Old McDonald Had a Farm

January 29, 2008 | | Comments Off on Old McDonald Had a Farm

The New York Times has featured a few excellent articles in recent weeks that, together, highlight not only the deleterious environmental and economic impacts of the way we eat, but the manner in which our eating habits are inextricably bound up with our health, both bodily and spiritual.

In-N-Out Burger

The first, “Rethinking the Meat Guzzler” by Mark Bittman, is a concise restatement of the first half of Michael Pollan’s recent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and it also draws some from Pollan’s latest work, In Defense of Food. Bittman’s essential theme: The American (and, increasingly, the global) appetite for meat is so closely connected to the decline in our health and ecological robustness that we can no longer afford to keep eating at this pace and in this way. Industrial agriculture, which increasingly provides the majority of meat and produce that we eat, means dependence on foreign oil (both for transportation of goods and for the mass production of fertilizer used to grow unsustainable crops of corn and soy.

The increased use of fertilizer to continue growing these massive erosion-causing crops in turn pollutes ground water and ends up in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. “Agriculture in the United States — much of which now serves the demand for meat — contributes to nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation’s rivers and streams, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.” And that’s not even counting the pollution caused by fecal “lagoons” that exist at the prison-like animal compounds, where animals are kept in such great numbers and in such close proximity that their immune systems are compromised, requiring regular applications of antibiotics, which is as bad for us as it is for them. These temporary housing units are used to quickly fatten huge numbers of animals on corn before they are sent to the abattoir. This doesn’t even mention corn’s contributions to the diabetes and obesity epidemics via its ubiquitous use as a sweetener.

So what are we to do?

For starters, we should reduce our consumption of meat. The figures Bittman presents are upsetting: “Americans are downing close to 200 pounds of meat, poultry and fish per capita per year (dairy and eggs are separate, and hardly insignificant), an increase of 50 pounds per person from 50 years ago.” Clearly, something changed in the last century and meat became the centerpiece instead of only one part of the meal. This is a theme Pollan explores wonderfully in his writing. Another option, championed by Pollan and writers like Wendell Berry, is to pasture feed our cattle and eat locally, both of which are sustainable and economically responsible—and neither of which require government subsidies. Pasture feeding is also better for our health.

While the former two options require bottom-up action, there are top-down options as well. Says Professor Gidon Eshel, “When you look at environmental problems in the U.S., nearly all of them have their source in food production and in particular meat production. And factory farming is “optimal only as long as degrading waterways is free. If dumping this stuff becomes costly — even if it simply carries a non-zero price tag — the entire structure of food production will change dramatically.” Increased regulation of waste disposal by agribusiness would have a gigantic impact. Some increase in regulation seems essential, in fact, since market prices are not expected to rise dramatically in the U.S., even as oil prices increase.

Pollard's Chicken

Another article of real importance is “Chef’s New Goal: Looking Dinner in the Eye” by Julia Moskin; which jumps off from a discussion of chef Jamie Oliver’s recent nationally televised slaughter of a chicken. One choice Americans, and all citizens of developed countries, have and will continue to face is that of cheap vs. ethical. As mentioned above, we need to reduce the amount of meat we eat dramatically, and we need to eat grass fed beef and other healthily (and thereby ethically) raised animals. This is often difficult to do when the healthier, more ethical meat costs more in a smaller portion than a larger serving of agribusiness meat costs. This problem is only exacerbated by the Wal-Marts of the world, that offer steaks at an even cheaper rate than we before thought imaginable. The above mentioned article discusses the growing movement among foodies to reconnect the notions of the animal’s life and welfare and their benefits for our health with the piece of meat we see at the grocery store. Implicit in this connection is the concept that the death of a life form is fully necessary for our continuing nourishment. Perhaps if people were more aware of this fact, they wouldn’t be so quick to choose the cheap, unhealthy, huge portion of meat at Wal-Mart, and they would instead choose the locally raised, humanely treated, healthy small portion of meat at the farmer’s market. Unfortunately, the choice of ethics and health over the ever-attractive “new low price” seems, somehow, contrary to the mores of mainstream America.

Finally, because I simply couldn’t write something for the blog without mentioning fisheries economics, I would point the reader to a recent editorial, “Until All the Fish Are Gone.” It, in turn, discusses two recent articles in The Times in which European overindulgence in fish and its devastating impact on African coastal communities” economies are explored.

As Professor Meese would ask, so what’s the takeaway from these articles? Beyond the need for international, unilateral policy reform regarding farming subsidies and agribusiness waste disposal, all of us can have a beneficial impact on human health and the environment simply by virtue of the choices we make when purchasing and consuming food. Of course, it would require a sort of Kantian kingdom of ends for every American to make the responsible, instead of the cheap and filling, decision. Hopefully, the combination of a growing movement of thoughtful and concerned eaters, ready to confront the true costs of dinner, and a government ready to make some top-down changes will do the trick. Another proposal: A concert to raise awareness, maybe starring Michael McDonald. It could be called, “Old McDonald Had a Farm.”

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