A 26-part series on genetically modified food was not Nathanael Johnson’s idea. And he didn’t realize it would take six months, either.
Last year, Johnson was hired as the new food writer for Grist, a website for environmental news and opinion. Grist’s editor, Scott Rosenberg, was waiting with an assignment: Dig into the controversy over GMOs.
GMOs “were a unique problem for us,” says Rosenberg. On the one hand, most of Grist’s readers and supporters despise GMOs, seeing them as a tool of corporate agribusiness and chemical-dependent farming.
On the other hand, says Rosenberg, he’d been struck by the passion of people who defended this technology, especially scientists. It convinced him that the issue deserved a fresh look.
“When I met Nathanael, I thought, ‘This is a writer who could do this really well,’ ” recalls Rosenberg.
For the full essay, including links to Johnson’s work, head here.
Lori Rotenberk has compiled a slideshow of flora- and fauna-themed tattoos on farmers, chefs, and others who spend their lives producing food for us.
If you think you’ll see nothing but mustached hipsters, you’d be wrong. Sure, there are some of those there (and why not?), and while everyone appears to be non-Hispanic whites, you will find folks of both genders and of all ages. I found the photos to be a nice reminder of the working-class history of body ink in the U.S. (“By the 1950s, tattooing had an established place in Western culture, but was generally viewed with disdain by the higher reaches of society,” reports PBS.) They also made me smile, and with a weekend about to get underway, that’s good enough for me.
Check out the slideshow, and Rotenberk’s brief but lovely intro, here.
Twilight Greenaway, the food editor at Grist from 2011 to 2012, wrote a really nice piece about the danger of smug, break-your-arm-from-patting-your-own-back-so-hard food righteousness that plagues a small minority most of the time and the rest of us thoughtful eaters at least some of the time. As she describes,
I wrote a post about a campaign by the Consumer’s Union to convince several major grocery chains to stop carrying meat from animals raised with antibiotics, and one commenter said, “GO VEGAN.”
These comments make perfect sense. If you want to see less support for factory farms, I think going vegan can be a great choice (this is not an anti-vegan rant). But it doesn’t really matter what the post is about. There will generally always be someone, if not many people, there to tell us that this or that huge systematic problem shouldn’t bother, let alone interest, them because they’ve already taken their “five easy steps” to fix it on a personal level. And more often than not, I find that people’s gut responses to stories that fall into the “food politics” category fail to reflect the fact that food is both personal and the product of industry, public policy, and a whole host of systems that we have the opportunity to look critically at (and, in doing so — ideally — change).
For a very long time our food system was essentially opaque, so individual choice was all most of us had. And I certainly understand that not everyone will care about the amazing array of tools for connecting the dots from personal to systemic change. But I’d argue that if we practice the former without the latter, sooner or later we’ll end up in a safe but limiting cul-de-sac where very little actually happens.
The full piece is great food for thought and includes some super links, so check it out here.
The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on July 19, 2012.
Thanks to a tweet from Twilight Greenaway, I discovered this great post at Grist (a version of which originally appeared on Eat with Care). As Greenaway tweeted, “Who couldn’t use a little uplifting news? ‘Food, Inc.’ chicken farmer has new humane farm.”
Wearing a face mask, she steps inside one of her chicken houses, where she is raising broilers for Perdue. Inside she reveals a crowded sea of birds bumping into each other and squawking in agitation. Chickens are shown taking a few steps and falling down — due to the weight they’ve been bred to put on rapidly. Others are on their backs, gasping for breath inside a chicken house they cannot leave. Carole picks up a few dead birds and throws them in a pile.
She walks back outside, removes her face mask, wipes the dust off her face, and says with disgust, “That’s normal.”
But it’s far from normal today. Carole Morison is still stepping into her chicken houses in Pocomoke, Md., but now the chickens follow her. Rather than flee, they try to roost on her shoulder. Now she doesn’t have to wear a face mask, and she’s hopeful that she may be able to take antibiotics again after years of developing allergies while using Perdue’s antibiotic-laden feed.
The story goes on to describe Carole and Frank Morison’s reinvigorated life as farmers on their Bird’s Eye View Farm, where they now pasture-raise chickens for their eggs. As Abels notes, “the farm is certified by Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), a program that sends auditors to farms to make sure they’re complying with AWA’s strict animal welfare standards…. The farm is the first on the Delmarva Peninsula to be AWA-approved.” The full article is well worth a read, so check it out here.
The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on May 4, 2012.
As a crop, corn is highly productive, flexible and successful. It has been a pillar of American agriculture for decades, and there is no doubt that it will be a crucial part of American agriculture in the future. However, many are beginning to question corn as a system: how it dominates American agriculture compared with other farming systems; how in America it is used primarily for ethanol, animal feed and high-fructose corn syrup; how it consumes natural resources; and how it receives preferential treatment from our government.
The current corn system is not a good thing for America for four major reasons.
Those reasons, he writes, are: 1) “The American corn system is inefficient at feeding people.” 2) “The corn system uses a large amount of natural resources.” 3) “The corn system is highly vulnerable to shocks.” And 4) “The corn system operates at a big cost to taxpayers.”
His expounds on each of these in his article, which is really worth a read, and concludes by suggesting what an alternative system might look like:
This reimagined agricultural system would be a more diverse landscape, weaving corn together with many kinds of grains, oil crops, fruits, vegetables, grazing lands and prairies. Production practices would blend the best of conventional, conservation, biotech and organic farming. Subsidies would be aimed at rewarding farmers for producing more healthy, nutritious food while preserving rich soil, clean water and thriving landscapes for future generations. This system would feed more people, employ more farmers and be more sustainable and more resilient than anything we have today.
As Laskawy describes in his Grist post,
color me pleased when USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced at an agricultural conference that his agency was going to make a big push to increase crop diversity in order to make American agriculture more resilient in the face of a changing climate.
The term he threw around was “multi-cropping,” or growing a set of crops in sequence, rather than a single crop over and over (aka monocropping). Vilsack described some policies the USDA would need to adjust in order to, as he put it, “reduce the man-made barriers to multi-cropping.” He also held up as an example Ohio farmer David Brandt — a “mainstream” conventional farmer who has a national reputation in farm circles for his multi-cropping and soil-building techniques.
Of course, there’s one major human-made barrier to multi-cropping that may present the greatest challenge to Vilsack’s plan. And that’s $8-a-bushel corn. If you’re multi-cropping, you’re growing less corn — which means that while multi-cropping may be a more resilient system, given current federal subsidy, crop insurance, and market levels, it’s likely to be a less profitable one.
I can’t undertake this six-week thing pretending it’s the beginning of forever. Maybe I will have some kind of vegetarian conversion experience. Maybe I won’t. But the last times I decided to stop eating meat, I didn’t provide myself with any continuing education that might have helped me to, well, not really want to eat meat.
So this time I am not only not going to eat meat, I am also simultaneously going to read a lot about meat and what it takes resource-wise to produce it — so that this information is doing more than lurking in the back of my mind in some half-remembered Granta article or image of a pigeon-pecked turkey carcass. I’m going to learn about slaughterhouses. I’m going to look at pictures of dead animals and read books about them. I’m going to try to watch someone kill an animal. I’m going to find out about what industrial farming does to animals and to the planet…. [I]t’s my sneaking suspicion that the more you know about meat, the less you actually want to put it in your mouth.
With Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals as her primary guide, she examines many of the practices at the core of factory farming. So, the descriptions (and occasionally photos) can be pretty stomach-turning. What’s most appealing to me about her posts is her attempt to confront the harsh realities of not only raising and killing vast numbers of animals for food but also our own human weaknesses. As she describes in her third post,
I am, so far, not succeeding in squelching my desire to eat meat. The stuff still appeals to me, obviously, or I wouldn’t have put that piece of bacon in my mouth. Yes, I did so before I’d read the pig chapters [of Eating Animals] very closely. But the idea of bacon, even though I haven’t eaten it again, is still far from disgusting to me. Even after reading all that.
And I was feeling so good about being so quickly grossed out by chicken and fish! It occurs to me that maybe I just don’t like chicken and fish as much as I like bacon.
It is dawning on me that for now, no matter what I know, or how much I learn, if I can stick to not eating meat it is probably going to have to be a decision, something I force on myself. The thing is, I think eating factory-farmed meat is wrong, and that is a long way from where I was when I started this. But my desire to eat meat has not gone away, either.
So now I say I despise cruelty against animals, and insist that I am affected by it; what does it mean that I could still feasibly eat them?
Our film is very much about the struggle that farmers face. Food, Inc. did a great job of talking about some of the ethical and moral issues of meat production and animal husbandry in America. We actually introduce you to the farmers on both sides, the commodity farmers and the pasture-based farmers, and we show you the challenges they face and the joys they share. Our film is not a polemic; it’s not an expose. When you watch it you’ll empathize with everyone in the film.
Meriwether has been touring to college campuses and other venues to screen the movie and engage diverse audiences in post-film conversations. In response to Thompson’s query about how heated those conversations get, Meriwether had this to say:
[Missouri Pork Association executive director] Don Nikodim is critical in a respectful way. He doesn’t believe that grass-based systems are going to ever replace conventional systems. [People like Nikodim] have spent a lot of time and money and passion to build a certain system of agriculture, and if you have dedicated your life to that, then of course you’re gonna stand up for what you believe in.
At the University of Missouri screening, it was funny, because after every time Don Nikodim said something, all of the conventional ag students would erupt into applause. And every time Paul Willis or Mary Hendrickson would say something, everyone [else] would erupt into applause. There wasn’t any negative energy; there hasn’t been a single personal attack or anything.
Head to both interviews for the full scoop, check out the film’s website, and watch the movie trailer below. For still more, head to YouTube for the panel discussion (called Where the Beef? Your Hamburger in 2050) where the photo above was taken.