Updated: Oct 18, 2019
We were drinking wine with friends, and moaning about the lack of local, organic vegetables in the supermarkets. Our companions were a little bemused, deeming the issue of little importance. After all, they pointed out, not everyone could afford organic veg, even if they decided it was healthier than non-organic – which it probably wasn’t. Furthermore, with so many people on the planet, chemically-sustained monoculture was the only thing that could save us all from starvation.
Brain food – or all washed up?
The Moravian wine bubbled within me. Such a system of agriculture was not sustainable, I objected. We should all be out there hunting wild boar rather than hunting down imported, pesticide-infused aubergines. It was meant half-jokingly at the time, but you know how these things grow. An idea rubs at you like an irritant, and you decide to scratch it and defend it with all the wit and pedantry you can muster.
Our friends ridiculed the idea of an organic, pre-junkfood, non-processed healthy diet, but I wasn’t having it. We were soon ranting in turn about overfishing, underhand food industries, overpopulation, under-funding, over-production, undercutting, underground, overground, wombling free.
It was only later that I sobered up and gathered my thoughts, on the off-chance that our friends would ever dream of inviting me back for another glass of Moravian red wine.
Most socio-economic histories of the western world will tell you that agriculture was a progressive step for humankind. That it enabled us to settle down with cows, chickens and the raw material for endless sandwiches, after several millennia trudging with rumbling tums from continent to continent in search of a bite to eat. But, like all good stories, there’s a strong element of fiction. In truth, the whole agricultural experiment has been a terrible mistake.
For starters, forensic evidence suggests that hunter-gatherer societies were better nourished than stay-at-home farmers (hence all the current fuss about the super-healthy ’Paleo-diet’). In the centuries following our shift from freewheeling to farmsteads, there was a decline in public health, with followers of the agricultural dream several inches shorter than their ancestors and mammoth-baiting neighbours. They also had to make do with brains 10% smaller than their forebears, and with a life expectancy ten years shorter.
And you can forget the popular image of proto-farmers enjoying a better quality of life with fixed abodes and a selection of superfoods. It was population growth, and the failure to limit it, that inspired the change in lifestyle. Too many hunters pursuing diminishing herds of migrating meat. Over the past century, technological progress and industrialisation has allowed huge population growth – but that’s simply repeating the original problem on a massive scale.
Agriculture does indeed allow more people to be fed from a limited area of land; but it never improved quality of life. On the contrary, farms introduced the concept of boundaries and ownership, and all the defending, besieging and have/have-not mentality that comes with it.
The costs of our western agri-diet include widespread Type B malnutrition – that is, multiple deficiencies in essential micronutrients. Too much bread and burgers. It seems paradoxical – rampant malnutrition, despite an often excessive intake of calories and the accompanying obesity epidemic. But this problem sprawls across the social divide wherever the energy-dense but nutrient-poor Western-type diet dominates. In other words, we have become both overfed and undernourished.
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One of the other apocalyptic consequences is mental health. We’ve managed to get our omegas muddled, and the essential brain food omega-3 is dwarfed in our diets by omega-6. We need both, but the ratio is all wrong. The long-chain polyunsaturated omega-3 fats our brain is built from derive from the sea, not from Old MacDonald’s cattle prairies and battery farms. We need to eat more fish, but the fish supplies have been all-but destroyed by the elephant in the room, human overpopulation. Simply not enough fish suppers and prawn cocktails to go round.
Once the brain is divorced from its building blocks, the organ that defines us as a species cracks and crumbles. Mental health problems of all hues dominate societies and health services across the world. We turn to burgers for solace. The Earth burns. We’re all doomed.
But hang on. Death may indeed be the price we pay for living in the light, but while the light’s still switched on, we have the chance to act.
Agriculture provided our ancestors with the science and mechanism for settling down and feeding a population boom. But it harvested a nutritional nightmare that only a huge dietary rethink and a shitload of condoms can dispel. We can’t all revert to hunter-gatherer lifestyles (thank goodness), but we can change how we knee-jerk our way through life’s menu. We can make a devil’s pact with agriculture by eating sensibly and healthily. And ethically. And sustainably (although the seafood problem is about as tricky as problems get).
Some of the answers are in front of our eyes on the supermarket shelves. Away from the bright lights of Lidl and Waitrose there are some even more meaningful answers in small-scale, ethical, organic, local outlets. Greengrocers with added ‘green’. The kind of places where hunter-gatherers would shop during breaks in their hunter-gathering. To a certain extent you could grow your own. Get an allotment. Dig up your garden. Divest. Digest. Discuss.
And maybe abstain after the first glass of Moravian red, to keep your thoughts in order and prevent you from causing rifts by condemning the entire contents of your friends’ fridge.