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Will We Ever Eat Well Again?

End of Food author Thomas Pawlick believes there's hope if we begin with ourselves.

By Kendyl Salcito 28 Jun 2006 |

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Thomas Pawlick believes "the food industry is destroying our food supply." He also believes those who eat responsibly can not only become healthier but also provide some small impetus toward a system that serves us better.

In The End of Food, the science reporter and journalism professor from eastern Ontario makes the case that today's produce lacks the nutritional sustenance it had 50 years ago: meat is higher in sodium and fat and lower in protein and vitamins, and the genetic modification of some foods is wreaking havoc. "You can't eat a tomato or a potato or a carrot or anything now without it having either a whole lot of toxins in it or very little nutrition in it compared to the old days," Pawlick told The Tyee, during an interview last week in a Vancouver restaurant.

Pawlick's book offers chapter after chapter of appetite-suppressing information about the nutritional worthlessness of the tomato salads and roast chickens we prepare with the best intentions. He offers only the slightest expression of regret for the onslaught. "It's a little bit of overkill, but I think it was necessary because there are so many people out there who are kind of skeptical" about anyone sounding the alarm on our big-food-business diet. He feels most of us still haven't been driven to action by books like Eric Schlosser's Fastfood Nation and movies like Supersize Me.

Pawlick does set out some solutions. But for many people, his escape route from the corporatized, low-nutrition, high-fat, bland-tasting, poorly ripened, heavily treated, over-engineered produce from the local grocery store has some significant obstacles.

If you don't make friends with local farmers, grow your own veggies, or can't afford the sometimes prohibitive expense of organic food, you're options are limited. No solutions for the overworked and underpaid, especially those who lack a green thumb.

In an interview with The Tyee, Pawlick discussed the reasons North Americans should forsake grocery-store convenience and explained why the price of the alternative, which may seem high, is at least sometimes right.

On price gouging for organic, locally grown foods:

One of the big problems is that the supermarkets, when they sell organic produce, boost the price way over what it should be. It's just like when there's a little dust-up in the Middle East, and the oil companies double the price of gas. It's whatever the traffic will bear, and this is also true for some small farmers. They say, "Look, the supermarkets are tripling the price when they don't need to, we'll do the same thing." They're getting a little greedy. It's just human nature. But the only way people are going to convert to eating organic food and take the trouble to drive down to the farmer's market, instead of going to the local mall, is if they get a break in price.

So use your head, [small farmer]. It's a simple marketing thing. And if you know that you can still make a profit and lower your price below what the supermarket's charging, well then do it. It's common sense.

On Italians, who know the meaning of enough:

The Italians have a great expression, "eh, basta," which means "that's enough." And if people say, "eh, basta" and say, let's get together, let's get a group, let's find some farmers and hire them and say, "we'll buy everything you produce, we'll give you a contract, and we'll guarantee you a market provided it's organically grown and it's no more than 50 miles away and we're going to get fresh stuff."

And, for at least the growing season, which is, in B.C., almost seven months a year, you can get really good quality food. And you can go to people who raise free-range chickens and get healthy eggs and healthy poultry, and you can find people who raise grass-fed beef in both Alberta and B.C., and if you get a big enough group together it's not that hard. If you live in an apartment building, just go and talk to all the people in the apartment building -- or your neighbours in a block of single-family homes.

If the family farmer has a guaranteed market with one or two buyers' groups in their municipalities, right away that introduces stability into their lives. And if they get to know these people personally and can come to a meeting and discuss with them what their problems are, people will understand, and maybe they'll be willing to give a little bit more price to the farmer because they understand the situation.

On being too busy to eat better:

There's a big force of inertia there. People do want convenience. Even knowing what I know, and even having written the damn book, sometimes I'm in a hurry and I just don't have time. So I go buy something at the grocery store. What people have to realize is that they should make it the rule to eat well and make eating badly the exception. The best motive they can have is for their kids. Allergies, diabetes, asthma, obesity -- these are all due to diet.

On whether Wal-Mart will bring organic food to the masses:

I think Wal-Mart will do it badly, simply because their priority is not to produce a healthy product. Their priority is to make the maximum profit, and at a certain point they'll cut corners because it'll make money for them. It's just the nature of the beast, you know.

On whether corporations and natural, healthy food can find some common ground:

It's like saying "Can Jesus Christ and Satan find a middle ground?" I don't think Satan wants to.

On growing food in the most unlikely places:

In Montreal, especially in the older sections, there used to be these wrought iron balconies on the front of the apartment buildings. And people spent most of their summer and spring months out on these balconies because it was cooler, and they would visit with the neighbours, shout down at them, shout back up at the others. And in some of the neighbourhoods, especially the Italian neighbourhoods, people would run strings between the balconies and they would plant a plant on the ground and it would be like a pole bean or a vining tomato or grapes, and they would let the plants run up the strings, up to the roof. And the whole front of the building was covered with growing things.

You can do stuff like that. There's no reason why people can't do that anywhere, if you have an apartment with a balcony and you have some pots for flowers. Don't plant flowers, plant beans. Grow your own in the kitchen, inside, in the winter. You can grow bean sprouts on the kitchen counter.

On good governments and bad governments:

I don't think national government will do a damn thing about it until the grassroots have already organized and put up overwhelming pressure. Simply because the national government is made up of people who are on the payroll of the big corporations. But on a local level, municipal politicians respond very quickly. Much more quickly than anyone in Ottawa ever will. I can tell you. I live on a farm in Ontario. Extremely responsive. They react very quickly.

There's a little town near me called Tamworth. And a guy wanted to bring in an industrial hog farm. The people of Tamworth said "We know what these industrial farms are like. It'll be a horror. It'll contaminate our water wells, and it'll create terrific air pollution, and on top of that, the pigs this guy's raising will be literally living in a pig Auschwitz, and we don't want this." They got really pissed off and they went to the local tavern and about 200 people got together and they said, "We're going to stop this." And they went out and organized and they drank a lot of beer that night at the tavern, and they felt good afterwards and they had a lot of fun, and then they all went home and got on the telephone and the e-mail and they organized the whole damn county in a very short time. And at the next municipality meeting the decision was: "Nope, sorry. We deny your application, there's not going to be a pig farm here." Because these people cared.

On the choices that confront us:

If people won't listen and want to commit suicide, I can't stop them. So I figure, here's the information [pats the book]. Use it or don't use it. If you don't, it's on you, man.

Kendyl Salcito is a staff writer at The Tyee.

Related Tyee stories: Michael Pollan talks about the organic food business's fatal flaws in Pity the Poor Omnivore, J. B. MacKinnon and Alisa Smith explore the challenges of eating locally in The 100-Mile Diet, and Eve Johnson explores the avian flu crisis in Ducks in the Henhouse.  [Tyee]