32. How Fast Should Our Food Be?
Fast industrial plants.
So, here we are. All plants are like tomatoes. For the full expression of their genetic potential, they need to live in healthy soil, experience wind and rain and heat, and fend off hungry insects. They need to be challenged by their environment in ways that cause them to express their adaptations for survival. For that to happen, they need to grow at a natural rate of development with adequate time spent in each phase of life. The negative interactions with the living and non-living environment temper the plants and make them stronger….and tastier. Ultimately, the production of each plant is limited by the amount of energy it can capture from the sun (or overhead rack of lights) and this light energy has to be distributed amongst the many different parts of the plant that require energy for growing. Basically, that’s the starting point for understanding plants.
The push for higher productivity in modern agriculture is an attempt to take the finite amount of energy a plant has, but divide it among a greater number of products. And one result is lower quality products. As an example of why this decrease in quality occurs, consider a peach tree that is large enough to produce enough energy for 100 large fruits. The energy is finite because the tree has a certain surface area of leaves and they can intercept only a certain amount of the sunlight. If I force that same plant to produce 200 fruits, the available energy for each fruit will be half of what it was. And if I force the plant to produce those fruits in half the time, each fruit will have less than ¼ of its original energy because the plant has less time to collect that energy. The result is less sugar and fewer secondary compounds, less flavor, and lower nutritional quality.
If we breed the plant to produce fruit that are the same size as before, each fruit will have a higher water content and will seem less sweet. This works great if I’m a seller and I sell by the pound, but not so great if I’m a consumer. Previously, where I might eat, let’s say, one peach to get my daily dose of Vitamin C, now I have to eat four or more peaches for the same level of nutrition. One potential consequence is that we, the consumers, are undernourished by eating food that no longer delivers the goods.
Even worse, if we listen to the nutritional wisdom of our bodies, we may be hearing a message to compensate for that lack of nutrition by eating more and that results in overeating.[i] Additionally, and importantly, the lower density of cellulosic compounds in this factory-style production system of weak, young plant products is essentially starving our microbiome and making us feel hungry more often.
Modern technology and rising demand for food by a growing human population have pushed agriculture in this direction. The intentions of plant scientists have always had an altruistic impetus: to find ways to feed a hungry world efficiently. The commercial side of the agricultural industry, of course, is largely driven by the profit motive and the goals, especially since the 1950s, have focused on speed, production, and marketability.
These dual goals of producing more food and making greater profits have resulted in industrial uniformity which also a result of reducing genetic variation and intense breeding for rapid and predictable production by the crop plants. In terms of food quality, the result has been a slow, but perceptible diminution. We don’t see it on a day-to-day basis, but ask anyone over the age of 50 about whether the foods they ate as a child taste the same as today.
For efficient commercial production, these changes are considered positives and, of course, marketing strategies will always focus on the positives. For example, if children are more likely to eat bland vegetables, then bland vegetables will sell better than the alternatives. Sweet corn now has 12% higher sugar content and much less “corn” flavor compared to 30-40 years ago. We used to eat spinach that took several weeks to grow, but now we are being convinced to buy “baby spinach” which are the small leaves from spinach that can be produced in just days under factory conditions. Baby spinach is easier to chew and doesn’t have that slightly bitter spinach flavor. Romaine lettuce used to be a “tastier” alternative to the flavor-free Iceberg lettuce, but today Romaine is grown so rapidly it is indistinguishable from its tasteless cousin.
And, as the fast-food industry has discovered and encouraged, food does not have to be inherently tasty; flavors can be added and public opinion can be manipulated. If you pay attention to advertisements for food, particularly in the fast-food market, the focus is entirely on the added flavors rather than the natural flavors.
For ourselves, we have to recognize that food quality is found in natural flavors. Those flavors tell us about the qualities of the plant. The presence of those flavors tells us the plant grew slowly, overcame environmental stress, and had the opportunity to mature before it was harvested. Thus, the quality of the plant can be found in the aging process, much like the qualities that slowly emerge in a good red wine. These products of aging are not the PFC foods that energize our physical bodies. Rather, they are the food supply for our microbiome and they are the slow medicines we have evolved with. For those of us who want to eat high-quality plant material to feed our microbiome, our desires are at odds with modern food production methods which are focused on speed and efficiency. Speed is the enemy of quality and this is especially true for growing high quality plants for food.
Fast industrial meat
Animals are not plants, but when it comes to quality, there can be some important parallels. In this regard, we have done unto animals raised for meat as we have done unto plants. As other authors have described in detail,[ii] the meat we eat today is made from corn, is raised and harvested as quickly as possible, is removed from the natural environment to the greatest degree possible, and is completely dependent on chemical and medical technology. While our microbiome does not in any way depend on meat, the health of our microbiome depends on the health of our environment and meat production is part of that environment. For humans out there who consider themselves carnivores, the quality of the meat-production environment should be of great concern.
The beef we eat is 9-month-old steers who spent the last three months of their lives eating nothing but corn (with antibiotics and additives) to gain 100 pounds a month, a great deal of which is fat. The flavor of cooked beef today is largely due to the searing of fat. The standard four-pound chicken at the store was raised on corn (plus antibiotics) in just about a month and a half. The flavor of modern chicken is added by breading or flavoring. Pigs? Yes, fed corn and corn byproducts. Farm-raised salmon? Yes, now raised on corn.[iii]
Grass-fed free-range beef does not taste the same as corn-fed feedlot beef. Free-range chickens have flavors that cannot be found in the commercially produced chicken. In fact, “dark” meat and “white” meat are not easy to distinguish anymore because the commercial chicken is incapable of using the running muscles in its legs. A wild salmon spends two years in the ocean before returning to its freshwater birthplace. That’s two years of survival, feeding on wild foods, and that experience adds true seasoning to its muscles. Free-range meats are leaner and have a stronger, gamier flavor. These are characteristics that will not be found in factory-style meat production because, again, the qualities of the organism depend on the challenges faced in the environment. A war veteran has real stories to tell; a couch potato only has imaginary stories.
And animals are what they eat. Today, we eat animals that have been fed a uniform diet and are nearly uniform in flavor. That is, they are uniformly tasteless and ready for flavor to be added. While the microbiome may not depend on the proteins and fats from meat, there are other qualities to wild food that we do not understand well. We may not depend on our meat for nutrients other than protein and fats, but we have absolutely no idea how the cholesterol and other chemicals in those meats interact with our system. We have no idea whether animals raised on antibiotics can transfer unknown residual effects to the eater of the meat.
However, we do know that cow’s milk from cows raised on growth hormones can have unintended effects on a child’s development. That by itself should be reason to reconsider all other chemicals that are applied to the food we eventually eat and that would include the plants the animals eat. Nonetheless, if we believe that plants contain chemicals with medicinal qualities and those compounds are lost in the modern farm system, then we should also be concerned that other kinds of food that are treated similarly, such as meats, may be missing important qualities as well.
[i] While vitamin supplements are largely unnecessary when one eats a healthy plant-based diet, if our modern plants are, in fact, depleted or diluted in nutrient contact, it may be necessary to supplement our diet with vitamins and minerals to some extent. [ii] Examples: Food Inc: A Participant Guide (Karl Weber, 2009, PublicAffairs); Big Chicken (Maryn McKenna, 2017, National Geographic); CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories (Daniel Imhoff, 2010, Earth Aware). [iii] If meat, eggs, or dairy products are labeled with some reference to increased Omega 3 fatty acids, it is likely the corn diet of the animal was enhanced with flaxseed. However, Omega-3 content will also be higher in dairy products from grass-fed cows.