Alice Waters’ We Are What We Eat is (as the subtitle suggests) a bit of a manifesto.
I loved it.
Waters bandies the term “fast food culture” to mean far more than a culture concerned with fast food restaurants – it’s really her term for modern, global, consumer capitalist / industrial civilization.
Probably unsurprisingly, Waters sees many problems as rooted in food, and her solutions involve food. I think you could easily write off her prescription for healing our country – which hinges upon an “edible schoolyard” program where children learn gardening and cooking in school and all school lunches are sourced from local farmers as overly drawn through her particular lens on the world, but I think that would be a mistake.
There are a ton of merits to her ideas and I would totally support trying out her program all over the country.
Some of my favorite bits…
When speed runs our lives, we become so impatient. We can’t take the time to plant a seed in the ground, so we buy the plant that’s already grown. We want a kind of instant fulfillment that’s not happening, and that pushes us to go faster and cut corners. Speed is not about the journey; it’s goal oriented. When I get in my car, for instance, I enter the address of my destination into my phone and my phone tells me it’s twenty-eight minutes to get to the city by the fastest route. But what if I don’t want to get on the freeway? What if I want to go down the pretty, quiet street through Berkeley that isn’t so crowded? That route may take longer, but choosing the alternate path might present me with different opportunities or give me more pleasure. If all we’re thinking about is the goal, it’s as if we’re already there in our minds, and the intervening time becomes meaningless. With speed, all other qualities drop out. The pleasure doesn’t matter, the beauty doesn’t matter, the taste doesn’t matter, the resulting waste doesn’t matter. We think the gratification is in the end prod- uct, and so we race to the finish line as quickly as possible. And the finish line is illusory—because as soon as we get to the finish line, there’s another race to start, another finish line to reach.
“Sustainability” – like “organic” has been co-opted. It’s much harder to co-opt “regenerative.”
Sustainability is a big part of stewardship. The basic concept of sustainability is that if you take something out of the environment, you put something else back in to replace it, thus avoiding the depletion of natural resources and maintaining an ecological balance. A sense of equilibrium, even fairness, is embedded in sustainability.
The whole farmers’ market movement that’s now alive and well all across America is one of the fastest and most effective city‑revitalizing interventions I know. But, sadly, sustainability is a term that has been misused by fast food culture. It’s been co‑opted. I was onstage once at a Slow Food Nations event with Ron Finley. As we were talking onstage, the word sustainability came up.
“Sustainability is bullshit,” Ron said. “What we need are regenerative practices, not sustainability.” He explained that sustainability has lost its meaning as advertising agencies, fast food companies, and big corporations have begun touting their “sustainability initiatives” and accomplishments. What’s more, Ron argued, the very definition of sustainability is about maintaining the status quo, and the status quo has become so degraded that what we really need now is regeneration. And Ron is absolutely right. We have passed the point of sustainability. What we need is regenerative agriculture, a way to repair the damage we’ve already wrought on our planet and on ourselves. This is a radical application of stewardship.
What, exactly, do we mean by regenerative agriculture? It’s certainly a step beyond what we generally call sustainable. And it’s also a step beyond the strict USDA definition of organic, which means no pesticides, herbicides, or GMOs. Regenerative agriculture adopts all of the values of organic farming, but it also focuses on the bigger picture of increasing plant and animal biodiversity, rebuilding the health of the topsoil, composting, and creating a functioning, thriving ecosystem. When you change field conditions and restore the soil this way, you promote biosequestration, the process of drawing carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it back into the ground. In the United States, industrial agriculture produces a large percentage of the world’s greenhouse gas pollution, due largely to emissions from livestock and overgrazing: industrial animal agriculture is responsible for 37 percent of methane emissions and 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions—two of the most prevalent greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If we are to seriously address climate change, the food system has to play the leading role. Biosequestration is an effective, natural way to do this.
- We Are What We Eat, Alice Waters