Over the holiday time I had the opportunity to watch the movie A Christmas Story. This film has become a favorite for many as evidenced by a couple of radio broadcasts dedicated to discussing the film. The story provides a wonderful mixture of humorous interludes that focus on both good and bad things that happen in a young boy’s Christmas during the 1950s.
Besides the fact that the movie itself is entertaining it reminded me of what a powerful force nostalgia can be as we look back at where we have been. It’s funny how we can look at the past and selectively exaggerate good things while we dismiss some unpleasant things and consider them quaint and acceptable. As a society we apply a lot of favorable nostalgia when we look at the history of agriculture and food production.
I commonly hear people referring to food production systems with a strong desire to revert to the way things were. Selective memory provides us with pastoral scenes, happy farmers and a wonderful food supply that includes fresh, safe, and wholesome products in abundance. I think it is important to occasionally do a reality check and make sure that we are not exaggerating the value of the good old days and diminishing the value of our modern food systems.
It’s fun to ride in a one horse open sleigh but the truth is that we enjoy our modern transportation systems. Much of our modern way of life hinges on the development of new technologies. Similarly in agriculture we can enjoy the benefits of some food products produced by old and time-tested methods. But the majority of our food supply, including its abundance and its convenience, is delivered using improved technologies, advanced farming methods and modern transportation systems. When evaluating food systems we must be careful to understand the influence of nostalgia.
An informed consumer should be able to identify where their food comes from and make choices about the desirability of particular products. In future columns I will try to share information about the meaning of certain food labels and the rationale behind some food production technologies. While you are shopping for food it is important to recognize the difference between wishful thinking, marketing hype and honest appraisal of the benefits of different approaches to food production.
I believe we are remarkably fortunate to have the abundance and diversity of different foods that are available in the United States. These foods can be produced locally, regionally, nationally or internationally. There are advantages and disadvantages to each source. While there are benefits to buying food produced locally and on a small scale, there are also benefits to buying from alternative sources. When I was young our family got almost all of its food locally, which meant that except for summer we ate a lot of meat, potatoes and canned foods. These days I enjoy the opportunity to eat fresh greens, fruits and vegetables in midwinter, and that modern miracle requires new technologies, advanced production methods and a truly large-scale distribution system.
The truth is that we have never before had the abundance, the diversity, the convenience and the consistency of our food supply as we have today. Food production systems will continue to change in the future. Consumers will influence the development of those systems based on their choices and what they buy. Let’s make sure that our food dollars and our public policies support the development of food systems that we really want, rather than the ones that we think we remember from yesterday.
I can smile when I watch the Christmas story movie on my flatscreen, but I am happy that I no longer live in the 1950s.
Frank Garry is a professor and veterinarian at Colorado State University.