Ignorance is bliss, but knowledge is power – and responsibility. If you highly value the utility that you derive from eating fast food or highly processed food products, and would prefer to just not know about the journey that your food takes from crop to plate, you should stop reading … now.
Still with me?
The New York Times just recently published this article about how Russia has now banned the import of American chicken – this new policy change partially stems from political tensions and pride; however health concerns over standard industry practices (that are sanctioned by our governing bodies) are also a major contributor to the new restrictions.
An excerpt from the article:
“At issue is the chlorine bath that American companies use to disinfect chickens after slaughter. Russian health officials declared that method unsafe, and they outlawed the procedure in 2008. The European Union has long enforced a similar ban on the procedure.” (Source: NYTimes.com) …. and this is the same chicken that is deemed safe for our grocery stores and fed to our families. Is something wrong with this picture?
A few of you might know that recently I decided to jump down the rabbit hole of discovering just where the food that I (and the majority of you, dear readers), comes from. Seems to be an easy enough question right? The answer to that question really becomes dependent on which food chain you are at the end of.
From The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan outlines 4 meals at the end of four different food chains that exist in society as we know it today.
– organic industrial
– organic local
– foraging (hunter-gatherer style!)
The majority of the population here in the US sits on the end of the industrial food chain. The start of this food chain comes from either a corn or soybean field from the vast cornfields in the midwest, and the end meal looks like the nugget-shaped pieces of chicken product you get in your Happy Meal or the identical, generic beef patties that are sandwiched between the white hamburger bun for that Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger …with meat patties that literally contain pieces of hundreds of different cows that are corn-fattened on industrial feedlots. How did this system come about? It all starts with corn – in the early part of the last century, FDR’s New Deal era also ushered in new agricultural legislation that helped to regulate the market and stabilize the supply of corn. Since corn is a commodity, it is something that is easy to standardize, transport, and store. Previously, there was a loan system put in place, where if farmers produced a surplus corn, the government issued a loan to the farmer collateralized by the surplus corn. The farmer could then choose whether or not to repay the loan – if not, they would simply keep the cash and the government would store the corn in a granary – to be resold on the market once prices increased, otherwise, they could repay the loan and sell the corn back on the market once the balance of supply and demand was restored. This also helped to stablize corn prices at a target price based on cost of labor and production.
With Nixon came the era of supply side economics – and farmer subsidies. Instead of issuing loans to farmers to absorb the corn surplus, the government basically makes up the difference if the market price of corn dips below the target price (that is set based on cost of production), essentially giving farmers the incentive to increase the efficiency of their farms and produce as much corn as they can – so now we have the issue of figuring out how to absorb all of this extra corn that is flooding the market. The government spends about $19 billion dollars a year doing this.
Who is eating all of this extra corn? Although most of us probably are not chomping down on ears of corn everyday, I would venture a guess that most of us have eaten or will eat corn at some point today and everyday – this is because the corn that is produced ultimately reaches us, the end consumer, in some type of processed format, be it the high fructose corn syrup that is used to sweeten everything from breakfast cereal to peanut butter, or ethanol in our gas tanks, or all of the food additives that are used to make our foods taste better, and last longer. Think about all of the soda that Americans drink every year – what do you think is making that soda so sweet? High fructose corn syrup! Also, farm animals such as pigs and cows are now being fed corn to essentially convert corn to meat – lovely thought huh? Whats worse is that since cows are not designed by nature to subsist on grain diets (they evolved to have rumens specifically for the purpose of eating grass) – they must also be fed a cocktail of antibiotics in order to prevent them from getting sick. They are also grown on industrial feedlots, wallowing all day in their own waste that is so toxic that it cannot be used to fertilize any plant fields. Let’s not even get into chickens – I’ll just say that they ain’t happy either.
Seems like the system is in pretty bad shape right? The animals are not happy, the farmers are not happy, and more than half of the country is overweight. So who exactly is benefitting from this? From what I’ve read, it is the industrial food and agriculture companies – such as Monsanto, that are lobbying for these farm bills that perpetuate this system. This is the same company that hires lawyers and private detectives to sue farmers if they save the seed that their own crops grow – because it is now legal to patent genetically engineered seeds. These are seeds that are genetically engineered to be able to resist the chemical pesticides and herbicides that are applied to crop fields in order to grow our food – yes … did you know that farmers must buy their seed every year from Monsanto in order to grow crops? If they save their own seed from their own crops that they grow, they run the risk of being sued and driven out of business. Why don’t we pass farm bills that will change the way things work – so that we can grow good, natural food that is equally beneficial to the health of our economy and our bodies? Maybe it is because the people appointed into policy-making positions are the exact same people that are employed by such companies! Fun fact: did you know that supreme court justice Clarence Thomas – the one that wrote the majority opinion on the ruling that legalized the patenting of genetically engineered seeds – used to be an attorney for Monsanto? Or that FDA commisioner Michael Taylor worked for the law firm that lobbied for FDA approval of Monsanto’s artificial growth hormone?
The quality of the food is only one of the many issues that need to be addressed and overhauled about our national food system. There are also many atrocities that happen behind closed doors at these meat processing plants, with how farmers and workers are being treated – there is no doubt that we are definitely living in a modern day Jungle. Just read Fast Food Nation if you want to open your eyes to these issues.
The thing is, at the end of the day, there is just something wrong with this picture – how did we get to a place where a bag of potato chips and a can of soda is cheaper than a fresh apple or cup of yogurt? The things that we eat are choices that we make on a daily basis – and these are all little choices that slowly but surely determine the fate of our health and life spans, as well as how our overall food system works. Think of it as the butterfly effect – but in terms of food!
I strongly believe that the most truthful and influential vote that we have in society today are the votes that we cast with our dollars. Yes, I know that organic, whole foods are expensive – but they don’t have to be. If you go to your local farmer’s market, you can find some pretty good bargains – and some great quality produce. For those of us who just simply don’t have the means to be able to make the choices to purchase local & organic, I can definitely understand the difficulty – sometimes, it is just unreasonable to be paying $8 for a dozen of pastured eggs, or $4 for just a half gallon of milk. But for people (including myself) who can and are able to do so, don’t you think that it is time to start making more responsible choices and to support the farmers that are producing the kind of food that we want to eat and that we should be eating? While yes, I’m not expecting to last the entire winter just eating carrots and potatoes, which are pretty much the only produce that is available in the winter, I do think that at least making a small effort everyday to support this movement toward good quality local food – is just a small but viable step in encouraging our society to move in a healthy direction.
Some interesting links: