I love to cook, and I love to eat — but like so many others I’d kept myself ignorant about where my food comes from and how its story affects my health, the economy, and the environment. So over the past year, I’ve been on a mission to learn more about my food.
After soaking up farm and food blogs and reading eye-opening books (like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma), the good and bad of our food system has made itself undeniably present and changed my perspective on how I buy, cook, and eat food. A few key findings overshadow the rest. And while I still have a lot to learn, I consider these discoveries deliberately each time I concoct a weekly menu, write a shopping list, or order at a restaurant.
Frighteningly, Factory Farming Predominates
I suspected that most animal products come from beings that have been treated poorly — now I know more about factory farming.
I covet a good steak, but I know now that supermarket steaks come from animals that have been removed from their mother after six months and shipped to a CAFO — a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation — only to stand cow-to-cow in a feces-filled pen. Farmers feed them corn (which cows are not designed to eat) and fill them with hormones and antibiotics to fatten them up and keep them “healthy” until they are slaughtered and shipped around the country.
I also adore the simple egg, but I’ve learned that many egg producers keep their laying hens in horrid conditions. In the words of The Humane Society of the United States: “The past several decades have brought trouble for the iconic chicken. On factory farms, these complex and social birds are confined by the millions in tiny cages and denied the most basic elements of a natural life.” And don’t think (like I did) that if you buy eggs with the words “cage free” on the carton, these hens are wandering about in fields of bliss. They may not live in cages, but they often cluster in close quarters with sick and dead chickens underfoot and no access to the outdoors.
With the internet and social sharing sites like YouTube, we can see how the animals that give their lives for us are treated in a visual way. It’s not a pretty picture. But we also have the ability to fight back in ways we haven’t before. We can support organizations, like The Humane Society of the United States, that are raising visibility of factory farming’s disquieting issues. We can support farmers that raise and sell grass-fed beef from humanely-raised cows. And we can educate ourselves about factory farming from organizations like Food & Water Watch that paint clear, honest pictures and show us how we can join the movement to improve the circumstances of the animals that sustain us.
Our Produce System Stinks
I do my best to eat more fruits and veggies. I’ve learned, however, that when I buy my produce from my local grocery store, it has likely traveled thousands of miles, lost most of its nutrients and flavor, and placed a heavy impact on the environment. Will Allen, in his book “The Good Food Revolution” wrote that: “The average item of food consumed in the United States today travels 1,500 miles from producer to consumer, and it is buoyed on a sea of oil and gasoline. We spend $140 billion each year just for the energy required to deliver food on our tables. The long journey from farm to consumer also has nutritional effects on the foods we consume. Fresh green beans, for example, have been shown to lose nearly 80% of their Vitamin C within a week of being picked.”
We know fruits and veggies are at their best when picked at the pinnacle of ripeness and eaten soon thereafter, but most of us can’t drive to a local farmstand or hit a convenient farmer’s market just to pick up the produce we need for the week. Fortunately, farmers markets have increased in number drastically over the past decade. And many cities provide access to co-op style produce through local CSA programs. You can find local food producers and sellers in your area by checking out sites like LocalHarvest, Local Dirt, and the USDA’s Farmers Market Search Engine.
We Need Food System Transparency
In one short year, I’ve realized that one of the most fundamental elements of our existence – our food system – remains clouded for most of us. We buy blindly, because food marketers weave tales that are compelling, but they often deliver only half the story. Our food labeling laws also have room to improve. We should know when our food has been genetically modified. We ought to be able to understand the ingredient lists on the food we buy.
In one short year, I realize how much more I have to discover.
Image credit: foilman via flickr/CC license