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Continuing in the theme of “knowing your food” this week, I’ve been considering and pondering the movie “Food, Inc.” for several months.  What follows is both praise and a deconstruction of the ideas presented in the movie.  Part 1 of this post appears here.  Part 2 appeared yesterday.  This is the third and final installment of this series.

Back when Abraham Lincoln was our 16th president, farmers made up 58% of the population.  If a family wanted to survive and not live in a city, that family farmed; the average farm consisted of 199 acres.  In 1990 (the last statistic I could find), farmers comprised a mere 2.6% of our population.  And yet we have more people in our country than ever before.  How are fewer people feeding more without our awareness?  Unless you intentionally live in an agrarian community (like we did), you probably don’t know any farmers.  And yet… there is plentiful food on the store shelves – enough that they throw away the excess when it passes the “sell-by” date.

I’m not opposed to efficiency – I defended it when the filmmakers appeared to thrash the concept in relation to the McDonald brothers.  But when the majority of people in our country don’t know a farmer and don’t know where their food comes from, it is a problem.  It’s a situation which is ripe with ethical considerations, including the proverbial “fox watching the henhouse.”

The film goes in to detail discussing why the changes in agriculture haven’t been publicly debated in the last 20+ years – those who are in places of public trust in the government have been linked to industrial agriculture (specifically, Monsanto).  When these links are considered, it’s not hard to see a conflict of interest with patent-protecting agricultural practices, GMO product insertion in our food supply, and GM products labeled as “safe” by the FDA, when the same FDA who has a former Monsanto employee in a Deputy Chief position.  Certainly, the FDA isn’t the only agency in question here, but they have positioned themselves at the forefront of issues when it comes to our food supply.

The government which is ostensibly there to “protect us” is not protecting us from the very things which pose risk.  And when people become discontent and begin going “off-grid” for things like naturally-raised foods, the government goes against people who simply want the choice to provide better for their families.  The government is happy to tell us that milk from cloned animals is safe to drink, but not clean, raw milk from pastured cows and goats.  They oppose labeling for GM products and/or cloned meat, saying that it’s safe for consumption, but they haven’t studied it to confirm its safety. This is the biggest problem:  having people in high places of trust who have a conflict of interest with regard to industrial agriculture who then make decisions about our food supply.

Did you know that in many states, it’s actually illegal to criticize the industrial agriculture that takes place within the state’s borders?  In Colorado, for example, it’s a felony to criticize the ground beef that is produced in Greely and other areas.  A felony to say publicly that you’d rather chose a grass-fed alternative or that you distrust the CAFOs which exist.  This floors me – and it’s a thinly veiled attempt to control us as citizens by controlling our speech and how we choose to feed our families – the most basic of rights.

In the movie, Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farms reminds us how powerful we really are as consumers:  we are voting each and every time we run something past the scanner in the grocery store.  We vote for local or not, organic or not, GMO or not…. we have the power to affect change.  Not only for our families, but for our way of life and how we do agriculture in our country.  If we demand better, the farmers will deliver.  They will find a way around the patented, GM-foods and provide us what we demand.  But we have to ask for it.

Much of the question regarding our food chain comes from a place of prosperity.  As a people, we’re no longer scratching and hunting for our food.  When a people evolve from hunting and gathering to having someone else do the hunting and gathering for them, the bar is raised on our consciousness, as well.  If we’re hungry and don’t know where dinner is, we don’t care if dinner is humanely treated or not.  But we’re not in the place anymore, and now that we don’t have to think about the nitty-gritty of killing animals for food, we can consider how those animals are killed and become our dinner.  I consider it a moral and ethical choice that I make; I believe I have a Biblical edict to be a wise steward and this is part of that.

I think the most important thing I pulled out of this movie wasn’t the bad stuff that the government is doing, nor was it how awful GMOs are.  It wasn’t even how terrible the practices of Monsanto and the other agribusinesses are.  It is how much power we have to affect change. Some people get scared when faced with change, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not always comfortable.  Change doesn’t have to be going all organic or becoming a farmer.  You can affect change slowly and in ways that make sense for your family.  Start by eating meals together on a regular basis.  If you want to ditch GM products, start the switch slowly.  There is enough reason in the evidence against HFCS alone to make the switch, but those choices have to be made intentionally.  Go back to basics and cook for yourself, instead of letting a company cook for you.

You CAN affect change.  Change for the better for yourself, your family, and our society.  Take baby steps and create a plan, but know that you can do this.

Continuing in the theme of “knowing your food” this week, I’ve been considering and pondering the movie “Food, Inc.” for several months.  What follows is both praise and a deconstruction of the ideas presented in the movie.  Part 1 of this post appeared yesterday.  Part 3 will appear tomorrow.

Continuing in the GMO=bad vein, a good portion of the corn that is produced (mass-produced, thanks to corn subsidies from the federal government) goes to CAFOs, the feedlots where cows are fattened up and oftentimes become so ill.  Corn (GMO or otherwise) was not designed to be a cattle feed, and in it lies the root of e coli 0157:H7, the deadly bacterium that has sickened hundreds and killed many.  E Coli is a naturally-occurring bacterium in our gut; the mutation of 0157:H7 came from feeding corn to cattle and ending up with infections that would not (did not) occur in nature when they were grass-fed.  When you combine the feeding of corn and the existence of CAFOs, it’s not really surprising that E Coli 0157:H7 has shown up in so much meat in the last ten years.

“Food, Inc.” goes on in the movie to discuss the problem of plentiful dollar menus at fast-food restaurants and how it’s brought down the diet of the average American.  They then allow us to meet this “average family,” but one thing becomes clear very quickly:  this is not the “average American family.”  This family spends nearly all of its grocery money on fast food.  The husband has diabetes which is controlled with medication, the girls and mother are aware of nutritional information, but profess to “lack time.”  This lack of time in turn leads them to choose the “cheaper” soda over fruit, neglecting what they know is better and healthier.  The movie makers attempt to make the connection and say that if fast food was more expensive, this family’s health would be better.  I think that’s a bogus connection; people make time for the things they value.  Being “busy” doesn’t preclude the use of slow cookers or pressure cookers to prepare food, and traditional food (dried beans, whole grains, etc.) can easily be FAR cheaper than soda and be cooked with these appliances, even while the family relaxes or sleeps.  The mother in the family says that the husband’s medications take up a great amount of their income, but if it’s a high percentage, there are social safety nets in place to get assistance for the medication costs.  If the cost of medication was alleviated in part for them, it suggests that healthier food could be purchased – but what’s ignored is the total spent on fast food DAILY which could otherwise be converted in to traditional, healthy foods that would improve the family’s overall health, even without inexpensive access to fresh fruits & vegetables.  If a family is spending $36 per DAY on fast food (what could be extrapolated from what they spend on one meal), that’s $252 per WEEK.  I don’t know about you, but I can do a LOT with that sort of grocery budget on a weekly basis – I don’t spend even a fraction of that and am able to feed my family well and still be nutritionally sound.

Another part of the movie where I believe the filmmakers tried to do too much with too little is the question of illegal immigration.  They indicate that Smithfield (pork processing) in Tar Heel, NC, is a haven for illegal immigrants and that Smithfield has a “deal” with the INS to turn over 15 illegal immigrant employees per day (purportedly with no penalties to Smithfield).  I’m not saying there isn’t a deal, but there is no concrete evidence of this “deal,” just the words of a labour activist in the area.  Additionally, none of the employees they show Smithfield trucking in to work in Tar Heel are Latino – at all.  I simply cannot comprehend that there would be a ‘deal’ like this and a) it wouldn’t be picked up by the national media (remember, this movie was made during the Bush administration) and b) the government would let Smithfield off scot-free, especially in a time of economic downturn, when the government is printing money because it’s run out and has runaway spenders in charge.  They easily could have left this section out and strengthened the other sections of the movie and done well.

Several things I think the filmmakers did right include spending a great deal of time with Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, in Shenandoah, VA.  Salatin is an old-fashioned farmer with good business savvy.  He’s got a sustainable farm and is cashing in on the awareness of those who are interested in buying sustainably-grown food.  He’s also become a bit of a spokesman for sustainable agriculture and although he doesn’t elaborate greatly in the movie, he does support my earlier thought that the argument about “feeding the world” through industrial ag is specious.  What I find even more interesting is that friends of mine have actually worked with Salatin on his farm. Salatin and Polyface are part of something called WWOoF, which stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.  WWOoF is a group of volunteer laborers who travel from organic farm to organic farm (within the network), offering work in exchange for a place to stay and chance to learn organic farming practices.

Another part of the movie that I thought was particularly well-done was the interview with Gary Hirshberg, the CEO of Stonyfield Farms, the organic yogurt maker.  Hirshberg talks at length about how big businesses are buying up small, “natural” or “organic” businesses, most of the time without the public’s awareness.  For example, Kashi is owned by Kellogg; Stacy’s Pita Chips is owned by Kraft; Tom’s Toothpaste is now owned by Colgate.  And for the sake of transparency, Stonyfield Farms is owned by Dannon.  But Hirshberg remains in charge of Stonyfield and found a business model that works, which I applaud.  As opposed to vilifying WalMart and other big retail outlets, he embraces them – and recognizes that for every order of yogurt from WalMart, he is not putting tons of pesticides in the soil, pollutants in the air, etc. – that it’s a win-win for the people who shop at WalMart out of economic necessity and for those who champion organic and green causes.  Too many environmentalists throw out the baby with the bathwater and eschew all forms of retail business with large companies that they hold with disdain.  It’s truly unfortunate, but I think Hirshberg has a great model and it was worth a segment of the movie’s time.

Part three (the final installment) in this series will run tomorrow.

Continuing in the theme of “knowing your food” this week, I’ve been considering and pondering the movie “Food, Inc.” for several months.  What follows is both praise and a deconstruction of the ideas presented in the movie.  Part 2 of this post will appear tomorrow.

“Food, Inc.” is an independent movie that is based in part on the book An Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.  Pollan and Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation) narrate the movie, as well.

The movie is eye-opening and consciousness-raising, and has honestly changed the way we approach our family’s nutrition.  Mark & I watched this while in the midst of a “back to basics”-change in which I ceased buying canned beans and boxes of pasta and began buying bulk, dried goods, building a food storage at the same time.  But for as many excellent points as the movie makes, there are flaws as well.

The movie is broken down in to 4 segments (purportedly three, but there are four main topics covered):  1)  the industrial production of meat; 2) the industrial production of grains and vegetables; 3) the legal and economic power of the companies who control our food production; and 4) how these companies control and affect labour practices (legal and illegal).  The fourth category is one that I find peppered throughout the movie and one that I believe becomes problematic as the movie goes on, but more on that later.

I’ve written a bit about CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and how I believe they are an unhealthy means to produce food, specifically beef.  “Food, Inc.” goes further and examines the raising of beef, pork, and chicken in an industrial setting.  They accuse McDonald’s of being the chief troublemaker in this scenario, saying that McDonald’s is the largest purchaser of meat today and that the farming practices that produce a certain “taste” in the finished product is why CAFOs are needed.  I do find it a bit odd that McDonald’s is always sourced as The Problem in movies like this (think of “SuperSize Me,” as well).  McDonald’s is big and they ARE a major consumer of beef, chicken, and pork.  But McDonald’s just didn’t go to the farms and say, “We want the meat to taste THIS way and THAT is how you must produce it”; the meat began to change in taste with the introduction of grain-feeding (and corn-feeding), and the McDonald’s burgers began to take on that taste.  McDonald’s didn’t force anyone to begin grain-feeding their cattle; if the production levels had stayed lower (as is the case with grass-fed beef), chances are good the price of the menu at fast food places would have increased and sales would not have been as brisk as they are now (it’s called supply and demand economics for a reason!).  So to blame McDonald’s for everything is neither fair nor honest.  At some point, the chicken had to exist before the egg did….

Another issue I take with the movie is the demonization of McDonald’s in introducing the assembly line in to fast food stores.  The McDonald brothers didn’t invent the assembly line – they merely introduced it to their operation.  Henry Ford invented the assembly line between 1908 and 1915.  It far predates McDonald’s use of the efficiency-model, and while it did change the face of labour in our society, efficiency isn’t a bad thing.  Efficiency in this model allows many more young people to cut their teeth on being part of a team, earning money in a summer (or school-year) job, all while allowing a store to operate smoothly and produce a profit.

One area which I thought the movie hit hard and well on was the production of industrial grains, specifically GMO.  If you’re unsure what GMO is or haven’t done much research on your own, here it is in a nutshell:  when companies take the DNA of a food product, such as corn, cottonseed, soybean, or sugar beets and modify the DNA, you end up with something that nature never intended.  The DNA of any given thing on earth is set and passed down from generation to generation, be it humans, corn plants, baby seals, or flowers.  It’s the reason why an infant human in utero will never become a fetal pig – the DNA is that of a human.  It’s the reason you can save seeds to plant pansies year after year – and pansies come up, not daisies.  The DNA is set in the seed.  So when science begins mucking with the DNA in seeds to create something different than what nature intended, it’s very serious business, indeed.

GMO corn is one of the many reasons high-fructose corn syrup is so dangerous – beyond the chemical nature of the sweetener, the fact that tumors grow like crazy in a medium of HFCS, and beyond the mercury found in products sweetened with it:  its DNA has been changed to withstand the application of Roundup, a broad-spectrum weed killer.   So now farms don’t have to be careful to just spray weeds, they can broadcast Roundup all over and not have the corn plant affected by it.  Sounds efficient, doesn’t it?  But what happens when your body is sensitive and doesn’t know what to do with the changed DNA of the corn?  Allergies happen – and sometimes they are life-threatening.  As a real-life example, I recently met a woman whose infant daughter was so desperately allergic to milk that not even removing all dairy from the mom’s diet was enough to soothe this tiny one’s tummy issues.  The doctors prescribed acid-reflux medication and the parents tried every formula under the sun, including soy.  The baby threw each of them up and tested positive for a soy allergy as well as a cow’s milk allergy.  In desperation, the mom researched and read about goat’s milk – the milk proteins in goat’s milk are the closest to human milk and tend to be very hypoallergenic.  She cautiously tried some goat’s milk and for the first time EVER, her baby didn’t burp, throw up, scream, have acid burning her tiny esophagus, etc.  It was a miraculous turn-around!  But as we discussed it, the mom revealed that her husband had a milk allergy as an infant (and outgrew it) – so his parents gave him soy formula.  He is fine, had no soy allergies, etc., and she was puzzled.  The key, I believe, is the GMO nature of soy – the soy her husband consumed in the 70s was not GMO; the soy her daughter consumed in 2010 is GMO.  Her daughter’s body, having half of the DNA of her papa, was most likely able to receive a non-GMO soy and be fine – but didn’t know what to do with the modified DNA in the GMO soy, hence her allergic reaction.

continued in tomorrow’s post, “Thoughts on “Food, Inc.,” part 2″

I’ve decided to keep this week focused on food and where it comes from, which encompasses a few different posts that I’ve meant to put up for quite a while.  Thanks for hanging out with me while I ponder this stuff!

Unless you are a farmer or an avid natural-foodie, I don’t expect that  you might know what a CAFO is.  CAFO = Concentrated (or Confined) Animal Feeding Operation.  It’s regularly used in factory-farming and as a place where beef is sent to “fatten up” on corn and grains before slaughtering.  CAFOs are an outgrowth of mass-producing food, but they also became a bit more up-front-and-personal for my family this summer.

We drove cross-country in three days to arrive in Phoenix, chasing our moving truck along the back roads of the country.  We drove through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and finally, Arizona.  We stayed on the major interstates most of the way, but at one point, we were on State Route 54, out of Wichita, and took it all the way to I-40 in New Mexico.  It was grueling driving, but I’d never seen this part of the country before and I enjoyed the view.

We saw cattle grazing on the hills in Kansas (the Kansas Turnpike is amazingly NOT flat!) – it seemed like every hill had hundreds of cattle on it.  I was delighted, knowing that pasturing beef is the best and healthiest way for the cow, but also that it produces that healthiest meat for us as consumers.  It takes a longer timeframe to bring a cow to butchering-weight with grass-feeding alone, but the benefits are huge and worthwhile, to my mind.  Seeing all those cattle also reminded me of a verse from Psalms 50 where it says that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills (v. 10).   Anyhow….

On our third day of driving, as we were navigating the tail end of SR54 through the “stovepipe” of Texas, we came upon an awful smell.  As in, “Holy CRAP!  That is the worst thing I’ve ever smelled!” We looked around for the source of the offending odor (and remembering two things:  we were travelling at 55mph and had the air conditioner on) and saw several … CAFOs.  Places where the cows were packed in so tightly that the pictures Mark took with my phone’s camera (I was driving) show a huge wall of cowhides.  There were all over that area of Texas.

As we were driving along, Mark asked why it smelled so awful.  The only response I had was that the cows were eating what they weren’t designed to eat (cows are ruminants, designed to eat grasses, and to use their rumens to digest the grass.  They were never designed to eat grain and/or corn.).  When animals eat what they’re not designed to eat, their waste product isn’t what it was designed to be and typically smells really bad.  When you add in to that the fact that cows in CAFOs tend to get ill when eating things they’re not designed to eat and kept in super-close quarters, they’re also medicated by the people who run the Operation – with high-powered antibiotics.  And as any parent can tell you, a child on antibiotics smells differently and eliminates differently than when healthy.  The same goes for animals.

So when we smelled that awful odor, we were smelling what cows, kept in unnatural conditions with little sanitation and many medications smell like.  In other words, it was “normal” for a CAFO.

It is not, however, normal for a cow and it completely turned our stomachs.

Big Agriculture claims that it cannot feed the world’s hungry without using CAFOs and other industrial farming techniques.  And while I can appreciate the claim, I don’t completely agree.  If you go in to any supermarket and ask to speak with the people who work in the meat department, you’ll discover that there is an enormous amount of meat that goes to waste – things that aren’t sold before their spoilage-date.  We’re not feeding “the world’s hungry,” we’re feeding refrigerated grocery store shelves and producing far more than we can purchase or consume.

So what do we do?  Mark & I choose grass-fed beef as much as possible.  We find a higher pricetag on this kind of meat, but we eat less of it in response to the higher pricetag.  We supplement our meat-consumption with legumes and vegetables and find ourselves completely content on less food than we’ve ever been before.  I find the CAFO situation one of moral choice:  if I know it isn’t natural or kind to the animal which will give its life for my meal(s), as a higher-being, I believe I have a moral obligation to consider the life of the animal.  The health considerations of grass-fed beef (the high levels of CLA, high mineral and vitamin content, etc.) is also enough to make me want to avoid the inferior meat as much as possible.

But what do you do if grass-fed meat is beyond your ability at the moment?  Do the best you can with what you have.  Make the wisest choices you have with the funding available to you, and if the moral part of thinking about CAFOs bothers you, find a way to work with a pasturing-farmer who will trade work for meat, or eschew meat as much as possible until your situation changes.  The more of us who buy CAFO-produced meat, the more cows will continue to be confined to CAFOs to “meet demand.”  If we reduce the demand, we can reduce the number of these operations.

Ordinarily on Tasty Tuesdays, I post a recipe with photos.  Something tasty, something relatively easy, something that works for busy moms and families.

Today, I’m diverging from that to ask you to get involved in something that may or may not have crossed your radar screen:  your right to eat what you wish and buy it from whom you wish.

“What?  I already have that right!” some of you are probably thinking.  And at the moment, you do.  But there’s a problem in our food-supply chain that’s becoming bigger at an alarming rate.  From time to time, the FDA is deciding to “raid” storehouses, buying clubs, farms, and even private homes, armed with guns, search warrants, taking computers, and sometimes holding entire families at gunpoint for hours.  These aren’t places where illegal aliens are hiding out, they’re not storehouses of child pornography.  They are places where people pool their money to buy natural, healthy foods, oftentimes right from the farm or supplier.

“So what’s the crime?” Many times there isn’t one.  There was recently a raid on a buying co-op named RAWESOME in California.  RAWESOME was a collection point for people who had purchased memberships and were then paying farmers for natural goods from their farms – raw milk and other raw dairy products included.  But before you think, “Well, isn’t THAT illegal?” it isn’t.  California is one of the few states which permits raw milk sales (Arizona is another such state – yay!) in retail facilities.  Police raided RAWESOME with guns drawn (no, I’m not kidding – when have you EVER seen a container of milk be dangerous enough to have firearms drawn?!) and took raw milk, yogurt, and butter from the coolers.  The government went in and told RAWESOME that they needed a retail permit to “sell” these things – and yet RAWESOME isn’t a retail establishment – it’s a liaison between farmers and consumers with twice-per-week pick-up times.  The people who run the buying club cut the tape seals on their location and were back in “business” the next day, but their defiance of the court order attempting to stop them is likely to only engender more rage within the government and future raids.

Raids have been cropping up everywhere – from my own (now-former) milk-supplier in Michigan (Richard Hebron) who became cause-celebre after being raided by the Michigan State Police in 2006 – to farms in Kentucky, Ohio, California, Minnesota, and other locations.  Why is the FDA cracking down on raw dairy and other “from the farm”-items?  No one knows for certain, but the pressure is increasing from Big Dairy and other Big Businesses that are losing money to these private sales and buying clubs.  Of course, the FDA would tell you directly how “unsafe” raw milk is and how they are “protecting citizens,” but the fact of the matter is the FDA has never been in the business of protecting citizens – they exist to protect businesses and the government from … what?  People who dare to think outside the box, are educated about their bodies and nutrition, and do things differently from how the government and business would like us to eat.  More illness has been linked to pasteurized milk and other “un-regulated” produce (think organic spinach, peanut butter, hamburger) than from raw milk.  And yet, raw dairy is the only item which is treated with such scorn and discrimination.

I’m not big on conspiracy theories and never have been.  But I’ve been contemplating writing this post for several days and realize that by putting myself out there in this way, there is risk.  We consume raw dairy and I pay a pretty penny to make sure that we have it.  The taste is outstanding, the nutritive values are incomparable, and our health is incredible.  Pasteurized milk simply doesn’t taste the same and the nutritive values of it pale in comparison to the stuff we drink.  But is there risk to me?  Yes, based on our buying-situation.  Do I want to go in to that online?  Not so much – but I find myself worried about a time when all of our food-buying options end up “underground” so that we can do what we believe is best for our families, nutritionally-speaking.  We’re already “off-grid” with our schooling choices and we’re moving further and further in that direction with our dietary purchases as well.

So what am I asking you to do?  Read up and learn about your consumer-rights. The FDA was quoted in a legal document a few months ago saying that we have no right to choose our food (yes, they really said this in legal briefings).  If you think this doesn’t affect you, consider this:  Vitamin C helps people get over colds and/or prevent them.  The FDA would like to regulate Vitamin C & its consumption.  My family supplements with Vitamin D3 and we haven’t been healthier and felt better in a l-o-n-g time.  Guess what?  The FDA would like to regulate that as well.  And the things that truly can be harmful (like Genetically Modified Organisms [GMO])?  They don’t want those items labeled, remarking that they are safe and preventing people from making educated choices.  Does this sound like a government agency that is seeking the “best for consumers and citizens” or one that is working hard to protect Big Pharma and Big Ag?

If you never think you’ll drink raw milk or consume raw dairy, that’s entirely up to you.  It’s within your rights to choose to consume pasteurized dairy for your entire life (or to consume none at all).  But others have a right to choose differently – unless we don’t speak up as a group and stop the raids and legal precedents that are attempting to be won in the court system.  If we don’t stand up for each other and our right to buy food that is appropriate for our families and to make those decisions for ourselves, we won’t have many choices to make in the future.  Our rights will be stripped away faster than we can imagine.  Speak up on behalf of your friends, neighbors, and family members – make your voice heard.

I’m doing things I never expected to do, but they include being prepared.  I’ve got documents, forms, and other things at the ready, should our situation ever become endangered.  And if the situation here in Arizona ever becomes one where we hear of local farms being raided or the laws changing regarding buying raw dairy or pastured meat, you can bet that I’ll be on the front lines, trying to preserve our freedoms.

If you’ve made it this far and are interested in learning more, I suggest several articles:

I sincerely hope that our rights are not eroded further by the FDA and/or pressure from Big Ag – but I’m not hopeful.  Vigilance and citizens knowing their rights are the best defenses we currently have.

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