“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.