Articles Published From 2001 to 2005
We are seated in the back of a four-wheel-drive van, bouncing across a hypergreen cow pasture, our palms pressed against the roof to keep from flying, when Spot jams on the brakes. Spot is a burly, moonfaced twentysomething from Seattle who fiercely loves Kauai, his adopted island. He works as a guide for an outfitter in Poipu, taking small groups into the forest to leap off waterfalls and soar across rivers on zip lines—the two implausible adventures our son, Isaac, has persuaded us we need to attempt on this particular afternoon.
Carbophobia, the most recent in the centurylong series of food fads to wash over the American table, seems to have finally crested, though not before sweeping away entire bakeries and pasta companies in its path, panicking potato breeders into redesigning the spud, crumbling whole doughnut empires and, at least to my way of thinking, ruining an untold number of meals.
Late last summer, I moved from Zone 5 to Zone 9, or, to be both more and (at least to a gardener) less geographically precise, from southern New England to Northern California. We gardeners divide the world into zones of plant hardiness; the lower the number, the colder it gets; so to go from Zone 5, with winter lows reaching 20 below, to Zone 9, where it barely freezes, is, horticulturally speaking, tantamount to a change of planet. I’ve been gardening seriously for 25 years and have learned all sorts of things, yet I feel as if I now have to start from zero.
Americans have been talking a lot about trade this campaign season, about globalism’s winners and losers, and especially about the export of American jobs. Yet even when globalism is working the way it’s supposed to—when Americans are exporting things like crops rather than jobs—there can be a steep social and environmental cost.
It’s hard to say whether an American hamburger was appreciably less safe to eat the day after a Holstein cow tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Washington State last month than it was the day before, but it had sure gotten less appetizing. The news cracked open a door on the industrial kitchen where America’s meat is prepared, and what we glimpsed on the other side was enough to send even the heartiest diner to the vegetarian entree or the fish special.
Sometimes even complicated social problems turn out to be simpler than they look. Take America’s “obesity epidemic,” arguably the most serious public-health problem facing the country. Three of every five Americans are now overweight, and some researchers predict that today’s children will be the first generation of Americans whose life expectancy will actually be shorter than that of their parents. The culprit, they say, is the health problems associated with obesity.
When I was a kid growing up in the early 60’s, anybody could have told you exactly what the future of food was going to look like. We’d seen “The Jetsons,” toured the 1964 World’s Fair, tasted the culinary fruits (or at least fruit flavors) of the space program, and all signs pointed to a single outcome: the meal in a pill, washed down, perhaps, with next-generation Tang.
The first time I heard about the Slow Food movement, recently arrived on our shores from its native Italy, I thought the whole idea sounded cute. Here were a bunch of well-heeled foodies getting together to celebrate the fast-disappearing virtues of the slow life: traditional foods traditionally prepared and eaten at leisurely communal meals.
Add another to the string of superlatives wreathing the world’s greatest power: Americans are now the fattest people on earth. (Actually a handful of South Sea Islanders still outweigh us, but we’re gaining.) Six out of every 10 of us—and fully a quarter of our children—are now overweight. Just since 1970 the proportion of American children who are overweight has doubled, a rate of increase that suggests the fattening of America has a specific history as well as a biology.
The first time I opened Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation,” I was dining alone at the Palm, trying to enjoy a rib-eye steak cooked medium-rare. If this sounds like a good recipe for cognitive dissonance (if not indigestion), that was sort of the idea. Preposterous as it might seem, to supporters of animal rights, what I was doing was tantamount to reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on a plantation in the Deep South in 1852.
On the second day of spring, Joel Salatin is down on his belly getting the ant’s-eye view of his farm. He invites me to join him, to have a look at the auspicious piles of worm castings, the clover leaves just breaking, and the two inches of fresh growth that one particular blade of grass has put on in the five days since this paddock was last grazed.
Here in southern New England the corn is already waist high and growing so avidly you can almost hear the creak of stalk and leaf as the plants stretch toward the sun. The ears of sweet corn are just starting to show up on local farm stands, inaugurating one of the ceremonies of an American summer. These days the nation’s nearly 80 million-acre field of corn rolls across the countryside like a second great lawn, but this wholesome, all-American image obscures a decidedly more dubious reality.
Garden City, Kan., missed out on the suburban building boom of the postwar years. What it got instead were sprawling subdivisions of cattle. These feedlots—the nation’s first—began rising on the high plains of western Kansas in the 50’s, and by now developments catering to cows are far more common here than developments catering to people.
SOWING seeds is pleasant, desultory, not terribly challenging work; there’s plenty of space left over for thinking about other things while you are doing it. On this particular May afternoon, I happened to be sowing rows in the neighbourhood of a flowering apple tree that was fairly vibrating with bees. And I found myself thinking what existential difference is there between the human being’s role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebee’s.
The way we think about and deal with pollution has always been governed by the straightforward rules of chemistry. You clean the stuff up or let it fade with time. But what do you do about a form of pollution that behaves instead according to the rules of biology? Such a pollutant would have the ability to copy itself over and over again, so that its impact on the environment would increase with time rather than diminish. Now you’re talking about a problem with, quite literally, a life of its own.
New technologies can bring mankind great benefits, but they can also cause accidental harm. How careful should society be about introducing innovations that have the potential to affect human health and the environment? For the last several decades, American society has been guided by the “risk analysis” model, which assesses new technologies by trying to calculate the mathematical likelihood that they will harm the public. There are other ways, however, to think about this problem. Indeed, a rival idea from Europe, the “precautionary principle 2/3″ has just begun making inroads in America.
A fundamental axiom of the Family Vacation holds that if the kids have a good time, then the vacation is a success. This is more or less true, and yet, if you’re a parent, it’s also a little”¦ pathetic. Because it means that your own enjoyment of a place is simply a by-product of your child’s. That’s a perilous emotional logic, for where it usually leads, as swiftly and inexorably as a water slide, is to yet another week at Disney World.
MY town’s annual agricultural fair fell on the Saturday after the attacks on New York and Washington, and I think everyone was relieved when the selectmen decided to go ahead with the event. The turnout, 500 people at least, was huge for a town our size, all of us more pleased than usual to come together as a community.
“This is the story of a body,” Susanne Antonetta tells us near the end of her arresting memoir of a New Jersey girlhood lived in the shadows of the 20th century’s most sinister molecules: the DDT, tritium, chlordane, benzene and plutonium that are now part of the American landscape. Antonetta, the author of three collections of poetry, spent her childhood summers in a bungalow on Barnegat Bay in southern Ocean County, one of the relatively low-income “sacrifice communities” where the toxic wastes of postwar civilization have pooled. We know a little about these places from the news, from books and movies like “Erin Brockovich” and “A Civil Action,” but for the most part we’ve glimpsed them only from a distance, through the eyes of crusading reporters and lawyer
Almost overnight, the amount and variety of organic food on offer in my local supermarket has mushroomed. Fresh produce, milk, eggs, cereal, frozen food, even junk food—all of it now has its own organic doppelganger, and more often than not these products wind up in my shopping cart. I like buying organic, for the usual salad of rational and sentimental reasons. At a time when the whole food system feels somewhat precarious, I assume that a product labeled organic is more healthful and safer, more “wholesome,” though if I stop to think about it, I’m not exactly sure what that means. I also like the fact that by buying organic, I’m casting a vote for a more environmentally friendly kind of agriculture: “Better Food for a Better Planet,” in the slogan of Cascadian Farm, one of the older organic brands.
For a while there, it looked as if this might be the year it never happened, but the gardening season has arrived at last. Last week the peas went in, finally, and today I’ll plant potatoes. Nights are still way too cold to put out the tender vegetables—tomatoes and the like—but on my windowsills their seedlings are already pressing against the pane, leaning into the strengthening sun and the traffic of bees building outside.
Unless I’m missing something, the aim of the biotechnology industry’s audacious new advertising campaign is to impale people like me—well-off first worlders dubious about genetically engineered food—on the horns of a moral dilemma. Have you seen these ads? Over a speedy montage of verdant rice paddies, smiling Asian kids and kindly third-world doctors, a caring voice describes something called golden rice and its promise to “help prevent blindness and infection in millions of children” suffering from vitamin-A deficiency.
Whenever I go to the supermarket these days, I collect labels. No, I’m not saving up box tops in order to get a decoder ring from Battle Creek. The sort of labels I collect now promise something else, a slightly different decoding. Each of them tells me a little story about where the food I’m buying comes from and how it has been produced.
History is written by the victors, it’s often said, but what about natural history? This invariably gets written by one human being or another, no matter what species’ triumph it trumpets, for the altogether trivial reason that (so far as we know) humans do all the writing around here. But what if it were otherwise? What if, let’s say, the plant perspective were brought to bear on the events of the past year? My guess is that the death of one Claude Hope, a man you’ve probably never heard of, would rank as a big, big story.