May 16, 2013

Food System Musings, from the Dentist’s Chair

Dennis Keeney

Dennis Keeney

Visiting Scholar

Center for a Livable Future

I am in a dental surgeon’s chair, waiting for a routine X-ray to confirm that my recent tooth repair was successful. The main north-south street of Ames flows by, and I gaze across a parking lot at the old high school, nicely refurbished as the city hall, where 55 years ago young people who are now my age cavorted, learned and went on to lives filled with success and trials. The world spun on the same axis then but seems different in fundamental ways.

A Sysco semi blocked my view for a moment, and I wondered what it contained, sure that none of the food came from the small farms of Iowa that existed 55 years ago. Sysco is a large wholesale processed food distributor; the semi undoubtedly had large beef steaks and ground beef that came from the sad animals that gave up their life all too early, entering metal gates and being hustled away to impersonal feedlots to be fed corn and soy, food they never evolved with, and with tasteless antibiotics, only to be again loaded onto trucks, perhaps sensing that something was awry as they smelled the blood and heard the bawling. And then an instant merciful death. The dairy cow had a better life, living long enough to produce several calves and much milk. It lived with hundreds of its kind and perhaps looked at the green space and wondered what was out there.

Doubtless our Sysco truck also had abundant amounts of pork, including the incredible two-inch thick chops that will share space with the beef in the grocery and on the weekend barbeque grill. Our pig most likely had a shorter life than the beef, only a few weeks snuggling up to the mother’s teats in the small crate fighting with others for its share, before being fed corn and soy and antibiotics. It was slaughtered in much the same way as its cow companions, only even quicker and in little confusion as it had never even sampled the life it was supposed to share.

Certainly the Sysco semi carried various cuts of poultry, including chicken breasts the size of loaves of bread; the poor chicken had even less chance to sample life than the pig and cow, not even enough room to turn around and so ungainly it could not walk. It was simply a protein factory. Others of its kind sat all day in cages, producing eggs until they became so thin and bony they were ground for feed to the next round of chickens.

My task completed, I headed out of the dentist’s office, only to see the Sysco truck stopped at a “nursing home”(for want of a better word), where the residents are old and feeble and live in small rooms not unlike our factory animals, where the sighting of a resident outside is more rare then the ambulance pulling up to the entrance. Sysco probably was delivering liquid food for those who have worn out teeth and cannot chew or have stroke-damaged throats and cannot swallow. I knew Sysco would also deliver to the upscale restaurant close by where the top-quality beef and pork would be welcomed by the customers.

The weather is cold and rainy, as it has been for weeks, and farmers sit by and wait for the soil to dry out and warm up. Their million-dollar green machines seem to be waiting like racing cars at the starting line. I wonder if the fields will get planted in time. Or do the farmers switch from corn to soy, or if this year some of the land is barren of all but weeds. Does the government insure a crop if it is not planted? Or does it reinvent the disaster payment, essentially a form of unemployment insurance? Does the one-size-fits-all government recognize the farmers who grow vegetables, graze cattle, hoop house pigs and do very well without Uncle Sam, thank you? They will make a good living this year on their own and with a sense of fulfillment for their labors and good planning.

What about the ethanol plants with their insatiable demand for corn, using over half of Iowa’s crop, which if the artificial energy system of ethanol loses its government help, might collapse and dump tons of corn on the market pushing down prices for corn and for all the artificial inputs, the expensive genetically modified seeds, the pesticides, made more expensive to overcome the pests who genetically modified themselves to combat Monsanto’s interference?

I come back home, and ponder again my Sysco sighting. And I wonder where it will all end.

One Comment

  1. Posted by Julie Dunn, RN

    If consumers were more compassionate and tried vegetarianism/vegan diet, these ponderings of yours would be much happier. We would be headed to a better place (in mind, body,spirit and environment). As Albert Einstein said: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”

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