Saturday, February 20, 2010

Food Inc, An Agrarian Movie Review Part Two

Much of Food, inc, created a climate of fear about the nations' food safety, and I do not dispute many of these facts. However, not adequately addressed by the film was how fragile the food system really is. Last week, my 77 year old mother made her weekly trip from our farm to her favorite discount grocery store. She was mildly surprised to find them closed. On the door, a sign was posted that they would reopen after they could re-stock. As she peered in the windows, she confirmed that the shelves were indeed bare. Apparently, the Winter storms had prevented the supply trucks from making it.

I am struck that if a relatively minor stress such as a snowstorm in the northwest Pa. snow belt can close a national chain store, the American food system failed. My grandfather was a country store keeper. His store was only 1 miles from where I am writing this, and was one of two stores once within easy walking distance of our farm. My mother reminisced to me about the many times our road used to be closed from heavy snow. Her father or one of her brothers would actually live at the store in times of bad weather, in case a customer needed something. She summed up the situation pretty adeptly, “You know, I did not really need anything because I always stock up, but I think we were a lot better off when we had all them country stores around”. The scariest thing about the centralization depicted in Food, inc, is not necessarily the dangers of the food, it lies in whether the system can reliably supply any food at all.

I am profoundly grateful that at least one of those small country stores remains in our community. In fact, it was the source of those naughty GMO corn chips I recently enjoyed. I do a lot of business there because I like the owner and want to keep such a store handy. The store tends to specialize in tasty, rather than healthy. I find it no sacrifice at all to patronize it for those things we do not grow or make ourselves.

In doing so, there is a certain risk, GMO's being among them. I recognize this, having lived my life in a community that produces more food than it consumes. In general, I believe that when the consumer becomes an abstraction to the farmer or the manufacturer, danger is more likely to lurk in dinner. The area behind the store is a dairy cow pasture.
When those girls get too old to produce much milk, they get sold at the stockyards as “breakers, boners, shells, or thins”. They become meat for burgers, canned meats, and I suspect some become the pepperoni on one of the store's homemade pizzas. I am not sure what happens in between the stage of cow and pizza, but I take the risk, thanking God for the life of the animal, and my neighbor who made the food. I also cannot help but wonders why the old girls' travels are so necessary. There were old Italian people in the mining communities and bigger towns near here who used to make their own pepperoni. Could somebody take a local cow, butcher in here, spice it up and sell it back to the store? At some point, the so-called economy of scale must begin to dissipate;especially if the law did not prevent this activity.

Perhaps the most grievous shortcoming of Food, inc. was in its portrait of the American farmer. He is shown as another victim, like the consumers. The real story is far different. In spite of small numbers, the American corn belt farmer exerts enormous control on public policy related to food. This control began in the Twentieth Century era of mechanization. The corn belt supplied the feed for the nations' horses. In addition to supplying farm power, horses were common in American cities for milk delivery, rag pickers, and beer wagons. These nags were fueled on Iowa corn. By the end of the Second World War, there was a sort of mini crisis in the corn belt. The market was disappearing, Farm organizations went to the land grant colleges and set the researchers to work finding new uses for their main crop. The initial results were re-grading of beef carcasses to favor corn fattening. Sheep Breeding was changed as well, increasing size to create an animal that thrives on a high grain diet. Here is an English Suffolk Sheep, which is pretty much what a Suffolk looked like in America around 1950.

Here is an American Suffolk sheep of today.

After livestock, the land grant colleges began fiddling with new uses for Corn. Corn became used for starch, sweeteners, latex paint, and disposable diapers. We are now a culture as dependent upon corn as the Plains Indians were upon the Buffalo.

The Corn Belt also is responsible for the truly bizarre system of farm subsidies. The subsidies were a work of a very strange and powerful coalition of urban Democrats and farm state Republicans. The former supported farm subsidies for the latter in exchange for such programs as food stamps in the inner cities. Thus, we have now reached the very strange circumstance where we are paying an Iowa farmer handsomely to grow a product that is made into unhealthy food we then buy for poor single moms in big cities.

The changes in farm culture wrought by this are as disastrous as the decline in the American City. The idea of the farm as the center of family food production has disappeared. While most farmers around here are excellent mechanics and equipment operators, they have forgotten as many basic households skills as the rest of us. I actually know of several dairy farmers that buy their milk in the store. Agrarian writer and historian Alan Carlson once wrote that a successful local farmer brought his son to see Carlsons large garden so the boy could learn where food came from!

The American food system has become a kind of bizarro world. Food, Inc. raised the right questions, but offered only conventional answers, many of which created the system. A food system so truly counterproductive is doomed. One real answer to replace the system may lie in backyards and kitchens across America. I myself am looking forward to the day when I can enjoy local pepperoni at my favorite store.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Food, Inc.: An Agrarian Movie Review (Part One)

Because I have been involved in the raising and selling of food,a couple of people have asked me my opinion about the movie Food,inc, which is now available from Netflix as a streaming video. I watched the movie recently, or most of it. I got bored once and left it stream for a few minutes and got annoyed once and left again. At the same time, I have been reading some excellent posts by Pastor Douglas Wilson on food, which can be accessed at his site.

I do not dispute many of the facts in the Movie. A few big multinational corporations have a stranglehold on large parts of the food system. I enjoy the fact that the film scared those large companies enough that they feel the need to spend money responding. I believe that genetic modification of food is genuinely dangerous to human and animal health.

My dislike of the film is a profound disagreement with every one of the "solutions" offered, which included (1)more regulations and inspections,(2)Joel Salatin, and(3) consumers demanding more organic food choices.

There was a very telling statistic at one point in the film that alluded to the decline in USDA inspections. I have a suspicion that this decline is due in part to a decline in facilities to inspect. Twenty years ago, there was a small slaughterhouse and meat cutter 4 miles from here. Thirty years ago, there were 3 slaughterhouses in the same radius. At least one went out of business rather than spend the money and annoyance in keeping up with ever changing regulations. These regulations were not a necessary guarantee for the safety and health of meat. The only guarantee of that is the honor of the butcher.

I once sold a lamb to a man from Lebanon. He arrived on a July day to kill and cut it up on the farm. July is not normal Pennsylvania butchering season, due to the warm weather. He used a sharp knife and cut the lamb's throat. After it bled out, I hoisted with a crane from the tractor. He cut it up in about 40 minutes. Some parts would be eaten raw as "kibbi nayeef", definately not USDA approved cooking. He worked carefully and quickly without any of the stainless steel surfaces, cooling or other paraphernalia required for USDA slaughter. The meat was safe and clean. It had to be, as his family depended on it.

The local meat cutters once knew their customers nearly as intimately as that man. If they made anyone sick, they actually had to face his family. Most were also craftsmen, and took pride in what they did. Many of the increased regulations were developed by the revolving door corporate agribusiness/government officials. Whther by purpose or design, the effect of the regulations was to drive out the local option.

I have never met Joel Salatin. I did read several of his books. The first ones I read were borrowed from a farmer who adopted many of his approaches and lost his farm. Mr. Salatin is a bright guy and has developed some interesting innovations.I find most compelling his book and earlier essay "Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal" which touches on the point above and was NOT adequately addressed in the movie. As compelling a character as he is, his particular location and circumstances are not automatically transferable to every region of the country. They work great for farmers within a couple hours of drive a very large and wealthy metro area. Mr. Salatin is also an entrepreneurial huckster (I use this term with genuine affection), and I suspect his promotion of books, videos, paid farm tours, and speaking engagement fees helps make the mortgage. My wife once correctly remarked that he is a modern version of Frank Perdue (another likeable huckster).

Finally, consumers making demands to Walmart or Whole Foods is not a long term solution to the nation's food safety problems. The revolving door corporate government bureaucrats of the emerging servile state have the ability to control the definitions and parameters of "safe". For example,the definition of "organic", is now a legal term, and changes with the needs of business. Advertising can also create powerful subliminal messages, which the movie began with. Beyond this legal/regulatory/sales talk jungle, it is also no real assurance of safety or "cruelty free food". Some large feed lots have adopted the revolutionary humane handling systems of Dr. Temple Grandin (as a means of economic self interest). Some of the cruelest, most genuinely wicked livestock handlers I have ever seen are family scale Amish farmers.

The idea of "consumer action" strikes at the heart of the flaw in Food, Inc. The consumer is by necessity a victim. He must buy what he wants to eat. He has chosen freedom from toil in exchange for control of his own food safety. The lower the consumer's skill level; the greater the victimhood. Increasingly in American society dinner means food that has already been cooked, or made as ready to cook as possible. Every step in the chain from the cow to the hamburger, or the grain of wheat to the noodle in the Hamburger Helper package increase the danger through complexity of development. The consumer can only avoid this by becoming a producer. This does not mean that everyone need raise all their own food. Production can start in the kitchen (learning to actually cook, rather than "heat and eat"), move to the pantry (learning to can,freeze,dry and otherwise preserve), then the garden. For some, it might then move to the barnyard, even if the barnyard is only three chickens and a meat rabbit pen in a suburban backyard. While this takes skills and represents hard work, it is also satisfying. Were this to happen, it would also solve many dangers to the food system by reducing the systems current complexity.

Part Two will follow soon, unless I have a heart attack from the GMO corn chips and cheese whiz I ate tonight.