Thursday, May 20, 2010

Vabaduse Kohvik

Tartu and the rest of Estonia are participants in the dawning of a new age—one of genetic engineering, one of private spaceflight, one of calling the secret police if your neighbor has suspiciously large quantities of fertilizer stored in a truck behind the garage. Well, perhaps Tartu isn’t a participant in all of those. Tartu’s gene bank, the one that was supposed to map the whole population and be Estonia’s Nokia—that kind of got dubiously privatized and then drawn and quartered. Tartu just reopened its commercial airport last year, and hopefully it will be possible to fly outside Europe non-stop from Tartu in the near future. I won’t hold my breath on rocketry though. And fertilizer? People aren’t in the habit of calling the cops if they see street brawls. But there are, however, elements of Tartu society that are joining the rest of the developed world in collectively screaming out, “What the fuck have we been eating?!”

I recently defended the modern food industry’s use of chemicals and hormones and all sorts of good things that the human body wasn’t designed to withstand. Then I watched a film that has caused me to reconsider my beliefs. Reconsider, mind you—not change. The wheels of processed cheese are still spinning on that one. To sum up what I said, our global population has reached a point where we are dependent upon industrialized food. It simply is not possible for us all to suddenly switch to organic farming. I suggested instead that we pour more funding into agricultural research to make better, safer chemicals.

Also recently, I was wandering about in the Estonian countryside on a Saturday and happened across a laat, or fair. A country fair. Not with Ferris wheels and petting zoos—I don’t think many children would want to touch some of the animals I saw—but a fair amount of homemade ware, goods and foods. A lot of it was organic. To be more specific, a lot of it was organic bacon, ham, white-flour pastries, sausages and other foods that make your heart go boom, and then stop.

It was similar to American country fairs in many respects. You park in a grassy field, walk a bit, snicker at all the people walking around topless or in bikinis (who may indeed have looked good forty years prior) and pass by endless booths of merchants, while looking for something good to eat. And when you find that food, you curse yourself for buying it, knowing that it is probably not really that good—or good for you. But hey, it’s the fair, right? Live a little.

On a side note, table after table offered things you would never really need, but they were so neatly packaged it was hard to resist. Personalized pottery, woven shoes, locally imported Bugs Bunny balloons, and so on. One man was kind enough to pose for my camera after Little Mingus wanted to talk to Santa Claus. See his picture in the next picture?

Fresh fish as well. Freshly dried or smoked, but still good. I remember a few years ago catching a man on our land. His car was parked by the river, and as we walked by we saw several car batteries and several hundred meters of electric cable in his trunk. Then the man emerged from the bushes, carrying two buckets chock full of pike perch. No way he could have caught all that the traditional way, and no way he had a license, either. Were these fair fish caught the same way?

Then Mrs. Mingus elbowed me. “Stop staring!” she hissed in my ear, apparently angry because I was looking at almost every woman walking by. And it’s true—I was. For weeks now I’ve been asking where the Estonians were. I don’t hear them on the streets of Tallinn, I don’t hear them at concerts. Well, here at the fair, I found them. And they were huge! Not fat, but just huge! That’s why I was staring. And not just at the women.

Now, I don’t consider myself a tall man. I’m a bit taller than the official average, but not much. Here in Southern Estonia, I was not much taller than any of the women I saw. I looked up at any male over fifteen. And the calf muscles! Even on the women, they were simply pure muscle. Of course the physical condition of a person depends on their lifestyle—manual farm labor versus a desk job in the city—but the foundation for their body depends directly on what they grew up eating. These people had grown up drinking fresh, whole milk, eating organic foods. And as I said, they were very tall. And there were a few city girls at the fair as well. They were easy to pick out. The ones who had grown up on industrialized, processed foods. They looked anorexic compared to the country girls. In fact, I think a couple of them were.

So what would happen if all of Estonia suddenly went organic—assuming that possibility existed? Would we really be healthier? Would our life spans increase, stay the same, or decrease? A few random facts and statistics enter my mind. There was a sudden spike in average height once food began to be industrialized. When country people started having better access to fish. Also, in Estonia at least, there is an equation that links life expectancy to hospital proximity—the farther you live from the nearest hospital, the shorter your life.

As Estonia integrates with the West in every facet of life, will this country too become an irreversible slave to the food industry, as depicted in the film I mentioned? The director hinted that the whole system depends on cheaper, faster. “Faster” results from technology, but “cheaper” is due to labor. A lot of America’s food industry uses illegal labor on the individual farms indebted so much they have no choice but to obey their corporate masters. Illegal labor means cheap. They have no rights. A lot of people and companies publicly don’t want them there, but the people don’t know how dependent America is upon them. The corporations do, however. In public, they lobby against granting them rights, stirring up patriotic nonsense that makes them look, well, patriotic. But behind the scenes, their success is made possible by cheap labor.

And Estonia most certainly does have an “underclass” of non-citizens here. They speak Russian. They give us electricity. Officially, these people choose not to try for Estonian citizenship out of patriotic duty, but they also don’t want to go back to what they consider “home”. Now, I’m not going to try to tackle the whole “Russian question” here—I’m just pointing out a similarity between America and Estonia, and suggesting that there may be a link between the quality of the products we consume and the social rights we grant our producers.

Study after study is revealing how dangerous the chemicals we eat really are. Diabetes, cancer, attention deficit disorder—will Generation X be the first generation in modern history to experience a decline in life expectancy? Can the pharmaceutical industry keep up with the agricultural industry? We’re all becoming concerned about what we’ve been eating. But I don’t see many alternatives. I liken it to drinking your own piss on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean.

Here at the fair, I walked by the stage in a truck and the hoards of people dancing and found a kebob stand, also in a truck. The company (Freedom Café) is based in Valga, but I saw only processed foods on sale. All the tables set up in front of it were full, whereas the organic bacon and sausage grills had few customers. Is Estonia’s countryside preparing to experience a huge decline in height? It will take a couple generations to answer that question. That’s time we can ill afford to wait before making any changes.

Little Mingus pointed and asked, “Daddy, what’s that?” —I’m not really sure, honey. And I wasn’t. I think it was a cow of some sort. Maybe a comic book superhero for barnyard animals. I know for a fact that the local cattle farm feeds its cattle organically, as the animals often graze in the fallow fields across the river. Most Estonian livestock eats organically, but what about the hormone and antibiotic injections they receive? I’d never seen this thing before, though. I sincerely hope it wasn’t the same thing I grilled the week before.


Dirk said...

"Drinking your own piss in a lifeboat." That's a good point.

Anonymous said...

I have seen your "Santa Claus" he sells good honey.

carissa said...

I love reading your posts! I asked my Estonian husband who grew up on a farm if he recognized what appeared to be a cow on steroids and he said no lol I personally think the owners just shaved the thing.....

Anonymous said...

It is a Charolais bull - they look like they are on steroids naturally. I guess it is the way the French like their cattle.

BeauMiddleton11淑君 said...

enjoy your artical, thank you .............................................

jalkameister said...

No, it's actually a Belgian Blue, which have been produced by natural selection, old-style breeding between the heaviest and most muscular cows and bulls. Check the National Geographic video:

They're also dubbed "super cows", basically because they have a gene defect that makes them grow lean muscle.

Good thing we humans didn't naturally select for bulk!