Does the Source of Food Matter?
[imgbelt img=just-food-oysters530.jpg]A new book argues that we need genetically modified crops and non-local food supplies. Reviewer and farmer Richard Oswald sees “pragmatism” differently.
Cattle might also be responsible for forest fires, according to one of the author’s quoted sources. Maybe Smokey the Bear should eat fewer picnic lunches and more beef — though that might be tough for a local guy like Smokey: U.S. beef cattle numbers today are 97 million head, down from 135 million head in 1975.
With herd numbers down, how have we been able to increase our beef consumption here in the U.S.? Simple — by accessing beef supplies across more and more food miles, brought to us primarily by non-local big corporate food. Neither hogs nor poultry rate much higher on McWilliams list. Another source quoted in his book states, “If people stopped eating meat, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa would be returned to forest and grassland.”
So we have a hungry world, but we should idle some of the most productive farmland on Earth? That might be a little unrealistic.
Some global food advocates might argue that crop land in the Buffalo Commons areas of the Great Plains should be converted back to unpopulated preserves, (I wonder what the carbon footprint of a buffalo herd is?) while more vegetable and fruit production returns to the Midwest—or China–from dry California. You see, water is another big problem for food production in many of the faraway places where food is sourced now.
Drought resistance — along with pest control and herbicide tolerance – is the most advertised advantage of GMO crops. While at least one seed company, Monsanto, claims to be developing GMO drought-resistant crops, no one has as yet come up with any real accomplishment in that area. Crops still need rain to grow. Just the same, McWilliams feels that GMOs hold the key to abundant production and will limit pesticide use.
[imgcontainer left] [img:btcorn320.jpg] [source]USDA/ERSFarmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin adopted BT corn (the seed infused with pesticide) rapidly between 2000 and 2005.
But he fails to acknowledge the price of those inbred pesticides to farmers both here and abroad, and ignores that we now produce more pounds of pesticide within our crops than we ever applied to them when insects were killed with conventional insecticides. While those chemicals were long gone by the time the crop was picked, today enough BT exists in each kernel of corn that a simple litmus-type test can detect it. BT is consumed both by the farm animals and people who eat the corn.
Is that dangerous over time? No one knows for sure, but we eat it just the same.
Life cycle assessments (LCA), it says in the book, are most relevant to food, not where food comes from. How environmentally damaging a food system is and how deficiencies are corrected without limiting food availability are what counts. McWilliams points to a LCA study that concluded fuel consumption by ocean fishers using beam trawlers could be cut to one fifteenth simply by switching to seines instead of dragging weighted nets across the ocean floor. Beam trawlers that disrupt ocean habitat and spawning beds have been a source of environmentalist disdain for years because they indiscriminately scoop up every thing from the ocean regardless of whether they have use for it. (Seines would do much the same without destroying spawning beds.) They are also the bane of local family fishermen, like the New England Hook Fishermen, who catch and keep only the most desirable food fish without doing any ecological damage.
But McWilliams doesn’t mention them.
As any good debater knows, the way to win an argument is not by promoting the other guy’s views. McWilliams the centrist really has little good to say about local food until he gets around to aquaculture. “Aquaculture operations,” he states, “can be more easily incorporated into areas that are unsuited for other forms of food production.” In fact aquaculture is about the only locavorian pursuit he promotes.
When I read McWilliams’s advocacy for freshwater aquaculture, it reminded me of so many other farm products that have become the raw commodity from which corporate food chains manufacture our food. It seems so easy to say that fish are the answer, but I have witnessed over the years the grinding and reforming of chicken, pork, and beef, the camouflaging of our food so that the original product is unrecognizable. I’m talking about chicken nuggets, preformed pork cutlets, or hamburger patties made from meat scraps gathered from across state lines and national boundaries. If they could see these foods in their original form, consumers would never buy them let alone eat them. So manufacturers make these food products look like something else.
Is it so hard to imagine that the same thing can come to aquaculture?
Sausage is always best when made by the people who plan to eat it.
A recent New York Times article (October 4, 2009) tells about contaminated beef that led to the food borne illness ultimately responsible for paralyzing Stephanie Smith from the waist down. All she’d done was eaten a hamburger. Our current food system readily trades profits for the health of some consumers, because food inspection fails to hold large corporations truly accountable. Corporations have become responsible for much of our food manufacture and distribution, and both they and our government accept that fact as reality.
[imgcontainer left] [img:just-food-buffet320.jpg] [source]UWECA banquet of local Wisconsin foods, served last April in Eau-Claire, included parsnip apple soup, chicken and wild rice casserole, acorn squash, and more.