Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Oh, Soy, How I Used to, uh, Pretend You Weren't in All My Food

I've been following farm and food policy fairly closely over the last few years, and I've read all the requisite food books and transformed my life, slowly and deliberately, accordingly. To add a sustainably grown, local, organic cherry to the top of my partially-hydrogenated-and-high-fructose-free sundae, I recently made arrangements to see Food, Inc. with my husband. I felt I'd come pretty far from the days of saltines and Oreos, and figured that a good deal of the information would be of the refresher variety. The thing is that it's pretty amazing how that one little piece of the puzzle that was unknown can change everything.

Up until now, we'd been eating mostly organically, no fast food, no high fructose corn syrup, nothing with hydrogenated in the ingredient list, and I'd been doing my best to switch gradually to fair trade items, particularly in the coffee and chocolate arenas. But the hold-outs were not insubstantial. I still bought M&M's with wild abandon. Ever since the word hydrogenated disappeared from the ingredient list on the back of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, I'd indulged in those frequently as well. I noted the other ingredients that might at some point cause me worry, but wasn't doing much about investigating them. Because, well, the banned ingredients were really more about personal health than anything else. Sure, buying fair trade coffee and chocolate chips was a nod to the need to eliminate poverty, but really? Most of it was still just about us, about what we were putting into our mouths, about how it would affect us and our family (as in the family we are starting ourselves--our extended families are not all big label readers). But this one point, this one thing, well, that made it personal, and it made it far reaching and it made it my responsibility to do better and be better.

The information is this: Monsanto currently has a hand in 90% of the soy production in the US.

This may not mean much to you if you don't know anything about Monsanto. Maybe you've absentmindedly noticed that Monsanto is who makes the RoundUp you've used to kill your weeds. Maybe you have heard their name on NPR as a sponsor, with the tag line that probably only makes some of us cringe. What you may not know about Monsanto is that they sue farmers and they win. That they will take a person's livelihood in their quest to dominate the market and protect the patents that have now been revoked. The basics are thus: that if Monsanto finds some of their genetically modified seed on your land (and they do go looking for it, without asking) and you have not purchased it from them for that growing season, even if you did not put it there and do not want it there, they can sue you. So if a truck drives by and some Monsanto seed blows off, or if a bird eats a Monsanto seed and poops it out on your land, they can find those plants and sue you for having them, claiming patent infringement. If their seed ends up on the land of a farmer who saves seed, and the farmer unwittingly saves seed that turns out to be Monsanto seed, they can and will sue. They have a team of 75 staffers devoted solely to investigation and litigation, and have allotted $10 million in their budget for pursuing these investigations and subsequent lawsuits. To date, they have been awarded $15,253,602.82 in judgments, not including the settlements that farmers are not allowed to discuss. And even though a farmer might eventually win a lawsuit, most farmers cannot afford the legal fees required to pursue such a case. It is hardly just.

I come from a family of farmers, and it is not lost on me that any one of them could be sued by Monsanto on grounds that are not legitimate. When I see and read the stories of farmers, just like those in my family, who have lost everything they worked so hard for, it hits home. It's personal. It matters. And so I decided to stop eating soy that is not organic. This includes almost all, if not all, the chocolates I can get at Target, as most chocolates are made with soy lecithin as an emulsifier. Good-bye to M&M's and Hershey's Kisses and so many other items I'd tossed in my cart. And good riddance, if it means even a penny less lining the pockets of Monsanto. I know that my lack of consumption will probably not even be a blip on the radar, but my hope is that I won't be the only one to send a message by what I do or do not purchase, that maybe someone out there will read what I have to say, and think about the farmers they know or the ones they don't, and will make some small stride in the same direction.

I realize that eating organic foods and avoiding those with ingredients that encourage poor food policy is not possible for everyone, and that's part of the point. If more of us who can change our habits do, if we send the message loud and clear that we want choices that won't harm our health or those who provide our food, then perhaps that can begin to change things so that everyone can have better food, so that the unhealthy foods won't be the ones that are the most affordable for those who have less to spend.

I think we've got a good start at changing things, but I also think there's a lot more that we can do. I'm encouraged by the flourishing community gardens and by the signs I see indicating that food stamps are accepted at the farmer's market. Likewise, I am discouraged by the fact that corn is made cheap by government subsidies that my tax dollars pay for, that it seems that no one in Washington has truly connected the dots to figure out that our food policy and our health policy need to go hand in hand. Until we reform the way we subsidize foods, we will continue to have a health crisis, and no amount of insurance options will change the fact that health care costs will continue to rise due to the diseases we are encouraging by making the least healthy calories the cheapest ones.

I encourage each of you to see Food, Inc. I'd love it if you would read this book, or this one, or this one, or this one. I'd be thrilled if you'd start with what's free and watch The Future of Food on hulu. The way we eat doesn't affect just us and our own health and well-being. The reach of our choices is far and wide and even global. Do something about it, and you'll be my hero.

(Source of the numbers above.)


ericagwen said...

Very informative. Thanks, Mary! I definitely need to look into this.

Amanda said...

I drug my husband with me to see Food Inc. at the free screening at Tivoli in Westport and he had the idea that this movie was going to try to turn him into a hippie vegetarian and do nothing but show slaughtered cows and abused chickens. By the end of the movie he was clapping with all of us in the theater.

This morning I turned on the TV just as the news was finishing up their movie reviews and I figured out quickly that they were talking about Food Inc. The male news anchor was saying how he sees the message but it's just too expensive to buy organic and make the change and so the movie didn't influence him enough. That really bothered me because I know a lot of people have this mentality. People spend hours researching big purchases like cars and computers and will spend more money to buy a nicer TV or car. Yet, they would rather buy cheap food that will cost them more in the end because of the medical bills they will be paying when they get cancer.

Jennifer said...

I totally agree with everything except this:
even if healthy food is cheap, I find most don't want it. the won't choose it. they don't have the proper paradigm for what IS healthy. years of misinformation have led to a very evil, skewed and counterproductive idea of what is good and and bad in food.
I know too many people like this. it is so sad to me. so clueless to how their misery could be improved, reformed, banished, and blinded to any other perspective than the destructive one they hold.

I will watch your movies. and for any few ads its worth, my plug is for the book _Healing With Whole Foods_, which is SOO MUCH MORE than the title suggests! It SO is not a cpl hundred pages worth of "eat your veggies'... It has transformed me. That's why I keep saying this over and over.
I will watch your videos.
THanks for the info. :) I will be yet more mindful and educated.