A Philosophy of Food

On Friday, February 6th, I was part of a panel speaking about food with a group of high school students (freshmen and sophomores at The Academy in Brooklyn). The panel consisted of numerous people from different camps of food philosophy (a freegan, a vegan, numerous vegetarians, an adherent of Kosher eating, a rasta and a local food eater). Each of us had a chance to explain our philosophy of food and answer the students questions. What follows is an adaptation of my presentation:

Occasionally I get the question “why are you a vegetarian?”

Well, there are three answers: Ethical, Environmental and Health reasons. Before I describe the details of these three reasons, I want to point out an interesting relationship between them. Note that the first two, the ethical and environmental, are purely altruistic reasons where concern is directed to the outside, while the last reason – health – is purely selfish. Despite the opposite nature of these reasons, they coexist and surprisingly, they intersect.

First, the Ethical:
I remember watching a movie called ‘Faces of Death’ when I was a teenager. The theme in the one we watched was ‘where our food comes from’ and in it there were a number of slaughterhouses filmed juxtaposed with footage of people eating KFC, McDonalds and other fast food. It was rather disturbing, bringing up questions of reification – or abstraction – where people didn’t even fully understand what their food really was… What is a chicken, a cow, or a pig or turkey? What experience do we have with these creatures beyond purchasing their flesh at a local supermarket? But it was another film, Baraka, which drove the nail down. In this beautifully filmed work, the early life of baby chicks was briefly depicted. While being carted about on a conveyer belt, workers grabbed chicks one by one pressing their head against a hot iron in order to burn their beak off their face – presumably to protect them from harming themselves and others. I always felt that these and other examples of our dominion over nonhuman animals made a few judgments ethically apparent that. The first is that at the very least, living things deserve the chance to guide their own destinies. Secondly, there is such a thing as slavery and exploitation for non-human animals and finally, just because we can do something, does not mean we must.

The Environmental:
It has become a matter of empirical fact that the way we eat (three huge meals a day, each usually consisting of meat portions – and by ‘we’ I mean us Americans and others around the world) has lead to a gross misappropriation of resources and is extremely harmful to our environment – that is, our only plane of existence. Now I want to remind you, that years ago, when we were all hunter-gatherers, the only way we could eat a meal consisting of meat was to go out and kill game ourselves which almost exclusively meant people didn’t eat meat three times a day on a regular basis. It is worth noting that this much meat intake is new to the species and may not be what our digestion system evolved to handle.

Getting back to the point, allow me to quickly paint a picture for you. If you go to the mid-west – Indiana, Iowa, Illinois – you’ll see corn and a lot of it. In many parts of those and other states it will look like a never-ending field of it. Now in order to grow all this corn you need a lot of fertilizer, pesticides and water. Forgetting about the pesticides for a moment, all the water washes the fertilizer away , sending it into streams and rivers which eventually flow into the ocean. When this fertilizer, or nutrient-rich water gets to the oceans nature takes heed. Remember, nature never passes up an opportunity… Algae feed on these nutrients and proliferate rapidly, thereby sucking all the oxygen out of the surrounding area. As a result, any fish, crab or sea life that swim in these areas die of asphyxiation – they suffocate. These areas, called Dead Zones, have been found all over the world and are all due to modern agriculture.

Now, finally Health:
Remember I talked about all that corn being grown? Since there is so much of this stuff we need to find something to do with it, so we make some high-fructose corn syrup here, feed some to the cows there… But, the thing is, cow’s can’t digest corn all too well because they didn’t evolve eating corn… they evolved stomachs that digest grass very well. So the cows get sick, and need to be pumped full of anti-biotics. The result is the poor sap that eats the beef at the top of the food chain gets a little more than ketchup and mustard with his burger.

So I’ll finish up on two things. The real message here isn’t about what you eat; it’s about thinking things through. Where did what you are come from? How does what you chose to eat affect the environment? How will the thing you just ate affect your health? Will you be able to get through your day refreshed? Will you be in a metabolic state where you can optimally navigate your world?

And finally, eating is special. When we eat we are in fact acknowledging our mortality and in a sense, performing a veritable meditation on our own life and death. That is when we eat we take the life of the food we ingest (as plants are alive and so are the resources obtained from the flesh of animals).

When we realize this, we see that dead food loses something (i.e. frozen food with its punctured cellular walls loses flavor, processed food loses its vitamins and nutrients) and that our choices in food are representative of a death elsewhere – either the localized death of a once living plant or animal, or the metadeath of an ecosystem. Regardless of the magnitude, the burden ultimately falls on our choices… on us.

3 thoughts on “A Philosophy of Food

  1. Well said, Jacques. I especially love the idea of “thinking things through.”

    Health counselors in general try to educate the public about the right and the wrong foods for them – but also to empower them to start thinking about these very questions.

    It’s exciting to see that you brought these questions up rather than lecturing the so called “my way” 🙂

  2. Hi Jacques,
    great essay. I also like to use the ‘tripartite’ logic behind vegetarian behavior in humans.

    However, I do have a quibble that i think is worth thinking about. In saying that hunters and gatherers rarely ate meat on a daily basis and therefore not what our species digestion system is evolved for is misleading on two counts:

    1.hunters and gatherer populations persisted in a wide variety of environments such that their diets were also variable. For example, humans living populations persisting on the pacific northwest coast 15,000 years ago or a population on the adriatic coast 30,000 years ago likely ate seafood on a daily basis.

    2. An overwhelming body of emergent population genomic data strongly suggests that much of our genome was shaped by massive natural selection that occurred since the dawn of agriculture and cities. One striking example that illustrates this is the genetic evidence showing that our digestive systems very recently evolved to digest milk (and that this evolved independently twice). This is just one little example, but the more we look, the more we see how environments correlated with urban and agricultural living drove selection all over the genome.

    keep up the good words and thoughts!

    mike, the ashbox guy

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