04 January 2009

Food, glorious food

Went in to Ranelagh this morning to do our weekly vegetable shopping at the Farmers' Market at the Multi-Denominational school, when to our shock and horror we found the gates locked and nobody about. Frankly the market has been on its last legs for some time, reduced from its bustling heyday of three years ago to little more than a single vegetable stall and the occasional pasta seller. However that hasn't bothered us as it is Denis Healy's vegetable stall that brings us back week after week.

The Very Understanding Girlfriend and I are in the middle of a book swap. I have given her Raj Patel's 'Stuffed and Starved' to read, and in return I am working my way through her copy of 'The Omnivore's Dilemma', by Michael Pollan. Patel's book charts the politics behind the world food trade, how WTO policies and big business have devastated small farmers throughout the world, and tries to figure out what drove South Korean farmer Lee Kyang Hae to kill himself in protest at the WTO meeting in Cancun in 2003. In contrast Pollan's book focus on the local, rather than global, trying to trace the origin of the food he himself eats as an American.

Although TVUG had been recommending it for some time, I had put off reading 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' as I thought there would be too much overlap with 'Stuffed and Starved'. In fact although I am less than a third of the way through it's actually proving to be the perfect companion piece, and a number of thoughts have occurred to me at this stage.

The first is that US agriculture is unlike any other agriculture system in the world. It is a highly industrial process, with all aspects controlled by three or four giant corporations. To all intents and purposes there is no longer such a thing as a small US farmer, in the same way that there is in Ireland, Mexico, or South Korea, and its demise is something that has been deliberately engineered.

Farm workers have traditionally been a vocal social group, often allied with labour unions and quick to show authority their displeasure. The Irish Farmers Association is, perhaps, the strongest representative body in the country, capable of organising mass protests the size of which other groups can only dream of. They have the ability to shut down the center of Dublin at will to make their point, and frequently do. While not at the level of passion or desperation as Lee Kyang Hae, the IFA is a powerful voice in Ireland and the government listens closely.

This used to be the case in the US as well well into the 1970's, and was a source of concern for the proto neo-conservatives, who set about systematically reducing the power of the farm movement by drastically reducing the number of farmers. With increased dependence on fertilizers, high-yield grain and mechanization more food could be grown on less land, and with less people involved in the process. The government supported this with grant programs introduced by Earl Butz, Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, designed to lock farmers into a spiral of overproduction by guaranteeing minimum prices for certain produce like corn and soya. With surplus product flooding the market because of overproduction, farmers became trapped in a cycle dependant upon government subsides for subsistence as their produce now somehow cost more to produce than it was actually worth on the open market as a direct result of that government encouraged overproduction. Paradoxically the only way to survive was for farms to get even bigger and produce more, at an even lower cost, just to bring in the same income levels. The era of the small farmer was over, and the era of industrialised agribusiness was born.

A consequence of the death of the small farmer and the industrialisation of agriculture was the fact that the US food chain resembles nothing else on earth. Pollan goes into a great detail about the corn industry, the main ingredient in almost everything eaten by the average American consumer. Not only is it broken down into additives and preservatives that are in every item of processed food, replaced sugar as high-fructose corn syrup in most beverages, and forms the building block of almost every part of a fast-food meal, it has supplanted grass as the main feed for livestock, and in particular cattle.

Cows are not meant to eat corn, their stomachs cannot digest it properly. It is, however, an amazing source of carbohydrates that cause a cow to bulk up quickly; a grass fed cow hits a suitable weight for slaughter anywhere from two to four years, but a corn-fed one reaches an ideal weight within fourteen months. This process has a terrible effect on the health of the cow, with chronic liver disease endemic in corn-fed cows. In fact, if corn-fed cows were not slaughtered by the time they reached 18 months old, most would die anyway from organ failure. Cows do not want to eat corn, and have to be trained to do so. This happens in giant industrial structures called feedyards, essentially battery farms for cows, where they are penned in concrete yards standing inches deep in their own manure while they are fed a constant diet of corn-based feed to bulk them up. So toxic is this environment, particularly their own filth, that the feed contains two main antibiotics that the cows must constantly take to prevent infection and death.

As cows have been bred to be able to digest corn more easily, their stomachs have begun to produce more acid. This has had two significant effects on our own environment. Firstly more acidic stomachs produce more gas that the cow's system cannot cope with, and must be expelled through belching. I used to laugh when I heard people say that cows were a significant contributor to greenhouse gasses, but the fact is that US corn-fed cows do produce significantly more emissions than non-corn fed cows, and since the 1970's the increase in US cattle numbers has had a measurable effect on climate change. Secondly the stomach acidity of these cows is now similar to our own; bacteria that enters that cow from the filth and manure they stand in is no longer killed by the high acidity, and enters the food chain. As our own stomach acidity is similar, it too is unable to kill off the bacteria. Due to the constant presence of antibiotics in the cow feed, and thus in the average American meat eater, antibiotics now have less affect on combating these bacteria, and thus we see outbreaks of highly resistant E.coli, something that was virtually unknown before the dawn of US industrial agribusiness in the 1970s.

Aside from corn, the other main ingredient in American food is oil. Following on from the end of the Second World War, the American chemical industry was retooled to supply agriculture, through the creation of synthetic nitrates to act as fertilizers and the development of petroleum-based pesticides, and now 60 years later US agriculture is so intensive that it cannot survive without it. Pollan estimates that to grow a single acre of corn in the US now requires 50 gallons of oil, between fertilizers, pesticides, machinery, harvesting and transportation. A single corn-fed cow will have consumed 35 gallons of oil in the 18 months of its life before slaughter. Given the dependence of the US agricultural system on corn and its necessity in all forms of processed food that are the staple of the US diet, it is easy to see the war in Iraq and the quest for oil as a fight for food - without a steady supply of cheap oil the US will literally starve to death.

While the Irish meat industry is significantly different to its US counterpart, recent pork and mad-cow scares show that we are not immune to cost-cutting practices that put the consumer at risk. This is only one of the reasons that I am a vegetarian; unless you physically hunt and kill your meat yourself, you have almost no idea what has been done to it in the name of profit. But of course vegetables are also the subject of numerous profit-driven measures and that is why the Very Understanding Girlfriend and I always try to buy organic.

We are not alone in this health drive, and numerous supermarkets have responded to consumer demand and have large organic produce section. However if you take a look at the shelves in Tesco or Marks & Spencer, you see that almost all of the organic produce has travelled many thousands of miles to get here, from Spain to Argentina, Israel to Kenya, and you have to start to question the carbon cost of such transportation.

The Local vs Organic food debate is a difficult one to address, and that is why being able to source all our vegetables from a supplier like Denis Healy, where the majority of his produce is grown in Wicklow, less than 50 miles away, is such a boon. Eating local produce means having a seasonal diet and getting creative with your cooking (there is only so much kale and turnip you can take), but a few good cookbooks can make a significant difference. Healy has stalls at most of the Irish Farmers' markets, so although it looks as if the Ranelagh market may have breathed its last, we still have many other options available.

It just means having to make more of an effort.

Links
Denis Healy's Organic Delights
Find your local Irish Farmers Market
Raj Patel's 'Stuffed and Starved' site
Michael Pollan

My Favourite Cookbooks
The Cafe Paradiso Cookbook (Ireland's best veggie restaurant)
Candle Cafe Cookbook (my favourite vegan place in NY)
A World of Vegetable Cookery (best all-round book on basic dishes for every conceivable vegetable)

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