Part 1 – Food
Food (n.): 1. What is taken into the system to maintain life and growth, and to supply the waste of tissue; aliment, nourishment, provision, victuals.
b. What is edible, as opposed to ‘drink.’
c. Sustenance, livelihood.
So sayeth the Oxford English Dictionary. Food – a basic need, a source of controversy, and anguish. In most of the world, food is truly a basic need. Food is scarce, and therefore precious. Many people lack the luxury of agonizing over what they eat; they can’t afford to be that choosy. In contrast, Americans are increasingly aware of and paradoxically disconnected from our food.
On an early camping trip with my daughter’s Girl Scout troop, I asked one of the girls to get the Ziploc bag of stew meat out of the cooler. She couldn’t find it. At that time, the girls were all 8 or 9 years old, none were vegetarians. Caitlin walked over to the cooler, and grabbed the bag. As the bag was emptied into the pot, a chorus arose. “Eeewww, what’s that?” “That’s not meat. Meat’s brown.” “Meat doesn’t look like that.” “Ick, is that blood?” None of the girls knew what raw meat looked like.
A good friend of mine was raised on a ranch. She and her husband farm hay, garden, and raise a handful of beef cattle. She came home from work one evening completely perplexed. “People keep asking me about buying one of our steers. They want to know all this stuff about how it’s raised. They seem to get really excited about the fact that we pasture graze them.”
“Yeah, that’s the latest thing, didn’t you know?”
“Grass fed beef, locally raised food. Small farming, local produce, you name it.”
“Better for the environment, less fuel, less methane, etc.”
“So,” she paused and looked at me strangely. “You mean the way I’ve always eaten is trendy?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“I thought that was just food.”
I think that sums it up nicely. All of the hype about sustainable farming, local produce, etc. is just food. This is how our grandparents ate. If you raised an animal for food, you ate the whole animal, used what you could. Fruits and vegetables were eaten fresh in season and preserved for out of season. Children knew where their food came from; they helped feed it until slaughter time, they helped pick and peel it.
Why are we alarmed and confused by an obesity epidemic when so many children think that food grows in cardboard, cans, or McDonald’s bags? Cereals where sugar and high fructose corn syrup are listed in the top five ingredients get marketed as healthy breakfasts because they are fortified with vitamins and minerals. We didn’t see this one coming?
Children can be excused ignorance. It is the job of adults to help children understand the world around them. There is no excuse for educated adults who have never given a moment’s thought to the source of their dinner. I find it appalling that someone can complain about the environmental cost of ranching while eating a hamburger, or rant about hunters while eating steak. Meat eaters have a responsibility to respect their meal enough to be honest about the source. I am an omnivore. I eat meat. My metabolism and physiology support my belief that humans have evolved as omnivores. And, I prefer to be at the top of the food chain. (See previous post.) That said, I respect the position of ethical vegetarians. If you choose not to eat meat, that is your right. It may be a more moral stand than mine, I don’t know. However, I do know exactly where my dinner comes from. I have stood in a slaughter house. I have been involved in animal agriculture at each level of production. I was raised in a family of hunters and fisherman. I believe that the sin is not in the taking of one life to sustain another, it is in the pretence that lives with greater aesthetic or emotional appeal possess greater value. Why rank a horse above a cow, a pig over a fish? For that matter, most vegetables are also living organisms, but that’s just an aside. Where else in the world do people have the luxury of quibbling over or scorning certain sources of protein? The fact that Americans are able to eat primarily, in many cases only, the skeletal muscle of an animal, the fact that we legislate which animals may be raised and slaughtered for food, the fact that we have the time and energy to fret over the tossing of dead fish in a public market, these are the things that brand Americans as spoiled and out of touch with the rest of the world.
When our society demands cheap, mass-produced housing, and raises those houses on fertile crop-land, why are we surprised to find that agriculture becomes a crisis? My father grew up in Mountain View, CA. He remembers earning money cutting apricots in the summer. Go find an apricot orchard in the “Silicon” Valley. I dare you. When we take the children to Southern California to see family, my Anaheim-raised husband gets lost. His most frequent comments: “That used to be a strawberry field,” or “That was an orange grove.” I was raised in Merced. I’ve lived in California’s Central Valley for most of my life. Farmland dwindles year by year, submerged in a tidal wave of cloned buildings that now sit vacant with “bank owned” signs dotting the landscape. Several years ago, during the most recent building boom, Caitlin asked about all of the new houses being built. She wanted to know, “but what will people eat?”
I would love to challenge every urban and suburban dweller to find out more about his or her food. Talk to a farmer, a rancher, read a Farm Bureau newsletter, visit a farm, a dairy, a cattle ranch. The farmers and ranchers with whom I interact daily sense the disconnect of the society that they have given their lives to feed, and they are understandably bitter. They feel besieged by conflicting and impossible demands. To a large extent, agriculture is at the mercy of uncontrollable forces: weather, fuel costs, soil, plant and animal biology, disease, and legislation at all levels. Society demands food that is cheap, plentiful, convenient, and yet magically raised without cost to the environment or genetic or chemical manipulation. Something has to give. People who rise before dawn, for whom a hard day at work involves dirt, unbearable heat or cold, broken machinery, lifting, bending, sweating and bleeding may be left with a bitter taste in their mouths when they hear well-dressed, well-manicured pundits blathering about the havoc being wrought by agriculture.
That said, there is another side. Agriculture has had a tendency to shoot itself in the foot. Proactively addressing issues of sustainability and animal welfare does not indicate caving in. In many cases, changing the way “things have always been done” may increase productivity. Locking into a position and refusing to police oneself means that policy will eventually be imposed from the outside. Living and practicing medicine in California, I have heard multiple complaints about Proposition 2. However, I want, but have lacked the courage, to ask ranchers and poultry growers why their own industry hadn’t implemented these changes themselves. Or, alternatively, why they hadn’t done a better job of educating the public on the value of the targeted methods of livestock production. In the cases where practical agriculture has worked hand in hand with the theoretical, great strides have been made. It’s time to quit arguing and deal with the crisis.
The real problem that threatens our food supply is the fact that the people who legislate many of the issues affecting agriculture represent voters who have no grasp of these issues. Farms have become something people drive past on freeways. Several weeks ago, NPR aired a wonderful series titled Five Farms. http://cds.aas.duke.edu/fivefarms This series did an impressive job of highlighting the breadth of agriculture in this country and the issues facing those who have chosen this vocation.
Food. Why don’t we just eat food? What would happen if we quit asking for cheap, homogenized, microwavable, individually packaged, nutritionist approved, exotically flavored, calorie restricted, environmentally and politically correct, sterilized supplementation, and just ate food? If you eat meat, great; do you understand the costs? Are you willing to use the entire animal? Do you really need the out-of –season peaches from God knows what continent that will taste like Styrofoam anyway? If you want to have a French fry, or a milk shake, enjoy it, savor it. Rather than wrapping ourselves up in guilt, excess, starvation, and binging, why don’t we just accept food as something we need, and something that brings us pleasure? Why do we talk about being “bad” or “good” with what we eat? Be grateful if you have enough. Bon Appetit.
That reminds me. It’s time for lunch.