Eating Promiscuously: Adventures in the Future of Food

Eating Promiscuously: Adventures in the Future of Food

by James McWilliams

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Overview

"The need to reexamine assumptions about how we feed ourselves becomes ever more important. McWilliams does not shy from imagining radical solutions to these issues . . . Sure to be controversial." ―Booklist


The human practice of farming food has failed. There are 7,500 known varieties of domesticated apples; we regularly eat about five. Seventy-five percent of the world's food derives from five animals and twelve plants. Factory farmed meat is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions (about 14 percent, larger than transportation) and consumes 75 percent of the water in drought-prone regions such as the West. We are stuck in a rut of limited choices, and the vast majority of what we eat is detrimental to our health and the welfare of the planet. But what if we could eliminate agriculture as we know it? What if we could start over?


James McWilliams's search for more expansive palate leads him to those who are actively exploring the fringes of what we can eat, a group of outliers seeking nutrition innovation outside the industrial food system. Here, we meet insect manufacturers, seaweed harvesters, road kill foragers, plant biologists, and oyster farmers who seek to open both our minds and our mouths—and to overturn our most basic assumptions about food, health, and ethics.


Eating Promiscuously generates hope for a more tasteful future—one in which we eat thousands of foods rather than dozens—with a new philosophy that could save both ourselves and our planet.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781640090323
Publisher: Counterpoint Press
Publication date: 05/08/2018
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 753,673
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

JAMES MCWILLIAMS is an historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. He is the author of seven books, including The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals, Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. His essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Harper’s Magazine, The Atlantic, Slate, Modern Farmer, The American Scholar, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Millions, and Pacific Standard, where he is a contributing writer.

Read an Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The Bonobo Diet

Your discovery, as best as I can determine, is that there is an alternative which no one has hit upon.

—WALKER PERCY, The Moviegoer

Human beings have been eating food for almost three million years.
But we’ve been practicing agriculture—the act of forcing plants and animals to stay in one place—for only about the last twelve thousand.
That’s only 0.02 percent of our total existence. Industrial agriculture,
the kind of farming that “feeds the world,” has been around for about one hundred years, thus stretching that 0.02 percent to 0.000025
percent. That’s decimal dust.

The way we eat today is brand-new—a recent thunderbolt of human experimentation with you and me as the subjects. Not only is it new;
it’s barely a distant echo of anything that came before. Given its late arrival, and given its lack of precedent, agriculture by its nature raises an interesting question: Why should we think we got it right the first time around? Given the process of trial and error behind every other example of human progress, who would ever believe we’d succeed on the first shot?

This book opens with the claim that we didn’t. In fact, it assumes we thoroughly screwed things up. This assessment holds true not just for the last century—when our agricultural sins intensified to the point that we finally took notice—but also for the entire ongoing human effort to domesticate plants and animals for food. The food system isn’t broken—
it was never fixed.

Locate blame where you see fit, but agricultural development has been a largely unthinking decision made by hundreds of generations through billions of choices about how to secure a consistent supply of food. There’s no single person, corporation, politician, advertising executive,
• r USDA official to condemn for our culinary condition. Still, it’s a reality we must live with every time we sit down at the table to eat.
The collective decision to practice the sort of agriculture we practice—
clear space, plant seeds, tend plants, harvest, feed most of it to animals,
repeat—has reduced something as necessary to human life as eating to a handful of nutritionally depleted foods. All the while it has asked us to accept the situation as normal.

I’m hardly the first person to make this case. When it comes to the task of feeding ourselves, according to Jared Diamond, author of Collapse,
we went off the rails about ten thousand years ago. He has called agriculture “the worst mistake in the history of the human race,” the leading source of “malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases,” and the underlying reason for such troubles as ecological devastation, “deep class divisions,” and exploitative power hierarchies. Another critic, Richard
Manning, develops a similar argument in Against the Grain: How
Agriculture Hijacked Civilization. He contends that from the outset,
farmers have proven poorly equipped “to deal with the abundance” generated by agriculture. As he understands it, agriculture per se leads to a spew of food that increasingly ruins human health (even if we are living longer lives) while destroying the natural environment. Victor Davis
Hanson, a former California raisin farmer turned classics professor, furthers the anti-agriculture missive in Fields without Dreams, arguing that farming, when you get down to it, is “a foolhardly thing to do.”
If prominent thinkers have questioned the nature of agriculture,
reformers seeking solutions have yet to heed the message. Instead,
they’ve worked safely within the confines of the established agricultural regime that Diamond and his fellow critics denounce. The progressive solutions we currently pursue—eat local, eat organic, eat from small farms, eat whole foods, eat what grandma ate—are, in their small contexts,
sensible steps to take. But they’re no more than token solutions.

They assume, quite incorrectly, that agriculture is a habit that once was,
and once again can be, consistent with the cycles of nature. They look back, in many ways, to an agricultural past that never existed. This vision will never revolutionize how we eat.

The moral weight invested in these popular alternatives makes it seem as if the most important food issue we face today is about making better choices within an existing range of options (or just bringing smaller versions of the old options into existence). Eating “food with integrity”—Chipotle’s clever slogan—sourced from local farmers who raise their own hogs and make their own cheese has prevented us from fundamentally rethinking the choices themselves. The fact that Chipotle—
a glorified fast-food hub that has recently suffered from a spate of tainted food products—has come to symbolize reform says a lot about how low the bar has been set.

Then there’s the propaganda. A veritable cottage industry of nostalgic agrarian literature—a trend that has nearly turned farming into a kind of poetry—has clogged bookstore shelves with bucolic mythologies centered on the preindustrial farmer. He has become a virtuous yeoman working in tandem with nature to bring us a pesticide-free, family farm–strengthening,
value-enhancing cornucopia. This genre—which sustains the local, organic,
and “slow” alternative to industrial farming—has seduced us through an agrarian fantasy that ultimately glorifies the system that oppresses us.
By assuming, when it comes to agriculture, that we (or at least our ancestors) failed on the first attempt, and by dismissing the present alternatives as inadequate (however romantically the alternatives are presented),
this book suggests a different starting point for saving our food system. Admittedly, this starting point is a thought experiment—and possibly a fantastic one. But it has the benefit of freeing our imagination to think in more ambitious terms. It asks, what if we could wipe the slate clean and, given what we now know, imagine a radically new way for humans to eat? In other words:

What if we could start over?

Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION: The Bonobo Diet / vii

ONE: The Paradox of Abundance / 1

TWO: No Farmers, Food / 33

THREE: Democratizing Protein / 67

FOUR: The Tao of Trash / 99

FIVE: Underwater Treasures / 123

SIX: Dead Meat / 159

CONCLUSION: Becoming Promiscuous / 181

Interviews

INTRODUCTION: The Bonobo Diet / vii

ONE: The Paradox of Abundance / 1

TWO: No Farmers, Food / 33

THREE: Democratizing Protein / 67

FOUR: The Tao of Trash / 99

FIVE: Underwater Treasures / 123

SIX: Dead Meat / 159

CONCLUSION: Becoming Promiscuous / 181

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