James Sasso, Associate Editor
Part I: Health
America, the country of abundance, the country of limitless land, the country with a chicken in every pot, has an unhealthy love affair with food. In fact, I would go further, and say that Americans have a clinical obsession with food. We developed a TV channel dedicated to the idea that people would tune in to watch, not even eat, food. We have movies about restaurants and chefs. There are reality shows about food in which we watch others eat and magazines dedicated to cooking. In such a culture one would think that the American food system held sway as the most sophisticated, sustainable, healthy, tasty and overall benevolent in the world, but it is far from so.
Instead of such a pristine agricultural world, America’s food systems (including meat, fish, dairy and agriculture) are among the most disgusting in the world. American farms cherish size and speed over the quality of the product, which leads away from a more natural method of farming. To ensure size and speed, massive farms employ industrial business techniques where the animals, fruits and vegetables are treated as any other commodity—not one that enters the bodies of humans. Animals are treated to unnecessary hormones and antibiotics to bring them to market size faster, and they are not allowed to move so that they fatten in less time. Vegetables and fruits are manipulated to grow to greater sizes with genetic engineering, the use of chemical-laden fertilizers and by the use of dangerous pesticides.
Sure these techniques permit a greater yield of meat and produce, but at what cost? The animals in factory farms are disease ridden, even with the massive use of antibiotics, because they are living in an unnatural state. Factory farms cram—and I mean cram—as many animals as possible into tight spaces because it simply saves them cost. These businesses want to increase profit at whatever cost to the quality of the product, and they largely can get away with it because farms, even these obviously industrialized farms, are not subject to the same regulation as other polluting, hazardous industries because they are “agricultural.” I won’t get into the gory details (as they are quite scary), but these animals are tormented in the name of cheap meat that everybody can afford, thus increasing the profits of these megafarm companies.
As for produce, megafarms do not tend to the quality of their individual plants as a small farm would. Produce megafarms literally farm thousands upon thousands of acres and, therefore, need to use more indirect methods of “caring” for their product, namely through the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Normally the word “fertilizer” does not have a negative connotation, but when this farming aid is laced with nitrogen to give the vegetables veritable steroids, one can say that this food is not grown naturally and that this fertilizer is hardly a nurturing cultivator.
Generation Y has grown up in the evolving food culture in America. There certainly are positive aspects to the amount of attention that we give to food, such as an increased awareness of the former-mentioned atrocities, an evolving restaurant revolution where chefs are producing higher quality dishes (using more locally grown ingredients because the customers demand it) and a noticeable return to small, family-run farms. All in all, Generation Y is the most “foodie” generation. We crave not only food to fulfill the dietary needs of the day, but food that tastes delicious and that meets standards of quality.
From a foodie standpoint, let alone an animalist or environmentalist perspective, the modern megafarm system dangerously harms the quality of food. Food travels on average 1,500 to 2,500 miles before it reaches the table! That’s almost half the country! Food products, with the exception of a few, were not meant to travel that kind of distance. Surely refrigeration has aided the shelf life of food, but this does not change the fact that food producers literally have been forced (by their own methods of production) to evolve the food so that it can handle such large journeys. Produce has to come to maturity faster, which increases the amount of time before it rots. Invariably, this affects taste.
Have you ever eaten a strawberry during strawberry season from a local farmer? Does it not taste entirely different from a strawberry sold at Stop and Shop? It’s a fact; local foods grown in season and in a natural manner taste better. Don’t believe that there is a difference? Wait for apple season, and compare; eat an apple from an orchard, and then go eat one from the local megamart. Your life will be changed forever. In the same breath, factory-farmed meat tastes like leather when compared to naturally grown, properly raised, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, locally grown meat. I guarantee that once you eat a steak that has been treated correctly by a local farmer you will never be able to eat a steak from the supermarket, let alone McDonald’s, again.
Whether or not you agree with the environmental and social effects of mass produced meat and megafarmed vegetables, as a generation of people who genuinely care about the quality of their food, you can agree that our food system needs to change. We watch enough Food Network, we watch enough Top Chef, we read enough about food to know that taste is important. Food has become more than sustenance; it is an art form. And as with all art forms we care about, the end product should be the best it can be. When eating, both for pleasure and with a critical mouth, taste always trumps the other aesthetic qualities such as size or visual pleasure. Our current farming system does not provide our budding taste buds and evolving sense of food with a proper template to create the masterful works of art.
So, Generation Y, are we foodies or are we mere consumers? Do we care more about the quality of what we eat or how cheap it costs? I say we should embrace our “foodiness,” and by the growing popularity of the chef culture, this assumption must reflect some accuracy. We can no longer linger in this hypocrisy of food, treating it in one instance as a cheap consumer good and in another as the basis for great art.
Part II: Environment
As the generation on which the current environmental crisis will have the most affect, one would think that we would care about major causes of the food disaster in America. Alas, we would rather ignore problems in order to continue living in the comfort of our polluting ways. For once I am sorry that this is America. Food production should not incerase pollution, but while fossil fuels do contribute significantly to global warming, factory farms are not far behind in their disruption of the natural order of the world. And sadly, factory farming and modern megafarms contribute to the havoc we wreak on the environment in more ways than fossil fuels do.
Factory farming does its fair share of air polluting, contributing to 18 percent of total greenhouse emissions. Factory farmed animals produce many more times waste than their natural brethren, and to deal with this waste, factory farms create massive pools filled with the liquefied feces (farms use lots of water to turn it into a liquidy mess). These pools generally are uncovered, and the methane leaks freely into the air. Such large amounts of methane are considered to be a major player in global warming.
The feces from these “pools” is used generally as fertilizer in large megafarms. Usually, this would be a good thing–manure makes good fertilizer, and in many cases this holds true even for factory farmed animals–but factory farms greatly increase the chances of disease in the animal, which means disease in the waste of the animal. When diseased waste is sprayed onto vegetables as fertilizer, the plants, too, become diseased, leading to outbreaks of E. coli or salmonella in vegetables. We’ve seen these breakouts in spinach and tomatoes in increasing numbers over recent years.
Besides using tainted fertilizers, megafarms employ numerous questionably safe growing methods in order to ensure that their plants come to unnaturally large size in unnaturally little time, namely, pesticides and nitrogen. These chemical additives pollute the soil and seep into the drinking water of America. Caused directly from the amount of nitrogen in fertilizers used in the Midwest, the Mississippi River actually has a “dead zone,” where oxygen eating bacteria have taken over and nothing else can survive. Pesticides, at the same time, kill the honey bees that are necessary for the ecosystem to prosper.
Furthermore, to increase profits, companies have developed monocultured plants that all react to stimulants such as fertilizers in the same fashion. These uniform, abnormally large and quickly maturing plants lose their resistance to insect invaders who can adapt to the poisonous pesticides. The megafarms are forced to use continuously more chemicals to ward off the increasingly resistant crop-eaters. For the most part, these monoculture plants are the grains and corn fed to livestock in this country, increasing the amount of poison that enters the bodies of the animals we eat, which in turn increases the amount of chemicals in our diet. At the same time, increased herbicides and pesticides used to protect the incredibly vulnerable–albeit incredibly profitable–plants leads to an amplified presence of these chemicals in the water and aquifer systems.
I thought our generation would understand the problems of environmental damage. Have we not seen the direct effects of pesticides and herbicides on animals like birds? Have we not been educated rigorously to understand the dangers of polluting our drinking supply? These massive farms and breeding prisons do nothing beneficial for the environment. They skirt regulation by claiming to be agricultural instead of industrial, and they induce toxic waste into the environment many more times than any nuclear power plant! Our food system is being polluted literally from the inside out! I thought America was a modern, progressing country, one that had left the practice of using dangerous chemicals in products we eat. I guess I was wrong.