“All day long the blazing midsummer sun beat down upon that square mile of abominations: upon tens of thousands of cattle crowded into pens whose wooden floors stank and steamed contagion; upon bare, blistering, cinder-strewn railroad tracks and huge blocks of dingy meat factories, whose labyrinthine passages defied a breath of fresh air to penetrate them…” – excerpt from The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
The phrase, ”You are what you eat,” has some serious indications these days. Over 308 million people are living off of America’s massive and contrived food production system, which creates very real challenges for suppliers. And while on one hand, 36 million Americans don’t have access to sufficient nutritious food, on the other hand, the factories that supply our food aren’t quite the places we imagine. Once you peel back that lacquered image of “good old classic American farming,” and look beyond the imagined red barn doors and verdant green pastures, what you see isn’t often all that appetizing. Gone are the days of Bessie and Wilbur and Charlotte all coexisting happily, with room to roam and space to breathe. Now we have genetically engineered seeds that produce herbicide-resistant plants. We have major companies that seem to manhandle crop production and monopolize seed sales. We have factory farms with mass execution floors, vaguely reminiscent of Sinclair’s 1906 Chicago meatpacking industry.
The sudden influx of media that exposes the realities of modern food production is eye opening. And while movies like Food, Inc. and books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation examine the well-concealed methodologies of food production and the efficacy of government regulation, they also call into question the willing passivity of the average grocery consumer or restaurant customer. Shouldn’t the question on our minds be “Where did this meat come from?” rather than “Do I want fries with that?”
Though it’s politically correct to be well-traveled in today’s society, it shouldn’t be a quality we look for in our food. A 2005 article, “Energy and Sustainable Agriculture” by Hunter Lovins and Christopher Juniper, claimed that our food is transported an average of 1500 miles before it reaches our table. In a time when the Prius is the next best thing and wind power is chic, this excessive shipping of food products shouldn’t be acceptable. Why on earth do we need to have our blueberries shipped from California? Hammonton, New Jersey is the blueberry capital of the world, and is just a couple hours from Times Square. Stop to think a moment about the emissions that result from food production: pesticides and fertilizers made from fossil fuels, methane radiating from manure lagoons on factory farms, the over-packaging and cross-country transportation of produce, to name a few. And while the jury’s still out regarding exactly what percentage of man-made greenhouse gas emissions are a result of the pursuit of the perfect hamburger, the outlook doesn’t look good.
So buy local. It’s not hard to do. And buy organic when you can, especially when you find yourself in the produce aisle. Produce products with no skin or very thin skin have the highest concentration of remnant pesticides. For example, in 2002, 98 percent of peaches tested by the USDA had traces of at least one pesticide in them. So spend an extra 20 cents and enjoy a pesticide-free treat, because it’s easier to find local, organic food than you think, even in New York City. Visit www.eatwellguide.org and type in your zip code. Local, sustainable, organic food vendors, restaurants, and even bakeries and caterers are all available.
Pesticides and fertilizers notwithstanding, when it comes to the scientific alteration of food, there’s a fine line to walk. Eighty-five percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered to resist herbicides, draught conditions, disease, or to increase nutritional value. Which is great. Until you realize that genetically-altered seeds are often patented, escalating the monopoly that larger farming research and production companies hold over farmers. It’s virtually impossible to prevent natural elements (bees and breezes) from compromising the integrity of organic farms. And with the introduction of Monsanto’s new genetically-engineered alfalfa strain, organic farmers will no longer be able to certify that their livestock graze on only 100% natural plant life. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the use of rBGH/rBST hormones is still being used to induce dairy cows to produce more milk. Though these hormones have been rejected in Europe and Canada, the FDA is ignoring consumer pleas to mandate that products produced with these hormones be clearly labeled. Beyond increasing the risk of lameness, udder defects, and resistance to antibiotics in the dairy cows, the hormones also increase an “insulin-like growth-factor-1” or IFG-1, which can be transferred to the digestive track and blood stream of consumers, and has been connected to increased risk for various forms of cancer in humans.
And though it isn’t the most pleasant thing to think about – summoning up the chilling descriptions of the The Jungle’s Chicago meatpackers – consumers should know in what sort of environment the pigs, cows, and chickens we are eating are being born, bred, and slaughtered. According to the Center for Food Safety, two percent of livestock farms raise 40 percent of the animals we use for food. More specifically, the USDA says that 26 cattle farms process 76 percent of cattle. Back in 1906, 50 cattle were slaughtered in an hour on the kill floor. Today, that number has increased to as many as 400 cattle per hour. Though the specific mechanics have developed, the process basics haven’t changed that much in 100 years. There’s still a “knocker” who stuns the cow by hitting him in the head, and a “sticker” who slices its jugular to bleed it. And what’s the difference between a “free range” egg and your average incredible edible? Most roosting hens live their entire lives confined in a battery cage, beak-less, and unable to stand or stretch their wings. Over in the broiling chicken pens, massive avians, more reminiscent of science projects than of rotisserie delicacy, are often confined in sunless, airless houses, unable to bear their unnatural hormone-induced weight. “Free-range” chickens, while not always roaming free on the grassy plains, are given substantially more room and air.