As an herbalist, I think of how humans interact and relate to plants everyday. Mainly we interact with plants through our diet. Our morning cereal, a sandwich, tea, beans, rice and salad all come from plants. Even meat comes from animals that ate plants. In essence, our very survival comes from plant life. Though plants represent the source of our sustenance, we have become deeply out of balance in our relationship with them. We have shifted from a diverse and varied plant diet to one that includes just a few highly processed plants. This is leading not only to a breakdown in our physical and mental health, it is leading us to ecological catastrophe as well.
In the U.S., 25 billion dollars a year is spent to subsidize the production of just a few commodity crops with an overwhelming emphasis on wheat, corn and soy. Essentially farmers are paid to produce an enormous amount of just a few crops. These crops are then processed and turned into dense high calorie foods that are the staple of most modern diets throughout the world. Look through most grocery shelves and you will find food containing these main three crops. Chips, crackers, sodas, candy, salad dressing, snack bars, energy drinks are all mainly derivatives of these three crops. Industrial meat is also primarily being produced by feeding animals enormous amounts of these three crops; so when we are eating meat we are essentially again eating these three foods.
Wheat, corn and soy are often processed in a way that they are calorie filled and energy dense. A soda with corn syrup along with a wheat and soy filled Big Mac contains over a thousand calories. Eating a diet saturated with these foods has led to an epidemic of obesity and has helped to increase physical and mental health maladies. Because these crops are subsidized, we have made them cheap to consume and so the poorest amongst us are pushed towards eating the least nutritious and most unhealthy foods. We have essentially engineered a society built on eating the processed form of just a few plants; and we are making ourselves fatter, sicker and more emotionally unhappy.
Modernity: A Changing Relationship to Plants
As an herbalist, I sometimes see this from a different perspective. Modernity in many ways is a tale of a shifting relationship between humans and the plant kingdom. Prior to the 19th century, most people ate the plants that were harvested locally. Often there was a rich diversity of local crops and wild harvested foods. People ate a diverse array of roots, tubers, vegetables, fruits and meat. Wild animals and fish ate food from the streams, meadows and forest and offered a complex array of nutrients to help us thrive. People from earlier times faced periodic depravation through poor weather and flooding, and this insured that population didn’t increase excessively and place too heavy of a burden on the environment.
In the 20th century, we superseded this ancient method of eating primarily local food and shifted to a global system that embraced the production of immense monocrops to feed increasing numbers. Population levels exploded, dependent on just a few species of plants- wheat (Triticum aestivum), soy (Glycine max) and corn (Zea mays). Through our intense dependency on these few species, we have not only made ourselves sicker, and “madder”, we have exponentially grown in numbers to create an immense burden on the natural resources of the planet. We require increasing amounts of land, timber, soil, fresh water, coal, oil and gas to survive. Our utter dependence on these few plants have created an immense imbalance that is showing up not only as obesity, inflammatory diseases, depression and anxiety but also is showing up as clear cuts, mountain top removal, extinctions, polluted oceans, air, streams and climate change. A simple shift to embracing just a few plant species has engendered a radical change in our planet- one that is literally leading towards apocalyptic possibilities.
On a psychological level, this intense overreliance on three plants have made many of us feel increasingly depressed and anxious. Our use of the processed form of these plants for the bulk of our calories- in the form of cold cereal, donuts, candy bars, soft drinks, biscuits, chips, sauces and industrial meat has led to physiological changes that stimulate mental health problems. Food sweetened with corn syrup spikes our
blood sugar levels. Spikes in blood sugar levels stimulates a response from our hypothalmus, pituitary and adrenal glands to secret more stress hormones and adrenaline that make us feel wired and anxious. If there is a susceptibility to extreme states, it is more likely that these foods will increase our anxiety and lead to a greater possibility for complex nervous system disorganization in the form of hallucinations, delusions and paranoia.
We have increasingly taken to “medicating” processed food disorders with the concentrated form of other plants. We use tobacco (Nicotiana), coffee (Coffea), cocaine (Erythroxylum coca), cane sugar (Saccharum) and heroin and other opioids (Papaver somniferum) to help stimulate and calm our body due in part to suffering from the effects of the processed form of wheat, corn and soy. So we use one set of plants to manage the symptoms of overuse of another set of plants.
We also increasingly turn to completely synthetic ways to manage our emotional states that are in part engendered by this lopsided diet. Methampehtamine and MDMA are industrially created street drugs but we also increasingly turn to psychiatric drugs such as xanax, prozac, effexor, ritalin, adderall, zyprexa and seroquel to stimulate and sedate ourselves. 20 percent of Americans now are prescribed a psychiatric drug to manage mental health issues.
I want to stress that mental health issues such as severe anxiety, depression and extreme states are not solely caused by a poor diet. But I do want to honor that this modern diet, coupled with balancing these moods with concentrated addictive plants and synthetics go a long way towards destabilizing and damaging good mental health. The massive population boom caused in part by the Green Revolution and global monocrops of wheat, corn and soy, has led to a more competitive, frantic and traumatic world that helps create tremendous stress and exacerbates emotional distress. Because the poor have few choices, they face the brunt of this blow, forced to purchase low priced and low quality food that increases misery and suffering.
Repairing the Relationship
There are few easy answers to these problems. At a core level, I see many of the problems of modernity as based on how we relate to the plant kingdom. We have chosen to damage the soil and repeatedly plant monocrops of a few plants throughout the world. Because the soil is so depleted, we add enormous amounts of fertilizer and pesticides to prop up these crops. We are in a precarious state with our relationship with the Earth and the plant world, and a lot of that imbalance is showing up in our declining mental health.
Trying to find ways through this deep imbalance is extremely challenging. But one of the ways is to try and
return to eating a more varied, more local and more wild diet, filled with nutrient dense food with a wide variety of plant life. By shifting towards a diversified plant based diet, and away from one dependent on the concentrated industrialized form of “The Big Three”, our mental health will improve and our load on the planet will decrease. Moving towards eating less industrialized and more organic food, where crops are grown in smaller more diversified lots with greater attention and care will also help shift the equation. Growing food in our backyards and working with local farmers is part of this revolution.
On a deeper level, taking time to acknowledge our relationship to the plant world by slowing down and connecting to the plants is a key part of the healing process as well. Connecting to the plant world in gardens, forests and meadows can also be part of the work. As an herbalist, I recommend taking herbs in tea form to really get to know the look, scent and taste of an herb. Essentially, it is key to remember that our relationship with plants is a spiritual one. They are our sustenance, our healers and our homes. We can repair our relationship by showing greater care, attention and love when we connect to plants. Making prayers or just giving thanks before a meal can help us remember our relationship and all that plants offer us.
Seeing our mental health as part of a more global ecological picture where how we eat and the food we grow and buy has a direct effect not only on our mental health, but on how we can heal some of the wounds we have inflicted on our relationship with the planet. The global ecological and environmental trauma that is occurring is mirrored in the trauma that we experience in our own lives- the disconnection, the isolation, the lack of the sacred. We can help to heal ourselves in part by re-envisioning how we work with the plant kingdom, feed ourselves and live with the land.