Complex issues

‘These are surprisingly complex issues…’

What’s your sense of the complexity of making food choices?

President Hansen: Food and eating touch every aspect of living together in community. Because what we eat, how we grow and harvest and prepare it, whether we eat alone or we eat with people — in all these choices we’re expressing something about our identity and our culture. And we’re learning something every time we eat, whether we know it or not.

Most people want to make a good decision about food — a healthy decision, an ethical decision, a pleasurable decision. They want all of those three things at once. The problem is, it’s so difficult to make choices when we don’t have all the information. Partly we don’t have it because it’s obscured, partly because science doesn’t have all the answers.

If we’re looking to make healthy choices, I think we’re all incredibly confused by the fact that there’s a new study every day that either tells us that something we’re eating is either very, very bad for us, or very, very good for us. And you feel kind of whipsawed around by the news.

Of course our choices involve factors beyond personal health. Take wine. I was having dinner with some friends who started to order an Australian wine, and then changed the order to California wine, because they were concerned about the “food miles” of the Australian — the distance the wine had been shipped.

But later I was reading about how complicated the food-mile issue is. Some studies suggest that it’s more sustainable to drink Australian wine, or French or Italian wine, than Californian, because a bottle transported by ship or by air has a smaller carbon footprint than a California bottle shipped by truck.

So these are surprisingly complex issues. And as an educational institution, our job is to make sure people are aware of the complexities so that they don’t think they can always have all of the answers. It doesn’t mean you don’t make choices and act — I’m not trying to say that it’s so complex that you either stop eating or stop caring; that would be a false conclusion as well. We just need to be curious, thoughtful, and engaged in these issues.

The way we cook our food, the way we eat our food: It’s all about human culture. It is what we all have in common. It’s a basic need that we have turned into both a great pleasure and a great problem — we’ve managed to convert it into both of those things.

— From an August 2008 conversation with President Elaine Tuttle Hansen