What's It Going to Take for Americans to Stop Eating Chemical-Laden Industrial Food?

Laurie David is a force of nature when it comes to lobbying on behalf of Mother Nature. An author, film producer and environmental advocate, she's best known as the producer who convinced Al Gore that his climate-change slide show could reach a lot more folks if he made it into a movie.

David's still concerned about melting glaciers. But her current campaign tackles another kind of erosion; the loss of community, civility and informed debate in our culture. Her latest book, The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time, makes the case that the simple act of sitting down together to eat real food on a regular basis can jumpstart the kind of lively, enlightening discussions that get our friends and family engaged on the issues of the day. And isn't that the first step to pulling our civic discourse out of its muddied ditch?

She addressed this subject at the Omega Institute's Design By Nature conference in Rhinebeck, New York recently, and kindly agreed to answer a few questions while she was in my neck of the woods. So, with the historic Hudson River Valley--widely regarded as the birthplace of the modern environmental movement--as our backdrop, I sat down with David for a chat about where our country's at.

Kerry Trueman: How does this new mission to revive dinner table discussions mesh with your environmental advocacy? Is conversation the gateway drug to conservation?

Laurie David: There are all kinds of environments. But the very first one we learn anything at is our family environment. I have teenage daughters, and I see from my own personal experience, how grateful I am that I insisted on this ritual of family dinner. It's not just about eating, it's about all the things that happen at the table that we're not even conscious of.

Everything that you worry about as a parent is improved by sitting down to regular meals. This is how we raise civil children, this is how we pass on our values. If we let go of this, we'll be letting go of the very basic things that teach us how to become part of the community, and how to care about the world.

Kids are spending something like seven and a half hours a day looking at some form of screen, and that doesn't include texting time! I call it digital overload. They're not outside playing, they're not spending time with their family. We're not even watching TV together anymore, everyone's on their own separate computer.

That's why it's critically important to hold onto the one ritual that the day gives you, so that everyone can stop leading separate lives and come together. I hope that my book will help make it easy for them. There are some amazing recipes, but also great conversation starters. For some people, it's just as difficult to figure out what to talk about at dinner as it is what to make for dinner.

We have to alleviate the pressure on ourselves that dinner has to be this fancy affair, three courses and a homemade apple pie. If you're having peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whole grain bread, that's good enough. The key to the whole thing is sitting down and connecting.

KT: I'd like to borrow a question that Prince Charles asked in a speech at the Washington Post's Future of Food conference earlier this year: "Why it is that an industrialized system, deeply dependent on fossil fuels and chemical treatments, is promoted as viable, while a much less damaging one is rubbished and condemned as unfit for purpose?"

LD: Why are we going down this industrial food supply road? I think the answer is money. This is part of what's exciting to me about the new food movement--we have the individual power to opt out of that system. And if we care about our health, if we care about the planet, we're going to have to do that.

But it's doable. And every piece of this, all the solutions to the factory farms, the industrialization of our food supply, and all the chemicals and antibiotics that are in our food, this is completely doable for us as individuals. We have to start cooking at home, again, we have to start buying fresh ingredients, organic if possible, locally, if possible.

We have to reject the trillion-dollar processed-food industry that's taken over our lives. Instead of buying salad dressing at the supermarket with 19 ingredients, we should be taking the three ingredients and the four minutes it takes to make salad dressings at home.

We have to just opt out of that system and start supporting food locally to the best of our ability. It's not about being perfect. "Perfect is the enemy of the good," I totally believe that.

It's about saying, you know what? I can decide for myself how many chemicals I'm putting in my body, how many preservatives. All the repercussions of supporting that system, I can choose to opt out of that, and I can educate my small circle of friends.

You can choose to do better. A perfect example is Meatless Monday. I have a chapter about it in my book, and I make all the arguments you can discuss at the dinner table. You can decide, as a family, we're going to get off this treadmill of eating too much meat. We can't sustain this, it's not healthy for our bodies, it's not healthy for the planet, and it's a big myth that this is the only source of protein we can consume.

You want to help global warming issues? Start eating a little less meat. That's a small but perfect example of how powerful the individual can be. And then educate your friends and family.

KT: Speaking of educating folks, Bill Gates is putting his faith and some of his considerable resources into promoting biotech, agribiz-as-usual solutions for feeding the world. If you happened to cross paths with him, how would you try to persuade him to scrap the GMOs and really get behind regenerative farming methods?

LD: I would ask him, what do you want to eat at the end of the day? What's interesting to me is to find out what people who are part of the industrial/chemical system of growing food are eating themselves. I once ran into a gentleman who worked for a huge tomato company. You know, if you buy tomatoes from Florida off-season, they're picked green and gassed to turn them red. This is a gazillion-dollar industry.

And I said, "Do you eat these tomatoes?" He said, "Oh, I could never eat those! We eat organic food."

I don't understand the arrogance we have as a country that we can do things better than Mother Nature can. We have to go back to being humble, to respecting what Mother Nature provides us, and stop screwing with the system because we think we can do it better.

The oceans are being depleted, the air is being destroyed, because of us. The climate--who ever thought you could screw with the climate? But we're doing it, and it's not an opinion, it's not a theory, it's not a belief, it's a fact. The globe is warming and humans are causing it.

And the fact that we're not running to solve this problem when all the solutions already exist is just mind boggling to me.

KT: Neil Young once sang that "even Richard Nixon has got soul." Well, at least he gave us the Environmental Protection Agency. Now Republicans want to abolish the EPA. Why don't today's conservatives embrace conservation? And how did contempt for science become so rampant?

LD: The EPA, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species act, they all had support from both sides. I don't understand it, honestly, I don't have an answer for it. You would think they would care just as much about clean air and water and protecting public lands as you and I do. The only explanation is that it comes down to greed and arrogance--arrogance that we're not going to run out of our natural resources.

The biggest problem we're facing is that people are getting misinformation from advertising, from politicians who are tied to lobbyists who are tied to corporations. It's very difficult to move forward on things when people are misinformed. We have to work on getting back to truth, inconvenient or not.


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