What can a scholar of classical Chinese religions add to the agriculture debate? A lot as it turns out.
Speaking at Keystone Agricultural Producers’ annual general meeting in downtown Winnipeg, Virginia-based author Alan Levinovitz said the debate around which foods are good for you and which are not has been going on for thousands of years.
“Even 2,000 years ago you have classical Chinese texts advocating diets — contradictory diets,” the religious scholar said, citing a group of monks that adhered to a grain-free diet in the belief it would increase one’s lifespan, improve skin health, allow teleportation and endow the gift of flight.
A couple of centuries later, these same Chinese monks had stopped prohibiting the consumption of grain and moved on to prohibiting meat. But while the prohibition changed, Levinovitz said the promises stayed the same. Not eating meat would give you the ability to live longer and teleport with glowing skin, they wrote. If you fast-forward a little further towards modern times, the monks said that mushrooms or golden jade were the ticket to immortality.
“So it never really changes,” he said. “People today are still just as confused about food choices.”
Pointing to recent contradictory messages around eggs and cholesterol, butter and fat, meat-based and plant-based diets, the scholar said so-called food gurus and experts appeal to people because they help make sense of a complicated world. That applies even if the information they provide is untrue and potentially harmful.
“This is very frustrating. It creates a public that is extremely scared and it creates a public that is also wondering, well, if it’s not cholesterol, if it’s not fat, what is it? What is causing all of our problems?” said Levinovitz. “Well, right now bread is the culprit — gluten.”
In his book, The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat, Levinovitz explores many of the themes around fad diets and food taboos, but when it comes to those who produce food there is one, very long-standing narrative that is concerning.
It’s an issue that the author said can be traced back to what is possibly the oldest and most famous story the world has ever known.
“A long time ago, in a beautiful garden — that was probably organic — there lived a man and a woman, and it was awesome… they lived a wonderful life and they were immortal,” he said. “Then one day an evil advertiser came along and convinced them to eat the wrong food, and all of a sudden everything went to hell.”
It was Satan appearing in the form of a serpent, imploring Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, that resulted in humanity being cast out of the Garden of Eden. Ever since then, humans have longed to return to paradise, longed to return to a simpler, purer time, free of modernity, when food was natural and safe, said Levinovitz.
“How do we get back to that garden? What are we eating that has cursed us? And who is Satan that has fed it to us?” he said. “This narrative, the idea of paradise past when it comes to food and agriculture is one of the most, if not the most important ways in which people come to understand food.”
It can be seen on most food packaging in the form of the little red barn, the tiny farmhouse with a yard void of machinery, or a smiling pig standing in a green pasture, he said. Food processors and marketers brand food in a way that harkens back to an agriculture that no longer exists.
“The reason these logos command attention, is because they are telling a story, they are telling people that when you buy our product, you are really buying something that belongs in the past, in a beautiful place,” he said.
The problem is that those images simply don’t square with the realities of modern farming.
“Then when they see the truth — an actual dairy farm — they feel deceived, they feel like you are lying to them. Then, you become the villain,” the writer said. “When people are seeing little red farmhouses in logos, when people see cows in green pastures with sun, talking to each other… an image of an actual farm becomes terrifying, it doesn’t look like reality; it looks like the place we were cast into after paradise was lost, and that is not how you want people seeing the reality of agriculture.”
There are ways to combat this, however. One approach is for farmers to work with processors and marketers to create and implement more realistic images for products, said Levinovitz.
The second is for farmers to present and promote an alternative narrative.
“As much as people want to organize their lives with stories, they also want to know the truth. And so there is room right now for change,” he said. “You need to tell people about what modern agriculture actually looks like.”
But that doesn’t mean attacking other people’s narratives or going after their beliefs, he added. It means offering people another version of events, another story to consider — a story that allows people to continue to order the world around them, while also being based in truth.
“I think people respond to the telling of stories, much better than they do to the deconstruction of their own story,” Levinovitz said, adding that “at the end of the day, you’re not going to disprove someone’s story by throwing science at them… better to offer people alternative narratives that are appealing and have the added virtue of being true.”
He pointed to the example of the Peterson brothers, farmers who make parodies of popular songs to explain modern farming, as a kind of storytelling that is non-threatening, fun and most importantly, truthful.
As for Levinovitz, he said he’s learned a lot about agriculture himself over the last few years, but is looking forward to getting back to teaching religion.
“It’s so much less controversial,” he said.