What is Medicine?

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘medicine?’ Most of us, I think pills, antibiotics, patches and syringes. Things we are ‘supposed’ to take in order to get better, to lessen the symptoms or prevent bodily annoyances. Name brands may even come to mind in place of the medicine itself, because we see them advertised on TV and in magazines alongside clothes, soft drinks and electronics and they become little more than impulse buys.
But let’s go back to the definition (from Merriam-Webster):
Medicine (noun):
1. The science or practice of the treatment and prevention of disease.
Medicinal (adjective):
1. Having healing properties.

As complex and difficult as healing can be, I also believe that it can be equally as simple. I believe that anything that heals or prevents dis-ease is medicine. Anything that eases suffering, soothes, comforts, is medicine. And I believe that we (especially here in the US) have become unfamiliar with the most beneficial medicine of all: Food. We, unlike many other countries, have such an abundance of food that we waste a staggering amount each day. All for profit, we synthesize edible products in laboratories and pump them full of artificial flavor to make them taste good. We eat things full of fat, sugar and salt but completely devoid of nutrients. And we swap genes between species, and create crops that can’t survive without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides- and we make ourselves and the land we depend on for survival sick in the process.

To me, medicine truly is the practice and art of treating and preventing dis-ease in all organisms in our natural environment: in humans, in the many species we share our earth with, and in the earth itself. Healing goes so far beyond alleviating symptoms of dis-ease; to heal is to regenerate, reinvigorate and restore. I believe that we are able to do all of these things when we re-learn how and what we can grow locally and naturally. Food grown locally and in season not only tastes better, but is more nutritionally valuable than food grown elsewhere, picked unripe, and shipped thousands of miles to our grocery stores.

We have such a respect for medicine and doctors, understandably, but are barely aware of the people out there growing, tending and harvesting the most crucial elements for our health and well-being: the farmers. We depend on a certain code of ethics from our medical professionals, but it gets a bit murky when we start talking about food. What is ethical when it comes to food production and who decides?
In trying to answer these questions, I found that the “Values of Medical Ethics” apply perfectly to our food system.

The Six Values of Medical Ethics (as applied to food systems and justice).

1) Non-maleficence – “first, do no harm” ( Putting the health and wellbeing of all organisms before profit by reducing dependence on processed foods and allowing indigenous peoples to maintain traditional lands and practices).
2) Beneficence – a practitioner should act in the best interest of the patient. (Regulators and government officials should act in the best interest of all organisms, rather than in the interest of profits).
3) Respect for Persons- the patient -and the person treating the patient- have the right to be treated with dignity. (Those who buy, those who grow, harvest and package our foods here and in other countries, and all animals involved should all be treated with dignity).
4) Truthfulness and Honesty-the concept of informed consent (All people have a right to know how their food is cultivated and processed- including disclosure of ingredients, chemical use/synthetic ingredients, and genetically modified organisms).
5) Justice- concerns the distribution of scarce health resources, and the decision of who gets what treatment -fairness and equality– (All people deserve access to fresh, culturally appropriate, whole foods, regardless of social or financial standing).
6) Respect for autonomy – the patient has the right to refuse or choose their treatment. (All people in all countries should have a say in how their foods are grown and processed, and the collective voice of the people should be given more power than the voice of corproations).

The ways in which we interact with and consume our food has within it the ability to destroy ecosystems, human/nature ralationships and human/human relationships, as well as heal them, bring people together and encourage resilliencey and bounty. When I think of medicine, I envision communities coming together to help each other harvest, forage for wild edibles, grow community gardens and host potlucks. I see neighbors teaching one another how to become more self-sufficient through planting and preserving. I think of all of my friends who have knowledge and skills just waiting to be shared. I remember how much more alive I felt when I learned we could actually do something to reduce the damage and suffering in our world, and that beginning can be as simple as getting to know your farmer.

(For me, that means stopping by the Tuesday or Saturday Market in Northampton, MA!)