Food for Thought

07/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What did you eat for lunch? A salad, a Big Mac, a burrito, soup, turkey or roast beef sandwich? Or a can of Ensure or SlimFast? "Food, glorious food," sings Oliver in the Dickens classic. Most of us take this glorious food for granted in these United States. We have so much, easy and available, that as a nation we are overweight and out of shape. But when climate change reshapes agriculture and food supply, so also will the effects reshape us. Drought and warmer temperatures threaten agricultural patterns and productivity worldwide.

The process is already upon us. Food riots and shortages focus our attention on an unaccustomed arena. With commodities beginning their market ascendancy, the crunch cannot be far behind. According to experts, shortages are on the rise and available acreage for growing is being squeezed. Farming practices must now change from monocultures that cause soil erosion to more diverse and rotational use of the land, according to the findings of geologist Dr. David Montgomery of the University of Washington.

Many cattle no longer roam, they are garrisoned in small feedlots, where they suffer and spread disease; hog farms are both cruel and notorious polluters. Popularity of local produce is gaining ground across the country, because it is considered fresher, tastier, and safer than products of the big agri-business combines. Chain groceries are convenient, certainly. Prepared foods are quick and easy to defrost and pop into the oven for busy families, but there is a big question and cultural conundrum attached to this quick fix. Both health and culture are by-products of food preparation and practices in our country. We need to revisit them before a new reality visits us.

Until we commit to newer, cleaner energy and smarter farming, higher food prices and higher fuel prices will cause changes in our habits. This may not be all bad. It may even be lemonade out of the lemon. If we think of food in the macro view of our society, what does it tell us? First of all, what is more important to us: speed, i.e. quick food or a healthier society? Meals should taste good, nourish well, and be a pleasure to prepare and consume. They should not do us harm. They should have some pleasant communal and familial function. Finally food production should support local commerce for its own sake, as well as reducing carbon emissions from long-range air travel.

There are things we know or are learning. Too much fat is deadly. Too much sugar is bad for our teeth and our blood sugar levels. High fructose corn syrup, omnipresent in cereals, drinks, prepared foods and condiments, can cause liver damage and, perhaps, alter metabolisms. Hormones and antibiotics in poultry and meat cause all sorts of mischief. Pesticides can be poisonous and leech into ground water. Big grocery and restaurant chains can change some their practices and support local producers and healthier labels with consumer encouragement.

So should we begin to think of food as something we purchase from local farmers free of additives? Dealing with fewer processed, or prepared edibles would mean several things for us:

o More chopping of veggies, more soups, salads, local cheeses and dairy products.
o More time for preparation, but quick recipes can still be used with fresh foods.
o More careful selection of canned or prepared foods. If you can't understand the contents on the label, don't buy it.
o More humanely raised and slaughtered meats. You can request this of your grocery. Humane treatment of animals is not on everyone's top ten concerns, but whatever your religious or spiritual beliefs, a majority of us agree that humans can and should behave humanely.
o Less wasted food.

All of these things take more time than throwing a frozen pizza in the oven or stopping at a drive- by window. On the other hand, a little more time in the kitchen, chopping and chatting, might be a healthy and civil exercise.

Dr. Montgomery of the University of Washington found that soil mismanagement factored strongly into the decline of Greece, Rome, early China, and the Mayans. "The challenge in the next century will be to adapt farming to the land. We've been trying to adapt the land to farming. But the earth bats last."

We have eased into a nation accustomed to blind faith in our food supply and fast, available prepared groceries. Since we are in the midst of rethinking the cheap fuel that we have long taken for granted, it is a fine time to think about how we obtain the food we take for granted and make some wise adjustments.