Commercial Food Production and Declining Food Values

Posted on July 3, 2012

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The latest:  in tomatoes, commercial breeders have selected varieties with a beautiful red skin to appeal to consumers.  Trouble is, the gene for that trait is linked to lower sugar production in the tomato, and thus, a lot less flavor.  You want great tomato flavor?  Buy the ugly varieties (I have noticed that the typically uglier “locally grown” tomatoes at our store were much tastier; turns out this might be because of the breed rather than the farm location).

There is a long history of this kind of thing.  Food growers – especially the big companies – strive to put perfect-looking produce on our store shelves, and consumers are complicit because that’s what we buy when we have a choice.  Do we want the pretty, red, round tomato, or the odd-shaped, blotchy one with the occasional scar?  Ugly food is so unprofitable that it never reaches the market, and that’s not just in the US.  In Sweden, for example, as much as 25% of carrots never reach stores just because they are not appealing enough.  And until recently, the EU had actual laws dictating what their produce should look like, which led to tremendous food waste.  Another negative effect of the consumer’s rejection of ugly food, and the marketer’s refusal to provide it, is that food growers strive to maximize their crops of “perfect” specimens through heavy pesticide use and chemical fertilizers.

And then there is industrialized farming, specialized breeding, and, more recently, genetic engineering – for those “perfect” traits, the ones that growers and marketers assume that consumers want:  large size, symmetrical shape, unblemished skin, appealing color, long storage times… in short, everything other than taste and nutrition, those two basic qualities that actually make food good.

Here’s something scary:  the nutritional value of our food has actually declined.  A tomato, or potato, or milk, or chicken, or grain produced 50 years ago had higher nutritional content by weight than our food does today.  I don’t think anyone has quite figured out why yet; some tie it to the larger size of our fruits and vegetables, but is it a matter of higher yield per acre, with each acre offering a finite nutritional base for the plants?  Maybe… but then why is the milk or the chicken affected?  I think it’s the selective breeding.  Bigger is not always better.  As our beautiful but tasteless tomatoes have demonstrated, pretty colors are not always better.  “Roundup Ready” corn is soon no better for keeping weeds at bay, and certainly no better as a food item, either.  In sum, tampering is not always improvement.

What we have today is little better than the fake fruit my parents had as a decorative centerpiece:  beautiful, perfect… and plastic.

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