As the semester comes to a close, it’s only appropriate (and expected) that I deliver the long-awaited (?) food post. In order to write this post, I pull from my knowledge of having read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser back in 2011, my high school environmental science class coupled with the viewing of King Corn, my global sustainability class (ARCH 2150), and my most recent view of Food Inc. I took notes while watching Food Inc so my post will cover points in the order the movie presents them. Without further ado, let’s begin!
How our food is today
As Food Inc nicely highlights with visuals of chicken labels, detailing classic red farm houses surrounded by open fields, huge food conglomerates shield consumers as to where their food truly comes from. This disconnect has resulted in a surge of grassroots movements that aim to educate consumers as to the current state of the food industry. From agriculture to meat production, what really goes on that we don’t know about?
The meat industry
Food Inc highlights the food industry primarily by focusing on chickens. With growing population demands coupled with the demand for good food fast, the animals we raise for slaughter now take a fraction of the time to grow before they’re ready to go to the slaughterhouse. For instance, chickens used to take 70 days to grow from chick to chicken in 1958 but it now takes 48 days as we feed them with corn. These chickens, as well as pigs and cattle, are also larger in size to meet demands. However, is this really healthy for the animals and us? I would argue not. Chickens are stuffed with corn to the point where they can move only but a few paces. Cattle are kept in pens at such close proximity that they stand in their own manure. Even though the meat is cleaned in factories with chemicals, can you really be certain that there aren’t traces of feces in your meat?
Historically, e. coli has been an issue as a result from runoff from factory farms. Despite these instances, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t make many inspections. In 1972, the FDA made about 50,000 food safety inspections whereas in 2006, they made only 9,164. Feeling safe about your food yet? I’m not, especially with the knowledge that there are 13 primary slaughterhouses in the US where meat from all over the country is sent to be processed. Just think: if there’s an e. coli break out at one, the risk of you consuming contaminated meat goes way up.
Speaking of the health of our livestock, have you noticed how Chipotle brags that their meat has not been subjected to antibiotics or growth hormones? Bacteria in animals that have been given antibiotics gradually build up a resistance. Once again, I draw your attention to the 13 primary slaughterhouses. Not only are they slaughterhouses, they’re more like distribution centers for sickness as one sick animal can lead to human health problems.
One of my track coaches back home had a vendetta against high fructose corn syrup. He’s made me (and the team and even my mum) more aware that, dang, high fructose corn syrup is way more products than we would expect. Cereal? Check. Ketchup? Check. Bread? You bet. The US grows so much corn that 30% of the entire US (not just land set aside for agriculture) is dedicated to growing this crop. The corn crop has been modified so much selective breeding and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) that it is very much so removed from its original ancestor. And you know what? Most of the corn grown isn’t even edible.
The type of inedible corn, Dent, is grown for processing purposes (to be made into high fructose corn syrup, ethanol, etc.) and is given to livestock. Think about it like this: We grow tons of corn and very little of it goes straight to our plates as corn on the cob or canned corn. With the corn subsidy, this allows meat prices to be lowered as well. Cheap meat, cheap product. Although I don’t eat hamburgers, I hear that people who eat grass-fed meat compared to corn-fed meat can tell a difference. Plus, going back to the e. coli awareness presented above, cattle that are on a grass-fed diet shed 80% of e. coli present in their gut over a short period of 5 days. Besides, the livestock we raise isn’t actually supposed to eat corn; they’re supposed to eat grass and seeds.
Another crop that the US heavily subsidizes is soybean. Many farmers grow the Monsato-patented Roundup Ready soybeam which is genetically designed to be resistant to herbicides. Proponents against use of herbicides fear that use of herbicides could result in herbicide-resistant plants and damage biodiversity, not to mention runoff potentials from spraying large amounts of land with herbicides. Another ecological-related fear includes the farming practice of monocultures, where only one crop is selected to grow in an area. This threatens a harvest because diseases can easily spread when there is little genetic variability, and thus resistance, among crops. As a result, seed banks exist to house different variations of a crop in the event that disease would wipe out an entire species. Not to mention that monocultures may drain the surrounding soil of its nutrients and may render a field useless for years before it is ready for planting. Is all this preparation necessary when one can simply grow a variety of foods?
The people with power and those without power
If you took the time to do your research, you’d find that most of the meat you buy comes from only but a handful (we’re talking maybe around 5 or so) huge companies that control our meat industry, for instance, Tyson. These companies are responsible as to why much of the inner-workings of the industry are not disclosed to the public. When the people of Food Inc asked to film inside a chicken house owned by Tyson, they were not given permission. People do file complaints, though. For instance, Barbara Kowalcyk has drafted a law known as Kevin’s Law in response to the passing of her 2-1/2-year-old son when he consumed meat contaminated with e. coli. Kevin’s Law would give more power (well, reinstate actually) USDA’s authority to close down factories that produce contaminated meat. However, during her final interview, she was unable to disclose full details due to “veggie libel laws.” Similar laws exist like “cheeseburger bills” which make it difficult to sue fast food companies on the basis of health. Not mad enough at this news? The agriculture company, Monsato, sells GMO corn seeds to many farmers. If seeds from a GMO corn plant end up in another farmer’s field that hasn’t purchased the GMO corn, the farmer can expect Monsato to sue them. Even though it sounds unfair, these farmers may not be able to afford the legal power to represent them thoroughly in court so they pay the fine to Monsato and agree to keep quiet.
On the related note of employee treatment, Food Inc had a segment where it went to the largest slaughterhouse in the world, located in Tarheel, North Carolina. This Smithfield slaughterhouse attracts employees from a 100 mile radius. Aside from the employees receiving infections from handling the meat, many of the workers are unable to afford proper health care. Due to the corn subsidy making American corn cheap, especially compared to, say, corn grown in Mexico, 0.5 million Mexican farmers lost their jobs and have sought work in the United States, even as illegal immigrants. Guess where some of them have ended up? Yup, the Smithfield slaughterhouse in Tarheel, North Carolina. In fact, Smithfield has an agreement with the government to let 15 workers be deported in exchange to keep the high number of (illegal) employees in the factory.
What about the government? What is our government doing about these people without a voice? Food Inc went through a list of government figures in the Bush administration that work in the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Many of the people charged with the responsibility of making the food we consume healthy are former employees of food conglomerates. Let’s think: Whose interest will they prioritize, the interests of the food consumers (greater masses) or the great, huge, money-hoarding conglomerate food companies?
Part of the reason why there has been a surge in the number of farmers markets around the country is the notion that you’re buying locally from farmers that sell produce that has not been touched by the conglomerates. By reconnecting consumer to land, the vendors at farmers markets can tell you how the food was made and even how far it’s traveled. You may have heard this idea, but you, as a food consumer, vote three times a day when you eat. By supporting local, organic, and non-GMO foods, you’re indicating to the larger businesses that this is how you like your food.
A New Hope (Get the Star Wars reference? Yeah, I went there.)
Food Inc showcases local food businesses that reject the conglomerate food system and instead grow organic foods and raise grass-fed livestock. One example is Joe Salatin, the owner of Polyface Farms. During his interview, Salatin said that he rejects the growth of his business because then he may become the very thing he abhors (the conglomerates). While people drive from hundreds of miles away to purchase his goods, Salatin notes the absurdity of such an act. The carbon footprint left by these consumers defeats the notion of buying local.
A parallel drawn to consumer’s choice is the tobacco industry where enough awareness of how smoking may result in health problems later on in life. I personally think that it will take an even larger effort to raise enough awareness about the state of our food industry and to advocate change because everyone eats, and at least three times a day at that.
I realize that this doesn’t cover all the evils of our food industry but hopefully this post provides an appropriate overview of what is not known by your every day grocery shopper at Kroger or Giant. I hope that you can take something new from this post and feel motivated to use your purchasing power as a consumer to begin making green choices!