by Chunyan Song
In 1999, on my first American grocery shopping trip at Safeway in Tempe, Arizona, I marveled at the size, shape, and color of the bell peppers, carrots, eggplants, apples, grapes, and cauliflowers. They looked too big, too round, too bright, and too perfect to be real. I had to touch them and feel them to convince myself that they were not fake. Behind the too-perfect-to-be real presentation of American produce in supermarkets is the genetically modified (GM) food industry and food marketing system. Driven by profit and corporate lobbying, America has adopted a much less restrictive policy on GM food than most parts of the world since the mid-1990s. GMOs are now present in the vast majority of processed foods in the US while they are banned as food ingredients in Europe and elsewhere. Stronger, bigger, more colorful, lasts longer, GM food are usually at half or sometimes one third of the price of organic food. It has become the top choice for the financially less able and the less informed.
GM plants are artificially engineered to be herbicide tolerant by combining genes of an unrelated plant or animal. The foreign genes in GM plants guarantee a much higher yield than organic plants, but are hard to digest for many people. Studies done on animals have linked GM food with serious health issues, such as allergies, immune disorders and gastrointestinal problems. Myself, I suffered for years from bloating, sinus infections, insomnia, foggy brain, and extreme fatigues without a proper diagnosis. In the end, my doctor and a special expert from UC Davis diagnosed me with depression. I was put on a round of anti-depression pills. Refusing to believe that it was purely a problem in my head and desperate to function at home and at work, I went through a round of expensive and exhausting explorations of non-traditional medicine treatments. In the end, after reading a dozen books, I started to experiment with the food in my diet. When I cut out wheat from my diet, my “depression” miraculously went away.
But this “wheat allergy” was odd. I grew up in northern China where wheat bread and pancakes are part of the daily staple foods. I was never allergic or sensitive to wheat there, neither was anyone else I knew. At the beginning of my medical journey, my doctor ordered a food allergy test which turned out negative on wheat. Wheat never came into my mind as a possible trigger for my symptoms. At the peak of my “depression” in 2009, my parents travelled from China and moved in with me for six months to help out. They did laundry and took care of the kids. And more than anything else, they worked around the clock in the kitchen in a desperate attempt to replenish my body with my childhood staple foods, steamed bread, home-made noodle and pancakes. Despite their effort and good intension, my “depression” went for a fast downward spiral. I developed a big wheat belly that made me look five-months pregnant. My vision deteriorated quickly. I could no longer see close-captions on the living room TV. My feet ached day and night. I was peeing every thirty minutes or so, and I became pre-diabetic. The depression pills did not work as my doctors had promised.
It turned out that the wheat I eat in America is different from the wheat I ate in China. I am sensitive to American GM wheat. When I traveled back to China, I noticed that I was able to eat all the wheat I wanted. Many of my European immigrant friends and well-traveled American friends have similar stories to tell. A piece of garlic bread in America will give them a headache lasting for days, while they have no problem eating a croissant in Paris or in Latin America.
I live in a northern California college town, Chico, which is surrounded by large corporate farms, orchards, and paddy rice fields. Such corporate farms in California produce 45 percent of the vegetables and fruits and 25 percent of the table food consumed in America. Farms and orchards in California, like American farms elsewhere, are situated on large parcels of land, which enables the use of large modern machinery for efficiency and higher yields. On the way from Chico to San Francisco during rice planting season, you can often spot agricultural airplanes hovering over rice fields spreading seeds along with herbicide and pesticides. After the rice is harvested, it is sprayed with preservatives to keep its freshness for a longer shelf life.
We know a rice farmer in a nearby town. He keeps a separate changing room in his house. After work before entering the house to hug his wife and kids, he will strip off the chemically contaminated work clothes and wash them in a separate washing machine. His mother who lived her entire life on the farm died of lung cancer at a premature age of 58. I often wonder whether it has anything to do with all the chemicals they use on the farm. I also wonder whether other grains and food in America are processed in a similar fashion like rice.
Modern refrigeration and transportation methods make it possible to sell produce to far-away places. But fruit and vegetables must be harvested before they reach their prime ripe states in order to endure the journey for refrigeration and transportation. Moreover, the modern food industry has greatly narrowed down our food variety. New breeds of fruit and vegetables, invented in the labs for their indestructible quality to endure the transportation process, have replaced the non GM produce and become the main food choice for restaurants and supermarkets. American customers now get to taste less than 1% of the vegetable varieties that were grown in the U.S. a century ago. Once the produce arrives at the market, it will be put under chemical sprays for a perfect presentation of color and shape, all at the sacrifice of taste. Peach is one of my favorite fruits. After I moved to the U.S., I looked everywhere for the type of juicy and flavorful peaches I used to eat in China. Peaches sold in American grocery stores, hard and bland, taste like a “cardboard picture of its former self.” After my husband and I moved into my house in 2004, the first thing we did was to plant a dozen fruit trees including two varieties of peaches. I never have to buy another tasteless peach from the store again.
Meat is also processed differently in America. A lot of the meats sold at the air conditioned supermarkets are frozen. The rest of the “fresh” meat has already been cut up, packaged and wrapped in plastic containers days before. In many parts of the less developed world, when you go to the market to buy meat, you pick your meat by pointing to a live chicken in the cage, or a live fish in the tank. The clerk will slaughter and clean it right there. Probably less than one hour passes between when you pick that chicken and when you eat it as a meal. Anyone who has eaten fresh food knows the difference in taste. My friend Susan’s father was a professional fisherman from a coastal town in Eastern China. We ate at a seafood restaurant in Beijing at our last gathering. The cook tried to pass a previously frozen fish as the one Susan picked up in the restaurant’s tank. With only one bite, Susan was certain that the fish was not a fresh kill. The restaurant had to take it back and send out its manager to apologize. I am not as good as my friend Susan when fish is concerned. However, I have eaten enough rice to tell the fragrant taste of new-crop rice. In China and Japan, new-crop grains including rice usually are labeled so with a sticker on the package. They are sold at a much higher price due to their freshness.
In America, most people cannot tell the differences between fresh and frozen meat or this year’s new crop and last year’s. In the capitalist economy, the amount of work and effort to transport livestock to where people shop for food are not cost effective. A typical open market where you can buy freshly slaughtered chicken is smelly and dirty. In America, we have a much higher standard of hygiene and efficiency. Livestock are transferred from farms to slaughter house and the associated meat factories. By the time the baby cow reaches the supermarket, there is no more blood to be shed, no skin to be peeled, no more screaming that upsets anyone’s ear and soul. On the plastic package, the baby cow is now called veal. Consider, when Hmong refugee immigrants from near Chico slaughtered chicken in their apartment parking lots, their American neighbors reported their cruelty to authorities. Americans like our chicken, but they just don’t want to see where they come from.
 Kingsolver, Barbara., Hopp, Steven L.,Kingsolver, Camille. (2008) Animal, vegetable, miracle: a year of food life. New York; HarperPerennial,
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.