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The Price of Cheap Food

June 8, 2010

I’m re-reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and I had forgotten how sad and frustrated it makes me about the current Agricultural situation in… well, at least in America.

Over the last fifty or sixty years, we have been pushing the edge of the envelope on science, technology, and, among other things, food production. I appreciate many of the advancements that have come out of this time of technological advancement and prosperity. I’m typing this on a laptop computer that weighs less than four lbs and stores more than 250 gigs of data, I going to upload it to the internet, which I can no longer live without (or so it feels), where potentially millions of people could read it. I have a cell phone and flat-screen TV and cable and DVDs and all of the other modern conveniences turned “necessities.”

I’m not saying I want to turn back the clock on any of those things, necessarily (although there is a strong argument for doing so), but when it comes to food, I often wonder if we’ve pushed too far, too fast, without stopping to think about the consequences.

Just because we can grow 180 bushels of corn on one acre of soil doesn’t mean we should, especially when it means pumping artificial pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals into the environment.

Just because we can cram cows and pigs and chickens into small pens and boxes and feed them corn and other refuse doesn’t mean we should, especially when it means feeding them things they have never evolved to digest, and having to pump them full of antibiotics and chemicals to keep them “healthy” long enough to kill them.

Just because we have the scientific know-how to extract things like High Fructose Corn Syrup and Xantham Gum from a kernel of corn, doesn’t mean we should, especially when it means Food is losing ground in grocery stores around the world to “food-like” substances like Margarine and “fat free” anything and Doritos and soda and cereal with Omega-3s.

Just because we have the scientific know-how to modify the basic make-up of our plants at a microscopic level doesn’t mean we should, especially when we have no concept of how the affectively mutated genes will effect the people who consume them.

The hopeful, optimistic part of me looks at where technology has brought us in terms of food production and hopes that we open our eyes and decide to take a collective step back. I have the sinking suspicious that we’re getting dangerously close to “too late,” where we won’t be able to sustain the farm subsidies that are producing more corn than we know what to do with and driving countless farmers into debt. Where we won’t be able to sustain the feed lots with their overflowing manure lagoons and the risk of antibiotic-resistant bugs, not to mention the unhealthy, artificial, food-like byproducts of excess corn and soybeans that are slowly killing us all.

For those of you who haven’t read The Omnivore’s Dilemma (or don’t remember the specifics), here’s a rough, paraphrased recap of the problem with feed lots.

Feed lots exist because we have excess corn (which arises from farm subsidies, which are only pushing farmers more and more into debt). Nature abhors excess, so we feed the excess corn to the cows to make them fatter faster, and therefore cheaper. We’ve been trained over the years to want cheap meat, as much as possible.

The only problem is that cows weren’t designed to eat corn, so when they do, they get sick. When they get sick, instead of looking at the problem and saying, “Huh, maybe we shouldn’t feed them corn,” we say, “Maybe if we pumped them full of antibiotics that would fix it.” So now we have cows getting too fat too quickly on food they’re not designed to eat, and they’re pumped full of antibiotics to keep them healthy. None of that spells good things for the people who consume the meat of those cows, because unhealthy, too fat meat leads to unhealthy, too fat people.

Then of course, there is the other problem with having all of those cows in one place: manure. Gallons upon gallons of manure that we can’t do anything with because it has too much nitrogen and chemicals to use on our crops, which is what we used to do with it. So instead it sits in rank pools, a now-toxic hazard that we have no way to dispose of.

And then there’s the oil problem. Because we can’t put the manure on the crops, we have to create artificial fertilizers, which come, in part, from oil. And because the cows are no longer on the farms, we have to use oil in the form of gasoline to get the corn to the feed lots. And because we no longer eat what can be grown locally, we use oil in the form of gasoline to get the food from the slaughterhouses to our grocery stores.

I just want to take the whole complex, back-assward system and shake it and say “Keep it simple, stupid!!” What used to be a self-contained, ecologically friendly cycle drawing on the infinite resources of the sun is now a broken-down, messy, ecologically unfriendly cycle drawing on the finite resources of fossil fuels.

Cows evolved to eat grass, which gets its nutrients from the sun. When cows eat grass they grown more slowly (which means their meat is more expensive), but they are healthier. When they eat grass they don’t have to be pumped full of antibiotics and other chemicals and hormones, which means that their manure can be used to fertilize the farmland on which our crops are grown. When we use manure to fertilize our crops, we don’t have to use artificial fertilizers, which therefore don’t pollute the surrounding environment.

It seems to me that if we went back to grazing cattle on grass instead of stuffing them with corn, almost all of the problems associated with the massive corn farms and feed lots would be solved. We would have to convert some land back to grassland, so we wouldn’t have as much corn, which would cut down on the excess. We would have healthier, if more expensive meat, but there are studies that show that we shouldn’t eat as much meat as we do in the first place, so that’s not a bad thing. The consequences would be further reaching than I can adequately describe in the space of this blog post, but even though there would be short-term inconvenience associated with the transfer of cattle back to grassland, the long-term benefits would far outweigh them.

And that’s just cattle. You can make the same argument for chickens and pigs. That’s what they’re doing at a farm in Virginia called Polyface Farm. They’ve been around since the early sixties, and are very successful.

This is the story of Polyface Farms:

In 1961, William and Lucille Salatin moved their young family to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, purchasing the most worn-out, eroded, abused farm in the area near Staunton. Using nature as a pattern, they and their children began the healing and innovation that now supports three generations.

Disregarding conventional wisdom, the Salatins planted trees, built huge compost piles, dug ponds, moved cows daily with portable electric fencing, and invented portable sheltering systems to produce all their animals on perennial prairie polycultures.

Today the farm arguably represents America’s premier non-industrial food production oasis. Believing that the Creator’s design is still the best pattern for the biological world, the Salatin family invites like-minded folks to join in the farm’s mission: to develop emotionally, economically, environmentally enhancing agricultural enterprises and facilitate their duplication throughout the world.

The moral is this:

Put the animals back on the farm. Re-establish the balanced ecosystem of the small farm that has been refined over the last several hundred years. No, you wouldn’t be able to farm 900 acres with just a few men and a tractor, but we’re coming out of an economic recession, and people need jobs. Why not take a step back from the cutting edge of technology, not because we have to, but because we choose to. I’m not saying we should disregard technological advancements, I’m just saying that we should make an active choice, instead of just doing the newfangled thing “because we can.”

I don’t know what it would take, exactly, to feed the nation, or the world, on what we can grow on small family farms like Polyface. I don’t know if we could produce enough food to feed ourselves if we took all of the fields that are devoted to corn and soybeans, most of which humans never eat in that form, and transformed the land back into the type of farm that existed at the turn of the 20th century. But I think it would be worth-while to explore the option. I think it would be healthier for us, for our environment, and for our country, not least because it would mean one less tie to oil, and therefore one less reason to send our troops to the Middle East to die, and one less reason to risk polluting our planet with the next oil spill.

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