Several years ago, I brought a group of American tourists to Ashford Castle where we met a local guide who grew up in Cong in the 1950’s when the movie “The Quiet Man” was filmed. While his stories about John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, and the history of the castle were very interesting, the story of how he grew up during that time has stuck with me since. His family was living self-sufficiently and the only things they ever bought were tea, baking powder and salt. He joked “all the food we ate back then, is now called ‘organic’ and is sold for a fortune in the supermarkets”. I will never forget the face of one of the Americans who then asked whether the Irish only ate potatoes in those days. Our guide laughed and explained that apart from potatoes they grew their plenty of vegetables and kept some animals for meat, milk and eggs. Often food was shared amongst the community. The Americans thought this must have been a very limited diet, but our guide said, they did not think about food, as anything other than to sustain and feed you. Food was not for pleasure even though he thinks it tasted better than most of the food you get nowadays in the supermarket.
It is incredible how food production and distribution could have changed so dramatically within such a relatively short space of time since. Up until industrialisation in the 1800’s when the first major changes in food production occurred, people produced and ate their food as they had done for thousands of years previously. In the relatively peaceful period since World War II, food production has exploded and distribution changed radically.
Many farmers have specialised in farming only one type of meat or crop – consistent production and high yield determining farming methods, rather than a concern for animal welfare, the soil or the environment. Artificial fertilisers have replaced crop rotation while antibiotics permit more livestock to be kept in confined spaces. Technological advances enable the production of convenience foods, while refining of sugar, flour and oils has led to an array of new products. Faster, cheaper transportation enables food from all over the world to find its way to our local supermarket and chemical treatment of fruit and vegetables guarantees consistency and longevity, while making product seasonality obsolete.
The modern consumer demands food that is tasty and cheap and expects a constant, reliable supply of a wide variety of foods, mainly driven by ever improving marketing efforts. Small producers are often destroyed or acquired by giant multinational companies who can market their products better and sell more cheaply.
Misleading information on how natural and healthy products are for us, how valuable the wide variety of products is for us, create the impression that the food industry has in fact progressed compared to 50-60 years ago.
The American could not believe that people could actually live on so few foods. However, those home-grown foods likely contained all the essential nutrients required for a more active lifestyle than we have today. They are indeed nearly organic.
Most fruit and vegetables in our supermarkets today have lost much of their mineral content due to poor soil quality and many of their vitamins because of the long journeys. Through the refining process, sugar and grains have been actively stripped of their nutrients: while sugar molasses contain plenty of vitamins and minerals, sugar contains none. Wholemeal grains are rich in vital nutrients, whereas refined white flour has hardly any.
Among the worst of all refined products are seed-based cooking oils. Not only does the product you buy in the supermarket contain nothing anymore of the protein, essential fatty acids, minerals, vitamins, nor fibre of the original seed, they have now been changed into completely different types of fats which the body does not recognise and pose a serious threat to your health. A process of cleaning, hulling, cooking, pressing, distilling, heating, refining, bleaching, deodorizing, foaming, and eventually hydrogenating leads to the finished product which can be sold in glass or plastic bottles, widely transported and which keeps on the shelves forever. Unfortunately we have been made believe that those oils are better for us than the natural fats like butter, goose fat etc.
Those virtually empty calories and health-damaging sugars and fats are found in nearly all processed foods such as breads, cakes, biscuits, and many more.
While it is utopian to think we could revert to being completely self-sufficient like our guide in Cong, the increase in farmers’ markets, organic produce and community gardens show that there is an ever growing part of the population who want to know again where their food comes from, for health and environmental reasons.