Book Update

Since my last book update, I have finished Diet for a Dead Planet (Christopher D Cook) and The Consumer’s Guide for Effective Environmental Choices (The Union of Concerned Scientists), gotten halfway through Redwall, and read The Last Little Cat.

I highly recommend Diet for a Dead Planet to anyone who wants to read about the human costs to the current agricultural system – not so much as a condemnation (which it is) but also as a history of how the system actually developed, both industrially and politically. It’s written in such a way as to be easy to read in small chunks, and it was my bedtime reading book for awhile. Cook also does a great job of endnoting his work, so anything that seems outrageous can be fact-checked – something I did a few times.

The Consumer’s Guide was pretty dry but good to read, since it actually takes SCIENCE to the idea behind “greening” your everyday decisions. Especially in light of this week being Earth Day (more on that later this week), it’s nice to read something that says “these things actually make a difference, but those things really don’t”. For example, choosing to buy an energy efficient refrigerator is a much more important decision than whether you use plastic or paper grocery bags. They line up their scientific method and have a large section of data and analysis in the back of the book to support their findings as well. (Not surprising, given the authors.) Unfortunately, it’s about 10 years old, so it’s not as up to date as it could be, and a lot of the progress they see as possible hasn’t come about yet.

I have given up on the Dalai Lama’s book for now, mostly because it is a little too thinky for me right now. I’ve put off most of the other books for another time.

Instead, on my reading list, I have:

  • Bunnicula and The Celery Stalks at Midnight, by James Howe
  • The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan
  • The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels, by Ree Drummond
  • Beezus and Ramona, by Beverly Cleary
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan
  • A Garden Book for Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast, by the River Oaks Garden Club, and Houston Garden Book, by John Kriegel

Plus, of course, finishing Redwall and whatever other Brian Jacques books I can track down at work. Hopefully this will be a good continuation of both fun reading that I’ll enjoy and reading that will feed my brain (pun intended) as I research and study various things about our food industry and about my local gardening climate.

Also, for what it’s worth, those books at the top of this post are the first books I’ve actually finished since all this started last year. *\o/*

Dear Food: Please shut up.

I’m really tired of my food telling me why I’m eating it.

Take Cheerios. According to the box, the only reason you are eating Cheerios is a) to lower your cholesterol or b) to lose weight.

Remember that dipshit commercial about Multi Grain Cheerios where the (stereotypical idiot) husband is asking his (stereotypically thin, wearing a grey sweatshirt) wife if she’s eating Multi Grain Cheerios to lose weight? Because obviously the only reason she’d be eating that shit is to lose weight?

Doesn’t that actually do the product a DISSERVICE? I mean, diet food doesn’t exactly have a great history. Loudly proclaiming that the only reason someone must be eating your product is because they’re a slave to the scale doesn’t seem like a particularly positive endorsement.

But then, there it is on the box. Make Multi Grain Cheerios part of your WEIGHT LOSS PLAN. (Whatever this week’s plan is.)

And then? If you want to eat a banana with your Cheerios? THOSE CAN HELP YOU LOSE WEIGHT TOO. I bought bananas recently that had a “LOSE WEIGHT WITH BANANAS” sticker on them. It led to a website where you could, purportedly, input your weight loss plan that included eating lots of Brand Name Bananas (I didn’t get that far because the website required email verification). Never mind eating bananas because they’re delicious, or because they have lots of fiber and vitamins, or because they’re easy on your stomach when you have the food poisoning.

BANANAS FOR WEIGHT LOSS.

I have a bag of brown sugar that says “Gluten Free” on it, proudly, in big letters. I’ve bought strawberries that say “Trans-Fat Free!” on the label. Strawberries. Like, whole fresh berries with the leaves still on. Yeah, they’re trans-fat free!

It’s like TJ’s snicker’s bar – why is my food telling me why I’m eating it? I know, I know, it’s because food is an INDUSTRY now. It’s all about advertising and product placement. Eat THESE bananas and not THOSE bananas. See? OUR bananas make you lose weight. OUR cereal makes you skinny.

Doesn’t anyone eat food because it’s good anymore? Or because it has nutrients? Are we so afraid of being/getting/continuing to be “fat” (whatever fat is) that we can’t evaluate our food based on the actual food itself instead of what it’s supposedly going to do for us as a side effect?

Oh – and that’s another rant. Isn’t it a little scary that you can eat a bowl of cereal that has 100% of your day’s vitamins in it? As though you really don’t GET anything from eating all those vegetables. Who needs broccoli and carrots, just eat cereal for breakfast, get all your vitamins, and then eat candy bars and drink soda all day! Vitamins good!

The whole process is just so silly. No wonder so many people have such weird relationships with food, and that the newspaper can tell us that this week pasta is bad, but next week we can have an all pasta weight loss diet. Our food (or rather, the companies marketing it) assume that we’re too stupid to make our own choices about what we like and what’s good for us.

Which, of course, is confounded by the newspaper science thing. High fat, low carb. High carb, low fat. Low fat, whole grain. Cabbage Soup diet. Miracle Vinegar Cleanse. Nobody knows what’s really good for them (at least, nobody that’s actually reading the newspaper pseudo-science and believes it), and in turn, we go looking for the food companies to tell us whether or not we should eat something.

Of course, that’s what nutrition labels are supposed to be for, right? They tell us what’s in the food? Except that the ingredients list is full of (mostly corn and soy derived) chemicals and vitamins disguised by chemical names to the point where that list is basically useless.

How many of those items are just code names for sugar? How many are petroleum derived? What does “0 grams of trans fat” really actually mean? (answer: less than .5 grams. not none.)

I know that packaged food is a good thing. How many of us have been thankful for a can of Campbells soup when we’ve been sick? Packaged, shelf-stable food allows a lot of people to eat who couldn’t normally access that food easily, and that’s a Really Good Thing- especially since I live in a Hurricane prone area!

But really? All this hype? All the uber-marketing research strategies?

It’s well beyond ridiculous, and it gets on my nerves.

Dear Food:

Please shut up.

Love,
Me

The Hidden Costs

(This is kind of a rant. Apologies. I don’t really offer a lot of solutions here, because I just … well, I don’t have them. But knowing about them is a start, even if the only thing I can do this week is choose to have hummous and tabbouleh for dinner (homemade and, as much as possible, home grown – and yes, I can post recipes!) one night instead of burgers. There are no “good” answers, only slightly better ones. I really dislike being all DOOM about this, because that doesn’t solve anything. At the same time, not saying anything … doesn’t solve anything either. So anyway, a rant about my frustration with food.)

I wouldn’t marry a farmer,
He’s always in the dirt.
I’d rather marry a railroad man
Who wears a striped shirt!
– From Laura Ingalls Wilder’s By the Shores of Silver Lake

There’s a bit of a discussion happening over at Seven Deadly Divas about where ethical choices begin and how any of us can have fun knowing where “stuff” comes from. It’s worth reading the original post, since this is as much a reply as anything. (It started as a comment and got WAY out of hand. My tedious verbosity knows few bounds.)

So anyway.

It pretty much sucks to be a farmer right now. The seeds, processing, shipping, and grocery stores are all controlled by a handful of companies (literally – there are about 5) who own almost the entire market share of food production in the US – as well as a large portion of that same market abroad. Seeds are being designed to self-destruct after one year, and it’s illegal for farmers to save seeds anyway, they have to buy new seeds every year – from the same companies who then lowball them on prices to sell to supermarkets and whose budgets allow the supermarkets to charge hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a product on the shelf, making it impossible for the farmers to afford it themselves.

So these men and women end up “contracted” by various large companies, and go so far into debt that they often can’t even sell the farm to get out of it. Selling the farm incurrs capital gains tax, and they’ll often end up in MORE debt by trying to leave.

The average farmer makes about $0.15 per dollar of consumer cash spent on food. The rest? Goes to the companies in between – and that’s gross, not profit. Prices go up due to gas shortages? Farmers don’t get any of that increase, even though their equipment and a large percent of the farm pesticides, antibiotics, and fertilizers are derived from petroleum or rely on the petroleum industry (that’s another post).

It’s a little like serf-dom, really.

And then you get to the processing part.

A lot of people talk about what it’s like for the poor animals who live in factory farms. They’re absolutely right, of course. It SUCKS. Pigs and cows and chickens living in feed lots are not really living – unless you count standing on a grated floor eating other ground up animals and wallowing in your own shit all day as “quality of life”.

But there’s a human toll to this as well. The people who work in fields as farm labor are exposed to really nasty pesticides. It’s not much better for people who work in animal feed lots (who are required by the big companies who own their contracts to do exactly as the big companies say, including the feed lot housing and animal numbers, as well as then eat the cost when the animals get sick from the process).

And when things go wrong, at say, a pig farm, and the “Lagoon” of pig excrement busts a dam, and you have TWENTY FIVE MILLION GALLONS of pig shit that flood the countryside? Well, that’s pretty shitty for the wildlife AND the other people who live there – pun absolutely intended.

So it sucks to be a farmer. Back in the day, it was less sucky to be a meat packer, because the pay was better. So people leave the farms to get jobs in the meat packing industry.

Except that’s… well, worse. Repetitive stress injuries, huge lawsuits, no worker’s organization for any kind of bargaining rights, 13 hour days followed by cramped, insufficient, vermin-ridden company housing that’s deducted from your minimum-wage paycheck.

Ok… stepping off the soapbox. If you want articles for any of this, I’ll be happy to give references.

The other side of the problem, and where this intersects with the Divas post?

Everyone has to eat.

Everyone. If you don’t eat, you will die. It’s not exactly an arguable fact of nature. Same goes with water. If you don’t drink water, you’ll die too, and much faster. (And the amount of water pollution caused by 25 million gallons of pig shit is… well, ew.)

So when you go to the grocery store, all you see is a pre-packaged, neatly wrapped tray of pork chops, chicken breasts, or ground beef. (Another facet of the industry recently taken over by the processing companies – they used to ship whole animal sections to grocers for butchering, now it’s pre-packaged and boxed.) That shrink wrapped package on sale for $2.48/lb doesn’t say what happened to the animal or the people who produced it – those costs are hidden by the system of production and packaging.

Food prices are unquestionably rising, even as the US continues to ship about 30% of its crop overseas every year due to surplus. So we’re all paying more for food that comes from pretty terrible places, shrink wrapped into sterility. Which means our food dollars go less far, leaving less room to buy organic and locally produced food that just might offer a halfway decent quality of life to the people and/or animals involved.

Stephanie’s comment at the Divas is probably the most pertinent here – we all have to know our sphere of influence. Know what we CAN affect, and what we can’t. And, really, to pick our battles. If I allowed myself to get involved in all the things that bother me in environmentalism and human rights, I’d go crazy. And so, I’ve picked food and water. I figure that’s about as basic as they get, unless you’re in South Dakota in January, and then shelter is probably more important.

But even after choosing my battles, I can’t take on Monsanto, Cargill, ConAgra, Tyson, or Premium Standard Farms.

I can grow some of my own vegetables – a prospect that seems less and less like just a “hobby” skill. I can eat less meat, and try to eat the best meat I can afford (even though I know there are problems on that front too). I can shop at a local farmer’s market and be thankful that I have one available.

Except that it takes me 40 minutes to drive there, in my gasoline powered car.

Intersectionality kind of sucks.