I was recently out to lunch with a friend of mine. We dined at a local sushi restaurant that was not a chain ' only the one place. As we ate, she began divulging a story which gave one of many reasons why she just broke up with her boyfriend. She said "I was walking past his trash can the other day and, even though he said he wouldn't eat it, I saw a Burger King bag thrown away in there. I didn't say anything, but in my head I thought 'Oh my god that is so disgusting and awful". I asked why only to get the same sloppy argument she would give every other time I asked about the subject: because of the lobbyists, and how bad it is for the environment, and it just makes me so mad! I pointed down to the sushi we were eating. "That's probably bought from the same place Burger King buys food." "No, you don't get it: it's the corporations."
I was astonished by the seeming cherry-picking of evidence. The same woman that shops at Target and buys cigarettes at gas stations doesn't want to eat fast food because of "the Corporations". She obviously didn't know much about the situation ' but to be fair, neither did I. Logical arguments based on assumptions were all I had, and all most anyone has. So I decided to see what 21st century food is all about.
What's the problem with it, anyway? Well for one, the whole category of capital f Food is deceivingly huge ' almost unapproachable in its complexity. It hits our hearts, though, because food is so important to us in a very deep sense. No one wants to be told what to eat. Also consider: give someone ten dollars, they'll say thanks. Buy a ten dollar meal and give it to them and they'll cry hallelujah. Perhaps the easiest way to approach this topic concisely is to ask: why should I care about where what I eat comes from?
Most of my knowledge comes from the book The Omnivore's Dilemma
and the sources I followed up in it's bibliography. There are four main sections to the response for why: health, ecology, politics, and morals. Droves of books have been written on this, so I'll make for brevity. Let's start with the section that hits your gooey, organ-y home: health. Fascinatingly, grain-fed animals ' which are all CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) animals, what you get at the supermarket ' have more fat and saturated fats, and less omega 3 and 6 fatty acids than their grass-fed counterparts. So that pastured, expensive steak is actually better for you than your regular cow. But not so fast! I did not say organic; I said pastured. I didn't even say free-range. Current USDA definitions for organic simply means organic feed and no antibiotics; organic animals can still be smashed together by the thousands in massive holding pens and still fed a mixture of watered, starchy corn and unused animal parts ' albeit organic corn and animal parts. Organic does mean that you'll get less nitrogen, since non-organic corn is fed swathes of nitrogen to help it grow staggeringly fast. And free-range usually means a door somewhere in the pens which allows the animals to walk to a little area outside if they so choose. For whatever reason most animals don't, likely because there's nothing to do there: no grass, no other animals, nothing but an empty patch of land.
I'll cut short hinting at what you may have caught on to by now: that those four sections are incontrovertibly connected. Even in that small paragraph it is easy to connect the four: political definitions are either too vague or they are misused and swindled by profiteers to increase output at the cost of the environment and our moral and physical selves. So this is a problem, right? Yes... and no. Going against our current system of food are, very roughly, as follows.
As mentioned above CAFO animals are less healthy to eat and more susceptible to urban problems like mad cow disease. Morally, here's a list of awful practices that occur every day to tens of thousands of animals: chickens have their beaks cut off with a hot knife so that they don't cannibalize each other in their tight, somber cages; 10 percent of chickens that are supposed to lay eggs in CAFOs get too stressed and simply die instead; pigs have their tails cut off so that other pigs, desperate for their mother's milk due to being pulled from her after ten days from birth as opposed to the natural thirteen weeks, don't gnaw on the tails until they become raw and infected, potentially risking the animal getting sick and therefore economically inefficient; cows stand ankle to shin deep in their own excrement, eating food that causes their stomachs to bloat until they die, forcing farmers to feed them antibiotics, which makes them sick, forcing farmers to feed them more antibiotics.
Politically, the government gives big tax breaks to farmers of corn and soy, so there is a big incentive to grow as much of this stuff as possible, even if nobody wants it ' the farmers get paid anyway. This leads to farmers using as much pesticide, nitrogen, and whatever other chemicals as necessary to increase output. Since corn and soy are so cheap, they're used as feed.
Ecologically, this creates topsoil that is tilled too much and is slowly disappearing, along with all the chemical runoff. There is now a nine-thousand square mile section in the Gulf of Mexico which, because of the nitrogen runoff, is a Dead Zone, meaning just what it sounds like: no fish exist there. The algae in the area use nitrogen to grow, and the runoff made them so huge that fish literally became entangled and died. The massive amount of decaying, dead algae sucked up what oxygen is left, killing any other fish in the area.
There's much more to this complicated web, but you get the idea. So what could possibly redeem such a horrid system, wantonly destroying anything in its path to profits? One big problem comes when suggesting a viable alternative to the demand of feeding so many people. The author of The Omnivore's Dilemma
, Michael Pollan, went to a farm that successfully dodged the whole spiel of the system: Polyface Farm.
Polyface farm created a sustainable practice of farming, allowing cattle to graze and move, the chickens to hang out where the cows had been to eat grubs out of their excrement, and the pigs to root for food. Clever ideas such as stacking ' for example, placing turkeys in the grape orchard so the farmer can save land and so the turkeys can mow the grass and eat the pests ' are often used. No antibiotics or chemicals of any kind are used on Polyface and each animal is allowed to live their, as Polyface Farm owner Joel Salatin says, "characteristic forms of life". The animals get to be themselves on the farm. The cattle self-medicate by eating the right sorts of grasses and flowers when they feel sick, and healthy cattle serve as a domino effect for the rest of the farm: healthy cowpats, healthy grubs for chickens to eat, healthy chickens, healthy chicken excrement, healthy grass for pigs to root and cows to once again eat; the cycle continues.
Black garlic is a type of fermented garlic used as a food ingredient in Asian cuisine. It is made by fermenting whole bulbs of garlic at high temperature, a process that results in black cloves. The taste is sweet and syrupy with hints of balsamic vinegar or even tamarind. |
So what's bad about this ' why isn't everyone doing it? Firstly and most selfishly, it takes a lot of work. CAFO workers simply monitor the machinery, maybe sometimes check feed tubes and tell incoming and outgoing trucks where to drop their cargo. Industrial plant farmers make a big haul for a few months out of the year and then pack up for vacation. On the other hand, Polyface farmers work from sunrise to sunset, year round, and they have to constantly perform the backbreaking work of shuffling the animals around the land, along with working to upkeep it in exhausting composting efforts. More practically, Polyface gets less yield. They allow their animals to get a little older, and since they don't use any chemicals or antibiotics, the animals grow at nature's pace and not a second faster. Such work ends in a price increase for the consumer.
Without getting too deep into it, Polyface farm would be hard to replicate everywhere. It depends not on a monoculture, like our industrial farms do, but a on variety of animals, grasses, and geography. Some animals simply don't do well in places where the winters are too cold, or the summers are too hot, or where there aren't really any seasons and it's cold or hot most of the time. A farm next to a forest does much better because a forest usually provides water in the form of an actual supply or it reduces field evaporation, and it prevents erosion, along with bringing cooler air and shade for animals in the summer (crucial for pigs). A forest prevents winds from smashing down the grass, allowing more of the grass's energy to be spent growing full and tall for the animals to eat it easier... I could go on. So a place that's good for this sort of farm needs to be in at least a quasi-idyllic locale where there are seasons (but not too extreme), thick soil, a geography inclined to prevent excessive winds, and where a good variety of grass can grow.
So if you simply want to be, say, a pastured chicken farmer, it isn't so simple (or complicated, depending on where you're viewing from). What to make of all this? There's a hell of a lot more to make of it, honestly, but as I said before, Food is one big subject. With all the runoff, ecologically our industrial farming practice isn't very sustainable, and it isn't too comforting eating sad, diseased cow (or pig or chicken or fish ' yes, they corn-and-antibiotic-feed fish now). Everyone becoming vegetarian wouldn't help; a farm either needs to be the small, hard to replicate Polyface farm type or the monoculture, susceptible to pests and diseases type. Secondary problems would arise, such as the moral problem of field mice dying in even more numbers than they do now if vegetable output were increased due to the necessities of harvesting machines. So is there a third, sustainable option? No one has really come up with one yet, but the answer is likely an amalgamation of these two sorts of farming. Our current industrial culture is, in some sense, imperative to feeding us all; some form of monoculture seems necessary for an output that can feed more than a few hundred-thousand humans living on the narrow equatorial band.
It is indeed complicated, and I urge the reader to explore the foodscape for themselves. Personally I won't be trying to eat any differently, but if I can buy from something more sustainable, or I can give my vote to someone more sensible, I'll make sure to do it. So: let's come back to the beginning. What does one say to snobbish friends who refuse to eat something or somewhere you like based on ideological grounds? Tell 'em to relax because it isn't so black and white, and if they don't, get new friends.