A Brief History of Food: Where We are Going
The cat is out of the bag. You probably won’t spend the rest of your life eating food from only one ethnic tradition. In fact, you are likely to partake in foods derived from other cultures much more than that of your own ancestral origins. While unheard of 100 years ago, today the large variety of cuisines available to us is a normal part of life. For most Americans, the choice of a meal inspired by the traditions of China, Mexico, Italy, Thailand, Greece, India, Ghana, and lots of other places on the planet is simply a matter of going to a restaurant or looking up a recipe online.
Experiencing foods from different parts of the world not only exposes us to new and wonderful flavors and ingredients, but also opens doors to other cultures and traditions. The zeitgeist of modern food continues to expand and embrace new and different cuisines. As these cuisines have come together, they have also been melded and blended together into new and equally tasty combinations. (Who doesn’t like a good taco pizza?!) This fusion cuisine has been fueled by creative chefs and natural evolution as people move about the world and adapt to their new locations. This trend will likely continue as cultures come together and mingle more and more.
While the melting pot of cultures is largely beneficial and a natural progression of society, one concern some have is a loss of tradition and identity. Which is a natural concern; human life is defined by constant change and our continual resistance to that change. While this resistance won’t change the trend of mixing cultures, it can draw attention to the ancestral knowledge inherent in traditions. Food plays an important role in maintaining traditional knowledge of a culture. Food and cuisine represents how a group drew sustenance and maintained health from the land, often in a balanced and harmonious manner. Traditional holidays and meals can inform how cultures navigated seasonal variations of weather. This knowledge can have great value in connecting with our food and integrating our agricultural practices with the harmony of nature. So along with the blending of cuisines, it will be important to honor and integrate the wisdom of these traditions. One can also wish that this mixing of foods works as a proxy for increased acceptance and caring for fellow human beings, no matter what they look like or where they came from.
The fusion of cuisines has largely been led by the migration of people around the planet. The transportation of food over long distances has also played a critical role in this integration. A diverse array of foods from all over the world are available to us in a manner that would be unfathomable to our great-grandparents. But, as has become evident with the pandemic, these supply chains are fragile. Living off the momentum of systems created decades ago, many foods are now grown in large tracts of a specific region and then transported to markets all over the world. No place on earth may exemplify this more than the Central Valley of California where 2/3 of US fruits and nuts and 1/3 of US vegetables are grown. Following the linear thinking of modern agriculture of producing the most for the least cost, it made sense to attempt to maximize these high value crops in a region with favorable conditions. But this area is now prone to excessively hot weather and drought and dwindling irrigation water, imperiling the long term availability of these foods. In life, concentration comes with increased risk, whether it be in a business’ client base, where relying on one big customer is much riskier than having a number of smaller customers, or in food crops, where concentration can increase the impact of bad weather, insects, and disease. Addressing these risks through diversification will be important for the security of our future food supplies.
For humanity to thrive in harmony with nature, we need to move from this linear thinking and consumptive behavior to a comprehensive decision-making process that promotes resilient systems. Luckily, most fruits and vegetables can be effectively grown in close proximity to population centers. For low density products such as salad greens, it makes much more sense to grow these near populations on farms, in greenhouses, and in vertical farms rather than shipping these low density (and mostly water) items from dry areas of California, the US Southwest, and Mexico. Not only can shipping costs be minimized, but delicate items like salad greens retain their quality the sooner they are consumed after harvest. Production and preservation of fruits and vegetables can be grown in the regions of all populated areas. Simple technologies like geothermal greenhouses can expand the variety of foods available and allow production of tropical fruits in cold climates. The possibilities in producing food near where people are at is limited only by our imagination and ingenuity.
More land intensive and dense foods like grains and meat will still make sense to come from farther away. But the key to long term viability of our food system will be to mimic nature where series of virtuous closed loop cycles are used to regenerate resources. Whether it be nutrients or money, communities and regions will thrive best when these are cycled tightly within an area, leaving less opportunity for loss and waste. The time is quickly approaching where we will need to recycle everything we use, rather than sweeping stuff under the rug by burying things in landfills. American’s throw out over 30% of food that they purchase, which in and of itself needs to be addressed and lowered in how we deal with food, but then a majority ends up rotting in landfills where it makes up nearly a quarter of all waste. Composting food waste and returning the nutrients to the land will be one simple step that can be adopted everywhere. We can go even farther through thoughtful design and use of materials that can be easily recycled and composted such as mushroom packaging and hemp plastic to further close the loop.
We are entering a new period of the earth where we are globally connected like at no other time in history. Cultures and cuisines have opportunities to mix and mingle and create new and exciting dishes. At the same time, we possess the means and informational capacity to save and preserve the traditional knowledge that developed these cultures and can instruct us on living in tune with nature. As we are globally connected, the future will also require us to be more locally connected with the places we live. A large part of this connection will be with our food. Understanding and developing ways to produce food in harmony with nature will be integral to the further development of our society.
We are excited to play a role in producing food in harmony with nature and connecting you with it. You can learn more by signing up for our email list here.