Saturday, October 3, 2015

Food Transformation or the Magic that is Bacon

Note: This program first aired October 3, 2015.

My friend Wendy and I were talking about food recently, and the topic of bacon came up. In some circles, bacon makes everything better. As we talked I described what amazing animals pigs are, and how they take stuff we can’t eat and turn it into bacon. And that is the essence of the magical transformation that is a food system. Everything has to eat something whether that something is plant or animal or fungus or bacteria. As humans we are omnivores, and have a wide range of foods available to us, and by available I mean food we can access, digest and find palatable. But there are lots of things on this planet we don’t eat or more significantly, can’t eat and that is true for all organisms. The wonderful thing about an interdependent food system is that other organisms can make use of things that you can’t, and if you able to eat the organism in question, you can effectively widen the radius of your available food sphere.

This is a common practice in agriculture. Many small progressive farms practice rotational grazing, where large animals are grazed on a plot of land for a period of time and then moved to a different pasture. They leave behind manure that enriches the soil, but more than that attracts flies which lay their eggs in the manure. Chickens are then rotated into the pasture. Chickens take things most of us don’t want to eat, like maggots, and turn them into things most of us do want to eat, like eggs. Now to be fair, we could eat maggots, and in some cultures, beetle larva are a prized food source. But if I have to eat maggots, I would rather have them processed through a chicken first. For a less gross example, cows take things we can’t eat, like grass, we can’t get any nutrition out of grass, it is indigestible for us, and cows turn it into things many of us can and do eat, like beef and milk. Even pigs, they take food no longer fit for human consumption, and turn it into bacon. If you hunt, wild animals do the same thing, transforming tree bark and leaf bud, hemlock needles and twigs into nutritious edible matter.

It isn’t just animals that perform this magic. You can be a vegan and still find wonder in this process. Mushrooms are heterotrophs like us, in that they don’t make their own food, they find it in the external environment. Mushrooms take stuff that is entirely inedible to us, wood, and turn it into something we can eat. Plants are the ultimate practitioners of this ancient art, they take air and make food. Yes, plants make food out of air. The energy stored in the food comes from the sun, but the material portion of that food comes literally from thin air.

If you think about it, this should feel like magic, and you should feel incredibly lucky that all of these organisms perform this magical transformation. In reality though, it isn’t magic, it is simply biology following the rules of physics. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, it just keeps getting rearranged. Life is the ultimate upcycler.

You’ve heard of recycling, taking trash and using it as raw material for something new. There is no trash in nature. But biology doesn’t just take old plastic bottles and make plastic lawn furniture and decking out of it. Biology is actually an up-cycler. Biology takes maggots and grubs and makes eggs and chicken, takes grass and hay and makes ice cream, takes rotting wood and makes chanterelles, takes air and water and makes broccoli, takes food waste and makes bacon.

Be a link in your own food chain. See yourself as the link in the food chain that you are, and realize there are no six degrees of separation when it comes to food. Your blueberry muffin, bacon breakfast sandwich, bowl of yogurt and granola or tofu veggie scramble are but one degree separated from things inedible. And in that one degree is what separates that which is living from that which is not.