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Industrial Food and Its Discontents

Table of Contents

Industrial FoodThe Homestead Alternatives

The Homestead Alternative

“Eaters…must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.” ~Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating”

I recently heard Nina Planck, author of Real Food, give this advice: “How should you eat for maximum health? Simple—don’t eat anything with a label.“ In my judgment, assessment of most of the foods on offer in the industrial marketplace has to be just that radical: They are not fit to eat. As I search for viable alternatives, I start with the realization that the industrial system is not “fixable”. The food supply in this country—indeed, increasingly globally—is controlled from seed to plate by four or five mega-corporations, largely unaccountable to any single national government. Remember that in our economic system, the primary responsibility of those corporations is to make profits for their stockholders—indeed, giving primacy to any other goal would, quite literally, be criminal behavior on their part. The flip side of that coin that goes largely unnoticed is that those corporations have absolutely no obligation to maximize the nutritional and health-enhancing qualities of the foods they sell. Indeed, to the extent that nutrient-deficient but high-appeal foods generate greater profits, their emphasis on such foods in their product lines is entirely logical and completely consistent with their charters.

Given the growing consolidation and power of the food/agribusiness industry, it is not surprising that it has attained enormous ability to influence the very agencies of government whose ostensible purpose is to protect us. A single example will suffice: In formulating its much-heralded “new food pyramid,” the USDA originally intended to caution consumers against other than “occasional” consumption of refined sugars and starches. In response to heavy pressure from the food industry, however, no such warning is to be found in the new pyramid. The closest it comes is a vague “know the limits on fats, sugars and salts,” advice likely to be useless to the average consumer (exactly the result desired by the industry, which profits most by maximum ignorance and confusion on the part the public).

My wife Ellen and I try to ensure maximum quality and nutrition in the foods on our table by opting out of the industrial food market to the maximum extent possible. At present, I estimate that 85 percent of the food we eat does not have a label: We either grow it in our own backyard, or purchase it face-to-face from local small farmers we know personally. (The 15 percent which we do buy? Foods that we cannot buy locally—olive and coconut oils, rice, and, yes, coffee and high-cacao chocolate. None of it is frozen chicken nuggets, breakfast cereals, or organic blue corn chips.) We recommend that two-prong strategy to all American consumers, in whatever relative mix is available to them. Even urban dwellers may have the opportunity to grow a tiny portion of their food in a patio pot—a tomato plant or two, some herbs, lettuces, scallions, etc. Certainly most of them can find farmers markets where some of the vendors grow what they sell themselves. Most suburbanites should have space for a real garden, which can be amazingly productive, however small, with planning and intelligent management. By organizing buying groups, they can share forays out into the country to bring back and distribute superior foods from traditional small farms.


Small Homestead

Those who live in the country have maximum opportunity to do as we do: create an integrated, productive homestead that provides an increasing amount of the family’s food with each passing season; and seek out like-minded local producers who can supply those foods we are unable to produce ourselves.

The advantages of producing our own food or purchasing (or bartering) from known local sources exactly parallel the disadvantages and flaws of the industrial food system:

Food safety

When we produce our own food, we know it is safe. When we buy from the small farmer who is also our neighbor, that farmer and his family are in effect our “canary in the coal mine”: They are eating the same foods they furnish us, day in and day out. Not only do they have a personal investment in the safety of the food, but any food safety problem is likely to exhibit first within the family itself. No longer is the safety of our food a crap-shoot, dependent on a totally anonymous system based on minimum-wage, exploited, often uneducated workers at the bottom of the food chain, who have no personal stake whatsoever in guarding our health and safety.

Food quality

Producing our own or buying it close to home is a recipe for the best, freshest ingredients possible. One likely result is that our eating will become simpler and more basic—food made from the best of primary ingredients is deeply satisfying and does not require a lot of fancy preparation.

True food choice

We are no longer forced to accept the options dictated by the industrial food market. We eat real, traditional foods rather than ersatz imitations. We avoid the disguised addition of genetically modified crops; hyper-processed and highly questionable ingredients like powdered eggs and milk; food flavorings, preservatives, pesticide residues, and other additives; ultra-refined starches and sugars; etc. We avoid beef, pork, and chicken raised and slaughtered under conditions so inhumane and so filthy they can continue only if hidden from view.

The true cost of food

Perhaps the biggest surprise for most people who try to opt out of the industrial food system is—their food may well not always cost less! Of course, your backyard tomatoes will certainly cost a lot less than the supermarket version. And we find that the lamb and kid we buy on the hoof and pay an abattoir to butcher and process is cheaper than commercial lamb, doubtless because of the number of “middle men” who have been cut out of the loop. But people who think I raise my own chickens to save money are always amazed when I tell them my dressed poultry and eggs cost more—much more—than what they buy in the supermarket. I buy certified organic ingredients to make my feeds, and there is no way I can compete with the poultry industry giants and their boxcar loads of debased feeds and their externalized costs.

When it comes to food costs, it is well to remember the old adage: You get what you pay for. I would propose that we remember as well: One dollar, one vote. Every dollar we plunk down for food is first and foremost a vote in favor of the way that food was produced. We may bemoan social and economic injustice among agricultural workers, but our purchase of most supermarket fruits and vegetables is a vote in favor of brutally exploitative labor practices. Buying produce locally, on the other hand, is a vote for the vitality of small family farms and the resurgence of rural communities. Our hearts may weep when we learn of the horrors experienced by chickens and pigs raised in concentration-camp conditions, or beef cattle in giant feedlots, standing knee deep in their own manure. But the dollar we lay down for that fast-food burger or chicken nugget cares not a whit about our tender feelings—it is a powerful and most effective vote for more of the same. Most of us are terrified about the prospects for further and accelerating climate change, yet how we eat has everything to do with pumping additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A dollar paid to a farmer whose practices protect the web of life in the soil and prevent humus oxidation may seem like a small vote, but it is most definitely a movement in the other direction. Finally, all of us would do well to question how much of a bargain is “cheap food” which in the long run undermines our health. Every dollar we spend on more expensive but more wholesome foods is a vote for longterm freedom from debilitating disease.

Food security

In the Great Depression of the 1930’s, there was real hunger in the cities. Many people in the country were equally devestated financially, but at least had enough to eat, either because they were used to producing a lot of their own food, or because they had neighbors who could, and with whom they could barter. Now, almost a century later, a serious economic collapse would find vastly more people in cities and suburbs—and many of those still living in rural areas lacking in the skills and accumulated wisdom of farming.

Whatever brings on a major economic dislocation, there can be little doubt that one of the first results experienced by most citizens will be increasing difficulty of ready access to food, whether through lack of abundant fuel to grow and move it from distant sources of supply, or personal financial constriction. Sources of food under one’s own control or that of close neighbors will be far more secure in a time of rapid economic change than that in the supermarket. Furthermore, those who have wisely climbed the necessary learning curves and acquired food-production skills will be far better prepared, both in terms of seeing to their own family’s needs, and of being of service to others who do not have a clue. The time to prepare for an uncertain future is now, and we can make no more useful preparation than learning how to produce more of our own food.

Reconnecting through food

Surely there has been no society in human history more estranged than ours from the natural world; and we experience that broken relationship foremost in what we eat and the way we eat it: artificial foods bearing little apparent relation to their origin in soil or in living plants and animals; eaten thoughtlessly, on the run.

Modern eating is above all about forgetting—about what it is we are eating, about its origins in living systems. The alternative is to know our food intimately, to care intensely about its quality and its role in our lives, to share it with others with gratitude and respect.

When we grow our own food, or seek it from known sources close by, we reconnect with the natural year, the passing of the seasons, the interdependence of all forms of life in the great web. By participating in the creation of our food, from soil to table, we find our way back to food as gift, as sacred.