|I took a course last semester called Human Geography; the course was a broad-reaching, critical examination of how people across the globe have lived in the past, and the mechanisms behind the current living conditions of people, both affluent and impoverished.|
It was interesting at times and eye opening at others, but one particular passage that we read stuck with me more than anything else taught in the class. It was a passage written by a Harvard professor on “reading a landscape”. He postulated that simply by paying attention the ways people have sculpted and organized the environment they inhabit, you can infer a great deal about their values and how they live their lives.
If you have the opportunity to travel across the United States, you have the privilege of seeing the diverse ways in which our fellow Americans live their lives. There are the bustling east coast cities, the friendly south, the stark but beautiful southwest, the breadbasket known as the mid-west, the easy-going west coast and the lush Pacific northwest. Each region comes with it’s own uniqueness – especially of the culinary variety. Specific crops grow in specific regions at specific times of year, certain game animals migrate and come in and out of season. Each region has a its own uniqueness, its own flavor. Though I’ve never experienced this, my mom can remember a time when you couldn’t simply go to a supermarket and get fresh asparagus, strawberries or blueberries at any time of the year, so in addition to being tied to the immediate land around you, you were tied to the seasons. In short, you ate different things at different times of the year according to where you lived – a certain kind of regional variety.
I’ve had the opportunity to criss-cross the US a number of times on various road trips. Paying attention to the landscape like a good Human Geography student, one can infer some things about Americans. We value homogeny. A drive through the country side reveals huge, corporate animal and produce farms. A factory farm is the antithesis of diversity; one species of one crop (usually corn, wheat or soy) is grown using loads of chemical fertilizers, and harvested with huge machines. That homogeny extends all the way up the food chain to the restaurants the typical American patronizes. A drive down a freeway will reveal signs for restaurants easily recognizable whether you are local or not. A walk down the aisle of supermarket may appear to be extremely diverse, but a glance at the ingredients list reveals corn to be a primary ingredient in a large percentage of any packaged food, and there is a startlingly short list of huge food companies responsible for manufacturing and distributing food to grocers. In short, the vast majority of Americans eat the same way, regardless of region.
Coincidentally, Americans are some of the unhealthiest people in the developed world. Might it have something to do with the food products we are all consuming?
I’m not arguing that diversity alone is the cure for unhealthiness. I am arguing that the values of corporate America, driven purely by profit, have created a system that prizes homogeny over diversity, quantity over quality and the ability to give patrons the same thing at any location rather than real flavor. All of these things have made corn, refined flour, sugar and factory-farmed animals some of the primary ingredients in the American diet.
Have corporate America’s values made us sicker? I think that argument could definitely be made. But people are certainly becoming aware of it, as evidenced by the emergence of so many farmers’ markets and farms committed to raising animals correctly. Won’t it be the day when organic, sustainable farms replace the mechanized, chemical-laden produce-factories and animals are raised in a healthy manner? Until then, someone observing our physical landscape might not infer that health is one of our greatest values.