Saturday, August 23, 2008

More on the foodie blues

Part 2 of my meditation on knowledge, ignorance, bliss and sadness: I am re-reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and came upon the chapter in which Pollan's research on the connection between petroleum, corn, and factory farming begins to crystallize. By the end, tears of frustration were rolling down my face.

Here's the thing: when I decided to give up beef, pork and chicken (for my own personal and complex reasons), I just as firmly decided that I would not be one of "those" vegetarians. I would never speak unless spoken to at the dinner table when meat was on the menu (unfortunately, I am often spoken to and asked, by a person innocently biting into a burger, "So, what made you decide to become vegetarian?"). I would never require the b.f. to become vegetarian unless he chose to (although now, we cook together frequently, and it makes no sense to make meat for one when there are only two of us, so he has now become a de facto vegetarian chef). I would never pester my acquaintances to change their ways or even to change their choice of restaurant to accommodate my diet (although they often have and they will).

However, because I am not one of "those" vegetarians, I often have to perform the same mental magic of forgetting when sitting down to a meal, or I could not get through the day. I could not review a restaurant's menu objectively (I usually bring a designated carnivore). I could not feed my dog his dinner (once underweight, he now thrives on meat-based Evo kibble). I could not pick up takeout on the way home (where there is often an order of chicken tikka masala or beef pad see-ew for the b.f). I could not sit down to a meal with my wonderful meat-eating family without balking. And I need to be able to do those things.

In other words, I no longer eat certain foods, but in order to show respect and restraint toward those who still wish to eat them, I still go through my day performing the same acts of forgetting and objectifying those foods that more omnivorous folks perform in order to eat them. The result is that I am able to be shocked -- an experience both pleasant and painful, like a good hard massage releasing unconscious knots in the muscles -- when I read something like the following passage in Pollan's book, which elegantly sums up how we came to be in the enormous mess we're in.

America's food animals have undergone a revolution in lifestyle in the years since World War II. At the same time much of America's human population found itself leaving the city for the suburbs, our food animals found themselves traveling in the oppostive direction, leaving widely dispersed farms in places like Iowa to live in densely populated new animal cities. These places are so different from farms and ranches that a new term was needed to denote them: CAFO -- Confined Animal Feeding Operation. The new animal and human landscapes were both products of government policy. The postwar suburbs would never have been built if not for the interstate highway system, as well as the G.I. Bill and federally subsidized mortgages. The urbanization of America's animal population would never have taken place if not for the advent of cheap, federally subsidized corn.

Corn itself profited from the urbanization of livestock twice. As the animals left the [traditional family] farm, more of the farm was left for corn, which rapidly colonized the paddocks and pastures and even the barnyards that had once been the animals' territory. The animals left because the farmer's simply couldn't compete with the CAFOs. It cost a farmer more to grow feed corn than it cost a CAFO to buy it, for the simple reason that commodity corn now was routinely sold for less than it cost to grow. Corn profited again as the factory farms expanded, absorbing increasing amounts of its surplus. Corn found its way into the diet of animals that never used to eat very much of it (like cattle) or any corn at all, like the farmed salmon now being bred to tolerate grain. All that excess biomass had to go somewhere.

The economic logic of gathering so many animals together to feed them cheap corn in CAFOs is hard to argue with; it has made meat, which used to be a special occasion in most American homes, so cheap and abundant that many of us now eat it three times a day. Not so compelling is the biological logic behind this cheap meat. Already in their short history CAFOs have produced more than their share of environmental and health problems: polluted water and air, toxic wastes, [and] novel and deadly pathogens.

Raising animals on old-fashioned mixed farms such as the Naylors' used to make simple biological sense: You can feed them the waste products of your crops, and you can feed their waste products to your crops. In fact, when animals live on farms the very idea of waste ceases to exist; what you have instead is a closed ecological loop -- what in retrospect you might call a solution. One of the most striking things that animal feedlots do (to paraphrase Wendell Berry) is to take this elegant solution and neatly divide it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm (which must be remedied with chemical [petroleum-based] fertilizers), and a pollution problem on the feedlot (which seldom is remedied at all).

This biological absurdity, characteristic of all CAFOs, is compounded in the cattle feedyard by a second absurdity. Here animals exquisitely adapted by natural selection to live on grass must be adapted by us -- at considerable cost to their health, to the health of the land, and ultimately to the health of their eaters -- to live on corn, for no other reason than it offers the cheapest calories around and because the great pile must be consumed.

I can't imagine feeling anything other than outrage and frustration with our food production system after reading this passage. Yet the alternative -- to never to have read it at all -- I know would be worse.

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