Thursday, December 5, 2019

There is always compromise: Eating well in a complex global food system

There have been quite a few articles circulating recently about orthorexia, about the desire to control ones diet to the extreme and eat perfectly. With this approach, too often your diet is a type of shorthand, a ticket into some kind of exclusive club. If you say you do or don’t eat x, you get to be in relationship. And that seems quasi-religious to me. I agree that it is good to eat well. I even attempt to treat illness with changes in diet. I’m sold on this— it’s the subject of much of my research and it’s a key reason we farm. 

I want to speak out against the moral dimension that creeps in all too quickly— that we become righteous by what we eat, by what we consume. If someone comes to my house, I want them to be equally valued whatever they bring with them— I want them to know they are valued and that I can never fully know their stories and I will never judge them based on their food choices. 

As much as I want to do right by what I eat, in perfectionism lies madness. I say this with the caveat that I know there are real food allergies where perfectionism is pretty important if one wants to stay out of hospital. The motivation for “clean” eating seems a little different. It’s along the lines of wanting to always be in perfect health, or to be along a uniquely sustainable pathway. It sometimes even sounds a little evangelical. 

We live in a world that is infinitely complex, where our choices are always difficult. They are choices between us and God, or between us and our conscience. 

For me and my family, there is always compromise: what food our children will enjoy in the long term, our desire to not control our children’s preferences, our desire to steward our money and land well, to manage our dreams and our goals, how we manage our time, how a specific food fits with our five-year farm plan. In this set of dreams and dreaming, we make food choices. And in the safety of conceding inevitable imperfection, we make tremendous progress. Our diet is indistinguishable from the diet that we consumed nine or ten years ago. Yet if I need to go back to that diet for a week or a month, because we are traveling, I am sort of ok with that. I am ok getting chips and ice-cream with the kids now and then, ok with consuming meat with friends and family. I’m not saying this way of being is another kind of perfect, just that it is peaceful, and I find that it’s only when I’m peaceful that I’m able to make genuine progress— progress that extends beyond myself, because peace (like violence) spreads.   

In recognizing the compromises I make, I am also ok with the compromises made by farmers, provided they are honest, there are ways for us to talk about these compromises, and they are not compromises that will lead me directly to a hospital, at least in the short term. 

In farming for my family, I am able to farm quite idealistically, because I have made compromises in other areas: I feel I have enough money that I don’t have to farm for maximum profit. When I fail, I can still buy good food. That feeling of having enough is really important and powerful. 

If one is able to eat, supporting only the very best local farms, there are still questions of the definitions of best, definitions of local, prioritizing planet or healthy people or trying to weigh the two. Vegan or paleo? How much do farm workers get paid? How sustainable is the packaging? What if something you’ve eaten for a long time is not grown locally: do you change your diet? Was using the money to buy this food better than giving it to a neighbour who is eating very poorly because of circumstances beyond their control? Why is it better? These are questions of values, and it is ok for people to have different values around food. For me, farming and spending a lot of time on food is about trying to live the value that returns us to the actions that connect us to the earth, physically and spiritually. 

So I think there is always compromise (visible or invisible), and compromise — literally “coming together”— is not a bad thing. Remaining cemented in our rightness means we often cannot meet another person where they are— and in food, there is always a mountain of ambiguity, uncertainty, and trade-offs that are specific to local context. In finding common ground, we can move forward together. And ultimately, it is only together that we can go far.

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