Why do you eat what you eat?

posted in: Commentary | 6
Harvest Public Media invites you to share your story.

Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field based out of Kansas City with reporters throughout the midwest. They have asked for input about why people buy what we buy when it comes to food.

The Why do you buy what you buy? survey has some pretty open ended questions. I wonder what sort of responses they are going to get! Hopefully they will release them in full so we can all comb through the responses.

Biofortified readers, head on over and submit your answers – and please share them with us, too! You can post directly in the comments, or post a link to your blog or other site. Please submit your answers to HPM by the end of the week (March 22).

For what it’s worth (not a lot!), my responses are below, with HPM’s questions in grey.

Do you buy certain foods because of your blood type? Or adhere to a gluten-free diet even though you don’t have celiac disease? Or only eat raw or unprocessed foods? We want to hear about your dietary and food buying choices – and why a particular kind of food works for you. Please be as specific as possible about your food belief and, if possible, the science behind it.

Why are you interested in this issue?

  • I’m interested in nutrition.
  • I’m an informed consumer.
  • I think people are way too weird about food.
  • Other

(all of the above) I am interested in food because I eat. All of us shape the food landscape around us and around the world by making choices of what to buy and what to eat. Sometimes those choices are based on science and sometimes they are based on ethics. Sometimes we are well informed and sometimes we are not. Sometimes our choices encourage positive change, and sometimes we inadvertently do harm. I am interested in food as a scientist (specifically, a plant geneticist with strong interest in nutrition and sustainability), as a blogger (who writes about agriculture at Biofortified.org),  and as a consumer (who chooses to avoid most animal products for reasons of sustainability). I am also very interested in food safety due to a prior career as a health inspector in the US Army.

Share an anecdote or story from your own experience that illustrates your perspective.

At the Bethesda Farmers’ market one bright summer morning last year, I chose a stand that was selling sweet corn. It was all organic, which I normally don’t buy, but the friend I was with said that this stand had the best veggies. Their corn was more expensive – $4.50 vs $3 for 6 ears – but I didn’t realize that till after I’d paid. The leaves were nice and green so I was looking forward to some yummy sweet corn. Imagine my surprise when I came home and tried to eat the corn…

One ear was lovely. One had very poor tip fill. Two had insect damage at the top (one was an earworm and one was a rootworm). Two were badly damaged by insects and had various fungi growing all over the ear, so I threw them away. I do not take risks with carcinogenic aflatoxin, thank you very much. So, for $4.50 I got less than 4 ears of corn. It was ok, but sadly wasn’t even that tasty of a variety. What a waste.

Of course all organic produce isn’t inferior, but this anecdote illustrates the data that finds organic to be lower yielding, on average, than conventional farming. Organic corn yields 29% less than conventional, so you need 1.4 acres instead of 1 acre to grow the same amount of corn (based on 2008 survey conducted by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service). If we are worried about the environment – how can it possibly make sense to have lower yields such that it requires more land to grow the same amount of food? See Steve Savage’s post Today’s Organic, Yesterday’s Yields for more on this subject.

There are certainly some good things about organic agriculture – the emphasis on soil quality, the goal of increasing biodiversity, and more. But not all organic farms meet these ideals, and many conventional farms do a great job when it comes to sustainability. The organic program draws a line at “natural” vs “synthetic” when it comes to farm inputs, but that is not a science based line. Many synthetic pesticides are based on natural substances, such as plant extracts (such as pyrethrins extracted from chrysanthemums), but have been changed to avoid harm to non-target organisms or to break down quickly in the environment. Keeping newer, safer pesticides out while keeping older, more dangerous pesticides in does not help sustainability! Organic also leaves out newer technologies in plant breeding such as genetic engineering which means organic farming can’t take advantage of things like Bt corn, which produces a protein that is toxic only to a small range of insects like corn earworm.

In a perfect world, we would have a science-based sustainability labeling system that takes into account all of the different farming methods that could be used. I discuss this idea in Toward a Better Agriculture at the Biofortified Blog. Of course, such a system would require much more reporting and transparency than we currently have in our food system. While I think this would be a good thing, I think such labels should be voluntary.

Where do you shop to find the special products or food you need? Are you paying more for your groceries?

I shop at regular grocery stores and frequent ethnic markets for additional ingredients. I like to cook from scratch and try to buy whole foods that are less processed but also choose some reasonably healthy convenience foods to help fit my busy life. No, I do not pay more for any speciality labeled foods. I avoid buying non-GMO labeled products and prefer to avoid organic. This means that I don’t buy a lot of vegetarian speciality products, but those are expensive anyway! I pointedly avoid “natural” or organic stores because I do not support many of the unscientific claims that they make. I also avoid stores that sell homeopathic remedies.

If you have an original photo to illustrate your insights, the people in your story, or just of yourself, please upload it here. Please share some details about this photo: names, date, location, and the story behind it.

Click for larger image.

This photo of me, Anastasia Bodnar, was taken in Ames, Iowa on 20 August 2009. I was in grad school at Iowa State University at the time, working to develop corn with higher levels of bio-available iron and better quality protein as well as researching whether transgenes behave like native genes. A colleague was working on new sweet corn varieties and I was lucky enough to be one of the tasters. I discuss this story and the science behind it in a blog post titled Sweet, sweet corn at the Biofortified Blog.

Follow Anastasia Bodnar:
Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!