Tag Archives: Michael Pollan

Healthy Homemade Pizza

27 Feb

One of my favorite Michael Pollan Food Rules is “Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you make it yourself.”  I think this rule applies even more broadly than just to junk food. Any food is going to be better for you (and likely better-tasting) than a premade version.  You may have seen my homemade happy meal.

So this weekend, when I had my usual cravings for pizza, I decided to put my mouth where, well, my mouth is, and just make it myself. I had homemade pizza dough in the freezer, fresh mozzarella and canned tomatoes, and that was all I needed.

This pizza has only about ten ingredients:

For the dough:

  • Yeast
  • Flour
  • Water
  • Olive Oil
  • Pinches of salt & sugar

For the topping:

  • Canned diced tomatoes
  • Tomato paste
  • Garlic
  • Dried oregano
  • Mozzarella cheese

I used Kim O’Donnel’s basic pizza dough recipe, and roughly her method for making easy from-scratch tomato sauce for the pizza, which is as simple as simmering tomato puree with a little paste to thicken it, along with any herbs and spices of your choice.

You could even use fresh tomatoes and puree them yourself with an immersion blender. I used canned diced tomatoes and half-mashed them while the sauce simmered, because I like a little chunk in my sauce. (While I try to avoid canned products in general (BPA freaks me out), in the cold weather months, for a cooked recipe, I opt for organic canned tomatoes over bland conventional tomatoes flown in from South America. ) Add a handful of slices of fresh mozzarella, and voila!

You’d be hard-pressed to convince me that just ordering from Domino’s is much easier, especially when you take into consideration that the dough and sauce can be made way ahead of time and stored, even frozen. You could also cut down prep time by making your dough hands-off, in a bread machine or stand mixer. Then dinner is as simple as rolling it out, throwing on the toppings and baking.

I know plain old tomato, mozzarella pizza seems like a boring recipe to share, but this is one of those places to make an easy switch in your eating habits. Imagine knowing the ten or so ingredients in your pizza were all fresh, whole foods that fuel your body — rather than a delivery or frozen pizza that leaves you feeling heavy with grease and guilt.

Links Roundup & Food Rules Giveaway Winner!

27 Jan

First, your weekly dose of links from around the world of food…

Gary Hirshberg, CEO of organic pioneers Stonyfield Yogurt, announced this week he will be stepping down from that position to take full part in the new Just Label It! campaign to promote GMO-awareness.

On Mother Jones, Tom Philpott has two great articles detailing some of the momentous GMO-related announcements the USDA tried to sneak in before the new year (along with the earlier-reported cave on antibiotic regulation). One on how Dow Chemical is teaming up with Monsanto here, and another on Monsanto’s new GM-corn here. You can read the original USDA announcements here.

This one’s not current, but I just found it this week, and thought I’d share: Best Colleges Online has a list of the 10 Most Impressive Farm to School programs.

And along those lines, CBS This Morning had a great segment on the notion of “the nanny state” and the First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign. Watch the whole segment for the amazing Chef Jose Andres and his eloquent, concise explanation of why the answer is yes, yes they should.

And finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. The winner of We*Meat*Again’s first-ever giveaway, for a brand new copy of the illustrated edition of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules!

Our winner is #5: John!

When asked what his favorite food rule is, John wrote:

Buy local, fresh, *often*. Maybe daily.

A problem with buying real food — especially local organic food — can be the price, and the fact that the food goes bad in the fridge after a few days and you end up throwing half of it out. Well. If you can find a convenient place, especially on your way to/from work/school/whatever, just plan for the night’s meal en route and buy what you need for that day, that day. Making daily stops at the local grocer or co-op can be much more cost-effective than trying to work too far ahead, when it comes to fresh fruits and veggies.

Of course, We*Meat*Again LOVES John’s take on the food rules — words for us all to live by! Congratulations, John! I’ll be in touch regarding details of delivery soon.

In all seriousness, though, the giveaway was to celebrate the recent blog milestone of 10,000 site visits. I’m so thrilled and humbled that this little blog is worth that much attention. When I started it last May, I had no idea we’d be here — and I have all you to thank. So thank you for being a part of our We*Meat*Again community, come back often, and as always, let me know what you’re thinking, what you’re wondering, or what you’d like to see more of!

How I Became a Foodie

14 Nov

In continuation of the “Introduction to Marissaseries of Q&A posts I’ve been writing over the last few weeks, today we have a question from Cristina from An Organic Wife:

I know you don’t like the term, but what made you become a “foodie”? Lots of people like to eat, but what makes you care about the state of food.

This is a great question because it taps into one of the fundamental questions that really drove me to write The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat.

I began caring about what I ate when I became a vegetarian. As I’ve covered in one of the earliest posts ever on this blog — for better or for worse — that decision came as a result of watching a PETA video in college.

I grew up in the suburbs in the 80s and 90s, which means that I truly did not know what a farm looked like. As far as I was concerned, food came from the grocery store. So when I first understood the reality of a concentrated animal feeding operation, I was so horrified that this was the normative standard that I quit, cold turkey.

But even as a vegetarian, I didn’t spend enough time thinking about the larger issues of food. I barely even spent time thinking about how well I was eating. So while being a vegetarian was designed to help me become a ‘better’ eater, I wasn’t concerned with the state of food until seven years later…

I began caring about the state of food when I began thinking about eating meat again. Or rather, thinking about the state of food is what made me consider eating meat again.

In the summer of 2009, I bought and read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. And while much of that book was a revelation to me (as it was to the country), the aspect of the book I found most illuminating was Pollan’s discussion of the corn monoculture industry.

In tracking a fast food meal backs to its origins, Pollan ends up in a corn field in Ames, Iowa. At the time I read the book, I happened to live in Ames, Iowa, so I had some sense of how much of the land of the Midwest was taken up with growing corn. What I didn’t know was how much of that went to cattle feedlots, or how much damage was being done to the land in the industrial growth methods being used. What I really didn’t know was how much the federal government was invested in corn growth — so much so that corporations were practically being paid to come up with non-cattle uses for all the excess corn.

I went home and started checking the ingredients lists on all my vegetarian foods, and found either corn or soy byproducts in nearly everything — yogurt, salad dressing, whole wheat bread, lemonade, and certainly in my fake meat substitute products — and I was pretty horrified.

The realization I had standing in my pantry on that day in mid-August was that being a vegetarian didn’t necessarily mean that I was opting out of the larger, flawed system of industrial agriculture. Sure, perhaps I wasn’t eating animal meat (though this is often also cleverly hidden in seemingly-innocuous foods) but I was still spending my money within the same system. Corn and meat were part of the same agricultural behemoth.

I spent a few weeks feeling very angry and very disillusioned. But then I kept reading the book, and discovered, along with Pollan, that there was such a thing as a farmer who actually worked with, rather than against the land. And while I read along while Pollan toured one particular farm for his book, I began to wonder whether there may not be some of those farms around me.

As it turned out, there were many. Perhaps because of the overwhelming presence of industrialized agriculture in Iowa, it also seems like a hotbed of sustainable innovation. I met biodyanmic cattle farmers, toured family-run organic vegetable operations, and bought wild, sustainably-harvested Alaskan salmon from Inuit fishermen through an affordable, no-membership-fee buying club right there in Ames, in the middle of the cornfields.

As a result of all this, I was forced to re-examine my initial way of thinking about food. Clearly, being a vegetarian and “opting out” of the system had not solved all the problems, or absolved me of input into the industrial system. And on the other hand, it appeared as if I could buy meat that did side-step that system, and instead supported

At any rate, what I began to learn that summer and fall was that the whole question of what to eat, and from where, was much more complex than I had initially thought. My interest was piqued, but more importantly, so was my conscience. I knew that if I wanted to eat meat again, I was going to have to establish some standards and hold myself to them.

And as I began to do research, to meet more farmers and read more books, I found so much information, so many great inspiring ideas, and so many horrifying, disgusting realities, that I couldn’t turn away. I was sure that many people were in the dark, like I had been, and may  be inadvertently supporting things they disagree with.

So I decided to write a book about my realizations. And two years later, here we are.

What moments in your life have made you care about food — the state of food, your dietary choices, or just how to cook a particular ingredient in a new, illuminating way? Leave a comment or drop me an email at marissa@wemeatagain.com and share your “becoming a foodie” story, and you may end up in a future blog post!

The Secret Farm Bill

7 Nov

Seems like it’s been too long since I’ve addressed any food policy here on We*Meat*Again, and here’s a doozy for us to get angry over together: the imminent passing/announcement of a “secret” farm bill, likely to become public this week. I’ll let the experts explain what this is, and why it’s troubling.

Normally, the U.S. Congress must renew Farm Bill legislation every five years to designate the budget for agricultural programs such as direct payment subsidies, nutritional programs (like Food Stamps and WIC) and conservation easements. As the food movement heats up, the Farm Bill has become a more and more controversial piece of legislation, as it largely dictates the financial direction of federal food policy into large-scale industrial agriculture.

So this year, to avoid that public debate, agricultural lobbyists in conjunction with representatives from Midwestern farming states are using the deficit-reducing “supercommittee” (created last summer because Congress couldn’t get it together to raise the debt ceiling) to write the 2012 Farm Bill behind closed doors.

Writing the Farm Bill in this way pre-empts any chance at reform. If representatives whose campaigns are paid for by Big Ag outfits write legislation, we’re unlikely to see a shift in food policy. Proposals currently being considered focus the spending cuts mostly on nutrition, conservation and environmental protection policies.

But setting aside for a moment what may or may not actually become legislative reality, the real egregiousness of this choice comes from the complete absence of any public debate. Anyone without a voice on this committee has no say in this important legislation. The San Francisco Gate has observed that this approach excludes the entire state of California, the country’s single largest agricultural producer, but on an even more fundamental level, it simply does not include “we the people” at all.

This OxFam editorial summarizes the problem best, by explaining how we all — Republicans, Democrats, etc. — should be able to come together to protest this end-run around democracy:

If you’re a Tea Party supporter, you probably shouldn’t like this deal because:

1. It is a back room deal negotiated without any public scrutiny.
2. It cuts less wasteful spending than other proposals.
3. The $23 billion in proposed cuts could shrink dramatically if the volatile agriculture markets or increasingly volatile weather swings production or prices in a new direction.
4. It authorizes the government to pick certain industries/commodities as winners over others.

If you’re an #OWS supporter, you shouldn’t like this deal because:
1. It was negotiated to satisfy high powered industry lobbies that pay lots of money to influence the Ag Committee.
2. It’s a giveaway to big industrial farms at the expense of family farmers.
3. It promotes unhealthy, unsustainable farming practices at the expense of sustainable farming.
4. It targets conservation and nutrition programs for cuts disproportionately.

The Big Picture of Food’s Future (Links)

16 Sep

Lots of coverage this week of the USDA’s new E. coli ban, so there isn’t too much breaking-news style policy to cover in our links round-up. But I’m rather happy for the respite, as it gives us a chance to reflect on the general state of the food movement, and where we go from here. So here are some big picture question & answer links for your weekend reading pleasure.

First and foremost, here’s a quick & easy action link you should all follow right now.  Remember how last week I wrote about the food industry push-back against the voluntary request of the federal government to please stop selling junk food to kids? Well, the folks at EWG are collecting signatures on a letter that will go to 13 CEOs. You can sign here, and the spread the word to your social networks to add your voice to the (perfectly reasoned and quite polite) fray.

Now on to the future…

The food movement grandaddy, Michael Pollan (who hopefully doesn’t think that I’m calling him old), has a fantastic piece in The Nation this week on the next big challenge for the food movement, transitioning from a shift in the public consciousness to systematic, policy changes. His interesting take? Our greatest ally may be the healthcare industry, also, as we know, in need of serious reform.

And there are a few exciting activities that might help us get there. Saturday, I will be doing my own version of Slow Food USA’s $5 challenge, in which we’re tasked with preparing an awesome slow food meal for only $5 a person — less than the cost of a fast food “value” meal. Take the pledge to join in, or find a potluck near you!

Even if you don’t want to be an “official” participant, here are a few great resources — from Eating Well magazine and NPR — with tips for cooking healthy on the cheap, always useful information.

Finally — and this, I have to say, I am majorly food-nerding out over — the announcement came this week of the launch of a new day of action and awareness: Food Day. Modeled after the Earth Day campaign, Food Day will be an annual event on Oct. 24th full of information and action: policy campaign kick-offs, cooking lessons, farm tours, film nights, public or private dinners in homes or public spaces, school curricula, filmmaking contests, protests, declarations of new city priorities, and announcements of changes to institutional food-buying or vending practices.

WOW, RIGHT?! I can’t wait to be a part of this new phase of action in a movement I believe has the potential to shape our future in meaningful ways.

What’s Your Favorite Food Writing?

6 Jul

Readers, I need your help!

I’m beginning to gear up for the upcoming academic year and the teaching it will — thank GOD — bring with it for me. I’ll be working as full-time faculty at Fort Hays State University in Kansas, with all of the wonderful financial stability that will bring, along with working on and shopping my book, along with continuing to write this blog, so it’s going to be a busy time.

I’ve also been lucky enough that I’ll be getting to teach an online course in food writing via Minneapolis’ The Loft Literary Center. As I develop that course, I thought it might be wise to take some tips from you all, online food writing readers, some of whom might even be interested in taking such a class (as soon as registration is open, don’t worry, I’ll spread the word)!

I’ll be splitting the course into three major units: food narrative, food journalism, and reflective essays on food (writing that uses food to discuss larger abstract concepts like place, culture, ethics, etc.). Since it’s a non-credit writing class, I’ll also be focusing on short form periodical writing (magazine/essay/blog work, basically).

What I need from you all are suggestions or ideas for readings that might fall into those categories. I have TONS — but I’d like your help expanding and narrowing the pool. Who are your favorites in those genres? Who are the food writing standard-bearers without whom no food writing course would be complete?

Here are just a few of the pieces I’m currently planning on using, so you have a sense of the type of writing I’m looking for. You’ll note that I don’t really have any of the heavy-hitters on here. That’s just because I’m a contrarian. So if you think it’s totally crazy to do food writing without Michael Pollan or Eric Schlosser or Ruth Reichl, say so! Let me know who you would want to read, if learning to write about food.

Food Narratives:

“Wild Chili” by Dan Chaon, excerpted from Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, ed. Jenni Ferrari-Adler

“The Sixth Sense” by Gary Schyengart, from the New York Times Magazine

Food Journalism:

“The Oil We Eat” by Richard Manning, from Harper’s (investigative)

“Land, Farmer, Community: A Sacred Trust” by Lisa M. Hamilton, from Orion (profile)

Food Reflections:

“The Homesick Restaurant” by Susan Orlean, excerpted from Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food & Drink, ed. David Remnick

“The Squeamish American” by Tom Perrotta, from the New York Times Magazine

“Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace, from Gourmet

Notes on Eating and Travel

1 Jul

As I said the other day, I’ve been traveling quite a bit lately. Not in any epic, life-changing or even relaxing vacation sense of the word. More like I live in a town where there isn’t much going on and so often to get things done I must go somewhere else.

Two weeks ago, I drove round-trip to Mineral Point, Wisconsin and back, to spend the weekend babysitting for the wonderful Dean Bakopoulos and his family. Yes, I am that good at childcare that people will bring me in from out of town. A few days after that, it was up to northern Iowa on a day trip for a campus visit. A week later, another day trip to Minneapolis, for online teacher training at The Loft Literary Center, where I will be teaching a class this fall. And the very next day, it was off by plane to Kansas, for another campus visit and job interview.

All of which is to say I’ve been moving around a lot, spending little time at home, and much much more time in my Subaru. The largest side effect of which was my eating totally sucked.

Pizza. Fast food. French fries. Chips. Candy. Too much coffee and too little water. I tried my best to eat well when I could — choosing a bag of trail mix at the gas station convenience store, rather than the Pringles, picking vitamin water over soda (which I don’t like anyway). But especially when you need to keep driving, those choices can be the very definition of rock/hard place.

The observations I’ve made about eating while on the road — whether by car or plane — seemed indicative of so much American obesity. It’s no great revelation to say we eat crappy food here, and lots of it, but road food became this lightning rod for me, the confluence of so much of what is wrong with our diets, namely: processing, access, and cost.

Those three things work together to ruin our resolve and grow our waistlines, and they are inextricably linked. The difficulties I faced were when all three worked together: when I was trapped in an airport, or along a rural highway, with only a few handfuls of foods to choose from. Those foods were invariable highly processed, even more so than bad grocery store food — lunchables and microwaveable burritos and cup-o-noodles. And among the limited, unhealthy options, those which were the cheapest often won out, because I knew I wasn’t going to be packing in a lot of nutrition anyway.Why spend $15 on a grilled chicken sandwich at the sit-down airport restaurant when I can get KFC for $5?

No, I didn’t eat KFC. My way around these awful food prospects is this: whenever I know I can’t eat well, I resolve to at least eat vegetarian. Since I did that, in airports and on road trips, for seven years, it’s relatively easy for me. I can get a salad and baked potato at Wendy’s, or a grilled cheese sandwich, or just cobble together some granola bars and nuts.

But I know my fellow Americans, and I know the limits placed on us by access, processing and cost are not ones we are skilled at overcoming, especially when it would take advanced planning. Really the only way around these limits is to bring your own food along with you, which of course can be made complicated. Wouldn’t it be easier just to allow ourselves the day here and there to eat poorly, rather than have to slice up a bell pepper in advance, or try to keep baby carrots cool, or an apple from getting bruised, or to navigate TSA screenings with a banana in your pocket?

We give ourselves the out instead. Say, it’s just one day. I deserve a break. The problem is, these limitations on our access to food, to unprocessed whole foods that are inexpensive, is endemic. These aren’t issues only present in highway rest stops and airports — we just notice them more there, because there’s nowhere else to eat. But they are really just mirrors, reflections of a larger industrial food system that is bad for us, and is everywhere.

In food choice and access then, as in so many other ways, it seems the automobile and the highway have come to define America. The drive-thru, perhaps the single most American contribution to food culture. And the processed, chemical-laced foods we can access along the side of the road, or in a grey, anonymous airport terminal, are the foods we use to fill the void left by an absence of any real culture, any deeper understanding of why food matter or where it comes from, how it is made. We contact each other only through a car window, exchanging paper bags smudged with grease, and drive off, eating alone.

Eat Less to Lose Weight — Or Is It That Simple?

27 Jun

A new study out this week in The New England Journal of Medicine is making waves in the waters of food and nutrition policy. The study, which measured weight gain and chronic disease development in more than 120,000 men and women over several 20 year intervals, seems to suggest that gaining or maintaining weight over a long period of time might be linked to specific dietary choices, rather than such weight gain simply being a result of sheer caloric intake.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and the experts have mixed interpretations. Some major news outlets are fixating on one of the examples that the study provides of high calorie foods: potatoes.

Nutritionist Andy Bellatti has a  more nuanced view of these dietary culprits, suggesting that we need to examine the quality of the carbohydrates (and refined sugars) that are increasing our waistlines.

Similarly, food policy guru Marion Nestle urges us to look beyond the headlines and question what other unhealthy choices might contribute to weight gain in a person who eats more French fries than the average.

In general, this study seems a perfect example of the “learn what’s behind the label” principle. Michael Pollan’s twitter summary of the TIME coverage of the study was spot on:

Quality of food may affect weight more than quantity.

I think this study is telling us what we already know (or are learning): the healthiest diet is one that consists mostly of whole, unrefined foods as much as possible. So, yes, it really is that simple.

Do you keep track of calories, or measure with other nutritional yardsticks, or just eat what you want and hope for the best? Am I just using a ‘go with the flow’ argument here to justify my love of potatoes? Leave a comment or drop me an email to let us know what you think!

Our Broken System

20 Jun

Last week, I hinted at the notion that much of the underlying problems with the food industry are not actually hidden or underlying — often, these are issues that no one is attempting to mask, but that are still widely misunderstood or outright ignored. I’m talking about the structure of the food industry in general, and of agriculture in particular. Rather than launch into another diatribe, I thought I’d let the experts do the talking on this one.

When I first began researching the food industry, it was to uncover whether or not I might inadvertently be supporting some of the large corporate conglomerates I’d meant to boycott by being a vegetarian. I discovered that I most certainly was, and the connection was largely corn. Here’s Bryan Walsh, for TIME magazine, for an overview of the corn problem:

According to the USDA, Americans spend less than 10% of their incomes on food, down from 18% in 1966. Those savings begin with the remarkable success of one crop: corn. Corn is king on the American farm, with production passing 12 billion bu. annually, up from 4 billion bu. as recently as 1970.

But cheap food is not free food, and corn comes with hidden costs. The crop is heavily fertilized — both with chemicals like nitrogen and with subsidies from Washington. Over the past decade, the Federal Government has poured more than $50 billion into the corn industry, keeping prices for the crop — at least until corn ethanol skewed the market — artificially low. That’s why McDonald’s can sell you a Big Mac, fries and a Coke for around $5 — a bargain, given that the meal contains nearly 1,200 calories, more than half the daily recommended requirement for adults.

The problems with this system as I’ve mentioned before, range from environmental to antibacterial. But the problem this causes our collective waistlines cannot be understated. You may have noticed that America is in the midst of a deadly-serious obesity epidemic.According to the latest obesity research from the Trust for America’s Health:

Adult obesity rates increased in 28 states in the past year, and declined only in the District of Columbia (D.C.).  More than two-thirds of states (38) have adult obesity rates above 25 percent. In 1991, no state had an obesity rate above 20 percent.

Troubling trends along racial and income lines are also drawn in the report. For instance, adult obesity rates for Blacks and Latinos were higher than for Whites in at least 40 states and the District of Columbia. The reasons for the discrepancy in obesity rates — and the rates of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases that go along with obesity — have much to do with pervasive racial bias in urban planning, and the absence of healthy fresh food in low-income areas.

But the overall absence of this kind of food at a reasonable price affects all of us, and is largely the fault of a severely-skewed food subsidy system.

Image courtesy of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

 

If  you’re wondering why the federal government seems to be regulating in favor of unhealthy food habits like heavily corn-fed beef and against fresh fruits and vegetables, you wouldn’t be alone. The reason is that the food industry works much like any other industry in this country: that is, large corporations succeed in increasing their profit margins by buying up their competitors, or contracting them, and gain massive market shares.

The latest research by the fields leading experts, Mary Hendrickson and William Heffernan, in the Department of Rural Sociology at University of Missouri, has some startling figures that are worth not skimming over, for example, that the four largest beef packers in the U.S. control more than 85 percent of the beef market. Not much in the way of competition.

Here’s Tom Philpott, old school, discussing the effects of this consolidation on industry practices:

As these few companies engulf market share, they gain increasing power to dictate terms to growers. In meat processing, the companies wield a second weapon: captive herds. Smithfield, for example, is not only the nation’s dominant hog processor. In addition to slaughtering 27 million hogs per year, the behemoth also raises 1.2 million hogs of its own — more than any other operation by a factor of three. It also controls a huge portion of the hogs it slaughters indirectly, through contracts with large-scale growers.

Pork giants Tyson and Cargill also keep large captive herds, and buy most of the rest of the hogs they slaughter under contract. They use their market might to squeeze prices, giving small, independent growers two options. They can get bigger, in hopes of making up in volume what they’re losing in price; or they can shut down.

And the picture is the same on the grocery and distribution front. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest grocery retailer, rakes in more than $300 billion in annual profits, more than three times that of grocery retailed #2. This means they set policy, especially in terms of what food they will stock for how much — hence the more expensive fresh vegetables in the low-income neighborhood.

Lest you think you can avoid any of this by buying organic, think again. Your friendly neighborhood multi-national conglomerate has figured out where their consumers are trending, and have been buying up organics and folding them in as subsidiary brands since the 1990s.Here’s a fun game: try to match up the corporate owner on that chart with their place on the list of the country’s most lucrative food processing companies!

All of this is to say there are two fundamental truths about the food industry.

First, as Tom Philpott says, we — the consumers — can’t transform the food system alone:

Even if Obama were serious about transforming the food system (which I don’t think he is), he would have to contend with a set of highly profitable incumbent industries, from agrichemical makers to cheeseburger purveyors, that will defend their interests by fang and claw on Capitol Hill. And their immense lobbying power leaves any would-be reformer in the White House with little room to impose change…any serious presidential effort to reform the food system will crash into a brick wall constructed by the likes of Monsanto and Tyson Food.

And in case you needed any proof, here’s (Iowa farm boy) Secretary of Ag Vilsack trumpeting ethanol as the future of American biofuels, and arguing that industrial ag will feed the world — in a speech just last week.

Philphott means that we need to lobby for political reform, rather than just buy our way out of the problem. Because buying our way out isn’t an option for everyone.

But the second fundamental truth is this: there are other options. Right now, many of those options cost more, due to the enormous financial and legal constraints under which small-scale, sustainable producers operate. But those financial realities exist under a falsely-constructed system designed to help big, unsanitary, dangerous conditions the cheapest ones available. As consumers, we must seek to financially support the change we believe is necessary in the food system while we can,  because those decisions will help push food policy in the right direction.

Because I’m an optimist, I’ll leave you with hope and a call to action from Nicolette Hahn Niman (the vegetarian cattle rancher of the Niman Ranch sustainable operation). Hahn Niman has some great details on why big ag and sustainable ag are fundamentally different, and how to choose properly at the grocery store.

According to Hahn Niman, For those of us who can afford it (and every little bit counts, so support local farmers even if only in tomatoes!) this extra money now is an investment in the future:

We should all be asking our elected officials why our government isn’t supporting farming that produces food that’s healthful for humans, environmentally benign and respectful to animals. Over the long term, that’s the change we need to advocate for. If government policy made such a shift, wholesome traditionally produced foods could be as inexpensive as the junk coming out of factory farms. In the meantime, expect to pay more for good food. Think of it as an investment in good health, an unspoiled environment, fair treatment for animals, and of course, tasty eating.

Lagoons

23 May

A few weeks ago, I promised to begin telling the story that led to this blog, and started off with the true confessions of a PETA convert in this post. As I mention there, while the decision for me to become a vegetarian was one meant to protest the cruel treatment of animals in factory farms, many other reasons piled up in the years I spent as a vegetarian.

Today, I’ll tackle the condensed version of one segment of those reasons: environmental degradation. As you might imagine, when a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO for those unfamiliar with the acronym) packs thousands of bodies into a small space, a whole slew of problems arise that lead to some serious pollution.

The first problem, to put it bluntly, is poop.

I learned the detailed facts of this particular problem from an outstanding piece of investigative journalism, the article “Boss Hog” by Jeff Tietz, originally published in Rolling Stone. It’s no longer available in full-text online,  but I’ve got a document version of it for the curious here. Warning: Do not read while anywhere near food.

Let me provide the summarized version of the poop problem. A lot of animals means a lot of animal waste, which is not being naturally absorbed into the earth to fertilize soil, because these animals don’t live anywhere near soil. CAFOs then, are usually accompanied by giant manure lagoons—manmade ponds into which all this excrement is pumped.

Manure lagoon overflow, courtesy of factoryfarm.org

Now, this is gross, and toxic fumes from manure lagoons have been known to actually poison people living nearby. But the dangers go even further, as Tietz writes, when you take into consideration what might happen if some of that manure were to escape. Whether because of hurricanes or flooding, sometimes the manure lagoon ends up partially underwater. Suddenly, all that waste is a part of the local water system, seeping into the groundwater, or running downstream into larger waterways, poisoning fish along the way. Unfortunately, that kind of manure contamination doesn’t only happen when a natural disaster occurs. These manure lagoons frequently leak accidentally—Cargill, Smithfield and Tyson have all been fined, on various occasions, millions of dollars for felony violations of the Clean Water Act for knowingly polluting local watersheds with waste from manure lagoons.

Manure lagoons are, unfortunately, just one on a list of serious environmental consequences of this kind of concentrated farming. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (more than the percentage caused by global transportation) is a result of industrial livestock operations.

But here is where the journey begins—just barely—to swing back in the other direction. Because when I moved to Iowa a few years ago, I got a peek at the root cause of a significant chunk of the meat industry’s environmental offenses. This is one of those secrets out in the open, a secret that’s only kept through a combination of our unwillingness to face the real environmental costs of our eating habits and our country’s general ignorance about the Middle.

The man behind the curtain of industrial meat, is, it turns out, corn.

Photo courtesy of Food & Water Watch

Many of you may know this—Michael Pollan did a pretty good job explaining it in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and if you want the whole sordid affair you should read that book. But if researching the food industry for the last few years has taught me anything, it’s to not assume people know what I’m talking about.

Industrially-produced meat animals in this country eat almost entirely one thing: corn. Well, corn and antibiotics (because living on top of a manure lagoon isn’t too good on the immune system). The vast majority of the corn grown in this country goes, not into high fructose corn syrup, but into animals. Cattle, chicken, hogs, you name it. (Bonus points if you can identify the one of those three animals whose digestive system is actually designed to process corn.)

As America’s appetite for meat has increased, we needed to find a way to grow animals fatter, faster. In steps corn. Anyone who’s ever visited the Midwest can testify to what that appetite has done to the landscape of this, our country’s most fertile soil. Well more than half of Iowa is covered in corn.

With all that corn comes a new slew of environmental problems. Chemical fertilizers (which are required to allow farmers to keep their fields in constant production, rather than incorporating fallow years to allow the soil to fix its own nutrients) and pesticides are sprayed over most of this corn, and then allowed to seep into the soil and watershed of the Midwest, right here on the banks of the mighty Mississippi.

Which is why new evidence suggests that the dead zone growing in the Gulf of Mexico, already the size of New Jersey, will soon become the largest ever recorded. This means the complete destruction of marine life—and with it, the food and livelihoods downstream that depend on that marine life.

Gulf of Mexico algae bloom, courtesy of Treehugger.com

This system of intense, industrial corn production is also causing problems right here in the Midwest, the region that depends on this system for much of its livelihood. New research from my very own Iowa State University tracks the dramatic erosion of soil, exacerbated by intense tilling methods, indicating that more than six million of Iowa’s plantable acres are losing soil at double the “sustainable” rate. Such erosion also multiplies the damage done by chemical runoff—the more soil is lost into the waterway, the more fertilizer and pesticide goes with it.

Factory farming significantly degrades the environment, and has become such a massive operation, on a planet struggling to feed more than six billion people, that industrial agriculture is now a serious force in the destruction of the planet. Air and waterway pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion—all a direct result of the way we produce meat now.

But it’s more complex than that—because the corn/soy growing rotation has such a large impact on this environmental degradation, it’s difficult to argue that a vegetarian eating soy-based meat substitutes (or processed foods containing any corn or soy byproducts) isn’t also contributing to these problems. I’m certainly not suggesting that the demand for tofu is what fueled this system, but any conventional food, even if meat-free, is being produced by the same industrial system.

This is how the boomerang began to move back around for me. This was just the first in a series of realizations that showed me just how large and destructive the food industry was, and that showed me the myriad ways in which I, even as a vegetarian, might still be buying into that industry. To be continued…

Have you ever stopped eating meat—or considered it? What were your reasons? Tree hugger or meat-lover, leave a comment and share your thoughts on the environmental impacts or any other ethical implications!

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