Food for Thought

“Physically, food is so unsuited to mass production that we’ve had to re-engineer our plants and livestock to make them more readily harvested and processed (and even these updated materials remain so fragile they must be amended with preservatives, flavorings, and other additives).  Our farming and manufacturing methods incur such enormous “external” costs – from farm-chemical runoff to the inequities of cheap labor to a choking surplus of calories – that the longevity of the system is now in serious doubt.  Even the shift in cooking from the home to the factory, though it has left us free to engage in other pursuits, has also left us with far less knowledge of, and control over, what we eat.”

(Paul Roberts, The End of Food)

Industrial Organic

Some eye-opener quotes from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma

“Today two giant growers sell most of the fresh organic produce from California.”

“Greenways Organic, a successful two-thousand-acre organic produce operation tucked into a twenty-four-thousand-acre conventional farm in the Central Valley outside Fresno; the crops, the machines, the crews, the rotations, and the fields were virtually indistinguishable, and yet two different kinds of industrial agriculture are being practiced here side by side.”

“As organic agriculture has grown more successful, finding its way into the supermarket and the embrace of agribusiness, organic farming has increasingly come to resemble the industrial system it originally set out to replace.”

“No farms I had ever visited before prepared me for the industrial organic farms I saw in California.  When I think about organic farming, I think family farm, I think small scale, I think hedgerows and compost piles and battered pickups …I don’t think migrant labor crews, combines the size of houses, mobile lettuce-packing factories marching across fields of romaine, twenty-thousand-broiler-chicken houses, or hundreds of acres of corn or broccoli or lettuce reaching clear to the horizon.  To the eye, these farms look exactly like any other industrial farm in California – and in fact some of the biggest organic operations in the state are owned and operated by conventional mega-farms.  The same farmer who is applying toxic fumigants to sterilize the soil in one field is in the next field applying compost to nurture the soil’s natural fertility.”

On the positive side, at least some land that would otherwise be chemically farmed is receiving kinder treatment.

The term “Industrial Organic” applies to producers of the organic meat and milk you see in your local health food store.

Horizon Organic Milk, which controls over half of the market, operates its large- scale industrial dairy in southern Idaho.

“Here in the western desert, where precious little grass can grow, the company was milking several thousand cows that, rather than graze on pasture (as most consumers presume their organic cows are doing), spend their days milling around a dry lot – a grassless fenced enclosure.  It’s doubtful a dairy could pasture that many cows even if it wanted to – you would need at least an acre of grass per animal and more hours than there are in a day to move that many cows all the way out to their distant acre and then back again to the milking parlor every morning and evening.  So instead, as in the typical industrial dairy, these organic cows stood around eating grain and silage when they weren’t being milked three times a day.  Their organic feed was shipped in from all over the West, and their waste accumulated in manure ponds.  …Keeping cows in confinement meant that his farmhands, who all carried stethoscopes, could keep a closer eye on their health.  Of course, cows need this sort of surveillance only when they’re living in such close quarters – and can’t be given antibiotics.”

The USDA ruled that dairy cows must have “access to pasture:”

“By itself ‘access to pasture’ is an extremely vague standard (What constitutes ‘access?’ How much pasture per animal? How often could it graze?), and it was weakened further by a provision stating that even access could be dispensed with at certain stages of the animal’s life.  Some big organic dairies have decided that lactation constitutes one such stage, and thus far the USDA has not objected.  Some of its organic certifiers have complained that “access to pasture” is so vague as to be meaningless – and therefore unenforceable.  It’s hard to argue with them.”

(Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma)

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