“You mean you eat food grown by people unknown to you?”

November 17, 2007

By Larry Klein

The present system of food and agriculture in America is based on three premises:

Food should be cheap
Farming is something that people do not want to do.
We should not have to spend our time deciding what foods are good for us and for the land.

These premises have led to a system of agriculture characterized by extensive and highly mechanized monoculture of corn and soybeans, cheap because of overproduction, but dear in the toll on the land and human health.

Overproduction dates from the years when government-funded irrigation projects created large surpluses of grain. Fertilizers and hybrid seed contributed to this trend. Monocropping required toxic pesticides and herbicides but farmers now worked in offices or air conditioned tractor cabs, a convenience that protected them from facing hard choices between use of poisons and the price of exposure.

As a corollary, a new system of livestock farming—dairying, beef, poultry and pork—became the norm, a system that would absorb the surplus grain produced. It was after the Korean War that the beef-cattle industry changed from grazing to finishing beef for market at large-scale feedlots. Cheap and plentiful water meant cheap grain. By 1975, for example, 42% of the water in California irrigated feed crops. Finished beef became the standard and dairy cattle were relegated to barns.

The new system created strong economic reasons for farmers to use hormones. Feedlot animals were castrated for handling ease, although bulls can, in fact, be handled safely. And even though a bull has clear advantages in terms of rate and efficiency of growth over a steer, it is worth significantly less on the sales floor than a castrated animal.

When bulls are castrated they must be given hormones to stimulate growth. And because the grain cartels have succeeded in convincing consumers that cheap vegetable oils are preferable to more expensive animal fats, the type of hormones now used directs the growth into meat rather than fat. These implants show the greatest gains on feedlot diets—grain instead of pasture. Hormone implants conform the animal to feeding conditions and to the market. For every dollar spent on hormone implants, there are returns of seven to ten dollars to the rancher.

Plant foods are not exempt under the industrial system. Modern pesticides are hormones, mostly estrogen-type hormones, and the typical crop gets ten applications of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, from seed to storage. Monocropping makes pesticide use essential. The push for GMO’s is simple a push to build hormone-based pesticides into the structure of the plant.

Modern soybeans produce hormones in the form of phytoestrogens. These are marketed as panaceas—a good way to profit from the excess of soy.

“We’re planting too many acres of soybeans,” says Tony Vyn, University of Guelph crop scientist. “It’s bad for the soil and it’s bad for the pocket book.”

Let’s return to our premises. The first is that food should be cheap. Cheap for whom? It is certainly not cheap for those who live outside North America and live in poverty because their countries’ agricultural land and resources are producing cheap sugar and bananas for export to America. It is not cheap for those who are sick and for the society that absorbs the costs of their sickness. It is not cheap food for those whose wells, lakes and rivers are contaminated. It is not even cheap for huge segments of the American population, living in depressed rural areas.

Is farming a profession to be avoided? It is if the farmer cannot get a decent price for the fruits of his sacred labor. It is if the barriers posed by health, safety and zoning laws prevent him from selling directly to the consumer. And it is for the large-scale producer who must seal himself off from the toxic clouds that envelop his fields. He is no longer a farmer but a businessman. Laborers do his work. “And strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and the sons of the alien shall be your plowmen and your vinedressers.” Isaiah 61:5

Does it matter what we eat or how we farm? Does it matter if the fat on our steaks and the cream in our coffee is white instead of yellow? Does it matter if our butter and egg yolks are golden or gilded with vegetable dyes? Does it matter if our cheeses and our tamaris and our pickles are created by artisans or spewed out by factories? Does it matter if our fruits and vegetables are grown in rich and living soil? Does it matter that hormones, nature’s precious regulators, are being used in a profligate way?

These three premises have led to food that is cheap but worthless and a medical crisis that is massive in scale. These premises have pushed the yeoman farmer off the land and littered our prairies with ghost towns. These premises have poisoned our land, our crops and our livestock.

How do we divest ourselves of the industrial food-farm paradigm? We start by changing the way we shop and the way we put food on our tables.

A friend from Ghana had this to say about America: “You mean that you eat food grown by people unknown to you?” He was appalled at the thought.

Our ancestors spend most of their waking hours in the production and preparation of food. Today we spend almost none. We have gone too far. We need to spend more money on food and more time finding food that is produced locally in sustainable and intelligent ways. We need to purchase and prepare our food with love and wisdom, not fear and abandon. If we do not want hormones in our salads, bread and meat, we must be committed to purchasing plant foods grown in traditional ways and animal foods that have come from pasture-fed animals. We must spend our food dollars in ways that allow conscientious farmers to make a decent living.

Our economic system, our landscape, our minds, our bodies can be transformed—and that transformation starts in the marketplace and at the dinner table.


2 Responses to ““You mean you eat food grown by people unknown to you?””

  1. Beatrix Says:

    Great post; very scary and very true. I have endeavoured to get to know the people who produce my food for me and my family, but I am extremely lucky – I live in the French Alps and buy from many small producers at the local open air market, dairy and butchers. I feel for people who do not have such a choice: because of options unavailable to them; because they are unable to avoid mass advertising; or because of bad education on the subject of nutrition. It pains me to see poeple who think it is more important to spend money and time on clothes for their wardrobes, electronics or junk for their house, (which will all be thrown out in a few months time for the next new model) rather than spend money and time nourishing their bodies. But this is the position we are in today: cheap crap for big profits counts,where people have given away responsibilty for themselves and their environment; somebody else can pick up the pieces.
    thanks for the great post,

  2. Sue Says:

    My teenage daughter recently protested the home raised, free range chicken I put on the table one night. Claimed she wasn’t going to eat somebody she knows. My reply was how can you eat somebody you didn’t know?

    The birds here got the run in the grass, chase bugs and nap in the sunshine. What did those factory farm birds get?

    Great little article. You’ve got it just right!!!

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