Tuesday, September 01, 2009

For the Love of Tomatoes and Cornbread

I made chili last night, and it tasted amazing. This wasn't because I'm a great cook. It had to do with the ingredients.

The central ingredient was heirloom tomatoes, mostly flammes. Heirloom varieties are those that used to be regular old tomatoes, pollinated by the flying bugs that facilitate plant sex. Nothing special. They were bred for their taste, and kept going in all the family farms and backyard gardens that used to proliferate across this nation. Of late, they have become hard to find. Thanks to organizations such as Seed Savers Exchange, there is hope that they will not go extinct.

I took home these beautiful tomatoes and blanched them to remove the skins, then smushed them in a pot and added herbs, salt and pepper. The entire preparation process took four minutes. Clearly this is the route for me: tasty food AND easy.

I added the kidney beans I had soaked overnight and simmered on the stove for about two hours.

(Again, this was easy. The night before, I threw the dried beans in a bowl along with lots of water, and promptly forgot about them. When I was two hours away from needing them, I put them on the stove and did other things until it was time to make the chili. I am not about spending my life in the kitchen, just long enough to make piquant food.)

I chopped up a green pepper and added it to the pot. The result of these few, easy ingredients? THE MOST AMAZING TOMATO-Y FLAVOR: ripe, sweet, bursting, intense.

In recent decades, there has been a steady decline of American small farms in favor of large agribusiness. The result has been a sharp reduction of available produce that tastes good, and a proliferation of red tomatoes that taste more like cardboard than the red, juicy fruit they were intended to be.

It's interesting to look at the change in American food habits by looking at American society. Who buys the cheap produce? We all do, but especially people who live in inner cities, whose only access to groceries are convenience stores. In those cases, what is available are packaged, processed, loaded with synthesized additives, and not a whole lot of fresh veggies, even of the cardboard kind. We've come to expect asparagus in September (it's an early spring veggie) and oranges all the time (even though they're best in January through about March). Do we have to have it this way? Is there a better way? What about cost?

Good questions.

I especially wonder, does it cost more to buy organic vegetables? What about the cost of transportation, fuel, and the pollution created by hauling food long distances, to say nothing of the lack of taste? About 85 cents of every food dollar goes to the processors, marketers, and transporters of food. The rest, three whole nickels, go to the farmer.*

Taste is what compels me to make the effort to shop at the farmer's market and the small produce store. I am not under any illusions that my actions will save the world, nor do I care about politically correct rhetoric. I care that my money go to support farmers, especially those that live around me, rather than a corporation whose only concern is profit. Efficiencies have their place, just not in the business of, for instance, cramming so many chickens into a cage so that they can't spread their wings. It's unnatural.

I don't see why good old-fashioned, chemical-free, tasty vegetables and meat need be exclusive of affordability.


"The drift away from our agricultural roots is a natural consequence of migration from the land to the factory, which is as old as the Industrial Revolution. But we got ourselves uprooted entirely by a drastic reconfiguration of U.S. farming, beginning just after WWII. Our munitions plants, challenged to beat their swords into ploughshares, retooled to make ammonium nitrate surpluses into chemical fertilizers instead of explosives. The next explosions were yields on midwestern corn and soybean fields. It seemed like a good thing, but some officials saw these new surpluses as reason to dismantle New Deal policies that had helped farmers weather the economic uncertainties notorious to their vocation. Over the next decade, nudged by industry, the government rewrote the rules on commodity subsidies so these funds did not safeguard farmers, but instead guaranteed a supply of cheap corn and soybeans.

These two crops, formerly food for people and animals, became something entirely new: a standardized raw material for a new extractive industry...this new industry made piles of corn and soybeans into high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and thousands of other starch- or oil-based chemicals. Cattle and chickens were brought off the pasture into intensely crowded and mechanized CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) where corn &ndash which is no part of a cow's natural diet, by the way &ndash could be turned cheaply and quickly into animal flesh. All these different products, in turn, rolled on down the new industrial food pipeline to be processed into the soft drinks, burgers, and other cheap foods on which our nation now largely runs &ndash or sits on its bottom, as the case may be.

This is how 70 percent of all our midwestern agricultural land shifted gradually into single-crop corn or soybean farms, each one of them now, on average, the size of Manhattan. Owing to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetic modification, and a conversion of farming from a naturally based to a highly mechanized production system, U.S. farmers now produce 3,900 calories per U.S. citizen, per day. That is twice what we need, and 700 calories a day more than they grew in 1980. Commodity farmers can only survive by producing their maximum yields, and they do. And here is the shocking plot twist: as the farmers produced those extra calories, the food industry figured out how to get them into the bodies of people who didn't really want to eat 700 calories more calories a day...

Most of those calories enter our mouths in forms hardly recognizable as corn and soybeans, or even vegetable in origin: high-fructose corn syrup owns up to its parentage, but lecithin, citric acid, maltodextrin, sorbitol, and xanthan gum, for example, are also manufactured from corn...

Obesity is generally viewed as a failure of personal resolve, with no acknowledgment of the genuine conspiracy in this historical scheme. People actually did sit in strategy meetings discussing ways to get all those surplus calories into people who neither needed nor wished to consume them. Children have been targeted especially; food companies spend over $10 billion a year selling food brands to kids, and it isn't broccoli they're pushing. Overweight children are a demographic in many ways similar to minors addicted to cigarettes, with one notable exception: their parents are usually their suppliers. We all subsidize the cheap calories with our tax dollars, the strategists make the fortunes, and the overweight consumers get blamed for the violation. The perfect crime."

----- Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

As for the cost, I cannot say it better than Steven L. Hopp already did:

"Most consumers don't know how much we're already paying for the conventional foods, before we even get to the supermarket. Our tax dollars subsidize the petroleum used in growing, processing, and shipping these products. We also pay direct subsidies to the large-scale, chemical-dependent brand of farming. And we're being forced to pay more each year for the environmental and health costs of that method of food production.

Here's an exercise: add up the portion of agricultural fuel use that is paid for with our taxes ($22 billion), direct Farm Bill subsidies for corn and wheat ($3 billion), treatment of food-related illnesses ($10 billion), agricultural chemical cleanup costs ($17 billion), collateral costs of pesticide use ($8 billion), and costs of nutrients lost to erosion ($20 billion). At minimum, that's a national subsidy of at least $80 billion, about $725 per household each year. That plus the sticker prices buys our "inexpensive" conventional food.

Organic practices build rather than deplete the soil...eliminate pesticides and herbicides...maintain and apply knowledge of many different crops...Smaller farms also bear relatively higher costs for packaging, marketing, and distribution. But the main difference is that organic growers aren't forcing us to pay expenses they've shifted into other domains, such as environmental and health damage."

----- Steven L. Hopp, Ibid. 117.

Even if these numbers are higher, or lower, the fact remains that there is a lot of subsidizing going to energy use rather than good food production. In my opinion, it seems like a huge waste of resources.

What is it that makes us believe that the only way to run a business is with the goal of getting rich? What is wrong with running a business with the goal of producing a fantastic product, with the idea of maintaining that production for the long term, the results of which would keep people employed and well-fed and do not make them overweight and ill?

I see the choice to be made, and it is easy. The proof is in the chili.

* paraphrased from Barbara Kingsolver, Ibid. 13.

No comments: