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Elizabeth McVay Greene Headshot

Finding the Sacred and the Satirical in our Food

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Were you as stunned as I was to hear that Stephen Colbert was going to appear at a House Subcommittee Hearing to discuss his views on farm labor? I'm used to Willie Nelson speaking on behalf of farmers, but that seems to fit his image rather well. Colbert, on the other hand, seems like a guy whose free market politics would steer him clear of any sort of stumping for US agriculture. To listen to his commentary was to understand that he was there to draw attention to the need for basic rights and fair treatment of farm workers -- not to contemplate what kind of capitalist he is. And what better testament to the urgency, gravity, and complexity of our food challenges than to hear a white entertainer in a suit ask us to consider the people responsible for getting food to our tables?

The testimony from both Colbert and Arturo Rodriguez of the United Farm Workers reminds us that, really, we have no idea what we're eating, whose bottom line we're supporting, or what agenda we are inadvertently furthering with our food dollars. Just as I dispute the FDA's claim that genetically modified salmon is not materially different from non-GMO salmon, I contend that not every tomato -- or apple, carrot, or bean -- is equal. Quite the contrary, we try to simplify our markets by commoditizing food, but we have reached a period in which the slightest differentiating factor, from what kind of fertilizer was used on the field to the origin of the seed, can affect the price, market destination, and end use of a crop.

Let's think about this. Say two peaches were placed before you -- same variety, same harvest date. You were assured that one had been sprayed with an insecticide that had run off into an underground stream that would ultimately affect water quality in the Gulf of Mexico, all the while using as close to forced labor as the US comes. The other peach had come from a neighboring field, where the farmer used integrated pest management that required a quarter of the insecticide and thus added only a fraction of the groundwater pollution as her neighbor, and farm laborers were paid a decent wage. How much more would you pay to eat the second peach instead of the first?

As this over-simplified example demonstrates, by not knowing, we can unwittingly participate in something we'd rather not. I'd like to think that farmers' markets could solve the information problem, but unfortunately they are not only inaccessible to a large portion of the population, but they are also mired in their own struggles for transparency. And so, without easy access to information, we make decisions that are less than optimal for ourselves and for others.

The question comes down to what you know about your food. To know is to acknowledge the sacred in food, what theologian Ellen Davis describes as a way of thinking about food that honors the people, animals, and elements that cultivated and harvested it. It's what we mean to do when we pray at meal time.

However, the fact that so few of us know the story of our food is due in large part to how the food system is set up. From cotton traders in India to spinach packers in California, the dominant view is that markets are more efficient if the consumer doesn't know.

Herein lies the contradiction, and thus the satire. The stuff we depend on everyday to sustain our physical being -- and often emotional and spiritual being as well -- is the stuff we know so little about that we're making choices that actually defeat the purpose of food: to nourish. No wonder Colbert found an angle on all of this. We are acting the fool. And so, I leave you with one question. Whom are you empowering to feed you?

This piece also appears on Zocalo.

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