From fire to frankenfoods: a food ethic for homo faber
I've written in this magazine about our responsibility to discern when technology is beneficial for us and when it poses problems that outweigh its advantages. My refrain is that we should slow down enough to make mindful choices about our uses of technology and not allow our dependence on it to preclude taking an occasional Sabbath from it. Since I have just returned from a two-week course on the theology of food ("Food: Creation, Community, and Communion"), I thought I would reflect a bit on the influences of technology on food, and how changes in recent years are raising questions about the appropriate balance between technology and gastronomy.
Technology has undeniably improved our food supply, harvesting, cooking and nutrition in many ways. Many fundamental food technologies we take for granted have relatively recent origins in the nineteenth century, including gas and electric stoves, canning, ice making, pasteurization and combines for harvesting grain. Most of us would not want to go back to the days before these inventions, as they have made our lives easier and safer on the whole. (I do have one friend who still chooses to use a scythe, though; it's better exercise and more fitting for the small quantity of wheat and rye he grows.)
When we step into the realm of biotechnology, things are different. Humans have been using "biotechnology" for centuries: making cheese with rennet from calf stomachs, leavening bread and brewing beer with yeasts. And yet, when we talk of food biotechnology today, we are referring primarily to processes developed in the early 1990s for genetically modifying organisms. Agricultural bioengineers have created transgenic crops with enhanced traits such as drought-tolerance and increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids. More controversial products include genetically modified (GM) soybeans and corn that are resistant to herbicides and pesticides (sold by the same companies who engineered the seeds), and many other designer crops which would have astonished our great-grandparents. Now animal cloning is being explored for possible use in food production. In 2008 the FDA released a report which claims that "meat and milk from cow, pig, and goat clones and the offspring of any animal clones are as safe as food we eat every day."
When they first appeared on the market, such "Frankenfoods"—as they were called—received quite a strong backlash, particularly in Europe, where traditional food culture is highly valued. (Italy was the birthplace of the Slow Food movement, a reaction against technology-intensive fast food exported primarily from the United States.) There have long been concerns about the safety of various food technologies such as irradiation to kill bacteria, microwave cooking, and various food additives. But popular fears have reached new heights with the advent of genetic modification, the long-term effects of which are still unknown. People are wary of monkeying with God's (or Mother Nature's) handiwork.
Alongside these worries about health risks and the displacement of local cultures is a conviction that the driving force behind the technological developments in the food industry is a quest by mega-corporations for higher profits, rather than a desire to improve nutrition at home or end starvation worldwide. Some people believe that increasing crop yields is neither necessary nor a realistic solution for world hunger, since the causes of it are more political than agricultural. In addition, health problems such as obesity, Type II diabetes, cancer and heart disease are more prevalent in the West, where most of us eat a diet shaped by technology, including large amounts of highly processed foods. Thus, the argument goes, we don't need more of what the technology is giving us.
Another area of vulnerability is food security, especially in an era of increased terrorism. As agribusiness technologies (the latest cool one I read about being GPS guided tractors) favour monocultures (large landscapes of single crops) rather than genetic diversity, a single act of bio-sabotage or one newly adapted chemical-resistant pest could put our food supply in jeopardy.
An Iowa State University study published in 2001 suggests that negative information outweighs positive when it comes to shaping people's opinions about food technology. "When advocacy groups indicate that new food technologies are unsafe, consumers avoid these foods even if scientific bodies say the technologies are safe," says Iowa State agribusiness economist Dermot Hayes. Interestingly though, Hayes occupies a chair funded by Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a company that sells high-yielding GM seeds and calls itself "the world's leading developer and supplier of advanced plant genetics to farmers worldwide." I wonder how independent his study was from his benefactor's economic need to reassure the public about its products?
Bestselling books such as The Omnivore's Dilemma (Michael Pollan) and the recently released documentary film Food, Inc. are raising the profile of some of these issues. How should we live, as Christians, in light of all that we're becoming aware of in our technologically advanced industrial food system?
I try not to be influenced by alarmism or fall into one-sided analysis. Science and technology hold a lot of promise. It is natural for us as homo faber to seek technological solutions to problems of food supply and distribution, and to find ways of using technology to enhance our enjoyment of food. We have much to be grateful for every time we open a refrigerator or sip an espresso. I can't imagine life without citrus fruits and maple syrup, transported from half a continent away, thanks to technology.
But surely there are reasons for concern. As caretakers of the garden of this earth, we should be wise about our engagement with food technology, to the extent that we have control over it. We can choose to avoid processed foods, buy organic vegetables when available, reduce our dependence on meat from factory farms, drink tap water instead of bottled and become more educated about where our food comes from. If for no other reason, we should do these things to some degree (many of us once in a while, and a few of us most of the time) simply to remind ourselves that we still can, and to preserve the ancient ways against a day of disaster.
When technological systems become so large and complex that we can no longer understand them or step away from them, then we cannot make conscientious decisions about our use of technology. When that happens, we are at the mercy of a god we made, rather than the God who made us.