J-Dub is one of my alter-egos, another existential partner although he may not know it. If I were ten years younger I would have taken computers a great deal more seriously. It would have given me more social cover to be an outer geek rather than just an inner geek. And of course if I were a white dude instead of a black dude, I would have a great deal more invested in the logic of organicism. Although I'm not quite sure on that last score because I *am* organic in a new and interesting way, certainly my relationship with being organic would have gone through a different sort of rationale. Nevertheless, J-Dub is a vegetarian and I am not. Nevertheless, I think we share an organic connection with regards to food and other things which needs some fleshing out.
Let me start with the provocation that gets me here and work through its logic and see where it leads. You see it's often difficult for folks I converse with, especially in larger groups, to finish off what may sound like an offhanded comment spewing out of my piehole, when in fact it's just the beginning of a conversation. These are conversations often never completed, and so I sound like more of an asshole than I actually am. Being non-apologetic doesn't help. On the other hand, if you can't continue the conversation, I'm not likely to take you seriously or view you as deserving of the long answer. Thus this blog and its 13 year history.
The ethical difference between store-bought GMO food and store-bought non-GMO food is negligible.
From an organic POV, if you're not growing your own food, you're a beggar trying to be choosy. From that same perspective, the guy shopping at Whole Foods for natural products is just another consumer infusing his consumption with conspicuous social signaling. This is especially hypocritical for those who aren't using their bodies to social effect. Now that's a mouthful, but let me handle the last part of it because that's particularly where I'm coming from lately.
As some readers may know, I'm in the midst of my martial education. This year I am focusing on my own body and diet. It's working very well and I am rather stunningly pleased with the results so far. It's changing the way I live, but there's a lot of detail below that thread. At a higher level, the point of me doing my body conditioning is to put me into a position of providing some social service with my body as a junior sheepdog. These days that doesn't amount to much more than playing bodyguard around friends and family when walking through sketchy turf, but that means a lot to me. I very much like the idea of improving my physique in service of the safety of others. I am broadening the capability of my impulse to be a big brother and a protector of ladies and gentlemen in the context of the decreased sociability of the urban world today. My intent is to make that clear distinction from that and general badassery for which my cool pose might be mistaken. But the point is that I am moral muscle. I intent to bridge the gap between foolish chivalry and 'protect and serve' on the real. My diet serves that purpose. Not just to make me look sexy.
You've perhaps heard the joke, how can you tell which person at the table is a vegan. Don't worry, they'll let you know. That's a cruel joke if applied to someone with peanut or shellfish allergies. The moral distinction is clear. If you serve the wrong food to an allergic, they become poisoned, if you serve the wrong food to a vegan they become offended. The distinction between an insult and an assault should be self-evident. I am always trying to not be rude, but I am not above mocking a vegan who tries to make the political case that serving meat is an assault or worse.
I think it is reasonable for Monsanto and other food producers to resist labeling of GMO products. I think it is also reasonable for consumers to expect GMO products to be labeled. But to demand it now, in the context of stark ignorance of what GMO is, augurs in favor of the producers. One is harder pressed to demonstrate the perfidy of producers than the paranoia of consumers. This is one area in which I would like to see more responsibility of scientists and other experts, but in these days, such things are difficult to expect. Consider the retirement of Harold Lewis. Nevertheless, my food expert is Michael Pollan.
It has been a long time since I conferred with Pollan on any matter, but I like his approach. His simplest advice is to eat food, mostly plants and not too much. On the matter of what is food we get a simple admonishment. If your grandmother wouldn't recognize it, it's probably not food. I join this advice with that of Nassim Taleb who asserts the primacy of recipes handed down through generations. Of all the experimenting mankind has done with every possible thing there is to eat on the planet, it should be no surprise that bread baking has survived. Fifty generations of baking rather outweigh your sudden aversion to gluten. I tie that finally with our very evolution of incisors and large intestines. If God didn't want us to eat meat we would have teeth like horses or stomachs like cows. Nor do humans eat much insect flesh. These are not random circumstances subject to social engineering.
However agriculture is subject to engineering. Given that, one must ask the fundamental question of how agriculture has evolved at all. Or more specifically, what do chicken farmers know about breeding fowl that genetic engineers don't? What stands out in my memory is that all of those fifty generations of farming and breeding was done in almost total ignorance of genetics. What crops and commodities are today is little more than the eugenics of style, or as Pollan puts it, the botany of desire. Nobody raising corn, cabbage or cows knew if there would vitamins and minerals. Figuring out the calories is an entirely new idea, and counting them doesn't help the way we have been sold. Your grandmother doesn't know how many calories are in the tomatoes she grew in the backyard and made into spaghetti sauce. So why should you care? Because you buy it from the supermarket and that's all you know. Food in a box. Trust the label because for everything else, you are unable. Now what's a GMO label? Just another piece of consumer information to be entered into your iPhone app.
I have two problems with GMO but both are economic in nature, not ethical in nature. The first is the simple matter of monoculture. If GMO methods prove superior to traditional method of hit and miss, then we are possibly depending upon market forces to develop the most efficient crop. That means the overwhelming variety of potatoes might be engineered for french fries, rather than for stews. Not good. Secondly, there is the legitimate question of oligopoly of agribusiness seed stock.
Neither of these are the sort of matters that can be solved by selective consuming. It's like saying that if I only spend my lifetime purchasing red BMWs, then the car manufacturers of the world will respond. And I certainly do not expect any democratic process or social movement to work in any disciplined way. What I can do however is be a smart shopper and a microproducer, and I can give ethical ends to the means of consuming food. Those ethical ends outweigh the means of production.
It's in the microproducer angle that I find myself in complete enthusiastic agreement withJ-Dub as regards his intent to get with the growing veggies program. Aside from the fact that I know he thought his way into vegetarianism and does not in any way get self-aggrandizing in his choices, we gel on the ziggurat of skill. We both move from consumer to gearhead, to hacker to maker when it comes to food skills. And it is in this way we share the ethos that pulls us away from the shallow morality of consumerism to the virtue of study and practical mastery in production.
I don't know if or how I will ever sympathize with the consumer who chooses particular diets. I am rather convinced that people are merely being picky eaters, expressing privileged preferences. Moreover I sense that many people have elevated such preferences to fetishes and are really developing social intolerances and taboos. I don't have any problem with the privileged preferences, and not much with the food snobbishness - but food consumption doesn't weigh much with me morally. I hesitate to, but must make the parellel to sexual appetites, so you can see how this could resonate into another 1500 words.
I don't much care what people eat, but I don't like the moral pretenses of the politics of consumption. Producer know, consumers guess.