Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, borrowed from a dear friend, has sat on my bookshelf for an embarrassingly long time. At the time, I just wasn’t all that excited to read about what I should or should not do regarding my eating habits. During the interim, however, my whole relationship with food changed, I lost 80 pounds, and gained infinitely more energy, so when my friend Lorna suggested I take that book to read on my recent trip to visit family in South Dakota, I agreed. She said she would loan me her copy but she didn’t know where it was. That was when I ‘fessed up to having her book; fortunately she wasn’t angry with me.
It’s true, what they say about the right book falling into the right hands at the right time. It’s February, with a few weeks left before the planting-seeds-indoors time begins here in New Hampshire. My husband and I have time now to plan for growing a vegetable garden this summer, for the first time in perhaps 14 years. When my children were very young, I planted rows of peas, broccoli, tomatoes, eggplant, and even carrots, and there are photos of Geoff hefting a huge zucchini, and picking peas. So I come to this decision armed with the knowledge of how much work it can be, especially during the harvest times. I’m excited about the chance to once again put up batches of tomato-apple relish, and freeze ratatouille to be enjoyed later in the year.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has worked its magic on me. It’s not preachy at all, although I’m certain I was not ready to read it those few years ago. It’s enlightening at the very least, inspiring for certain, and definitely worth talking about. Kingsolver, whose other literary accomplishments include The Poisonwood Bible, and The Bean Trees, wrote this memoir of her family’s one year commitment to take charge of where their food came from, which includes delightful adventures and histories of certain foods as well as the disturbing story of where most of the food available in the US comes from and how it’s processed.
All of Kingsolver’s references are listed in the book, and there is also a web site, http://www.animalvegetablemiracle.com/ where you can find recipes, links, and more information. Some of the factual information in this book is important for everyone to know, so here are some excerpts that I found particularly notable.
- Thinking about where all of our food comes from? It is winter in New Hampshire, and yet I can buy almost any variety of fruit or vegetable at my local grocery. On page 5: “Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles . . . Energy calories consumed by production, packaging, and shipping far outweigh the energy calories we receive from the food.”
- Can it really make a difference if I choose local or organic food? On page 5: “If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week. That’s not gallons, but barrels.”
- What do American farms grow, anyway? On page 14: “ . . . 70 percent of all our midwestern agricultural land shifted gradually into single-crop corn or soybean farms, each one of them, on average, the size of Manhattan. . . U.S. farmers now produce 3,900 calories per U.S. citizen, per day. That is twice what we need, and 700 calories a day more than they grew in 1980. . . . Most of these calories enter our mouths [as] high fructose corn syrup, lecithin, citric acid, maltodextrin, sorbitol, and xanthan gum. . . Soybeans also become animal flesh, or . . . ‘added fats.’” Kingsolver expands this idea as part of the reasons why we have an obesity problem in our country.
You may be thinking now that this book is all doom and gloom, and it isn’t, really. But the information about the state of our food industry is important for us to know about – and I, for one, had no idea that it was as serious as it really is. This part of the book was the hardest to read, and I did put it down for a few days just to let it rest in my brain.
Kingsolver also reveals that while our nation’s farmers were pretty much forced into limiting their crops, the top seed producers were working hard to gain control of whatever they could grab; “six companies now control 98 percent of the world’s seed sales” (51). Even smaller, trusted seed houses such as Johnny’s is forced to obtain seeds from these sources. “Garden seed inventories show that while about 5,000 nonhybrid vegetable varieties were available from catalogs in 1981, the number in 1998 was down to 600” (52).
These companies also have patents for genetically modifying seeds. These genetic changes include such qualities as shape conformity for convenient packaging, how long they will remain “fresh” (albeit flavorless) during shipping, and even the ability to stay alive when the field is sprayed with Roundup, which kills the weeds.
There is good news, though, in the form of several organizations which have come together to exchange and save heirloom seeds. Vegetables grown from heirloom seeds have been handed down, sometimes for many generations, and have the best flavor and other qualities – that’s why the seeds have been saved. The Seed Savers’ Exchange, Native Seeds/SEARCH, North American Fruit Explorers, Slow Food International and Slow Food USA are all working to keep these heirloom varieties growing! This link http://www.animalvegetablemiracle.com/Resources2.html will take you to all the resources listed in the book.
And let’s not forget about Fair Trade foods, such as coffee. Fair Trade is an indicator that even though the food may have been imported from distant lands, the local farmer will benefit from the purchase and the food has been grown under healthy, self-sustaining conditions. Local farmers, wherever they live, need all the help they can get!
Probably there are few families prepared and able to eat only locally grown food. But now that I’ve read this book, I shall be much more supportive of local sources. It may be a challenge to change old habits but the thought of where “regular” food has been and the genetic modifications made to it is simply horrifying.
And I’m starting, in March, with a few packets of heirloom seeds.
Life is good.