“If slaughter houses all had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarians.”
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. I am not a vegetarian. I have never been. It’s a specific label with which I don’t need to define myself. I also don’t think it has to be an all-or-nothing mentality. I think that is what scares off many people who think if they can’t quit cold turkey, literally, then they can’t do anything. This is simply not true. There is a whole spectrum in between. I myself am eating less and less meat (meaning cow, chicken, and pig—notice how even this sounds strange since we have renamed most of these into ‘edible’ names. We don’t eat pig, we eat pork) as time goes on… especially when I am cooking and shopping for myself.
I love food. There’s no question about it. The more I get out and the more I discover, the more foods I enjoy. And I don’t just mean stuffing my face. I enjoy the story of food and mostly the culture of food and it’s importance to basically every society around the globe. Through my television producing career (producing a ‘lifestyles’ show ‘weighted’ heavily in the restaurant scene in Chicago) and just my proximity to so many dining options and authentic ethnic eateries, I’ve become quite fascinated with the restaurant and food industry. And throughout my travels I’ve tried nearly everything on offer and at the same time have witnessed the closer relationship people in many developing nations have with what they consume. There seems to be a much shorter distance from field to plate and it made me realize how far removed most of us in the Western World (myself wholly included) are from the reality of the food chain. And the food supply in the U.S. is so industrialized that to answer the above question: ‘where does our food come from,’ most would answer, ‘the supermarket.’ Drumsticks, NY Strip Steaks, and Pork Tenderloin wrapped in plastic or frozen chicken tenders and beanie weenies in a can barely resemble the animals they once were, let alone share the same name.
His fascinating book takes us through the changes our nation has endured over the 20th century in the processing (and over processing) of what we eat, especially the surplus of government-subsidized corn and how it has found its way into practically everything we ingest (corn fed beef as opposed to natural grass consuming cows, the replacement of natural sugar with addictive high fructose corn syrup in sodas, candy, and even ketchup, mustard, and bread).
High Fructose Corn Syrup is cheaper than sugar and consumers don’t seem to notice the difference, but the true difference has been seen in our belt size – in our nation’s health and overall weight. American’s rising obesity rates have been traced to the 1970s when America’s average daily caloric intake jumped up more than 10%. In simple terms, by human nature, when food is cheap and abundant people will eat more and get fat (relating to our hunter/gatherer roots—stocking up to store fat in case of a famine… which nowadays never comes). And in recent years, mega-companies like McDonald’s began ‘supersizing’ their portions thanks to cheaper ingredients from more subsidized and industrialized practices in turn making us even fatter. Humans have inherited a sweet tooth and an inclination towards energy-dense foods like sugar and fats, yet in nature we don’t encounter the over-concentrated amounts of these substances like we do now in processed foods—case-in-point—a soda contains way more fructose that any fruit that exists in nature.
Many people in this country get upset when they hear about dogs being killed for food in other countries like I saw firsthand in Vietnam. But we don’t seem at all bothered about what is happening to the animals right here in our own backyard. People know dogs and cats… they are part of the family. But perhaps if they got to know cows and pigs and chickens, they’d be just as upset about the way they are inhumanely treated and then slaughtered. It has been shown that cows have personalities and respond well to human interaction just like many animals do. And according to studies done at Penn State University, pigs can be just as smart and loving as dogs.
With the help of hormones and other treatments, the farming industry has managed to create fast growing cows and chickens that now live for just about 30 days before slaughter. Many of these animals grow so unnaturally fast that their little, young legs can not support the weight of their abnormally large bodies and they can’t even stand up. Not only do they suffer, many of these animals become sick or diseased and have to be killed and never even used as food anyway.
There are some new organic farms out there trying to do the right thing for the animals and in turn us. Polyface Farms in Virginia has what they call complete ‘transparent’ practices. They don’t hide their slaughter process; they do it out in the open. In fact, if you buy a chicken from Polyface, you are more than welcome to come to the farm early to pick it up and witness its sad yet humane demise. Either way, you have to pick it up – they do not ship food anywhere, thus helping to not contribute more environmental problems, pollution, and fuel usage that long-haul shipping causes. Maybe what I’m writing sounds ‘in your face’, but I now really can’t believe how in the dark we are (or try to keep ourselves) from what we put in our bodies and where it truly comes from. Many informed consumers in the US are trying to buy locally from farmers’ markets and stores that supply local farmers’ foods. You may have heard this phrase before: Think globally, act locally. By going to the supermarket or better yet a local farmers’ market, and buying your tomatoes from local farmers in your own state and not, say, Costa Rica, you are helping cut back on fuel costs and emissions caused by such long-distance hauling.
Most people also don’t realize that farm animals are the greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. The livestock industry produces more gases than the transportation industry. It’s also one of the top contributors to other problems like land degradation, water degradation and pollution, and loss of biodiversity.
Next time you are driving through the American “heartland” past all the green farms and rows and rows of corn, it may not seem quite the idyllic ‘mom and pop’ farm picture that it once did… or that the food marketers still try to make it out to be.
The market is really driven by consumers.
So what can we do?
- Be informed. Read and learn more.
- Shop mostly the perimeter of grocery stores where the ‘real’ food is.
- Shop farmers’ markets (find local, sustainable farmers and markets by entering your zipcode here).
- Buy foods that are in season.
- Become a locavore – buy and eat locally produced food.
- Buy free range and organically raised and fed plants, dairy products, and meats.
- Plant your own garden… even a small one.
- Know where your food comes from.
What else can we do? What do you do? Leave your comments here.
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It's 9:28am. I am truly hoping my guilt passes by lunchtime.
Good stuff! Trouble is, once you know, you can't un-know, and must spend the rest of your life being a responsible eater! 😉
I am currently working my way through Michael Pollan's second book (In Defense of Food) and am loving it. Another great documentary, which touches on some of the same themes/characters as Food Inc, is FRESH [http://www.freshthemovie.com]. I was so inspired by it that I've been hosting home screenings to help get the word out.
Thanks for fighting the good fight, sister!
Of all places I first became a "localvore" when living in London. Every week I looked forward to my home delivered box of locally sourced organic fruit and veg. Surprisngly it saved me money (because I didn't step foot inside the supermarket as often), I tried food that I never had before and enjoyed produce that for once had real flavour. I've continued doing that now that I'm living back in Australia. So that's what I do at home.
Your post has just reminded me about what we can do when we're eating out. Ask: is the food locally sourced? is it in season? is it organic? And frequent the places that can answer yes to those questions.
Thanks for the prompt Lisa.
I'm like you in that I'm not a vegetarian but I hardly eat meat. I can't see myself being a vegetarian as it can be quite impractical in many places in the world, but I always eat vegetarian when I can.
Ahhh, the dilemmas of being a vegetarian. As a life-long vegetarian, I find vegetarianism to be the one thing that most people don't understand about me. In fact, most people don't even try to understand why I am vegetarian. I have a simple answer: I grew up vegetarin in a South Indian Brahmin household. But, I chose to remain vegetarian even through college, when I often subsisted on cheese pizzas and roasted potatoes, because I believe in the moral and health implications of being vegetarian. I love animals as I love people and I don't wish to harm anything to satisfy my own appetite.
It's a hard position to take when much of the world lives in abject poverty and hunger and would be thrilled to get any meat or vegetable on their plate. Vegetarianism is a luxury that I can afford to make because I am not destitute and starving. I believe in eating locally, organically, and seasonally but that is because I can afford those products. Local ingredients are often more expensive than those imported from countries with cheap labor. The question that always troubles me when I think of books like the Omnivore's Dilemma or movies like Food, Inc., is how to account for poverty. It is a question that I don't think either satisfactorily answers.
Thanks to all for the comments.
Kevin – how was the burger?!
Sonia – so true, but i feel more enlightened for knowing…the older (wiser??) I get, the more I just want to know and not keep my eyes shut. I also read In Defense of Food. He's a good writer and journalist. I really respect his stuff…he looks at all sides…even went hunting…
Elissa- That is SO good. I still remember the stir fry you made me with fresh veggies…and was impressed with your compost bin! I do find it a bit true that being green/organic is actually easier in the city than elsewhere.
James – good point. When traveling…i liked to try everything. The fact that it's usually a much shorter trip from field to table helps.
Akila – so true. I saw a very well-done doc in London on the BBC called "Chicken Out" with Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. It covered all things chicken – free range vs. factory farmed, prices, marketing, raising your own, hormone injected, etc. http://www.chickenout.tv/ It spoke a lot to those who, in today's market and economy, simply cannot afford organic. So how can we drive the prices down OR change society's view of how much meat we really need or where else we can get our protein?
Quotes of Melvin
Thanks for the tips. My method is less eating out. You don't know exactly what they put in that food, even if they tell you.
I like your point "Plant your own garden…even a small one".
It is very easy to go to the supermarket and buy your vegetables or meats, most of it will became rubbish as is to much to be consumed fresh.
Having your own garden and/or your own animals you know what they eat and you know what you eat and then you will realize how important is to sacrifice a life for food.
Im 15 years old and i already can see how bad a system we have for getting our food. I think the main problem is that most people just dont want to know where food comes from anymore due to the stories that circulate about how dangerously close we are to destroying ourselves over getting it faster and more cheaply. Its pretty scary where most of our food comes from but its better to spread awareness now than have it eventually leak out. Its not that hard to do the healthy thing. Studys show its actually cheaper to eat right than to eat junk food going by weight and when i say eat right i dont mean all vegies. Its ok to have meat we just need to get it from the right places. I enjoy sites like this and think its a great idea to share what we know about where our food comes from.
yeah thats true,but you need to remember that its natural and if we dident kill animals the world would be too over populated so in the long run were actually helping the world instead of killing it.
Hi abbie. Yes, true if it was just 1 man finding food for himself. What we do in the USA food system is very far from natural anymore. I am all for the cycle of life, but not inhumane treatment. I am not against eating meat or animals. I am more against horrible conditions in which we do this for $$$.
Great post! So many of us our culturally conditioned to NOT think about where our food comes from. These documentries (like Forks over Knives) are opening a lot of people’s eyes to what we’re really eating and the consequences of it all.
Thanks Casie! I totally agree and have been purposely opening my eyes more and want to learn about this thing we each do all the time – put random things in our bodies! I LOVED Forks Over Knives.