I Eat Therefore I am

In Earth by Halima Aliyu

Humans are Omnivores. Anatomically, we can survive on both plant and animal products, which puts us on the third trophic level of the food chain. However, unlike other species that consume other organisms to move energy through the ecosystem and survive, humans have managed to intertwine food systems with cultural systems, self, and identity. How individuals eat and talk about food became a significant part of their identity as food eventually became a form of expression; this includes the establishment of diets and discussions on how the movement of food from farms to our plates impacts us and Earth.

At 18 years old, I moved to Toronto (Canada), a city I had read so much about but knew little of. The more I introduced myself to strangers, the more I felt like a stranger to myself. It was a beautiful introduction to what I would call an identity crisis. Questioning my sense of self, I wanted to define who I was and my social role. On a stressful night after studying at the library, how I was going to do that occurred to me. I had decided to buy a burger at a fast-food restaurant and indicated that I wanted bacon removed as a religious dietary restriction. Reaching my apartment, I sat and opened the burger, and there lay thin slices of bacon. As the American sociologist Claude Fischer explained in Food, Self, and Identity, “the absorption of food incorporates the eater into a culinary system and therefore into the group which practices it.” That bacon signified that I was in a community with a culinary system that I did not practice, and I understood that defining my identity had to start with what I eat. “I eat, therefore I am.”

“Food makes the eater: it is therefore natural that the eater should try to make himself by eating. From this principle of the making of the eater by his food stems the vital necessity of identifying foods, again in both the literal and figurative senses.”Claude Fischer (1988)

Chew on this 

With food, logically, the concept was to simply maintain a balanced diet and survive. But eventually, instead of depending on primary food resources with health benefits, humans depended on diversification as an essential element for survival. There was a desire for new tastes, the discovery of unknown foods, and unique food combinations. 

Desire. Curiosity. Food Exploration. Greed.

The early 20th century started with the Industrial revolution. Similarly seen in other industries, industrialization radically changed how the agriculture industry functioned. Specialized fields had only one crop planted, and machines carried out all the tedious tasks formerly done by hand. Innovative methods and advancements, such as synthetic fertilizers, were further introduced; this produced greater efficiency in food production. Additionally, the animals had amplified desired traits with selective breeding and genetic selection. Animals were also fed less but gained weight due to the usage of antibiotics. All this proved to be an economic advantage for companies and farmers – a perfect equation with a balance of maximum production with minimum costs. However, the drawback presented was the drastic effects on the environment and animals’ well-being. According to The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), these factory farms have “contaminated water and soil, fostered antimicrobial resistance, and are fundamentally at odds with environmental health.” There was and still is an unsustainable usage of non-renewable resources with no extensive plans of replenishments – picture environmental degradation. 

As previously mentioned, on an ecological overview, humans belong to an ecosystem with a food chain. Being omnivores, we, humans, situated ourselves in the ecosystem in a way that gives us the ability to restructure or deconstruct the system. With Industrial farming, the loss of biodiversity resulted in an ecological imbalance and disrupted energy flow. But is that the only consequence of our actions? And how long will these effects last? 

“Man eats, so to speak, within a culture, and this culture orders the world in a way that is specific to itself.”Claude Fischer (1988)

As Lévi-Strauss deciphers that food “must not only be good to eat but also good to think,” an individual should think about the food they consume to “understand its place in the world and therefore understand the world.” Hence, after some thought, I chose to eat health-consciously and mindfully talk about food. I considered my social role and how the food I eat can impact the environment. I am an individual with a duty and responsibility to the Earth that nurtures me. I decided to be a pescatarian, eating vegetarian but still including seafood as my primary source of protein. I spent mornings planning meals, days developing recipes, and evenings choosing the greenest leafy greens and most seasoned salmon in grocery stores. 

Something Smells Fishy 

Abstaining from consuming meat seemed to be the perfect plan to create a positive impact and healthier Earth. Pescetarianism was an ethical choice with dietary patterns that had a lower carbon footprint. I thought, “It is sustainable ”. But the truth is: “It is more sustainable.” Fishing might not be as detrimental as factory farming, but it presents its own challenges to the water ecosystem. If pescetarianism is really the solution, then that would result in overfishing which may create an imbalance in the marine ecosystem and loss of marine species. The same pattern of resources not being replenished as fast as they are being used is going to be exhibited. The structure of the aquatic ecosystem would be nearly equally damaged.

Furthermore, is the concept of pescetarianism available to individuals of all socio-economic levels? Seafood is relatively pricey and can be quite unaffordable. It is high in demand worldwide, and fishing isn’t as easy as farming. As a vegetarian diet, it is undoubtedly a healthy diet, but a healthier diet for who? Most countries in Africa and Asia depend on animal products for food security. Animal-sourced foods are fundamental to reducing poverty, hunger, and malnutrition. In addition, plant agriculture industries use recycled wastes where animal husbandry maintains economic security. 

Food systems are complex, and “if we want to build a more sustainable global food system, we need a fuller appreciation of the diversity of those systems, including ones with livestock…Livestock is not part of the problem. They are the solution” for African countries, as explained by Dr. Gebregziabher Gebreyohannes (State Minister of Livestock and Fishery Resources, Ethiopia).

In connection to my identity and self, I am on a journey to developing my own system of values that doesn’t include any dietary patterns, shrimp cocktails, or pizzas topped with sardines but a sustainable eating habit.

In the end, what my exploration made visible is that the solution is not meat abstinence. No diet is perfect, and as much as it would help create a better planet, it seems to be a transfer of damage from one ecosystem to another. The ultimate solution is that sustainability and innovative solutions need to be pursued globally to ensure the sustainable management of the Earth’s resources. Therefore, it is now more important than ever to see that the United Nations Development Programme – Sustainable Development goals ‘Life below the water’ and ‘life on land’ are achieved while ensuring there is ‘zero poverty’ and ‘no hunger.’