The Era of Cheap Food

Simon Farlie has recently published an excellent work entitled Meat: A Benign Extravagance in which he examines, in detail the various arguments both for and against the production and consumption of animal flesh.

Understand this; all life on Earth requires the death of and consumption of another life form. This is an inescapable truth and arguments for the sentience of each particular species aside and its fundamental right to live a life and not become nourishment for other life forms is academic. A steer grazing in my field can either feed my family and my neighbors or it can live its entire life until it dies of some other cause at which point it will be nourishment for worms and bacteria- in the end it feeds something.

Humans have, through the past 10,000 years at least, established a role for themselves as mediators in the process by selectively choosing to husband certain life forms in a way that benefits himself. It is far more reliable to practice agriculture than it is to be a gatherer of wild edibles because of the odds. Weather cannot be controlled-that we know of- but the scale of what can be harvested in its time can be greatly expanded by the use of techniques and methods that maximize the odds in our favor. As observant human beings over the ages began to build their skill sets and methods it was noted that manures, when applied at certain times and in certain states could vastly improve harvests and so farming developed. It has been said that farming is the Mother of the natural sciences- that virtually all we know of the processes of life are a direct result of the practices of agrarians.

What happened at the close of the Second World War was that two new tools were introduced to the world of agriculture at levels that dwarfed earlier agricultural advances, namely petroleum based fertilizers and petroleum fueled farm equipment. Both of these developments maximized harvests leading to greatly reduced food prices- so much so that within a generation our entire national participation rate for agriculture dropped by more than a 1000%. The processes that fed our families and nourished our bodies were no longer common knowledge of the entire population, but an industrial process as alien as the manufacture of silicon wafers or plastic extrusions. Rather than to rely on the accumulated knowledge of a hundred generations, we passed off our responsibility to feed ourselves to oil men and lab rats. Is it any surprise that in their effort to maximize profits through economies of scale that the inevitable conclusion was to feed their consumers pink slime?

While on the surface this must have seemed like such a great leap forward (where have I heard that phrase before?) by freeing up not only 25-30% of our income that had previously been spent on food, but by eliminating from American life the necessity of laboring in a garden and the risks associated with weather and harvests, not to mention the time in preserving these harvests for the pantry. From here on out it was TV instead of weeding the garden, nodding off in the hammock instead of cleaning out the chicken coop, twitter instead of listening to the tweeting of real birds.

Of course, like physics always shows us, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Those super efficient farm machines that complete in a single day what would take a man months to do also compacted the soils in a way that twenty generations of family members walking on its fields could never accomplish. That the ever expanding requirement for fertilizers would also leave the soils as inert and dead as a lava field, unable to bring forth life without the application of tons of anhydrous ammonias and pulverized lime. That the livestock long required for fertilizing the soil with their wastes would no longer be needed, reducing worldwide herd and flock sizes to numbers last seen in the dark ages. It also placed the flocks, the fields, the herds and the seeds into the hands of less than 1% of the population where previously common ownership had been as ubiquitous as cell phones today. And lest we forget, when we gave up our ability to grow and raise and slaughter and harvest our own food supply, we lost our collective store of generational knowledge. We sacrificed our freedom to feed ourselves and our families for convenience and in exchange we enslaved ourselves to a select minority for the one need we all have daily without regard to age, sex, race or social status- nourishment.

And now we discover that they would feed your precious children “pink slime”, or worse yet, e coli, or camphobactyr or wood chips if it looked good to the bottom line.

Yesterday we worked as a family in the gardens for about 12 hours. The younger children are expected to participate, but aren’t forced to hang in there all day. They plant a bit, go off and play for a while, come back and ask questions, go down to the brook and come back again with a snake. My wife who in a previous life could have been the Princess in Enchanted mixed rotted manure with sifted loam in the wheel barrow and potted red geraniums while I put in 200 feet of red, white and yellow onion sets. We weeded the greens in the raised beds, hilled the rows of beans that were only just starting to germinate on the Sunday before Memorial Day and finished the evening with a steaming plate of freshly harvested asparagus and grilled flank steaks from a particularly sassy Chianina cow that weighed close to a half ton hanging weight.

Whenever I see that stats regarding the number of farmers left in America I assume that I am part of that count, but I am not one of them. There’s no GPS on my tractor, It isn’t air conditioned except by the air itself and I don’t get subsidies for things I don’t grow paid for by taxpayers dollars. I try and make this place a little more productive each year, spread my risk around a bit by adding new crops or improving ones we already produce and make sure that my family never goes hungry. When everything works out right we sell the overabundance to grateful friends and neighbors and put whatever we earn right back into the place so that when our children step up it will be that much more productive, that much healthier and that much more fertile.

The era of cheap food is at the doorstep, America and the new era of expensive garbage in the form of pink slime with all of its concealed and attendant costs to health and nourishment is upon us.

« Next | Previous »
comments powered by Disqus