YOU’D THINK THAT THE PRIMARY subjects of this magazine—growing, selling, preparing and eating food—would be governed by simple, straightforward logic and practiced by reasonable people. Farmers, after all, tend to be among the most logical, reasonable folks we talk to. In its simplest form, “agriculture” means you plant a seed, keep it watered and safe from freezing, make sure it doesn’t get eaten by some critter before it reaches the growth stage you intended it to, then you pick it and eat it. Likewise, in its simplest practice, preparing food to eat means doing something to it (or not) to make it more attractive or easier or more pleasant for the last person in the food chain—the consumer—to enjoy or get the most out of it. As for consumers, let’s face it, all we really want is for our food to look good, taste good, and not make us ill (or worse). Everything else is, well, gravy.
Most humans who have evolved beyond the level of grasshoppers eventually come to understand the rules of logic, whether they can define them or not. If we plant a field with good, rich, tender greens and don’t protect it, something is likely to eat it before we do. If the plants don’t get enough water, light or nutrients (or too much), they won’t grow properly, or maybe not at all. Simple. The evolution of technology, too, used to follow some simple rules of logic, cause and effect, geometry and physics.
Somewhere, sometime (my research says it was about two weeks after Da Vinci drew the Vitruvian Man), someone decided logic need not apply to modern life, that consumers don’t really know what they want or like, and that completely different rules apply when it comes to fulfilling our primary need—to keep ourselves alive, which means to eat. If you’re in the right frame of mind, what we’re doing to our food supply can seem comedic; if you’re not, it will all be tragic in retrospect.
Case in point: There’s no denying that interest in “organic” food and “sustainable” lifestyles has become more popular and widespread over the past decade or so. Along with that interest came some perfectly logical questions from both farmers and consumers: What, exactly, does organic mean? Does it mean the same thing to every farmer who plants a field of broccoli? Is it really better for us? How would we know if someone was lying? Of course, this is where the government steps in and says “OK, we’ll draw up a set of rules—if you follow the rules you can call your crop organic, if you don’t follow the rules you can’t.” We’re not implying cause and effect here, but it seems that’s where things started to go awry. Some big-time farmers with lots of money wanted to play the game but didn’t like the rules. The government said, “OK, we’ll change the rules.” Sludge from human waste, for example—which can potentially contain deadly toxins and carcinogens no matter how many times it’s treated—is perfectly safe to spread on “organic” fields, according to the government’s rules. It doesn’t matter that it’s called waste because it’s something our bodies don’t want and got rid of, there was a lot of it lying around so they said let’s feed it back to them. More than 3 million tons of human waste sludge is spread on farm fields in this country every year, logic be damned.
The logic behind genetically modified organisms is equally skewed (and often by the same people). Left alone, most organisms produce offspring similar to themselves; sometimes in nature, however, disparate individuals get together and produce offspring that are not like the parents in one way or another—that’s hybridization, and whether it occurs in a greenhouse or in a jungle, it’s perfectly natural (if it wasn’t, the offspring would die). Someone with access to a microneedle and an electron microscope said, “I’ll bet that if I take a gene from an animal and put it in a plant, that’ll make a stronger, bigger plant.” No matter that over the past several million years there hasn’t been one verified example of a human being successfully mating with a tomato, our technology now lets us do that, so why not? We’ll make it taste good and look good and then feed it to people, but we won’t tell them where it came from, and the government says we don’t have to. (Aside: The funny thing about the whole field of genetic “engineering” (a much more acceptable, impressively scientific term than genetic “alteration,” which is the more accurate term) is that it’s perfectly fine with a lot of people in control in Washington—the same people who scream bloody murder if someone in the same room says stem cell research. If you can follow the logic, write a book about it and there will be, no doubt, a Nobel Prize down the road for you.)
These threads of logic and illogic are explained in more detail in several articles in this issue, along with a lot more stuff that’s just plain fun. Enjoy both.