An edited version of this article was published in the Trinidad Express, 4th April, 2014
"Food, far more than sex, is the great leveler. Just as every king, prophet, warrior, and saint has a mother, so every Napoleon, every Einstein, every Jesus has to eat." —Betty Fussell
In T&T we pride ourselves on our exquisite cuisine. Nothing brings people together like a food lime. If we need to raise some funds, see how fast we hold a bar-b-que or curry-que. We love our bellies. As the saying goes; “Is better belly buss than good food waste.”
There is something sensual about good food. It’s more than just a lime with friends. The way a cool drink slips down your throat on a warm day; the way a hot curry makes you sweat. It’s not a big jump to start comparing great food with sex. In Trinidad, we can turn to the wisdom of The Mighty Sparrow: “We cyar make love on hungry belly.” Or, take a glance at those Haagen Daas billboards on the highway. Even KFC advertises a sensual experience.
In his book ‘Food Sex and Salmonella’, Dr. David Waltner-Toews, a veterinarian, scientist, epidemiologist and popular author, takes the comparison between food and sex a step further. He describes eating as “Quite literally, turning the world outside in.” He points out that food is nothing more than pieces of the environment. We take bits of plants such as leaves (lettuce), roots (garlic), or sap (sugar), bits of all kinds of animals, from fish to fowl, and even bacteria (yogurt), and bring them inside us. Food is our very intimate connection to the living world.
As Waltner-Toews explains it, choosing bits of the environment to bring into our bodies is more like sex than we might think. “What sex is to interpersonal relationships, eating is to the human environment relationship, a daily consummation of our marriage to the living biosphere… and like sexual promiscuity and ignorance of our sexual partners, promiscuity in eating habits and ignorance of eating partners can carry great risks.”
In T&T, we’re enthusiastic about food and sex. Carnival, for instance, is dominated by all-inclusive fetes boasting the best food and drink. Where does all this food come from and what’s the real price associated with such sensual scrumptiousness? Have we been ‘eating around’?
Where are you sticking that tongue?
In T&T, thanks to globalisation, we have a lot of exotic food: Prime Canadian Angus beef, New Zealand lamb chops, St. Louis pork ribs, Italian sausages, Guatemalan strawberries, Chilean kiwis and made in the USA broccoli. The variety is astounding and so is our import bill, but there’s more to imports than just dollars and cents.
Looking at imported food through a lens of ecology and public health we realise there’s a lot more going on. We are engaging in long distance relationships with all of these countries; bringing bits of their environments inside ourselves.
There is also an invisible trade occurring; the microbes (e.g. viruses, bacteria and parasites) that are tagging along for the ride. We import a lot of food from Latin and South America. What agricultural system are they using? Are pesticides being sprayed in order to get strawberries to PriceSmart?
Here’s another kicker. Many of us have no real idea where our food comes from. Labelled foods do not necessarily give an origin but rather where they are reformulated or packaged. You might think you are eating food made in the USA when the actual ingredients are from China. Waltner-Toews likens this to having sex with a blindfold on. “Reducing foods from biological entities with specific ecological histories to tradable commodities defined by price, fibre, fat or protein content has resulted in an abusive relationship with our natural environment.”
We don’t have to look as far as other countries to talk about eating promiscuously. Dead fish have been washing up on our shores from the Gulf of Paria following the recent Petrotrin oil spill. What does this mean for our health, or the fishing industry in T&T?
Every time you put a piece of New Zealand cheese in your macaroni pie you’re about to get personal with some strange environment. Have you asked the right questions before you begin to get intimate? How safe are your partners?
This is not an excuse for an extreme weight-loss diet of lemongrass and mango that you grow in your own yard. We can all keep eating every day and enjoying great Trini cuisine. Waltner-Toews is simply reminding us that we are a part of nature. We have to be responsible in our eating habits. What happens to our food and the environment in which it is produced is intimately connected to us. As Waltner-Toews explains: “We need to find better ways to take better care of our food partners … We need our food more than our food needs us; our relationship is not a one night stand.”
To find out more on Food, Sex and Salmonella, human-animal diseases, and mind bending awesomeness, check out Dr. David Waltner-Toews at www.davidwaltnertoews.com
Dr. David Waltner-Toews is one of my personal heroes. An extraordinary Veterinarian and a genius of our time. His ideas around systems thinking and ecohealth have inspired and provided guidance to us at Asclepius Green. I highly recommend his books - a fun and enlightening read. As we say in T&T, "Try it yuh go like it!"
Dr. A Mahase-Gibson - Executive Director, Asclepius Green.
Going against Nature, easier said than done
Few things get Trinbagonian blood boiling faster than a discussion of sexual orientation or preference. People make religious, moral, reasoned, passionate, hasty and/or personal judgements. Some feel that certain sexual practices are ‘against nature’.
A quick peek into Nature’s bedroom shows us that, far from being prudish, she is pretty broad-minded. The long and short of it is that gender, sexuality and even sex are human concepts that do not map well onto the natural world. When we draw our lines in the sand, Nature gleefully washes them away.
Same sex relations
The animal kingdom is also home to same sex partners. Researchers have documented same sex relationships among many animals including black swans, penguins, primates and even bottlenose dolphins. Among the most discussed is work by Dr. Lindsay C. Young and colleagues who studied the Laysan albatross, known for their monogamy and lifelong commitment to each other. Dr. Young’s work revealed that a third of the monogamous pairs at her study site (Kaena Point, Hawaii) consisted of two female birds, not one male and one female. These females quickly copulated with males but incubating their eggs, bonding and their social interaction was with another female. Males and females look the same, so the assumption prior to her work was that all pairs were typical ‘straight couple’ male and female.
Nature’s cross dressers
Nature has those that pretend to be the other sex, the cross dressers, ranging from lemurs to damselflies. Garter snakes for example, emerging after a long sleep, need to warm themselves up and, of course, mate. Snakes use pheromones as part of their communication and leave a pheromone trail for others to find them for mating. Snakes can distinguish between female and male pheromones. Scientists have shown that male garter snakes can produce both male and female pheromones and in the mating season, these males fool other males into attempting to mate with them. More importantly, this encourages a huddling session that causes the transfer of heat, allowing them to warm up quickly.
More than one reason for sex
For better or for worse, many people have sex with no intention of making a baby, and we humans are not alone. Bonobos are non-human primates who are one of our closest extant relatives. They are known for their enthusiastically high levels of sexual behaviour. In the bonobos’ world, sex is suitable for pretty much every social occasion. We’re fighting? Let’s have sex. I like you, well let’s have sex. Sex is used for affection, conflict resolution, social status, bonding, excitement and as a stress reliever. Bonobos engage in many of the sexual activities known in the human world such as oral sex, tongue kissing and face to face genital sex. Sexual behaviour is not limited to male-female pairings. Bonobos also engage in female-female and male-male sexual behaviour. Scientists believe this is a factor in the lower levels of aggression seen in the bonobos when compared to the common chimpanzee and other apes.
Climate change, pollution and sex
Animals like our leatherback turtle and alligator let the temperature of the ground around their nest influence the sex of their babies. For the leatherback, higher sand temperatures tend to produce more females, but over time and with rising global temperatures, this may cause trouble with the species’ sex ratio of male to females. From endocrine disruptors to pesticides, there is increasing evidence of sex changing chemicals that lurk in our water and soil. We cannot seem to hide from the effects man-made pollutants and neither can the rest of the living world. From the polar bear to the frog, researchers are uncovering sexual abnormalities associated with man-made pollution. Unfortunately, gender bending due to our interference can seriously disrupt wild populations, ultimately affecting their survival.
Right up our noses
In nature, reproduction is everywhere. Invisible to the naked eye, all sorts of reproductive activity is happening around and inside us. Welcome to the human microbiome, a load of microorganisms including bacteria that inhabit our body and even outnumber us cell for cell by 10 to 1 (bacterial cells are much smaller on average than human cells). Of course, all of these bacteria reproduce. Although they do this asexually, by dividing into two identical clone cells, they can transfer genetic material between each other. They do this by absorbing genetic material from their environment, or by transferring genetic material via a virus, cell-to-cell contact or a pilus (an appendage on the surface of bacteria). This exchange of genetic material can occur between different types of bacteria and within a single generation. Drawing moral lessons from this behaviour is challenging at best.
The natural world is a strange and wildly diverse place. In the end, if Nature will not give us strict rules by which to sort out gender, sexuality and sex, we will just have to rely on the very human capacities of reason, mutual respect and our shared values.
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