In current day America, food has become the evil enemy. The most alarming problem of course is the fact that nearly 2 out of 3 Americans currently qualify as overweight or obese, yet new cardiovascular nightmares like KFC’s “double down” are continually introduced, while portion sizes increase.
But aside from the obesity epidemic, the safety of food has also become a prominent issue lately, with recalls on bad eggs or tomatoes and salmonella or E. coli outbreaks regularly making the news. Questions about hormone and pesticide use must be addressed on the topic of safety. And outside of the food itself, we have to consider how the industry, as it currently operates, may negatively impact the environment and the economy.
The United States only has so many processing plants that most food passes through, and according to a 2006 BBC article, nearly 80 percent of the U.S. beef supply comes from the same stretch of land in Kansas. These colossal, factory-style farms that raise tens of thousands of cattle, which are practically unheard of in many other countries, are the root of many of these problems. So the solution is quite simple: we just need to eat more ethically. This means eating more locally and turning business to smaller farms.
There is clearly something very wrong with the way our food industry operates. Former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson revealed one massively overlooked concern in 2004, ominously remarking, “for the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do so” — easy to do so because of the size and mass-manufacturing approach of these farms.
Professor Larry Wein of Stanford University found that if a terrorist managed to put just 10 grams — about the weight of a few large paperclips — of botulinum toxin into a milk tanker, nearly a quarter million Americans would likely die as a result. This type of agro-terrorism is only such a threat because of the over-centralization of the food industry. In other words, too many people are getting their food from fewer and fewer places. This eliminates supply choice and leaves our national security vulnerable.
This is bad news at a smaller, everyday level as well. According to Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a fresh produce item is transported an average of 1,500 miles before it reaches your kitchen counter. Now knowing that statistic, imagine how much food is bought and eaten daily just in the city of Atlanta. Then imagine how much food is bought and eaten in the state of Georgia, then the Southeast and then the entire country. That’s a whole lot of miles and a whole lot of fuel to feed everyone.
This gas-guzzling practice not only imposes a tough burden on the environment, but on the economy as well — the average farmer only receives about 20 cents of every dollar worth of food sold largely due to the costs of packaging and delivery. Plus, I don’t need to read any statistics to know from common sense that it’s probably safer to eat food that was grown closer to home. If it doesn’t need to withstand thousands of miles of transportation, it’s going to be fresher, involve less chemical treatment and will probably taste better too.
The problem with the way farm and food industries operate in the United States are both influenced by and indicative of a larger problem — how out-of-touch with our food we’ve become. I still remember how disgusted I was to touch raw meat for the first time. I was surprised at how real it felt — a chicken breast with the fat still attached, slippery yet tough in my hand, obviously just refrigerated animal flesh. This description will probably make some readers uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t. After all, that’s what chicken is. They don’t come in Tupperware-packaged slices in the wild.
At the meat market in the town in China where my family lives, farmers bring in chickens, fish and other small animals, where they are often killed and cleaned right before being sold. There’s always blood and guts on the ground. It’s certainly dirty, and the first few times I witnessed this scene I thought it was absolutely revolting. But as I’ve thought about the issue more and more, I’ve come to feel that eating sandwich meat made from some poor animal that was probably fed hormones, overcrowded, abused and slaughtered, then preserved, packaged and shipped thousands of miles to your nearest Kroger, is a little more disgusting.
That’s a reality we really need to come to terms with soon.
Editorials Editor Catherine Cai is a College junior from Atlanta.