.  I`ve mentioned several resources throughout the article that could be used as a starting point for reading more about our current food system and its impact on the world.  Better yet, consider rustling up a group of like-minded friend and start a food action circle through the Be the Change Earth Alliance.  You can discuss the weekly readings and support each other in taking the kinds of actions listed here and in the Be the Change Action Circle guide.
  2. Put your money where your mouth is.  Buy organic, free-trade, and humanely raised foods whenever possible. I`m not going to lie.  This is not a cheap option.  You can expect to pay a lot more foods that are grown organically or raised humanely.  The same goes for fair trade products such as coffee, tea, cane sugar, and chocolate.  You will also have to research food companies’ claims carefully as green-washing has become the new whitewashing.
  3. Eat locally, seasonally, and sustainably. As you can probably guess, if you`re going to eat locally and seasonally, depending on where you live, it means you`re not going to be eating a lot of tomatoes or strawberries in the middle of winter.  Never mind, the taste of those fresh, locally grown tomatoes eaten in season will spoil you for tasteless crops shipped hundreds or thousands of miles or kilometres, anyway.  One thing that I do want to point out here is that often smaller farms that sell their produce at local farmers` markets do grow their crops organically, but may not be certified as it is a costly process.  Here`s a challenge for you:  If you want to see exactly how local you can get with your diet and food sources, check out the Two Block Diet, although this is definitely a project you`d want to take on as a neighbourhood, if you decide to go for it.
  4. Support local businesses. One way of doing this is to join a Community Supported Agricultural initiative (CSA).  By taking this action you are supporting local agricultural workers and food producers, you are keeping money in your local community or region thereby stimulating your local economy and you are reducing your carbon footprint.  If you want even more brownie points, see if you can work with a CSA to make memberships affordable for individuals on limited incomes.
  5. 5. Consider eating less meat. I know this is a difficult one for many people.  I promise you that a couple of meatless dinners a week will be healthier for you and it will be kinder to the animals and the planet.  In addition to animal welfare considerations, raising animals in factory-like feedlots takes an enormous toll on the environment as well as reducing the availability of land for growing crops that could be used to feed people.  Rather than perceiving meatless meals as a hardship or loss, reframe it as a fun adventure in trying out new recipes.  There are any number of websites with recipes for vegetarian meals that don`t include tofu or brown rice.  Really! 😉
  6. 6. Support campaigns for living wages, fair working conditions and farm labourers’ rights to organize. Find out where your elected officials stand on these issues. If they don`t support them, ask why not or consider backing politicians who do have an established track record for supporting these and other social justice issues.  You can also show your support by voting with your feet and your wallet.  Research various food corporations’, suppliers’ and restaurants’ track records when it comes to social justice and environmental issues and decide whether you want to give them your business or not.

September 5, 2010 · Susan · 4 Comments
Posted in: Environment, Social Justice

4 Responses

  1. Karl Staib - Work Happy Now - September 7, 2010

    It’s surprising to think about the damage a burger is doing to our earth. I never thought to think of it as a cost of $100. That’s a great way of looking at it.

    I’ve been learning a lot about our food system. The last documentary I saw on food was Food Inc. It’s an amazing watch and a great start to understanding the hard choices we need to make as a society for the next 25 years.

    Great job Sue! I could feel the passion for your topic as I read.

  2. Susan - September 7, 2010

    Hi Karl,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I haven’t seen Food Inc. (except for the trailer) and it’s on my list to see. Yes, the damage that our food system does to the planet is quite horrifying when you start thinking about it. It can also feel really overwhelming just trying to figure out what to do to that would be a small step in a new direction. Thank you for making the decision to start learning about our food system and caring about the bigger picture.

    Have a great day.

  3. Evita - September 10, 2010

    Hi Susan

    Wow, this type of content is music to my ears. In my line of work and the passion that drives me today, this is exactly the kind of stuff that I try to open people’s eyes to and educate them about.

    We have made eating hard, corrupted, unsustainable and the list goes on and on… but it doesn’t have to be this way. So while I think positive thinking and having a vision is good, the next step and all that I believe it takes for massive change to sweep at least our Western society is for more people to “be and live the change they want to see”.

    Yes, the companies and corporations control most of the food supply, but they are crippled without our monetary support.

    So we do need to get more people awakened and educated, simply to start making better choices for everyone on this planet who supports the greater good.

    I love all your points and am proud to say that I am living out eating natural and plant based only, in an optimized way for my health, and nothing has ever felt better for my health, the planet, the animals and my personal growth!

    And I will just add in one quick observation about the organic food not being beautiful… I have to say Susan, I think it is, it is all a matter of the relative definition we assign to beauty. To me kale with huge holes in it (from the little creatures chewing into it) is beautiful, where as an overgrown, waxy apple actually is not. I compare it to how we view humans, the natural beauty vs the fake, make-up based beauty 😉

  4. Susan - September 10, 2010

    Hi Evita,

    Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. At a personal level, I agree with you whole-heartedly about the real versus fake beauty of food. I like those smaller, polish free apples that just burst with flavour (and not wax) when you bite into them–they have way more character and charm than the perfect looking apples, and the same goes for the other natural beauties of the fruit and veggie world.

    The point I was alluding to (But not clearly enough, so thanks for catching that and commenting!) was that we also need to rethink our perceptions and ideas about what beautiful looks like (and what delicious tastes like, for that matter). I’ll clarify what was meant by the cryptic reference to Snow White’s apple; namely that although that apple looked beautiful on the outside, it was quite deadly on the inside, if you remember the fairy tale. Organically grown food may not look “pretty” if we’ve come to judge looks (whether of people or produce) by the artifice we see in so much of our society and we need to reframe our ideas of what natural beauty looks like–free of all the veggie equivalents of cosmetic treatments. Meanwhile, all of those oversized, perfectly polished apples, blemish free tomatoes, and hole-free green leafy vegetables may look perfect but they come with a high price in terms of the chemical pesticides, waxes and whatever else goes on the produceto keep it looking “perfect” and “fresh” on its long trek to supermarket.

    Bright and healthy blessings to you, Evita.

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