Questioning Industrial Food

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This Friday environmental and public health groups will hold the first National Conference to End Factory Farming in Arlington, Virginia—a gathering which is pretty self-explanatory. Gene Baur heads the Farm Sanctuary, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting animal abuse on farms, sent in a piece outlining the goals of the conference, which I’ll excerpt below:

Over the last half-century in the U.S., small farms have been replaced by large, industrialized operations that treat animals and the natural world as mere commodities.  This factory farming system, which slaughters animals by the billions, costs us all dearly.

The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP), which included experts like former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman, conducted “a comprehensive, fact-based and balanced examination of key aspects of the farm animal industry,” which concluded: “Industrial farm animal production systems are largely unregulated, and many practices common to this method of production threaten public health, the environment, animal health and well-being, and rural communities.”

Against Our Better Natures
Factory farms confine animals by the thousands in massive warehouses. Millions are packed in cages and crates so tightly that they can’t walk, turn around or even stretch their limbs.  According to agribusiness research, more than 40 percent of consumers think that our country is on the wrong track in terms of how we produce food, with another 20 percent uncertain about the soundness of our food supply.  And yet the majority of people are not acting on these misgivings. Agribusiness counts on this complacency, but we can’t afford it. In thoughtlessly consuming what the industry puts in front of us – in choosing to ignore the suffering it exacts – we are complicit not only in the denial of the sensitive, intelligent nature of the animals who become our food but also in the denial of our own natural sensitivities and intelligence.

Against Our Better Interests
Beyond this moral dilemma, factory farming has significant implications for our welfare and the viability of our planet. As just one example, stressed and confined in filthy, cramped quarters, factory farmed animals are constantly at risk for disease. Agribusiness relies on the regular administration of drugs and chemicals to keep the animals alive and productive. The majority of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to farm animals. This overuse has been linked to increased drug resistance in common bacteria, a phenomenon that diminishes our ability to treat illness in humans.

According to a United Nations report, factory farming is also one of the top contributors to our planet’s most significant environmental problems, including “land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity.” Raising animals for food is terribly wasteful, demanding vast quantities of increasingly scarce resources, including water, topsoil and fossil fuels, and the exorbitant quantities of excrement generated by factory farming poison our land, water and air, threatening both ecosystems and human communities.

For Change

By educating ourselves, urging our elected representatives to support reforms, and requesting more plant-based foods in our grocery stores and restaurants, we will be the change our food system needs.  Through farmer’s markets, CSAs and community gardens, we can cultivate a food supply that centers on eating plants instead of animals; that supports our health instead of undermining it; and that helps us preserve the natural world and our relationship to it – a food system that connects us to the best we have to offer each other.

Obviously I have a lot of problems with the way conventional food is produced in America, and I’m also very hopeful about the potential for the food movement—broadly defined—to bring about meaningful change. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy—and it doesn’t mean that we’ll see a wholesale abandonment of the conventional food system, for reasons that TIME’s Josh Ozersky points out in a strong post today defending industrial food:

I think very few of us are in a position to eat all our meals cooked at home, using the “good” ingredients beloved by food writers. Rare is the household with only one person working, and usually long hours at that. Even if families are not living in a fresh-food “desert,” to use a phrase beloved of progressives, it’s unlikely that they have access to a farmers’ market, or even a Whole Foods, statistically speaking. The fact is, that as Americans, going off the grid culinarily would be one of those bizarre missions that people write books about, like the guy who wanted to reduce his carbon footprint so much that he refused to buy toilet paper. We are Americans, and it’s very hard for us to extricate the way we eat from the way we do business, our kitchens from our counting houses. Go to the pantries of the cooks that the anti-big-food crowd idealize: you’ll find them filled with bleached flour and iodized salt and wax paper and cans or jars of this and that. And that’s the old-timers, the ones who still have the time and the space to cook “from scratch.” Enjoy the view; because there are going to be fewer and fewer of them as time goes on. There are now 300 million Americans or so, and less space. If the barons of agriculture hadn’t engineered the monstrous phalanxes of corn that everyone is so aghast at, food would be more expensive, and a lot of poor people would be dying from starvation instead of courting diabetes. I’m not saying that our industrial system is ideal, nor even sane, but to conflate industrial with bad is to suggest that we should all just go back to the land. Which, of course, can never happen

Ozersky is to point out how challenging any meaningful change can be, but we may just be in an era when change might just be possible as more and more people begin to pay attention to where their food comes from. Either way, the conference this Friday—which, full disclosure, I’ll be speaking at—is worth checking out