I miss Rick Mercer. I especially miss his rants, so I’m going to have one of my own, right here. It’s about food.
The next time you sit down to eat, consider the food in front of you. Where did it come from? If it is meat, what was that animal fed and in what conditions was it raised? If it is a plant, where was that plant grown and how was it grown?
These are questions that our family asked ourselves many years ago and they were partly responsible for our move to a farm. I was recently reminded of these questions while listening to an NPR Science Friday podcast interview of Michael Pollen, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
The title refers to the quandary faced by animals like humans (and rats and cockroaches) that, in order to stay alive, must choose from a bewildering array of edible and non-edible substances. We can eat a lot, but what should we eat?
Because we are omnivores, we don’t manufacture very many of the nutrients we need. We get the more than 50 different required molecules and atoms by eating a variety of different foods. Or we should. But when following the paths of various foods from our plate to their origin, Pollen kept coming back to one crop – corn.
“Corn is in the coffee whitener and the Cheese Whiz, the frozen yoghurt and the TV Dinner, the canned fruit, the ketchup, the candy, the soups, the snacks, the cake mixes, the frosting, the gravy, the frozen waffles, the syrup, the hot sauce, the mayonnaise, the mustard, the hot dogs, the baloney, the margarine, the shortening, the salad dressing, the relishes, even the vitamins,” Pollen writes, “Indeed the supermarket itself, the wallboard, the joint compound, the linoleum, the Fibreglass, the adhesives from which the building itself is built is in no small measure a manifestation of corn.”
This is mainly because of the miracle of modern agriculture – commercial fertilizer – fertility in a bag. This allowed farmers to grow vast amounts of corn, a notoriously heavy feeder, which can then be teased into so many different products. In recent years, soybeans have been harnessed to pull in tandem with corn.
We are as dependent on corn as the Irish were on the potato in 1845, before the Great Famine, and it’s a dangerous way to eat.
In past generations, there was a natural cycle. Farmers kept animals that provided fertilizer to the fields and, in turn, ate the produce from the fields. It worked pretty well.
But now, because fertility is in a bag, farmers no longer have to have animals on their farms. In the words of Wendell Berry, “We’ve taken a solution and divided it neatly into two problems – an animal waste problem and a crop fertility problem.”
The animal waste problem comes from urbanizing farm animals. Cattle, pigs, and chickens are now grown in urban environments – high density buildings are packed with animals needing antibiotics and hormones to avoid disease. They produce vast amounts of waste in a concentrated area. The bacteria e-coli, for example, the highly-toxic one that caused so much trouble in Walkerton, is a feedlot bacteria. Corn changes the digestive environment of cattle to favour the growth of e-coli. It is not a problem in beef raised on grass. Five days of grazing is enough to eliminate e-coli, but the economics of farming demands low-cost corn, not grass, fed to urbanized cattle.
The crop fertility problem comes from fertilizer run-off into our lakes, streams, and rivers. Then there’s the amount of fossil fuel required to make fertilizer. Common estimates are that it takes two litres of oil to make a bushel of corn (fertilizer, tractor fuel, transportation). It is not sustainable to use 20% of our fossil fuel (more than we use driving cars) to grow food.
Similarly, it is not sustainable to use corn to make ethanol because it takes about a gallon of fossil fuel to make a gallon of ethanol, but that’s another story.
Farmers know that the current system is not working, but they are trapped into having just a few big multinationals willing to buy their crops and livestock, and those offering only rock-bottom prices. Most farmers are unhappy and find they have to work off the farm to make ends meet.
So what is the answer to our unsustainable food dilemma? The answer is not in farmers, it is in us. We must move beyond one-crop or one-animal industrial farming practices. To do that, we must stop being industrial eaters. We must stop relying on processed food products and go back to eating food instead.
Here’s one test. Would your great grandmother recognize what you are eating as food? One way to be sure she would is to buy as much of your food as you can from local farmers.
We are fortunate to live in a rich agricultural heartland. Locally grown meat, eggs, honey, and produce is available if we make the effort to find it. For example, The Kingston Public Market operates year around Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 6 am to 6 pm downtown behind City Hall. Markets across Ontario can be found at www.farmersmarketsontario.com
Last spring, I helped organize the Tamworth Farmers’ Market. Local farmers sold beef, fish, eggs, vegetables, baked goods, honey, berries, and many other products, plus it was always a fun place to meet and chat on Saturday mornings. The first year was a success and the Market will operate again this year.
On our farm, food scraps go to the chickens that graze freely throughout the pastures, coming back to their coop to roost at night. Chickens provide meat and eggs. They also scratch through the cow manure, eating parasite and fly larvae and spreading around the manure from themselves and the cows. That solves our fly problem and our pasture fertility problem. Our beef cattle eat the pasture grass and provide us and our customers with beef year around. Their manure and bedding from the winter barn goes on our gardens.
It’s not perfect, but once we did soil tests and brought the fields up to where they should be, we don’t need commercial fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, or growth hormones.
Most of us can have at least a small garden. The health benefits will extend far beyond the clean food we can grow there. By supplementing what we can grow ourselves with purchases from local farmers, we can solve our omnivore’s dilemma.
And my Great-Grandma McKeen will be able to recognize our food.