by Vince Bushell
Where our food comes from and how it is produced is becoming a serious concern for consumers aware of some questionable practices in the agricultural industry. Not all practices within the industry are necessarily bad, but often the choices made by the producers are related more to profit than to taste or health. You do not have to be a vegetarian to be concerned about the treatment of animals bred and raised as food. Many of us are concerned about the use of chemicals to ripen fruit or kill pests. All our food comes from plants originally. The cow eats the grass to make the milk and grow the steak. The chicken eats the grain before it lays the egg or becomes part of the soup. Energy is lost in the translation, so 10 pounds or more of grain results in just one pound of beef. One economic solution is to not let the cow walk around and waste energy. But is that good for the cow? How about keeping the chicken in a small cage in a chicken warehouse and feeding it chemically treated grain to inhibit disease and enhance growth… is that good for the chicken or the person eating it? Gregor Mendel studied pea plants in the 19th century and laid the foundation for genetics that has been built on to this day. Cloning was old hat in greenhouses long before Dolly the sheep made headlines. Scientists can now implant genes from a fish into a strawberry plant that makes it more resistant to frost. Is this a good thing? Many consumers would like to know more about genetically modified plants before purchasing them. Going back a bit, horticulture is the science of plant cultivation and selection. Flowers, fruits, and vegetables have been grown and selected for desirable traits for centuries. Once a selection is made for a trait, it can be reproduced by selective seed production or vegetative replication (basically cloning). Fruit trees are often grafted on a supportive root stock resulting in an orchard reproducing apples with all the same genetic coding. These cultivated varieties are called cultivars. Here’s the rub. The selection can be made for any trait: size, color, taste. Heirloom varieties grown in great-great-grandma’s garden were most likely selected for flavor. The mega farm corporation in California may choose shipping ability as a trait far above taste. The result is cheaper food, but it also tastes like it. There are beautiful roses that have the fragrance bred right out of them. They were selected for flower size and color without regard to fragrance. Maybe it is it time to stop and smell the roses. Maybe it is time to choose fruits and vegetables based on flavor and ecologically sound farming practices that minimizes artificial fertilization and pesticide and herbicide use. There are farms right here in Wisconsin and the Midwest that produce food in a manner that is more respectful of the earth and the plants and animals that we share it with. If you’re interested in breaking out of the industrial food web, you can start by shopping more carefully. Look for cage-free, free range chickens and eggs. Shop the farmers’ markets for locally produced fruits and vegetables. Strawberries grown in Wisconsin, especially varieties that have not had the flavor bred out of them, are much tastier than anything shipped here from California. Try organic milk. Isn’t it more flavorful? Assert your right to taste.