Monday, May 9, 2011

Food Commentary

The route to be continued!
The nature of this trip is that we stick to the interstate nearly all the time; this leaves us with just a glimpse of each state’s landscape. We put the Rocky Mountains at our back on April 18th and moved northeast into Nebraska. Eastern Colorado is not what I pictured at all. Once you can’t see the mountains anymore, it’s all prairie, ranches, and farmland.

Anyone curious about our nation’s food system should read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. After joining an organic food co-op in 2007, we read it and it changed the way we think about food and eating. Pollan’s In Defense of Food is a great follow-up read as well. In Omnivore, he traces three meals from table to origin and discovers unbelievable things about how our food is raised, grown, and processed. Our food vocabulary now includes words like conventional and industrial. We know some food has been irradiated, waxed, or picked early so it ships long-distance and looks good in the supermarket without real concern about taste. We also know that the USDA standards for organic certification are not as stringent as one might hope or think. Still, we choose organic veggies and fruits over conventionally grown ones. If we can’t get something organic, we usually go without. We know Americans (ourselves included) eat more meat than we need which causes any number of health issues along with pollution and animal abuse. We demand so much beef and chicken that operations called Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) exist.
Somewhere in Nebraska
Cattle are bred on one farm, raised for a short time (months) on another, then shipped to a CAFO which keeps them in tightly crowded, muddy pens, and feeds them a steady diet of corn silage and animal protein until they are fat and ready for slaughter at a fourth location. Don’t picture two or three pens either; these mucky CAFOs literally cover square miles sometimes. This process creates massive amounts of concentrated manure. As we drove past a few of these farms in western Nebraska, I nearly gagged at the stench in the air. And I grew up mucking horse stalls. I can’t help but think what that runoff does to the groundwater. Needless to say, these farms—if you can call them that—are not in residential areas and some of them even put up privacy fences so the highway drivers can’t see clearly what’s going on. We saw hundreds of cattle grazing on prairie that were destined for the CAFO and we were passed by at least a hundred cattle trucks heading to or from the slaughter house or the next farm. I was again struck by the scale of the process we require as meat overeaters. Slaughter houses are a whole other issue but I will say that if everyone had to raise, kill, and butcher their own meat, there’d be a whole lot less cattle and chicken being raised. We’re so far removed from our meat that we just pick up a Styrofoam packaged hunk from the fridge display and throw it on the grill. No mooing, no poop, no hassle.

Another pervasive element of Colorado and Nebraska along I-76 and I-80 are cornfields. Being April, they probably weren’t planted yet but I recognized the old stalk stumps from last year’s crop. For miles it seemed, we saw acres and acres of cornfields with huge grain elevators rising up from the horizon. Why so much corn? It’s subsidized so farmers get paid per bushel produced. Why subsidized? I’m no expert, but I know that there are powerful lobbyists working to keep corn and soy as cash crops. We use corn in everything. Sweetener, preservative, oil, clothing, fuel, animal feed, stabilizer, you name it and we’ve figured out how to use our surplus of corn to do it. A great movie about this is King Corn if you’re interested.
An irrigation/fertilization line...on every cornfield in Nebraska
Corn is huge out here; we even saw that at the gas pump. In Nebraska we had to choose: $3.96 for 87 Octane without ethanol OR $3.79 for 89 Octane with 10% ethanol. We had no idea if this was good for our 2004 Ford Expedition so I did a quick search and learned that we’d get worse mileage but it wouldn’t necessarily hurt the car. It’s cheaper for obvious reasons but don’t get too excited about renewable biofuels just yet. There’s a corn surplus because farmers use liquid nitrogen fertilizer to increase their yield per acre. There’s also a surplus because so many thousands of acres are tilled, irrigated, sprayed with herbicide and pesticide and because corn has been genetically modified so thoroughly to be so productive. Don’t think of the juicy sweet corn we eat off the cob. This is feed corn; it’s tough and chalky and not edible in its cob form so we have to use humongous machines to harvest and process the ears…more fuel. Biofuels require so many of our resources before we even begin to make the fuel that it’s not a viable replacement for fossil fuels on the scale that we use them. I don’t have any fancy statistics for you but cornfields is all we saw for hundreds of miles and whether we know it or not, corn is in our food—our meat, our ice cream, our peanut butter, etc. Look at the labels.

So. We choose organic veggies and dairy, eat less meat, don’t eat industrial meat, and buy organic processed foods with fewer than five ingredients. What about restaurants? We usually choose from the vegetarian options and whenever possible support restaurants that use local, organic, sustainably raised food. At home we did our best to eat in season which meant making use of our garden and avoiding cabbage in July and watermelon in January among other should-be oddities. That’s been a little harder on the road simply because it’s hard to tell what’s “in season” when you’re only three hundred miles from California and Mexico where nearly everything grows all the time.

Chris and I have slowly evolved together as we have learned bit by bit about our food and where it comes from. I encourage anyone who reads this to do their best to eat local and organic (or better) whenever possible and to substitute at least one meat meal with a vegetarian option each week. Try refried beans, quinoa, polenta, quiche, veggie soup, lasagna, calzones, or stuffed peppers!

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