Food and Productivity (From a Farm Boy)

Nov 14, 2016
Joe Buhlig
~5 mins

We all need to eat. The consequences of rejecting that fact are far from pleasant and none of us would argue this reality. The problem comes when choosing which foods to consume. It’s not enough that our supermarkets are overflowing and options are endless; we have corporate marketing schemes, dietary standards, and fear mongering to battle.

I was raised on a large crop farm and I have worked with, for, and around farmers and agricultural companies my entire life. In my journey I’ve helped raise crops and animals, develop new seed varieties and hybrids, and aided the marketing efforts of all the above. I understand what goes on behind the scenes of our food system quite well. And it’s this understanding that has given me clarity in choosing what to eat.

Some of these choices are purely for health reasons. Some are made out of a concern of the unknown or the constantly changing science of diet. But regardless of the rationale behind these decisions, they all lead me to an increase in energy and mental precision. And you could argue that these two results are the foundation of productivity, which means the justification I’ve developed for what I eat is tied not only to a healthy diet but also to my ability to complete tasks.

Enough of the groundwork, let’s jump in with an easy one: processed foods. Most people I encounter understand that these are best left alone. I like to think of them in terms of natural and manufactured complexity. In its natural state, a potato has a lot of complexity to it. There are a lot of nutrients in the skin as well as the heart. But it’s the combination of the two parts that allows it to achieve its dietary value.

But when you remove an element of the potato and introduce a foreign element, you have now manufactured a new complex arrangement of nutrients. Or in some cases, an element is removed and then replaced with a theoretically identical element that comes from a different, cheaper source. In either case, we’ve created a food item that doesn’t exist naturally in our environment. Some scenarios indicate that this is perfectly fine. But most lead to health issues due to a lack of understanding in how to create a food that is perfectly digested and beneficial to the human body. Or, as in most companies, the desire to create a healthy, processed food is secondary to profit.

One of the most difficult and hotly debated conversations you can have about food revolves around GMOs, Genetically Modified Organisms. These are crops that have received a DNA alteration in order to enhance or add a trait within the crop. This usually leads people to seeing them as “frankenfoods” but that’s an exaggeration of the facts. The traits being added are typically found within the same species, just not the specific strain that’s being altered. This isn’t always the case, but generally speaking it holds true. The idea of pulling traits from strawberries and combining them with corn is mythology and typically used by fear mongers.

That said, there are tremendous benefits to GMOs. They’ve enabled food producers to grow exponentially higher yields and feed the world with fewer resources and less land. And it is true that they’ve helped farmers cut back significantly on the volume of chemicals used on their land. I’ve seen this transition first hand and I can tell you that the numbers you see on this are conservative. GMOs have proven highly beneficial to everyone raising crops.

However, there is a growing concern over the safety of GMOs. Despite there being a small number of GM crops they have been approved, it is true that they make it into our food system. Which begs the question, are they safe for me to eat?

You can answer this question one of two ways: scientifically or with cautious reasoning. If you read the studies on GMOs, you’ll quickly conclude that they are perfectly safe. But to land at this conclusion you have to trust the source of the studies. In most cases, that source is either the company selling the GM crop or the company selling its processed form to you and me. Personally, I’m not convinced they’re able to do these studies with a completely unbiased approach. And knowing that some of these researchers (I’ve worked with them) will repeat a study multiple times looking for a particular result, I’m often skeptical of their findings.

The other way to answer the GMO safety question is with cautious reasoning. We know that eating whole fruits and vegetables is good for our bodies. There seems to be a perfect relationship between our physical needs and the offerings of these whole foods. If we intentionally alter the makeup of these foods genetically or with post-harvest processing, we are breaking this existing relationship and introducing a new one. It also means that how our bodies react may have unwanted effects on our energy and overall health. This new relationship could work out to be fine. But we’re introducing risk, since there’s so much about the human body we don’t know. We can’t truly comprehend the full impact this new relationship has on our long-term health. I don’t understand why I should voluntarily take this risk. Why would I choose the unknown when the known has a long list (and history) of benefits?

Just to be clear, I’m not saying you should completely avoid and vilify GM foods. They do have a place and save lives daily. But if given a choice and available resources, I err on the side of caution.

Given my experiences, I have learned that eating healthfully has a major impact on my ability to think clearly and creatively. And the better I feel, the better equipped I am to be productive. So to be wise with my time and energy, I need to eat well. For me, that means the consumption of simple, natural foods.