Saturday, July 15, 2006

the omnivore's dilemma

Yesterday we received our first shipment of fresh produce from a local farm. I was a little skeptical when we signed up, but I have to say I'm impressed with the variety and quality of what we got: broccoli, baby cucumbers, black raspberries, blueberries, sweet cherries, green beans, yellow squash, and 2 ears of corn, still in the husk. The berries are wonderful. Not bad for $15 a week!

So today, I decided to drive to the local farmer's market to see what kinds of meat I could get to supplement my omnivorous diet (Amber is vegetarian). I was a little disappointed at the selection (no fish, bummer), but they may have had more earlier in the day. Some of the meat, also, was quite expensive, especially the more "prepared" meats: the brats and sausages and hot dogs and whatnot. I did, however, score a dozen free-range eggs for $1.50, and a pork chop an inch thick and as big as my outstretched hand for a little over $2.

Why am I bothering with this whole process, when I could just go to the grocery store and get all this more quickly and cheaply? Well, I just finished reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, a book about the food industry in America. I would highly recommend it, as Pollan is not only an engaging writer, but an impressive investigator as well.

The book forces the reader (and interestingly, the writer as well) to confront head-on the ways in which we create and consume food, and presents a damning indictment of industrial agribusiness. Many of the foods we buy in supermarkets and restaurants are increasingly supplemented with unhealthy products. Produce, now grown on farms without livestock, and thus, without natural fertilizer, are increasingly enriched with synthetic fertilizers composed of... get this... fossil fuels, aside from all the pesticides and herbicides that are increasingly appearing in our water sources and even in our bodies.

Animals, however, are the worst abused, raised in truly tortuous conditions in feedlots that must resemble what Hell would be like if animals had such a thing. Even the most strident dominionist would have trouble justifying the kind of cruelty that industrial livestock face every day: Cattle spend their lives unable to move more than 5' in any direction, and fed things they aren't biologically designed to eat, like corn and beef fat, and frequently get sick (those, they need a constant dose of antibiotics and growth hormones). Chickens are cramped so close together that they go mad; feedlot workers have to cut off their beaks to prevent them from pecking to death and cannibalizing the chicken in front of them.

That being said, this isn't just an animal treatment issue. It's an economic issue, in that industrial feedlots and farms drive out of business the family farms that use healthier practices, while the farmers on industrial farms are increasingly unable to make ends meet. It's a public health issue, as the products of industrial farming are tainted with all sorts of unhealthy chemicals, the animals themselves have higher levels of e. coli and fattier meat, and the feeding of antibiotics to livestock leads to more resistance "super" germs. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy ("mad cow disease") is mainly caused by the industrial practice of feeding beef to cattle. And it's an environmental issue, as the pesticides and hormones eventually get into the water supply, ruining entire ecosystems, while the mind-boggling amounts of cow/pig/chicken shit produced on industrial feelots cannot be used to fertilize fields; there's just too much of it, so it actually ruins the soil. Instead, they have to pour it into massive shit "lagoons," which are highly toxic, breed diseases, and can rupture, allowing to shit to, again, drain into the water supply.

Tasty thought, eh?

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