Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

December 8, 2007 at 2:44 pm (books, environment, food)

I finally finished Michael Pollan’s “Ominvore’s Dilemma”, it was brilliant and inspirational.  I said in my last post that I was convincing myself not to eat meat.  Well, that’s true to an extent.  I have been sufficiently convinced not to eat grain-fed meat from feed lot operations, including anything from fish to chicken to beef.  Not only does it go against nature and evolution, which must be respected, but it is just not sustainable.  We humans have evolved to eat food that has been nourished by the sun and the soil, and we are currently being fed by food nourished by petrochemicals and and artificially fixed nitrogen.  Why have we allowed this to happen?  The all mighty bottom line of course.  While we are willing to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on luxury SUVs, video game systems, gargantuan televisions (take your pick), we scoff at spending an extra $1/pound to buy quality meat to nourish our family.  And no, I’m not buying into the Whole Foods philosophy of only eating “organic”.  I am buying into sustainability.  Because while it is surely better to buy “organic” food free of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, the farms that produce organic products are nearly as unsustainable as traditional industrial farms.  When I refer to sustainability, I mean how much damage it does to the land, the surrounding water resources and the consumers who ingest the food.

One of the most interesting facts highlighted in Pollan’s book is how industrially produced food is actually much worse for humans than meat and produce grown in more natural circumstances.  For instance, we all hear that we should eat fish for the health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids.  Those Omega-3 acids come from fish raised on krill and kelp (their natural diet), not corn.  Gee, isn’t it surprising that corn weren’t naturally evolved to eat corn?  Farm raised salmon raised on corn actually contain less Omega-3 and more Omega-6 (an unhealthy alternative).  Same goes for beef.  Grass fed beef contains Omega-3 and Omega-6 in a 1:1 ratio – not so bad, right?  Well, grain fed beef has Omega-6 fatty acids over Omega-3 in a ratio of 10:1.  Amazing.  Humans clearly evolved to eat meat higher in Omega-3’s, which is why we have such rampant health problems associated with the consumption of feed-lot beef.

OK, so clearly I could go on and on, but overall I would just recommend that if you are concerned about where your food comes from, read Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma”.

I guess it doesn’t matter how inspired I am by a book if I don’t practice what I preach, right?  So I have decided to change my consuming behaviors, especially where meat is concerned.  Anyone can go online and find local grass-fed beef suppliers in their area.  It may cost more and be much less convenient, but I feel its worth it.  We need to get back into the mind-set that meat is a “special occasion” food and not our god-given right for daily consumption.  I’ve been a vegetarian before, and I’m not going to go all the way back to that extreme.  After all, there is nothing more natural than humans eating meat.  However, there’s nothing less natural than how we go about mass producing our meat.

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The true cost of food

December 2, 2007 at 3:48 pm (books, environment, food)

Lately it seems that I have been trying to talk myself out of eating meat. Well, maybe not so much “talking” as “reading”. If you have any questions or doubts regarding the food production industry, and more specifically, the meat packing industry, I would highly recommend the following “suite” of books for you perusal. The books are “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclaire, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver, “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser, and “The Ominvore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. They are all vastly different books and I have different reasons for recommending each one. And just as a side note, I actually was a strict ovo-lacto vegetarian for 5 years during highschool/early undergrad. I did it mainly for health reasons, but never really was committed for ethical reasons. That may change in the near future!

“The Jungle” I read back in high school (not as an assignment, but because I picked it out). Luckily, I actually was a vegetarian at the time I read this, otherwise I would have definitely lost my lunch at several points in this book. Unlike the other books, this one is a novel, although much of it is historically accurate. It tells the story of eastern European immigrants who move to Chicago in the very early 20th century and find work in the meat-packing industry. The book is filled with the horrors of not only how dangerous and vile the meat packing plants were, but also of the terrible lack of human rights prevalent in that industry. Unfortunately, as I read more books, I realized that this has changed very little. Even with my limited high school brain, I picked up on the heavy socialist leanings of Sinclaire. His writing is full of thinly veiled socialist preaching, but the rest of the book stands strongly enough on its own to overlook that if it bothers you.

I read the other three books more recently. Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” is a book about the virtues of eating organically and locally. Especially in today’s culture of trying to live more “green”, it is crucial to be aware of how far our food must travel to reach our plates, because that all costs A LOT of gasoline. Kingsolver doesn’t really demonize any one industry, and certainly not the meat-packing industry. However, by reading her book, I really realized the importance of being fully conscience of the real “cost” of my food, and this applies to everything from beef to beets.

Perhaps the most disturbing of the books I’m recommending is Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation”, which most people have probably heard of. Although the title suggests that he targets the fast food industry, which he does in about half the book, he also reveals all the nasty little secrets of the meat packing industry. He gives a horrifying play-by-play of exactly how cows go from animals to pre-packaged beef portions. Perhaps what I found most enlightening was just how integrated politics is in this industry. The beef and fast food lobbies are very powerful and pretty much at every opportunity, they implement measure to maximize the production of cheap (and often dangerously contaminated meat) and to minimize the benefits of the under-privileged workers who keep this industry running. Meat packing plants primarily employ Hispanic immigrants (many illegal) and go to great lengths to avoid paying them health insurance or disability payments for their inevitable injuries. These exploited workers are not valued and therefore, no one tries to keep them safe from injury. As it turns out, the level of safety measures and precautions required by OSHA fluctuates depending on how Republican our government is. The beef and fast food lobbyists, as proponents of big industry, are by and large on the payrolls of powerful Republicans who care more about getting insanely cheap products to the masses than they do about maintaining any semblance of a safe work environment for its disposable work force.

The latest book that I’m reading (and have not yet completed) is “Ominvore’s Dilemma”. This is a unique book in that it explores our national addiction of cheap corn. What’s that? you may say…I don’t eat all that much corn! But yes, you do. Almost all of the meat we consume, from beef to chickens to salmon are fed diets of cheap, industrial grade corn. Some animals like chicken and pigs will readily and naturally eat grains like corn. Other animals, like cows and salmon, have to be bred and physically altered to tolerate this completely unnatural diet. Think about it. Cows (and other ruminants) are exquisitely evolved to turn grass, an otherwise indigestible energy source, into a rather tasty form of protein. But today, due to our insatiable appetite for cheap and fatty meat, cows are born and grass prairies, but then shipped to feedlots for the last few months of their short lives to gain hundreds of pounds on a daily regimen of corn, beef tallow (pure fat), hormones, antibiotics and a number of other unsavory items including “feather meal” and discarded feces/bedding from chicken coups. And salmon, natural carnivores in the wild, are now raised in fish farms being fed corn of all things, something they would not only never eat in the wild, but would never even encounter.

It seems to all go back to the American expectation of year-round availability of cheap food. We want to eat our asparagus and watermelons in December alongside our cheap piece of heavily marbled steak. For the most part, as long as our grocery bills aren’t affected, we don’t care how far our food has traveled, what atrocities the animals suffered, or how many workers were exploited. I am not advocating that everyone stop eating meat, I haven’t even quite done that yet. What I am hoping is that people will eat more consciously and be aware of the true cost of filling our plates.

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