We have the food system we asked for. There's a reason a burger at McDonald's sells for about a buck. There's a reason the food is of such poor quality in places where healthy nutrition is most important -- our schools, hospitals and nursing homes.
What we support prospers; what we feed grows. If we support Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart will prosper. If we demand $1 burgers at McDonald's and insist that surplus food donated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture be served in our schools, then the worn-out-cow meat business based on imports and crowded feedlots will grow.
When we demand cheap food, should we be surprised when our food is cheap? Not so long ago, close-to-death "downer” cows were ground into our food supply, and we are still getting exactly what we ask for -- stuff that hardly resembles food; garbage that, if tested, would often qualify as inedible and dangerous waste. This gutfill is so low in nutritional value and so high in unhealthy chemicals -- and has been consumed by us for so long -- that we are suffering from unprecedented levels of degenerative diseases and health-care costs.
Food produced on a factory scale for a mass market has steadily driven out local farmers and livestock producers, bakers, butchers and corner food stores. Yet we often seem surprised by some of the consequences of factory-food production. Perhaps you were taken aback when you learned not long ago that one beef-slaughtering plant could kill or paralyze people just by taking the meat from hundreds of cows, mixing it with fat and turning it all into burgers. Just a few years ago, you might have been surprised to learn that one spinach producer in California could sicken people in 26 states.
At the request of the big food companies, we have given mass producers much too much latitude to keep our food clean and safe. Federal inspection personnel have been reduced to paper-shufflers. Even worse, they have been spread so thin that they seldom inspect our meat-processing facilities. Do we really expect companies pressured by demands for unreasonable profits not to cut corners? Most companies don't tell their employees to cut corners; they simply demand that the workers make things happen fast -- or else. And that is why vigilant oversight is so necessary.
For too long, we have looked the other way, refusing to think about exactly how -- and why -- it is that things can be so cheaply produced. If we could somehow feel and experience the human, animal and environmental suffering that goes into our demand for cheapness, maybe we would act differently.
Worn-out dairy cows are found everywhere, the last precious drop of milk having been squeezed out of them. The market power of the large milk processors is driving dairies to extremes to survive. Highly stressed processing workers, lacking a living wage and essential health care, are treated like the animals in our industrial food system. They are continually asked to do more for less, and they are at their physical and mental limits. Some of them are severely abused and mistreated, and when they are used up, they, too, are discarded.
Even though what we eat is crucial for our health, we have become proud of finding the cheapest prices for everything. We are hypocrites: We celebrate the $1 price tag and then worry about our children's obesity, our high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.
We have seen what our appetite for foreign oil has produced -- a dangerous dependency. Food is no different. From farmers and ranchers to packers and processors, the infrastructure for food production in this country has begun to collapse. We are now a net importer of food; 20 percent of the beef we consume, for example, is imported. Foreign companies are now buying our biggest food processors at deeply discounted prices.
Wouldn't our country be better served if we produced and processed almost all of our own food at home?
If we want a healthy, safe and dependable food system in this country, we need to demand it -- and support it. When we buy from farmers, butchers and bakers in our own neighborhoods and counties, we buy and consume food that tastes good, strengthens our local economies and is nutritionally satisfying. Best of all, when our food is local, we always have the option of stopping by to see for ourselves exactly how the animals and gardens are growing.
Mike Callicrate is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a rancher in Kansas and runs ranchfoodsdirect.com in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.