Food in Canada has never been cheaper: only 10 per cent of our income is now spent in the grocery store, half of what this number was 40 years ago. Yet for most Canadians, decisions about what to eat have become a matter of high anxiety.
In 2008, dozens of deaths across Canada were traced to Listeria bacteria found in the cutting machines of a single huge factory that produces packaged processed meat. Most of the victims were in institutions such as nursing homes or seniors’ residences that primarily outsource food for their dependent residents, rather than prepare it themselves. There have also been scary warnings about food imports from China being intentionally laced with toxins. Widespread disease about the safety of municipal drinking water drives ever more people to reach for expensive bottled water, and discussions about child obesity, trans fats, and possible links between agricultural pesticides and diseases such as cancer regularly dominate the media.
Veterinarian and epidemiologist David Waltner-Toews’ probing book, a thoroughly revised second edition of the 1992 original, provides timely help in understanding these complex problems in our food systems. It also suggests the kinds of profound changes in thinking, policy and action that are needed to alleviate the situation. His approach is panoramic and didactic. He begins by reviewing the chronic systemic barriers to responding to food problems; provides a primer on how food-related illnesses occur; and then surveys water- and food-borne infections, including topics related to parasites, botulism, seafood, preservatives and antimicrobial agents, heavy metals, mycotoxins and radioactive contamination. The examples and cases he uses are diverse, often startling and sometimes deliciously gothic.
Waltner-Toews frames his discussion using complex systems analysis and the emergent perspective of “post- normal science,” which propels our thinking beyond the deficiencies of conventional (or “normal”) analytical and compartmentalized science. This approach emphasizes the need to understand the complex interactions between physical, biological, economic, cultural and social systems inherent in food issues. It recognizes the different scales that are involved, whether household or planetary, and looks for resilient solutions to problems beset by imperfect knowledge, hidden elements of surprise and the possibility that the equilibrium of commonplace phenomena can suddenly “flip” into disastrous states if pushed beyond their ability to respond to stresses.
Reforms and solutions, says Waltner- Toews, “require an acknowledgement that food-borne diseases are as much reflections of political and economic arrangements as they are of technology – an acknowledgment North Americans are loath to make.” They must be wise, equitable and compassionate. Incidents of illness caused by contaminated produce imported from Central America, for instance, should bring us to a moral imperative to correct poverty, injustice and exploitation in banana republics and not just increase food inspections at the Canadian border. We must also bridge the gulfs separating farmers and city dwellers, scientists and politicians. We must make needed adjustments in responding to issues at the appropriate scale: eating locally produced food, on the one hand, makes us responsible and knowledgeable food consumers, but averting other problems such as radioactive contamination and desertification requires international efforts to confront nuclear weapons, ponderous technology and climate warming.
Waltner-Toews also takes care to emphasize the cultural, social, and celebratory place of food in our lives and cautions against mechanistic or simplistic responses to food issues. After all, we eat best when we dine together. He states, “I propose we sit down and listen to each other, and construct a bigger story that has explanatory value for all of us. Storytelling circles and group therapy may be more appropriate models for resolving food safety problems than … farm-to- fork technologies.” The last words of the book are basic: “Wash your hands. Talk with your friends. Question authority. Contribute to the debate. Examine the evidence. Change your mind. Eat on.”
Greg Michalenko is professor emeritus in the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment, editorial board member for Alternatives and an avid gardener, mushroom-picker and cook.