Same Old Same Old


When I visited Costa Rica I was shocked by how the rainforest teemed with life. It seemed like every nook of nature–and everything there was nature–was writhing with animals and plants. It was like “Planet Rainforest,” totally otherworldly. A crab loped across my hotel floor. I went on a zipline tour through the old-growth rainforest canopy, and toward the top of a tree I saw a hole in the trunk, filled with rainwater, a tiny yellow frog perched within. The moist jungle climate was almost scary; it reminded me that the life force was powerful and fierce and would not be denied. It would have its way.

The rainforest is the result of million years of co-evolution. There’s a certain kind of algae that grows nowhere but on the hair of the sloth, giving it a green sheen for camouflage. The sloth only eats leaves from the Cecropia tree in which it sleeps. It does its business on the rainforest floor once a week, and one certain kind of fly depends on it for food. The rainforest doesn’t need fertilizers or pesticides; the ecosystem knows how to keep life in balance.

Us, not so much. These days most of our food–both plants and animals–is grown as monocultures: single life forms grown or existing over great expanses (in contrast to polycultures).

Planted year after year on the same land, monocultures destroy topsoil. Agribusiness doesn’t believe in sabbaticals, the ancient Biblical recommendation that everything and everyone get a rest once in awhile: land every seven years, people and their work animals every seven days (and now, of course, tenured professors every seven years). Sabbaticals would reduce profit, in the short term, by 14%.

Monocultures also require more and different pesticides each year, since a single virus, bacteria, fungus, disease, or pest can wipe out the whole lot in a heartbeat. It’s not just crops, though, factory farm animals are also monocultures: there’s one breed of laying hen, one breed of pig, and so on. The ubiquitous Broad-Breasted White Turkey is the product of such bizarre breeding that it can no longer naturally reproduce. Animals on factory farms are so vulnerable to disease that they ingest “sub-therapeutic” antibiotics with every meal.

Animals on factory farms are bred to produce lots of milk or eggs, gain weight fast, or yield particular types of meat. They’re also almost exclusively fed the great American monoculture staple, corn. In contrast, heritage or heirloom breeds are better adapted to withstand disease and survive in harsh environmental conditions, and their bodies are better suited to living on pasture.

Naturally, thousands of animal breeds and crop varieties and the valuable genetic diversity they once possessed have disappeared since farming went industrial. Our diets have become “mono” along with them; when we eat meat, we’re eating more corn. Variety is the spice of life; the food we eat, however we may season it, has become dangerously unvaried. Thanks to the flavor manipulations of modern food science, though, we don’t even notice.

I’m no scientist, but I would guess that monocultures are to the food world what marrying your sibling is to the human world: a shortsighted genetic practice for which one eventually pays a terrible price. Monocultures also remind me of the mind-numbing sameness of airports. You get the same generic food and stores in every airport. It’s hard to get anything fresh and real; “airport land” is a corporate, airless bio-dome. You are trapped: if you want to ever get anywhere far away, it’s literally their way or the highway.

Luckily farmers’ markets are the opposite of airports. Those odd tomatoes you see there every summer, veiny and misshapen as goiters, in every shade and combination of red, yellow, green, and purple, are heirloom breeds. Same with the eggs that have a pale green shell. Most of the meat you see at the farmer’s market is from heirloom breeds, too. On menus, it’s a good bet that when a breed of animal or vegetable is named, it’s not a monoculture. Type in your zip code at Eat Well Guide to get to the good stuff.