No, Really... You Are What You Eat

Jeriah Bowser I Ecology & Sustainability I Commentary I May 22nd, 2013

"Can you point to the radish?" I asked the group of kids gathered in front of my booth. Awkward silence ensues, each pair of inquisitive and curious eyes looking around at their peers, waiting for a brave soul to challenge the long-haired intruder into their part of neighborhood. Finally, a small boy timidly raises his hand and points to my right hand, which holds…. a tomato. I try to say with as much enthusiasm as I can muster, "No, but you're really close, that's a tomato! You know, like tomato sauce and ketchup! Er, well, not really ketchup, that's just corn syrup and artificial flavoring, but um, you were really close!" Kids can smell a bullshitter quicker than a fart in an elevator, and I am quickly met with several frowns and a couple of longing glances at the chocolate vendor a few stalls down from me at the Downtown Cleveland Square farmers market.

I need a different strategy, quick. "Who likes CHEESE?!? Aw yeah, that's great! Ok, who wants to try some FREE organic, grassfed, raw-milk cheese? What's organic? Oh, that just means that there are no chemicals in it… no, not like Windex, but kinda. Grassfed? Oh, that means the cows eat grass instead of grain or other byproducts… No, the cheese doesn't taste like grass, I promise… wait, you haven't even tried it yet… ok, bye…"

And thus concludes yet another failed attempt at luring in a new generation of customers to my edible wares. "How does an eight year old not know what a radish looks like?" I ask no one in particular as I pack up my produce and cheese and head home. "How does someone graduate elementary school not knowing where cheese comes from? Better question - how does a person grow up not having any relationship with their food, or any awareness of what they are ingesting and putting into their body?"

These are questions I ask myself nearly every day, as I am confronted with the barrage of information and advertisements that want to sell me everything from protein bars and weight-loss shakes to miraculous diets and nutrition plans. Opening the pages of any health or fitness magazine, one is confronted with page after page of seemingly fit, healthy young people pausing mid-workout to tell me how they cut this or that out of their diet, or bought this product to enhance their energy, only to find their miraculous revelations flatly contradicted in the latest episode of Dr. Oz or Oprah or some other self-proclaimed nutrition Messiah. Everyone is saying something different.

How is it that I can now acquire and consume in minutes the same amount of food that would have taken my great-great-great grandparents hours or days to hunt and gather? Yes, I know that, because of the industrial revolution and increase in efficiency and productivity, fewer people can now grow more food and support a bigger population; yet I am still led to ask, "At what cost? What if what we eat affects us in more ways than we realize? What if we really are what we eat?"

In 1953, a very strange and somewhat horrifying experiment was conducted in the basement at the University of Michigan by Dr. James McConnell. "Dr. Jim" was an accomplished biologist and animal psychologist who had a sneaking suspicion that memory can be transmitted not only through genetics and behavior, but through… cannibalism. Well, not necessarily cannibalism, but through consuming the flesh of another creature who had stored information in their body. He started off his experiment in a pretty standard way- letting planarian worms navigate their way through a maze to find food at the end. What he did next, though, was pretty shocking. He ground up the worms that had successfully completed the maze and fed them to another batch of worms; measuring the time it took the fresh batch of worms to complete the maze versus the original round of now dead worms. Guess what happened - the worms that ate their friends were considerably more successful in completing the maze than their vegetarian counterparts. Although his experiments have been widely interpreted and translated, the sum of his study is thus: Memory and experiences can be transferred through consuming another being.

Ethical dilemmas aside, there are some pretty some deep implications that such an experiment has to offer. If we are not only eating an animal, but also eating that creature's sum total life experiences, memories, and thoughts, what effect will that have on us?

I clearly remember growing up in a farm community in southern Indiana, where our neighbors had dairy cows that my brother and I would love to chase around and throw sticks at. Our neighbors were pretty tolerant and didn't mind it, unless it was right before milking time. We were warned very sternly to not get the cows riled up before milking time, as it would stress the cows out and sour the milk. Like any good country boys, our boredom eventually won out and we continued to terrorize our milk-laden bovine friends. Only now am I beginning to understand what our long-suffering neighbor was trying to communicate.

The feeling of "stress" exists on a chemical level as the hormone Cortisol. Cortisol acts upon our bodies in many ways, most notably being the breakdown of muscles in order to create instant energy for sudden activities, such as running away from a threat. When animals or humans feel danger or perceived danger, we release cortisol into our blood stream, which in turn affects nearly every system and part of our body, mostly in negative ways. When my brother and I chased cows, they would release cortisol into their blood stream, which would in turn go into the milk, which would in turn be consumed by humans with their daily dose of Wheaties. Given the current conditions of industrial dairy farms and the stressful and questionable treatment given to these animals, one is led to ask: "How is all this stress affecting me?"

If you're waiting for the moment where I advertise my new diet plan, smoothie recipe, and celebrity-endorsed fitness program, you should just stop right here. I write this article not to advocate any particular philosophy or product, but simply to lead us to examine the question of food and to consider that maybe what we put in our bodies does matter.

Or maybe the idea of putting memories, emotions, thoughts, and stress into your body doesn't bother you. You are not alone. Consider this, however: what if the way that you eat greatly affects the way that the rest of the world can eat?

Currently, the World Health Organization estimates that about 2 billion people worldwide have the privilege of eating a primarily meat-based diet, while another 4.7 billion people live on a plant-based diet, because they do not have the resources to be able to eat meat. Of the 4.7 billion plant-eaters, 3 billion people are "malnourished" and 1.8 billion are "chronically malnourished." The amount of land, water and fuel required to produce enough meat to feed the two billion meat-eaters around the world requires the rest of the world to live in poverty and servitude to the carnivorous majority. This is the largest food disparity the world has ever seen, and it is not showing any signs of stopping. To put it plainly, it takes 17 pounds of grain, 5,214 gallons of water, and 2.5 acres of land to produce just 1 pound of beef. Not one cow, just one pound.

That same amount of grain, water and land applied to growing a variety of grains, fruits and vegetables could produce over 200 pounds of food. It's like a reverse food factory.

Chicken and pork production is slightly less resource-intensive, but is still very inefficient compared to plant production. If every meat-eater worldwide were to cut their meat consumption by about 20%, there would be enough resources to support every member of the planet's 6.975 billion people, and we would drastically slow the erosion, water aquifer depletion, fossil fuel consumption, and overall pillaging of our planet's resources.

Who knew that burgers were such a big deal?

I sure didn't, until I started asking some questions. Questions like where does my food come from? Who planted, grew and harvested the wheat that was used in my sandwich? What kind of chicken laid the eggs that I ate this morning, and who handled them and delivered them to the store? What kind of life did the cow that I ate for dinner last week have, and what were her last thoughts as she was slaughtered? How many people won't be able to eat today because of the food system that I consciously or unconsciously participate in?

If you are one of the few who is beginning to thinks that all of this does actually matter… if what we eat does affect us, then we need to seriously look at the state of affairs of the U.S. agricultural system and what is going on. We need to start asking questions of everybody, from our local supermarket to our political representatives. We need to ask why certain foods are subsidized and others aren't, and how that affects our diet. We need to start reading the ingredients labels on our food, and typing those strange long chemical names like BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene) into our search browsers to find that, wait, that's an embalming fluid and a jet fuel… why is that in my breakfast cereal? We need to question if it is really a good thing that ten corporations control nearly every single consumable food and beverage item in the U.S. We need to wonder if we want our grandchildren to inherit a better world, or a much worse world. We need to ask ourselves if we are comfortable consuming a diet that forces the rest of the world into poverty and malnutrition. We need to ask ourselves what we want the world to look like and who we want ourselves to be in 50 years; and eat foods that will lead us to that end, because really, in the end, we are what we eat.