Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wendell Berry, processed foods and flatulent cattle

The American farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry observed in The Unsettling of America that the person who buys basic food staples at the grocery store and uses them to prepare their own meals has an entirely different effect on the agricultural production system than the person who buys processed food. He wrote this 35 years ago, before anthropogenic climate change was recognized as being an important environmental issue.

In processed food, the raw materials can be sourced from just about anywhere; the processor's main goal is to obtain them as cheaply as possible so as to maximize the value from processing. The meat ingredients in a heat-and-serve dinner are more likely to come from Brazil or Thailand or Kansas than a farm near you, the vegetables from China, the "cheese" from modified milk products rather than milk... you get the picture. And cheaply produced food ingredients are rarely good for the farms or the land on which they are produced. If you have ever stood downwind from a factory hog operation or an industrial slaughterhouse, or seen the soil-laden rivers downstream from a scorching hot, bare-sloped palm plantation, you know what I mean.

Make a meal from scratch and you will invariably select better quality ingredients than go into the ready-made version. It does not mean to say there will be no environmental impacts on the farms and land where your ingredients are produced, but chances are they will be less so. Choosing your own ingredients also means you can choose where they are produced and how, if you care to do so. The chicken I roasted for dinner on Sunday came from western Quebec, the potatoes, too. The carrots came from southern Ontario, so did the onions. If I wanted to, I could go look at the farms they came from (perhaps I have driven past one of them before and simply did not notice). I have an idea of what that chicken ate when it was alive and what was not sprayed on the veggies. The money I spent on that meal employed people in my home province and region, and cost less than what I would have spent to buy a ready-made chicken dinner. It tasted superior and was healthier, too.

A while back I was contacted by a Calgary-based reporter for Macleans magazine about a story he was writing on greenhouse gas emissions from industrial feedlot cattle. He was skeptical about environmentalists' claims that feedlot cattle produce more methane (a greenhouse gas) than grass-fed cattle. The environmentalists are right; scientific studies have shown that grass-fed cattle are less flatulent than grain-fed feedlot ones. He then went on to ask that if we were going to keep food affordable, weren't industrial feedlots a necessary evil? I replied that the ground beef in my freezer came from animals raised in Fitzroy, Ontario, not far from Ottawa, and had never been on a feedlot. Moreover, I bought it at the Ottawa's farmer's market for the exact same price per pound as what the supermarket charges for feedlot beef. The reporter, still unconvinced, then said that while it might be fine for feeding Ontarians, we can't feed the whole world farming that way.

This last question made me pause. I lived for a number of years in Asia, and traveled around there quite a bit, and can't say I ever saw a piece of Canadian beef for sale. I lived in Europe and never saw any there, either. I said "I don't know... I suppose not..." and the reporter accepted this answer. What I was thinking as I was saying this was "I don't know that we are feeding the world with Canadian feedlot beef. Most of it probably feeds the fast-food-hamburger processing plants. Could we sell $3.99 value meals if the cattle were all raised without feedlots? I suppose not..." But I didn't bother sharing all these thoughts with the reporter. All he wanted to do was write a story linking cattle farts and global warming, and needed a couple quick quotes. I decided not to go all Wendell-Berry on him. Maybe I should have told him that if you just buy your meat from a local farmer and make the patties yourself, you needn't worry about cattle flatulence-induced climate change as you enjoy your burger. But that probably wouldn't have made the story as interesting.

No comments: