Food & Society: Farm, Factory & Fork
by Lauren Williams, Public Services Librarian
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.
I will never forget the day my young daughter inspected the neat wedge of meat on her dinner plate and asked, incredulously, “Do we call this chicken because it’s from a chicken?” The majority of us are far removed from our food sources. Our meat and vegetables—often shipped from another state or country—come shrink-wrapped from the supermarket, not fresh from the family farm, and our snacks come in packages printed with lists of unpronounceable ingredients. Change is definitely afoot, however, with a growing number of books, films and events aiming to educate us about the sources of our food, its effects on our health and the environmental, economic and even moral implications of what we consume.
Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) is credited with triggering a national dialogue about how—and what—Americans eat. This exhaustively researched exposé faults fast food corporations for everything from the “mall-ification” of the American landscape to the ruin of the family farm and the American diet. But decades before Schlosser’s call to arms, farmer Wendell Berry was writing eloquently about the dangers of modern food production and advocating for sustainable agriculture. “Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food” (Counterpoint, 2009) collects some of Berry’s best writings on the dangers of industrial farming and the importance of mindful eating. “Eating is an agricultural act,” Berry asserts. In other words, everyone who eats should pay attention to food production.
“Production” is an appropriate word, as much of what Americans eat is manufactured. In the documentary “Food Inc.” (2008), filmmaker Robert Kenner exposes the idyllic scene of cows grazing in verdant pastures that appears on meat packaging as a myth. The majority of the meat sold in supermarkets comes from large-scale, corporate-owned factory operations. These are focused on producing cheap meat for the greatest profit, not the effects of their practices on the health of the environment, the consumer and the billions of animals raised and slaughtered worldwide for our food. The scenes of animals packed in pens, wading (and sometimes dying) in their own waste is enough to make a viewer re-evaluate consuming what psychoanalyst and writer Jeffrey Masson refers to as “The Face on Your Plate” (WW Norton, 2009).
Both Masson and food writer Mark Bittman (“Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating,” Simon & Schuster, 2009) cite a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization study reporting that globally livestock production is responsible for nearly one-fifth of all greenhouse gases. The way we eat causes more environmental damage than the SUVs we drive. Anna Lappé’s “Diet for a Hot Planet” (Bloomsbury USA, 2010) further implicates industrial agriculture and processed food production in land erosion, water pollution and rainforest destruction.
And then there is the impact of the Western diet on our health. Journalist Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” 2006) begins his “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” (Penguin Press, 2008) with this advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Pollan ties our heavy consumption of meat and “highly processed foodlike products” to increasing numbers of people suffering from diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and other illnesses. Strange that we should have to be told to eat a vegetable rather than ethoxylated diglycerides, but such is the current state of our eating habits.
Surrounded by packaged food containing what Steve Ettlinger (“Twinkie Deconstructed,” Hudson Street Press, 2007) describes as raw materials “crushed, baked, fermented, refined and/or reacted into a totally unrecognizable goo or powder,” what is an eater to do? Some have been inspired to grand experiments in urban farming (“My Empire of Dirt” by Manny Howard, Scribner, 2010) or to diets restricted to locally sourced foods (“Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and A Raucous Year of Eating Locally” by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, Harmony Books, 2007). Those of us without the land or resources to embark on such agricultural adventures instead could celebrate our local farmers and patronize seasonal markets such as those gorgeously photographed in “Edible” by Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010). We can comfort ourselves with straightforward and delicious foods with a little help from books such as Ivy Manning’s “The Farm to Table Cookbook” (Sasquatch Books, 2008), Alice Waters’ “In the Green Kitchen” (Clarkson Potter, 2010) and Jay Weinstein’s “The Ethical Gourmet” (Broadway Books, 2006). Put simply, we can strive to make informed choices about what we eat.