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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The Joys of Estrogen

November 24, 2007 at 2:41 am (books, feminism, gender issues)

I recently wrote about a transgendered individual who appeared on “Miami Ink” touting the intellectual benefits of testosterone. While I’m still not buying into that horse-shit, I did think it’d be an interesting topic to follow up on. I recently picked up the book “She’s Not There” by Jennifer Finney Boylan. It is the story of her transition from the male to female physical gender. I say “physical” because she was born psychologically and spiritually a female. The book is very interesting and well written. I was reading a section this evening wherein she begins to discuss how she changed upon taking estrogen. It was quite fascinating. We all know that estrogen dictates that women store fat in their hips and thighs. We know it is responsible breast growth, hair texture and skin softness. However, what I found most interesting are the things that women and men experience so differently, small and large differences that we find curious or bothersome about each other. Here are some of the examples I found most interesting, and I will quote because they are so well written to begin with!

  • “The strength in my upper body was another early casualty of hormones…I found it hard to open jars or even lift up my children.”
  • “I shook my arm again, and there it was-the loose flab of the middle-aged female triceps.”
  • “Estrogen and antiandrogens profoundly affected my libido. I certainly thought about sex a lot less often and with a different sensibility. As a man, my sex drive frequently resembled a monologue by a comic book hero succumbing to an evil spell. ‘Must-have! Must! Trying-to-resist! Getting harder to- Must have! Can’t resist!'”
  • “When people asked me, later, what the effects of the pills were, I cleverly said, ‘Well, the one pill makes you want to talk about relationships and eat salad. The other pill makes you dislike the Three Stooges” (in reference to taking both estrogen and antiandrogens)
  • “I noticed that I was more sensitive to stimuli now. I was much more aware of changes in heat and cold, and I was much more likely to complain that a car I was riding in was too hot or too cold, and I was frequently taking off sweaters and putting them back on again.”
  • “I used to cry at things like Pepsi commercials and It’s a Wonderful Life. Now I was less likely to cry at these things and more likely to tear up when a dinner I had cooked didn’t turn out right, or when someone said something cruel…And when I cried, it wasn’t just the stoic silent leaking I was accustomed to. These were big, sobbing tears, and my body shook as they poured out. It felt great.”
  • “Above all, I was aware of a change in the way I occupied my body.  I felt raw and vulnerable, exposed to the world…The thing that I felt testosterone had given me more than anything was a sense of protection, of invulnerability.  I had never imagined myself to be particularly invulnerable when testosterone had free rein in my system, but this new world I was approaching seemed to have no buffers.  Things that used to just bounce off me now got under my skin.”

Wow, those observations really hit home with me and jive with several conversations I have had with my fiance and several other men.  What I think is most interesting is that this is a person who has always identified psychologically as female, yet, didn’t experience things like vulnerability or emotional sensitivity about cruelty, or have the more reclusive “female” libido.  These traits that we associate as being “feminine” are very much the result of physical hormones coursing through our bodies.

I hope everyone else finds this topic as fascinating as I do, because I’m sure its not the last time I’ll discuss it!

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I’m Thankful For…MS Word??

November 23, 2007 at 3:34 pm (grad school, random thoughts)

Yes, something that I have realized that I need to be most thankful for is the lowly word processor.  I was talking with my dad last night about writing my dissertation and I started to think to myself, what would that process have been like 20-30 years ago?  I’ll tell you with certainty that it would have been painful!  I pride myself on being ahead of the MySpace generation, ahead of the text-messaging 24/7 generation, ahead of the I-can’t-spell-or-use-punctuation-for-shit generation.  But I do have to admit, ever since I’ve been writing papers of any substance, they have always been on the computer.  This of course dates back to before the internet, but long before the internet we had the lowly word processor.  Sure there were only 2 fonts to choose from and spell-check was a novelty not to be trusted over the dictionary, but I always had the backspace key and the save button.  My dad was telling me how back in the day when he wrote term papers, they would have to attach footnotes to the bottom of each type-written page, and some teachers wouldn’t accept pages with white-out on them.  Maybe that was really the beginning of deforestation, I mean can you imagine the amount of paper wasted?

In addition to lacking the word processor, people writing scientific papers and dissertations years ago actually had to (gasp) plot their own graphs…by hand! Oh the horror!  It is so automatic for me just to take 2 minutes to use Excel or Prism to graph my data that I cannot even fathom having to do this process by hand.  And last but certainly not least, I have to give props to EndNote.  If you are a fellow scientist, I need not expound on the wonders of EndNote.  For those non-dorks out there, basically, it automatically finds and formats references from the internet, then adds them to you paper according to a specific journal’s required format.  It also constantly adjusts the order of the references to allow for the writer to add and delete sections of their papers.  Its amazing and I am COMPLETELY dependent on EndNote now.

So as I start to think seriously about writing my dissertation, I am pausing to appreciate the fact that I have access to the wonders of MS Word, MS Excel and man’s greatest invention (OK, I may be exaggerating, but only slightly), EndNote.

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Testosterone=Logic? Not in my world.

November 8, 2007 at 1:12 am (feminism, television)

I was watching one of my guilty pleasures, Miami Ink earlier today.  To defend my TV viewing choice, I watch it mainly because I love tattoos and hearing the stories behind peoples’ tattoos.  They had an interesting client for this week’s episode.  It was a man who got a tattoo of a type of fish which can change gender under certain circumstances.  It was fitting for this man because he was actually born a genetic female but underwent gender-reassignment surgery to become male.  This in and of itself is not very remarkable, and I am always very pleased to hear when individuals like this man are able to become their true gender.  Because really, who’s business is it if someone want to change genders?

The point that did get me thinking (and a little peeved) the rest of the day was what he said about the effects he observed in himself upon taking high doses of testosterone.  Basically, he said he was finally able to “think”.  He could be “logical”, he finally understood directions.  Everything just became clear to him.  Umm, excuse me?  Wow, way to give license to the testosterone-dripping tattoo artists to slam women.  I absolutely have to call bull-shit on this guy.  Certainly something changed within him psychologically as well as physically, but to say that only with massive doses of male hormone is he able to think logically?  Please.

I take major issue with anyone who implies that women can’t think logically.  As a scientist, I definitely use that side of my brain more, and I think I am easily on par with my male peers as far as logic goes.  I actually get very annoyed when people (men and women both) use emotional or poorly thought out arguments when discussing things with me.  And as far as the directions thing goes?  This one is such a trite stereotype its barely worth addressing.  Needless to say, I know plenty examples of each gender that are either above or below average with the directions.  I myself have a good sense of direction, which, when driving, partially makes up for my comically bad depth perception.

And what he didn’t mention (not that he had a lot of time on the show) were the qualities he lost out on.  As long as we’re spouting out cliches and stereotypes lets talk about what women are good at.  Did he, for instance, lose his ability to multi-task?  What about his time management skills…his sense of empathy…communication skills…nourishing behaviors…

Actually, in all seriousness, I think that studying trans-gendered individuals would be very valuable for delineating the affects of testosterone and estrogen on personalities and behavioral traits.  Who better to study than those who have experienced both?  I’m not calling this guy a liar (completely), but when you hold knowledge like this, try to do something better with it than to put down women and further stereotypes.  It will serve both genders better.

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Bush Going for Broke?

November 3, 2007 at 6:38 pm (George W. Bush, opinions, politics)

President Bush strikes me as being the type of person keen on leaving a legacy behind. He is clearly arrogant, stubborn and affluent (affluent in the kind of way that you knew he grew up with everything handed to him and can’t begin to identify with the working class), all qualities that I think would lead to a self-aggrandizing individual. So what legacy is Bush going to leave behind, what are his options at this point? I can say assuredly and in an un-biased way that he will go down in American history as one of our least intelligent and nationally damaging presidents. So pretty much anything positive is out the window. Will he be known for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Of course. Will he be remembered for fostering a weakened economy and one of the biggest deficits in history? Yes. Will he be regarded as having incredibly poor judgement in regards to appointees (Meyers, Gonzales, M. Brown, many more) and for being guided by some of the most diabolical war mongers of our time? Certainly. But those things are out of his control at this point. The question is, what is Bush actively doing to cement his place in history?

In my opinion, he is going for broke as the least popular president in United States history. Follow along with me here, I think I have good evidence for this. Until the end of his 7th year in office, he had only used vetoes twice (against evil stem cell research). Now, he seems to be flying fast and loose with the veto power. First, it was the SCHIP expansion bill. This bill had popular bipartisan support (although not enough to override the veto) and would have continued to provide under-privileged children with health insurance. Bush cited the reason for vetoing this bill as that he thought the expansion was too inclusive and that middle class people that could afford private health insurance would line up for government hand outs. Right, because we all know that if you can afford private health insurance, you’d much prefer to have your child on government sponsored insurance with all the beurocratic fun that goes with it. Bush has also promised to veto any future SCHIP bill that includes expanded funding or coverage, even though the current funding won’t even cover those children already enrolled in SCHIP.

Second, he just recently used another veto to override a bill that would help rebuild Hurricane Katrina ravaged areas of the Gulf Coast as well as restoring wetlands and preventing future flooding. Another smooth move, because if there’s anything the citizens of this country hate more than sick kids, its hurricane survivors.

And here, for everyone to read, I am making a prediction that I really hope is proven wrong. I am predicting the next veto item (that is if SCHIP doesn’t come up again first). As many of you may know, Congress “unintentionally” revoked funding that supplements the cost of birth control for low income clinics and colleges while passing the Deficit Reduction Act last January. The consequence of this is that poor students like myself will now have to pay more than double the previous amount for birth control pills (about $50/month). Because providing health care and welfare for pregnant women and unplanned children will be much more cost effective. Anyway, the Democrats in Congress are attempting to rectify the situation by passing the Prevention through Affordable Access Act. Because I have the utmost faith in President Bush to screw over any member of the poor or working class, I fully predict that he will veto this, citing money (even though it won’t cost tax-payers anything) and his Christian values, always a good fall-back excuse.

The Daily Kos published a map of the United States with states ranked by Bush’s approval rating. Finally, Utah and Idaho have hit 50% or lower. Quite a feat for a good Christian conservative like Bush. His current approval rating is running from 29-36%, depending on what poll you believe. So come on, W. You can do better than that. Instead of just taking away their health insurance, you could actually just start punching kids in the face. Direct, to the point and it’ll get the job done for sure.

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A Catch 22 (and other books you were forced to read)

October 29, 2007 at 2:59 am (random thoughts)

George Bernard Shaw said “Youth is wasted on the Young”.  I think this is probably true, and I’m sure I’ll agree with that statement even more when I’m not so young.  What I also think is true is that most of the enjoyment and appreciation of a free education are also wasted on the young.  I was reading something today wherein there was a reference to “Kurtz”.  I was proud of myself for knowing, quite out of context, that the writer was referring to “Heart of Darkness”, and exactly what that reference to Kurtz was supposed to mean.  The ironic thing is that when I read “Heart of Darkness” as a senior in high school, I absolutely hated it.  I could barely get through it and could hardly scratch the surface of the deeper meanings behind this profound story.  I understand why this is part of high school curriculum.  However, what is disturbing is that an above average student in an honors English class could read this and have absolutely no appreciation for it.  Please tell me I wasn’t the only one!

I have always been “a reader”.  I love books and always have at least 2 going at a given time.  Yet, throughout highschool, I slogged my way through classics like “The Great Gatsby”, “Pride and Prejudice, “The Old Man and the Sea” and hoards of others, thoroughly disliking them simply because they were assigned reading and therefore, not to be enjoyed.  I understand that these books need to be covered in school, but it is truly a shame that kids learn to feel that reading these fantastic books is a chore.

At this point in my life, I would love to go back and take courses in English and Literature, because I think I would get so much more out of them.  And not just English, but also History, Foreign Languages, Civics, Geography (notice I’m NOT saying Physics or Calculus).  Now that I’m a bit more mature, I voluntarily check books out from the library to self-educate myself on various topics on everything from Politics to Chinese History, wishing that I could take a (free) course in that subject.  Just imagine how much more you’d get out of high school if you went back now!  Obviously omitting the acne, cliques and general awkwardness that goes along with being a teenager.

But as with youth being wasted on the young, one could only learn to appreciate education when one has already been educated. The classic Catch-22.

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DVR Slave

October 26, 2007 at 3:04 am (opinions, random thoughts)

Since I’ve gotten back from my trip, I have been wading my way through days and days worth of recorded television.  Daily and weekly shows which I normally look forward to, now menacingly stacked 10 days deep and feeling like more of a chore to get through than relaxing entertainment.  I think that the general purpose of DVRs is to give one freedom from TV, but now I feel a weird pressure to watch all of this TV that I have recorded.  My fiance is so funny because when several shows record in a night he gets all anxious about watching them, like there’s some sort of time limit.  I kind of get the same thing from my Google Reader page (where I subscribe to all of the blogs I regularly check and all new posts pop up and wait for me to check them).  While on my trip, I would sporadically check Google Reader and get all harried because I had hundreds of unread new posts.  And I couldn’t just delete them, I felt like I had to read through all of them as if they were a school assignment.

So many of our recent technological advances make us feel obligated to either be available to everyone we’ve ever known at a moment’s notice (blackberries, email, social networking sites) or to not miss a single minute’s worth of back-logged entertainment.  Oh I know, its completely my fault because I willingly use (and love) my DVR and Google Reader.  There are certainly worse things in the world than planting myself on the couch and wading through old TV.  I just take my books to the gym with me so they don’t feel neglected and so my butt doesn’t grow roots into the couch.

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Back on Home Turf

October 22, 2007 at 1:40 pm (travel)

I’m finally back state-side and it feels good.  I’m not quite home yet, still two more lengthy flights to go to get from NYC to Tucson.  I thought it’d be wise to stop in NYC for the night in case anything happened to delay my international flights.  Thankfully, nothing did.  There’s nothing like leaving the country for a little while to make one appreciate the familiarity of home.  I have only traveled internationally to Western Europe where things quite resemble what we are used to.  I would like to go some place completely unfamiliar like Asia or  South America during my life to truly experience something different.  With the world becoming ever-homogenized, it’ll become harder and harder to go some where completely unfamiliar.

During my week-long trip though, I did take note of the subtle facial and body characteristics that are identifiable with a region.  Sure most of Western Europe is primarily Caucasian, but you can really see differences by region.  For instance, the nice French ticketing agent who helped sort out our flight change in Paris had the tiny, delicate French features and almost translucent porcelain skin that seems to be the epitome of how French women are portrayed.  Greek women on the other hand have wonderfully strong and striking features.  Prominent noses, dark eyes and olive skin (and I mean those things in the best possible way) which make them distinctly beautiful.  Even among the tourists, a trained eye can tell the Brits from the Germans from the Americans nearly at first glance.

I’m sure I’ll come up with more interesting things to write later, but after a day of traveling, jet-lag, dealing with a cold, and the prospect of yet more air travel, I’m kind of on brain-drain right now.  One thing I can think of to say is that traveling is truly one of the most important and greatest forms of education.  Whether its international or just tooling around our own country, its vital to see life from different regions and different perspectives.

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Hello from Greece

October 17, 2007 at 7:57 am (travel)

I’m sure everyone has been wondering where I am and missing my random insights and rants (well, I’ve missed writing them anyway).  I have been out of internet range for a few days in Santorini, Greece.  I’m here on my advisor’s dime attending a conference and presenting my research.  My hotel is from the dark ages and doesn’t have wi-fi, but I was finally able to get online at the conference site.  I feel connected to the world again!  I’ll have lots to write when I have more time, but I really should be paying attention to the lecture I’m sitting in right now, I did fly half-way around the world to see it after all.  I have written some posts on my other blog if you want to read about my trip.  Its definitely had its ups and downs, and G was nice enough to post for me when I was without internet.  OK, back to science now.

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October 6, 2007 at 9:20 pm (Current Events, politics, presidental race)

I hate the word Electability. It is being used so much during this current presidential race and I really just despise everything about the idea of it. Electability is obviously not a real word but I think we can all gather what it means. The media and candidates alike have latched on to the idea of electability to tell us, as citizens and as voters, who we should vote for, because they are the most likely person to be voted for. Follow my logic? Neither did I, because its ridiculous. This is being thrown around a lot, especially in the current race, because there are somewhat “non-traditional” contenders in the race, i.e. non-white and non-male.

The reason that I think the idea of electability is so insidious is that it heavily influences voters. For instance, Rudy Giuliani has let it be known, by polling for his electability, that if (and its assumed that she will be, I guess because she’s so darned electable) Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, he would be the GOP candidate most likely to win. I’m sorry, aren’t actual elections supposed to decide things like that? So then American voters, like the sheep many of them are, are expected to vote for the candidate that they are expected to elect. This circular logic has the potential of completely skewing elections, which is of course the entire point of it.

No individuals I know would avoid voting for a candidate due to their race or gender, however, many individuals I know (myself included) have said that they don’t think the “American people” would elect a black candidate, or a woman, or any other non-white male.  So where’s the gap? Where’s the disconnect? I believe that the fault lies with the pundits and talking heads and poll after poll telling us who the “American people” will elect.  We ARE the American people, and we can elect whoever we damn well please, whether its a woman, an African American, a Hispanic, a Caucasian, a Muslim, a homosexual, an atheist.  A couple months ago, NYTexan on BlueBloggin wrote about the presidential primaries, and why it is our chance to really be heard and make our opinions be heard loud and clear through the electoral process.  It is drilled into our heads to only vote for people that could be “real contenders”, causing everyone to vote for the same old generic, main-stream candidate time after time.  We need to get that rhetoric out of our heads.  It is only true if we buy into it.

Don’t let them use the herd mentality to influence our votes.  Look where it has gotten us so far.

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