Something’s Fishy Here…

Not gonna to lie–I was definitely not expecting to find anything remotely related to new food activism amidst D.C.’s ruckus St. Patrick’s Day festivities, but there it was, literally staring me in the face:

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I spotted this car in the middle of Adams Morgan–a neighborhood in the District notorious for its bar scene and therefore a destination of choice to properly commemorate the Irish holiday. Needless to say, I was pretty surprised by its presence, and a little unsure of whether it was parked there to make a statement, or simply because its owner was joining in on the day’s celebrations. Either way, my first instinct was: “I can blog about that!” (I realize this is not a normal reaction)

This car represents some pretty interesting topics. Clearly it is a statement about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which are a very hot-button issue in food activism these days. While proponents of GMOs claim that they are the future in terms of combatting food insecurity, people remain skeptical not only of GMOs’ ability to generate higher crop yields and withstand adverse weather (as promised) but also their basic health and safety for consumers. According to the Non-GMO Project, “a growing body of evidence connects GMOs with health problems, environmental damage and violation of farmers’ and consumers’ rights.”

Interestingly, as of right now, the main battlefront seems to be playing out only over the issue of labeling. As the car I spotted proclaims, anti-GMO activists are mostly concerned about knowing whether or not their food has been modified, and less concerned about stopping the process of genetic modification altogether.

Beyond the message it sends, the car itself is a great example of public art which, according to Lucy R. Lippard, is an essential facet of activism (“Looking Around: Where We Are, Where We Could Be” 1995). A vehicle as eye-catching is this one will certainly stand out in the sea of neutral-shaded diplomatic sedans that is D.C. The clever morphing of an ear of corn into a fish visually depicts for the viewer what it is that so many people find unsettling about GM foods–namely, the unnatural merger of plants and animals that have no business mating with one another, let alone the physiological capability to do so. However, I find the choice of medium to display this protest at least slightly ironic. Some of the strongest adversaries of GMOs cite the environmental risks they pose. It doesn’t seem too petty to point out the irony in driving a fossil fuel-consuming vehicle to protest an environmental hazard, does it?

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Despite the growing distrust in genetically modified foods, there are of course still pro-GMO fighters out there. As argued in an article by Cameron English on PolicyMic, genetically modifying plants and animals is nothing new–we have been cultivating crops for centuries and the intentional act of breeding is in fact manipulating the genetic process. English goes further to suggest that the fear of ‘foreign microbes’ which is the basis for demanding GMO labels is unfounded, seeing as how “all the plants we eat, genetically modified or not, are loaded with bacteria, viruses, and other living organisms — and their DNA.” This links up in a curious way with my previous post discussing interspecies ethnography. While it is true that bacteria and microorganisms exist harmoniously with flora, fauna and humans alike, proponents of GM foods claim that we are in fact taking a greater risk ingesting these unknown additives than the ones intentionally spliced there by geneticists. Paraphrasing agricultural scientist Steve Savage, English claims “the only difference between the foreign genetic materials found naturally in plants and the genes we intentionally add to them is that we know more about the latter.”

To me (and I’m sure many others) this defense seems more than a little absurd. We’ve heard this story before–just check out these advertisements to get a darkly humorous glimpse at what was believed to be beneficial to our health not so long ago. We’ve learned (or at least been shown) the lesson the hard way that sometimes developments that look great and fool-proof at first turn out to be disastrous in the long run.

Sure, questioning the validity of seemingly unnatural innovations might be viewed by some as an illogical barrier to the benefits of modernity; and undoubtedly some technological advances have vastly improved quality of life. But this does not place categorical immunity on any and all newly developed techniques. This is precisely the philosophy held by adherents of the Back to the Land movements studied by Dona Brown, who questioned the necessity for technology in order to fully embrace the challenges of modernity.

There may be a compelling argument to be made that we have been knowingly modifying foods since Gregor Mendel (or even earlier),  but we have to be willing to draw the line somewhere. As Lippard notes, “nature includes everything, even technology, created by humans, who are a part of nature,” but just because GMOs may be seen as ‘natural’ in this sense of the word, doesn’t mean we get a free pass to start injecting tomatoes with fish genes and expect there to be no significant consequences. Perhaps we should start taking a serious look at the bigger structures that are causing all this food insecurity in the first place…but that’s a topic for another day.

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Anxious Appetites

We generally think of eating healthy as being, well, healthy! We applaud our comrades who are so brave and  focused to take on the task of paying attention to their diets for the betterment of their personal well being. We congratulate friends on their self-control when we notice they have been losing weight, and we may even feel a twinge of guilt for not committing to treat our own bodies with more respect.

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Click to enlarge all your secret eating anxieties

But sometimes a desire to be healthy can transform into an obsession with counting calories and politely refusing even the occasional offer of candy or chips. In recent years, medical specialists have noticed a rise in a new eating disorder known as Orthorexia Nervosa. Similar to the more well known struggle of Anorexia Nervosa, Orthexia stems from a desire to control one’s diet that is taken to the extreme, but is centered, ironically, around an obsession with eating healthy.

Like most eating disorders, the origins of Orthexia are foggy at best, but it seems likely that it is at least somehow connected to the rising condemnation of obesity in America, the unrealistic images of celebrities who claim to have the ‘new wonder diet’, or simply the trendiness of eating healthy in general.

If we think nailing down the causes is complicated, perhaps even more so is the task of offerring relief. Of course there is an element of counseling or therapy that is most likely required for severe cases, but health and food enthusiast Tori Gartner offers another interesting angle on how to combat Orthexia. She believes that fostering a deeper relationship with our food can in fact help us to better understand what it means to be healthy, while simultaneously helping us to appreciate eating in a healthy fashion.

So it seems that paying attention to our food can be more beneficial than simply offering spiritual insight. It can in fact help combat real medical and psychological issues. As Gartner observes,”When we are in tune with what pleases our palate, when we provide ourselves with the time to cook or chop or shop, when we respect food preparation as something that deserves some time (just like sleep) then perhaps it will be easier to establish and maintain a healthy relationship with food.”

Eating Blindly

While perusing some articles this week, I came across Dining in the Dark–an avant garde form of dining now offered in the Boston area. This restaurant introduces eager diners to a sensational (literally) meal experience…minus one major sense: the gift of sight.

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Guests are blindfolded and guided through their meal accompanied by a plethora of sounds, smells, and otherwise intriguing stimulations.

The concept behind such a seemingly absurd restaurant indeed relates to the theme of this blog. Namely, the creators believe that people are too disconnected from their food, and that dining sans sight helps rebuild that connection. If you can’t see what you’re eating, you have to rely on the rest of your senses to inform you about the experience, and you end up with a more intimate relationship to what you are consuming.

Personally, I know I would only end up making a fool of myself and would probably end up with a much more intimate relationship than intended–namely, food and drink intimately introduced to the fabric of my fancy clothing that I splurged on for such a trendy night out.

It is important to note that the audience this type of experience is likely to attract is probably a very specific one. Dining in the Dark is not cheap (75 bucks a plate)  and it’s certainly not something people intend on indulging in on a regular basis. However, this company is capitalizing on the growing demand for more connection to food–whether that be achieved through eating local, buying organic, or dining blind.