I went to the Brooklyn Food Conference yesterday, and it was tremendous. Overwhelming, really; there were something like 50 workshops (I only managed to attend two), exhibitors, food demos, and great opening and closing sessions. I think I have developed a crush on Raj Patel, probably because he was introduced as having “been tear-gassed on four continents while protesting” and then managed to crack us all up with “Time Bandits” references. And to slam the World Bank at the same time. Anyway, I took in a tremendous amount of information that I will be processing over the next few days. I almost said digesting, ha ha. And I’ll be blogging about it as I manage to develop coherent thoughts on the various issues.
Right now I will confess that the single most depressing thing I learned yesterday was that there are no really virtuous bananas available for sale in the United States. This is not to say there weren’t other depressing bits of information shared–the labor abuses and human rights violations of which Coke stands accused, the difficulty of finding fresh produce (let alone organic) in too many urban neighborhoods, the fact that US foreign aid policy fosters commodity export farming rather than self-reliance–but the fact about bananas was really news to me and affects me directly. According to Tim Keating of Rainforest Relief, bananas imported from Costa Rica are grown in full sun despite the fact that bananas are naturally a shade plant (much like coffee and cacao), on monoculture plantations, and are processed by workers who toil under deplorable conditions. Organic bananas are at least free of the heavy doses of pesticides and other chemicals conventional bananas receive, but they’re still grown in full-sun monoculture plantations. After learning this and seeing photos of the plantations and the processing facilities, I thought, I can’t support that. I ate the last of our bananas this morning and will not be buying any more for the foreseeable future.
And as I ate the last bite, I thought, why am I so depressed about this? Bananas aren’t my favorite fruit; they’re not even in the top ten, really, especially when strawberries are in season. I already knew that their importation from Central America meant they represented more “food miles” and petroleum use than a lot of the fruit available to me.
But I realized this wasn’t about the bananas; it was about the sheer complexity of it all. I think there are a lot of people who start out wanting to eat more ethically, virtuously, whatever you want to call it, and then quickly become overwhelmed by the different issues to sort out. Is industrial organic better or worse than local produce that isn’t organic-certified? Am I a bad person for stopping at the local chain supermarket for conventional produce because I didn’t have time to get to a farmer’s market while it was open? Free-range beef, or tofu made from GMO soybeans?
I don’t want to be one of those people who throw up their hands in despair and give up on trying to impose some ecological and ethical standards on their diet because of these challenges. I want to have the courage and the resilience to confront those challenges head-on, and to recognize that I’m not always going to be able to act perfectly but that I have to try my best. I don’t want to give up on my principles because I didn’t manage to make time to get to a retailer that offers organic produce in a given week.
One of the key points made across a range of yesterday’s discussions was that the global food system is complicated, immense, and dysfunctional. I should not be surprised that my little individual attempts to shop and eat ethically are not simple, because I depend on a very complicated system that fosters monoculture and ecological destruction. There are things I can do, individually and in concert with others, to try to combat that and bring about positive changes. But I can’t let myself be surprised that there are challenges along the way.
After the conference I met my husband for dinner nearby, and ended up in a place with a TV just in time to catch the running of the Kentucky Derby. The long-shot win was compelling, and my husband, who was facing the TV, couldn’t help continuing to watch the replays and discussion. He was rewarded with an inadvertently hilarious image:
(It probably helps to know that Yum Brands, parent company of such marginally yummy offerings as KFC and Long John Silver’s, is the Derby sponsor.) In this setup, found online, it looks like the horse is pretty happy about his feedbag. On the TV screen my husband was watching, the “Yum” logo was displayed beneath the horse outline, which my husband read as “The Kentucky Derby–Yum!” and could not help thinking, “But we don’t eat horses in this country!”