Friday, September 16, 2011

"Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is a writer of fiction and non-fiction books who, with her family, decided that, for a whole year, they would only eat food grown in their neighbourhood, grow it themselves, or learn to do without it. That's what it said on the back cover, and I thought, hmm... they probably live somewhere down south where it doesn't snow and you can grow fruit and vegetables all year round.

But no, they moved to a 40 acre farm in Virginia where they can basically harvest fresh produce from April (towards late April with careful planning) to October. Not too far south and not too different from Massachusetts. That is not to say that I am planning on growing my own food in my backyard (Maybe a few plants next spring, but certainly not enough to live on. We'll see.).

The point is, these days we see food being transported halfway across the globe all the time. And when we see California grapes in Delhi or Mexican watermelon in Boston, we think it's a great thing to be able to enjoy all of that stuff. But that comes with a lot of strings attached.

All of this carrying food around uses enormous amounts of fossil fuel. This, of course, always comes to the foreground when a fuel price hike is followed by a tomato price hike. The fuel is needed not just to move the food from one point to another, but also to keep it cool at its ideal temperature. Using fossil fuel like that has numerous consequences for the planet that all of us know about.

But that's not the only downside to eating fruit grown halfway across the globe. In order to help keep fruit from rotting on its journey, it is often picked before it is ripe. Now some fruit, like peaches, will sit at room temperature and ripen for you after you bring it home. But some will not. Consider tomatoes (technically fruit). They are picked when they are not yet ripe, so they are still green colored. Then they are exposed to ethylene gas, which turns them red but does not give them the flavor or the nutrition that a vine ripened tomato has.

Now, since everybody in the world wants to eat exotic fruit and vegetables grown on different continents and wants to eat them all year long, farmers are forced to rely on chemical fertilizers. pesticides, growth hormones for both plants and animals, and genetically modified seeds and animals. These chemicals pollute our soil and water and kill off birds and other helpful creatures which would otherwise aid in natural pest control. The residual chemicals found in the food we eat and the water we drink spell trouble for us, by, among other things, speeding up ageing and encouraging cancerous growths. The growth hormone used for cows, in particular, has been shown to cause premature puberty (as early as age 7 or 8) in girls and to encourage breast cancer. Chicken growth hormones encourage uterine and ovarian cancers, among others.

As awareness of these issues is growing, a lot of farmers are moving back to organic (no chemical pesticides, fertilizer, or hormones) farming methods and large chain restaurants are taking the initiative not to buy meat and dairy treated with hormones. A number of ordinary people are growing some of their own food in their own backyards and buying the rest from local farms and farmers' markets. There are steps in the right direction, but there are still major obstacles to be crossed.

Barbara Kingsolver and her family were not purists in their endeavour, in that they did buy flour and a few other items manufactured outside their community, but they still did a remarkable job. Their adventure involved the whole family, down to the six year old daughter who raised her own chickens. At the end of the summer, they dehydrated tomatoes, froze zucchini, canned sauce and did everything they needed to do to enable them to get through the winter. And they did get through it all.

The book is written very beautifully, in an almost poetic style that is also occasionally humorous. It is a memoir bundled together with a food encyclopedia and a recipe book. The book writing is also a team effort, with contributions from Barbara's husband and her older daughter (the younger one was too young to sign a book contract). It is an inspiration, a joy ride, and definitely one of the best and most meaningful books I have ever read.