A (very) Brief History of Food

“Don’t eat anything that your great-great-great-Grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” – Michael Pollan

It may be considered cheating to start off this blog with a Michael Pollan quote. For many of us who closely follow the food industry, sustainable eating, food production and the like, Mr. Pollan is our guru. He is to us who Sri T. Krishnamacharya is to yogis. He’s made the whole thing make sense and he does it using comments like the one above.

It should be obvious by this point, but today, I’m writing about where our food sources come from and how that’s changed over the timespan of civilization and most importantly, how its changed over the last hundred or so years. It can be so difficult to navigate the grocery store with its thousands of products. After all, in modern supermarkets, there are, on average, 42,214

Different products lining the shelves, according to a food retail website. To complicate that, we have many different “helpful” labels including things like “Non-GMO”, “Organic”, “rBST Free”, etc.  Its hard to tell exactly what works and what doesn’t, and it may be more difficult than we think to actually follow Mr. Pollan’s advice, but its certainly not impossible.

The earliest form of ingredients being used to form a different product is bread and soup, and that was in around 10,000 B.C. according to this food history timeline. Then, over the course of the next 11 or so millennia, there is evidence of humans becoming more resourceful, finding out more ways to use ingredients (big shoutout to the guy in the 1st century who thought it would be interesting to try lobster and crab) and making more and more complex foods out of more and more ingredients. People began eating for pleasure rather than necessity, which can be evidenced by cakes and puddings (particularly in England in the 1700’s).

But in the 1910’s (in America) something changed. People demanded food that was out of season. People wanted iceberg lettuce in the winter. Iceberg lettuce only grows in the winter in a small part of America, but lettuce tycoons (yup, that’s a thing) figured out that food could be picked somewhere, refrigerated, and shipped across the country so that the family in Pittsburg in February, could enjoy a fresh salad. Brilliant.

This changed everything though, in that the demand only increased. Soon things were tangshipped everywhere. And that wasn’t inherently bad. However, convenience got the best of folks, and shortly after WWII, housewives (remember, this was the 1950’s, these sorts of things were the “house” wife’s responsibility), were ecstatic that they could have ready to eat meals that you could pop in the microwave. TV dinners were mass produced and distributed. Cheeze whiz became a thing. Food became more and more unrecognizable.

Our public health was declining because of convenience. And, this is where the leading quote would apply. Great-great-great-grandma wouldn’t recognize Cheeze whiz. Don’t eat it.

But here’s where it gets tricky. At this point in history, food had become a full-fledged industry. People were dedicated to finding better and better ways to make more money at the risk of public health. It makes sense that the next step toward this is a genetically modified organism. In 1973 a few folks get the idea that we can make man-made DNA. In 1994, the first genetically modified food hit the shelf in the form of a tomato. Particularly Flavr Savr Tomato, a genetically modified tomato that doesn’t spoil as fast as others. Shortly before the turn of the millennium, 100 million acres worldwide are seeded with genetically engineered seeds. These seeds are generally designed to produce more, produce quicker, and be more pest resistant. Sounds great. And the market thought it was.

But is it?

There are an incredibly many arguments both for and against GMO plants (and even animals), and the point of this blog isn’t to argue one way or the other. However, I will point out simple science, and that is that modified genetics will continue to modify. Even out of our control. This is why we have pet dogs, and why we live in houses and drive cars rather than in caves. That’s the reason we exist at all. So, we don’t have control over something. Things have worked for a very long time and it seems silly to think we can come in, start messing with a structure perfected over millions of years, with only positive side effects. David Williams, a cellular biologist can back this up.

Its hard to find foods that don’t contain GMOs. Its hard to find food that hasn’t been modified from its original source. For some, it might be hard to pass up the dinner that comes dehydrated in a box. But, the more you seek out natural food that you can track its source (many higher-end grocery stores have contact info available for farms and producers of produce, meat, and seafood) and the more you stick to single ingredients that haven’t been altered, the more of a step in the right direction you’re taking. A step in this direction has huge health benefits to you and your family, to local economies, and to the global community in general.

I’m sure that would make your great-great-great-grandma quite happy.

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