1.14.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: Food and the City, Chapter 3

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Food and the City, Chapter 3: Industrial Eaters

Summary:

Industrial food has been adopted in many parts of the world.  Industrial eaters tend to consume large portions of meat, processed carbohydrates, and dairy products - all high in fat, salt, and sugar and typically low in fiber and other necessary nutrients such as vitamins.  This is commonly called the "Western diet" or "Standard American Diet," and it is rapidly spreading across the globe.

Supermarkets became larger and more widespread in the 1990s as international trade increased and food cheapened.  Unable to compete in the expanding global market, small and midsize farms continued to be squeezed out.  Industrial food, cheaper than ever, began traveling ever-increasing distances.  By 2001, the average grocery store item had been shipped 1500 miles from its origins to its consumer - powered, of course, by fossil fuels.

During this time span, farms also moved further away from growing a variety of foods and further toward monocropping - the practice of growing one crop on many or all acres of farmland.  Because entire regions were monocropping the same produce, most foods began being shipped elsewhere for various "value added" processing and then redistribution.  For example, Iowa doesn't process or eat most of the corn it grows, and gets most of the food it does eat from elsewhere.  Government operated terminal food wholesale markets have given way in the past decade to privately owned (and totally opaque) operations, making it difficult or impossible to track food miles anymore.

The manure lagoon of a CAFO - read more here
The livestock which become part of our industrial food system are also consumers of it.  Most food animals are now raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs or factory farms), and are fed the same few crops that make up most of our processed foods: corn, wheat, and soy.  The CAFO system leads to intense concentration of animals on a small area of land, along of course with their waste.

CAFOs allow the creation of cheap meat, which is in demand as more of the world converts to industrial eating.  Raising livestock results in diverting plant calories to livestock feed, which is extremely inefficient: an average of 10 pounds of feed is needed for each pound of meat produced.  That pound of meat also requires about 2000 gallons of water when all stages of the process are accounted for.  Further, we've outsourced our CAFOs to take advantage of cheaper land outside the US, and rainforests in South America are being clear-cut at a rate of 90 acres per minute in some areas - all to make room for cattle and the grains that feed them.

Rising fossil fuel costs caused a spike in food prices in the late 2000s.  This had the odd effect of encouraging the use of food crops as fuel - which just raised the price of food even further.  Even so, we in the US pay relatively little of our household budgets on food.  What we pay at the register, though, does not reflect industrial food's "true cost," which includes environmental and health impacts.  Per Raj Patel, the true cost of a fast food hamburger, for instance, is about $200.  We've moved most of these costs to the developing world, the residents which do not have the power or agency to push back against their governments and our corporations.  The healthcare costs that result from eating industrial food, though, can be seen right here at home.  To add insult to injury, our own government supports subsidy plans that encourage cultivating the very crops that are killing us.

Discussion:

This chapter covers many of the issues that initially encouraged me to go vegan back in 2006.  Each step in the industrial food process where animals are concerned is morally and logically repulsive to me, and once I knew how things were being done I knew that I neither wanted give my money to that system nor put its products into my mouth.  Unfortunately, being vegan doesn't remove me from eating industrial food.  Sure, when I manage to get to a farmer's market or to Hollygrove I am sidestepping it.  But when I buy a box of organic pasta from the Broad Street Whole Foods, I am buying in to monocropping, long food miles, and all the rest.  I am trying to do better.

This chapter also hits on the interesting notion that when we feed grain to food animals, that food being taken out of the human food system.  Livestock do consume enormous amounts grain.  Per the EPA, "about eighty percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is consumed by domestic and overseas livestock, poultry, and fish production."  So it's true, but not directly: most of the crops we grow to feed to livestock can't be fed to humans.  If we want to grown human food where livestock feed is now being grown, there's at least one extra step.  Different crops would need to be grown!

On the issue of feeding grain and specifically corn to livestock, it's not actually an appropriate food for them.  Cows, for instance, are made quite ill when they are fed corn.  And yet this is common practice at CAFOs.  It's done because corn is subsidized and monocropped and therefore cheap, and because it makes them fat quickly.  (It stands to reason and there's some evidence that it makes us fat quickly as well!)

The film King Corn does a great job of discussing how prevalent corn is in our industrial food system, both in the processed foods we buy at the grocery and as animal feed.  You can watch it right here for free, as long as you don't mind Spanish subtitles!

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