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Friday, August 28, 2009

Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food

This article was taken from Time.com

Somewhere in Iowa, a pig is being raised in a confined pen, packed in so tightly with other swine that their curly tails have been chopped off so they won't bite one another. To prevent him from getting sick in such close quarters, he is dosed with antibiotics. The waste produced by the pig and his thousands of pen mates on the factory farm where they live goes into manure lagoons that blanket neighboring communities with air pollution and a stomach-churning stench. He's fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. When the pig is slaughtered, at about 5 months of age, he'll become sausage or bacon that will sell cheap, feeding an American addiction to meat that has contributed to an obesity epidemic currently afflicting more than two-thirds of the population. And when the rains come, the excess fertilizer that coaxed so much corn from the ground will be washed into the Mississippi River and down into the Gulf of Mexico, where it will help kill fish for miles and miles around. That's the state of your bacon — circa 2009.

Horror stories about the food industry have long been with us — ever since 1906, when Upton Sinclair's landmark novel The Jungle told some ugly truths about how America produces its meat. In the century that followed, things got much better, and in some ways much worse. The U.S. agricultural industry can now produce unlimited quantities of meat and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals and humans. Those hidden prices are the creeping erosion of our fertile farmland, cages for egg-laying chickens so packed that the birds can't even raise their wings and the scary rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria among farm animals. Add to the price tag the acceleration of global warming — our energy-intensive food system uses 19% of U.S. fossil fuels, more than any other sector of the economy.

To read the rest of the article, click here.


Saren said...

The article is interesting and I agree with it for the most part. What I would like to know is this:

For those of us who want to know where to buy eggs and meat produced by responsible owners/ranchers, where do we go? Is buying a dozen eggs in a package that says, "Free Range" enough to say they really are free range? To qualify for 'free range' don't they just have to be guaranteed 1-2 hours outside of a cage?

The only way my husband & I know of getting beef or pork other than at the store is by word of mouth from friends who purchase an entire pig or cow (or half).

What about chicken? We are not at a point yet where we can raise our own chickens. How do we find chickens that have been raise humanely?

Any suggestions would be most appreciated!!

Dale Johnson said...


I believe that "free range" is free range. The hens are not in a confinement cage - 5-6 hens in a 2'x2'cage so I think you can be comfortable in buying those eggs. See my article "Liberate the Layers!" under the topic "chickens".

Dale Johnson said...

I started out as a farmer in my career growing 600 acres of potatoes and wheat with my father and brother. For the past 24 years I have worked in agriculture around the world as a farm management specialist for the University of Maryland. I have seen most types of agricultural systems and my viewpoints about many agricultural issues change constantly.

I read this article with great interest. I agree with some of it. I have seen the ills of agricultural industrialization, many which are pointed out in the article. But I also understand what industrialization has accomplished.

The system has produced an incredible amount of cheap food to feed a burgeoning population. Where ancient man spent >80% of their time trying to feed themselves, we (in the U.S.)now spend <10% of our time earning money to feed ourselves. That is one advantage of industrialization that is just hard to argue away. If we want to alleviate the ills of industrial agriculture then we are going to have to spend more money on our food. And a side effect is that more people will starve. So I have mixed feeling about industrial agriculture.

But one way that I am dealing with these feelings is producing some of my own food - chicken, eggs and vegetables. Next year I will start raising my own beef but that is a luxury that I have because I have 7 acres. I still buy cheap pork from Sam's Club and I stop at Burger King for lunch when I am on the road. For $1 I can buy a complete meal - a Whopper Junior - that really tastes pretty good, charbroiled beef with a tomato and lettuce that tastes kind of fresh.

I hope many people will read the article to stimulate their thinking, but it is a complex issue and the article is over simplistic and biased.

I hope people will start to produce more of their own food in their backyard farms. It gives you an appreciation for fresh food but it also gives you an appreciation for industrial agriculture.

-Sydney- said...

A GREAT book for anyone interested in eating more local foods is "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver. Highly recommended.

As for finding local foods to eat
www.localharvest.org, and www.pickyourown.org are a great place to start. However the problem I ran into was that none of the local farmers in my area were on there. So, I go to the farmer's market every week (and it's a real, sell-your-stuff-off-the-back-of-the-truck kind of market, not the overpriced yuppy ones) and I've made friends with several farmers. I ask them a lot about their growing methods, whether or not they use pesticides, how their chickens are kept etc. They're real and honest and I know they appreciate the conversation because they'll keep me talking for an hour if I'm not careful.

The food is there, it's just sometimes hard to find. Ask around, stop at roadside stands, and make friends with your local farmers.

Summer said...

Industrial agriculture is not really all that effective. Smaller farms mean better food, a healthier public, SUSTAINABLE practices, and more jobs. Quality doesn't have to be sacrificed for quantity. And America's "addiction to meat" is not so much an addiction, but a kind of complacency where we/they just eat whatever companies have made available to us. Companies like making cheap food because it turns a bigger profit. I can't honestly believe that more people would starve if they turned to their local communities for food. Farmers might get the wages they deserve, though.