In my sophomore year of high school I took a geography class and was indoctrinated with what seemed like compelling and rational arguments in support of vegetarianism. This resulted in my attempt to become a vegetarian. Of course, my Argentinean genes were too strong and I lasted maybe a month before I was back on the meat wagon.
Then Eric Schlosser came out with the ground-breaking book, Fast Food Nation, which graphically depicted the process of how major American farm factories produce food. I would comment on some of the horror stories Schlosser uncovered, but I am afraid it would send most of you running to the bathroom. Suffice it to say, food production in this country is not as sterile and congenial as we might like it to be.
More recently, The Nation published a forum identifying major issues of concern in American daily diets and food production. Although not commonly debated, our national means of food production have environmental, political, economic, social and ethical implications.
In the tradition of Marx, let’s study the economic dimension to our food problem. As New York University professor Marion Nestle comments, “farm subsidies, tariffs and trade agreements support a food supply that provides 3,900 calories per day per capita, roughly twice the average need, and 700 calories a day higher than in 1980, at the dawn of the obesity epidemic.”
Economically, our governmental subsidies make little sense and tend to help big agribusiness more than small independent farmers. As a result, we have warehouses full of surplus food, idly waiting to turn bad or be shipped to schools.
As Michael Pollan, professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkley argues, “Right now, the school lunch program is designed not around the goal of children’s health but to help dispose of surplus agricultural commodities, especially cheap feedlot beef and dairy products, both high in fat.”
We should not be surprised when kids suffer from obesity and other nutrition-related problems, such as diabetes. After all, it’s a small price to pay to keep the big agribusinesses happy, right?
We should keep in mind that our national food production methods are also not conducive to sustainable agricultural practices. Industrial agriculture is, by the lights of author Wendell Berry, “enormously destructive of farmland, farm communities and farmers. It wastes soil, water, energy and life. It is highly centralized, genetically impoverished and dependent on cheap fossil fuels, on long-distance hauling and on consumers’ ignorance.”
Organic farming is more practical – it reduces the economic burden on farmers and environmental strain on farming lands. Eliot Coleman, a long-time farmer, relates that seasoned organic farmers know how to avoid the use of chemical pesticides in treating low yields by applying natural fertility-improving resources, such as deep-rooting legumes, green manures and crop and livestock rotations.
Our food production methods raise concerns among many animal rights advocates. Princeton University professor of bioethics Peter Singer has become renowned for his contributions to nonanthropocentrism, arguing the exclusion of animals from the moral sphere is on par with earlier exclusions of blacks and women. Singer especially expressed concern about factory farming, which he considers “the biggest system of cruelty to animals ever devised.”
If not for the torturing of animals, consider columnist Jim Hightower’s critique of the conglomeratized agribusinesses: “They actually torture food – applying massive doses of pesticides, sex hormones, antibiotics, genetically manipulated organisms, artificial flavorings and color, chemical preservatives, ripening gas, irradiation… and so awfully much more. The attitude of agribusiness is that if brute force isn’t working, you’re probably just not using enough of it.”
As a meat eater and poor student who can’t afford organic farm products, these methods of food production are alarming. Where’s the fun in biting into an apple and turning into a man? Our options are clearly on the table: we can help small farmers by pressuring our government to stop over-subsidizing and supporting big agribusinesses, or we can simply treat ourselves to more helpings of sex hormones.
Luci Storelli-Castro is a junior political science and philosophy major. Her column runs every Thursday in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.