Opinion: The downside of eating healthy

POSTED: 09/23/13 12:56 PM

Eating healthy makes sense to a lot of people, but there is a downside. Ralph Bodelier, a theologian and cultural philosopher wrote an essay about this issue in Trouw. Not everybody will agree with what Bodelier has to say, but it is at least food for thought.

“Chances that I will still meet certain friends and acquaintances at the Aldi (supermarket – ed.) are practically nil. One prefers slowfood and buys his meat at the green butcher. Another buys all his groceries at the biological supermarket. Three acquaintances are cultivating their lettuce, courgette and spinach in their own vegetable garden. Five years ago there were still quite allotments for rent in the place where I live, now there is a waiting list. Biological food, slowfood and locally grown produce are unmistakably gaining popularity.

The progressive urban and influential elite are leading the way. Many of them once supported the multicultural society and the third world, or they were against nuclear weapons and climate change. The proponents of bio, slow and local as cosmopolitans, world citizens, who only want the best for people, animals and the environment.

For those who are not yet all that familiar with this field: biological farmers do not use fertilizer, pesticides and genetically modified crops. Slowfood wants to return to the traditional production of our food. The proponents of urban and regional agriculture prefer buying their food in their own environment. And they all hope that the intensive, global and high-tech production of food will go away.

The preference for bio, slow and local is growing the fastest in countries like Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany. The consequences of this trend affect the whole world. To service the western markets, the agricultural land used for biological farming increased in Poland within six years with 500 percent. The number of biological farmers in Romania increased nine-fold over the past three years. Complete agricultural conglomerates in Peru, India, China and Mexico made the switch and they are now serving Naturkostladen in Germany and Ekoplazas in the Netherlands.

During the past couple of years I even encountered biological farmers in Rwanda and Ethiopia, though this is not as strange as it sounds. Africans farm  is biological anyway, due to the lack of fertilizer, crop protectors and advanced species. They do not particularly like this, except when the West is prepared to pay well for their products.

During the past couple of months I have been in search of an explanation – personally and through my website. Why is the western elite going for traditionally prepared spaghetti and cheese from a farmstore? Why are professionals in their thirties and forties suddenly working their own vegetable garden? This is what they told me, and their replies correspond with finding of the Agricultural-Economic Institute in Wageningen.

The undisputed number one is the promotion of their own health. Industrially prepared food is unhealthy and unsafe: all those e-numbers, antibiotics and food scandals, you don’t know what you are eating and what has been added to the food. In the biological kitchen, or with vegetables from your own garden, you don’t have to worry about these things. With sausage from the regional market and honey from the town’s beekeeper we restore our contact with the origin of our food.

The second argument concerns animals and the environment. Factory farmers cut the tails of piglets, they burn off chicken beaks, they over-fertilize the land and their pesticides are killing bee-populations.

The third argument: bio, slow and local connects people. In an allotment you quickly tend to start a conversation and in the farmstore they still know your name. There are few arguments against this third point.

Opposite the factory farm, where one farmer with a university degree runs a stable with 4,000 meat-pigs with the help of feed-and swipe robots, the small biological farm with its farmstore, local vegetable garden and monthly regional market is an oasis of inter-human contact.

The second answer (pro animal welfare and the environment) is debatable. While biological farmers often lead the way in improving animal welfare, the factory farm sector is quickly catching up. Battery cages for chicken have been outlawed in the whole of the European Union since 2012. Castration of piglets is almost over. Per 2018 burning off chicken beaks will be forbidden. Wakker Dier (a Dutch organization for animal welfare – ed.) still has to combat the plofkip – specially bred chicks that grow faster than biological chicken – the burning of piglet tails and the low-iron diet for meat-calves. Those who have a heart for animal and the environment, switch today to a vegetarian diet. You don’t hear that a lot in the bio, slow local and local-movement. They are to hedonistic for that.

The first and most heard explanation is outright problematic. In what way is our industrially prepared food unhealthy and unsafe? The food sector is one of the most heavily regulated sectors in Europe. All artificial additives, the E-numbers, are tested exhaustively. Experts dismiss horror stories about substances like aspartame again and again and again. Chances to perish from food are negligible. The number of deaths resulting from food scandals – like Q-fever, mad cow disease and feces in meat – are minimal. Statistically Europeans are 260 times more likely to die from the flu and 400 times more likely to commit suicide, than dying from unsafe food.

Because this most important answer from my friends is so debatable, I suspect another unspoken motive: they abhor the abstract and chaotic world the way it presents itself to them in their living rooms via TV and the internet. They are longing for safety and overview in times of globalization.

Tomorrow part 2 of Bodelier’s essay.

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