Have you seen “Food, Inc.”? It’s the new documentary about our industrialized food system and its effect on our environment, economy and workers’ rights. Michael Pollan is interviewed in the movie, which offers a good summary of his book Omnivore’s Dilemma. Even having read that and other similar books, I was glad I saw the movie and found it motivating.
My favorite line from “Food, Inc.” is the reminder that we vote three meals a day. This movie wakes us up from the complacency that the way we eat is okay. I’ve said it here before: the way we eat is making us sick. Our industrial food practices come at a cost and “Food, Inc.” takes an unflinching look at those costs.
Commodity corn and soy are subsidized by the government. This does two things: it keeps the prices artificially low and it forces the farmers growing them to maximize yield. These practices generate a huge surplus, which provides cheap feed for animals and cheap ingredients for processed foods. This contributes to the disturbing fact that junk food tends to be cheaper than fruits and vegetables – it’s subsidized.
There are advantages to feeding surplus grains to animals: it is cheap and it creates fast growth. It also provides huge quantities of meat for a protein-loving culture, but to look at the true costs we need to look at its impact on animals, environment and our health.
Cows and pigs raised on factory farms are packed into a limited space where there is no easy way to dispose of their ankle-deep manure. They need antibiotics to survive their diet and confinement – causing resistant strains of bacteria to develop. Their meat contains more fat and more omega-6 fats (more about these next month) – increasing our risk for heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Chickens used to reach full size in 70 days; now they are double that size in just 48 days. Their organs and bones can’t sustain the weight. Not only do we feed surplus corn to cows and chickens, but we even feed corn to fish – including farmed tilapia and salmon.
Back to the idea of voting with our meals. There is a great story in the movie about Walmart, who in March of 2008, announced that their milk would only be sourced from cows not treated with artificial growth hormones, such as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST). This was not altruistic; they did it because their shoppers demanded it. The story shows how powerful our shopping dollars are: we really can create change by asking for what we want. What we buy is what our grocers stock.
I have a challenge for you: eat less meat (including poultry and fish). Have one or two meat-free days a week. We have to be willing to pay the farmers the true cost of food that is healthy (for us, animals and the planet!) We can’t raise enough meat sustainably to meet our current demand, but we can if we eat a little less. As a bonus, if we eat less, then the extra expense doesn’t matter so much.
For example, I buy grass fed beef, organic chicken and wild salmon. All are significantly more expensive – but I don’t eat them daily. Even if I pay double for grass fed hamburger, I can cut the cost in half by eating beans and rice the next night (which is healthy and I love). So I end up paying the same amount overall, eating healthy, supporting the farmers and markets who offer these choices; and it all supports sustainable agriculture.
What continually amazes and delights me is that what is healthy for us is also what is good for the planet. We don’t have to sacrifice our health for sustainable practices, and even the added cost can be managed. This weekend I’m headed to a Slow Foods 100-mile dinner, celebrating our local food culture and farmers. We are lucky to live in an area that gives us a wealth of healthy choices. Remember to vote by supporting them! And I highly recommend seeing “Food, Inc.”
Kathy Nichols is the Healthy Habits Coach. As a registered dietitian and certified life coach, Kathy helps people who are tired of diets and feeling guilty find a way of eating that is sustainable, healthy and enjoyable.