Whether consumers want it is another question, says Jon Fasman
“Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are,” wrote Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a French lawyer and epicure, in the early 19th century. The epigram opens “The Physiology of Taste,” one of those delightfully dilatory, observational works at which his age excelled.
The food that most people eat—especially in rich countries, but increasingly in poor- and middle-income ones, too—reveals them to be inhabitants of a highly globalised economy, spectacularly rich in choices. Peruse the shelves of a rich-world supermarket and you will find salmon from Norway, prawns from Vietnam, mangoes from India, strawberries from Turkey, cured meats from Italy and cheeses from France. Meat, a luxury for most people through much of history, is available in such affordable abundance that, in the rich world, most who do not eat it regularly forgo it as a matter of choice, not necessity. Much of it is laced with chemical additives that reduce spoilage, enhance flavour or serve some other need on the part of the producer.
Such a diet has only become possible in a very particular world, one in which a large proportion of the planet’s surface is given over to farms and pasture, food production is energy-intensive, pesticides abundant, intercontinental shipping cheap and food processing an advanced industrial undertaking. It is only possible, that is to say, at a time when human desires, and the economies built around them, rank among the planet-shaping forces of nature: a period that has come to be known as the Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene diet that the world’s well-off inhabitants enjoy would amaze all previous generations. But like most remarkable modernities, it is not without its costs. Meat is cheap because it is produced with great cruelty. Billions of animals spend brief, miserable and often pain-racked lives crammed together in airless sheds. They are ripped from their mothers; pumped with drugs; castrated without anaesthetic; eviscerated while alive; or all of the above.
Picking berries and lettuce is backbreaking labour; the people who do it often lack health insurance, job protections and a living wage. Many of the world’s fisheries run on slave labour. Depleted soils are chemically tarted up into a fecund semblance of health with nutrients straight from the factory. Fertiliser and animal-waste runoff create algal blooms that strip the oxygen from ever more, ever larger dead zones in littoral seas. Few human activities emit more greenhouse gases than raising animals—particularly cattle, for which ranchers cut down vast swathes of forest. The processing that serves to make food cheap, tasty and addictive strips out nutrients while adding fats, sugars and salt…
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