Food Diatribe I

I grow some winter vegetables under frost blankets so the growing season is never completely over for me, but it is certainly a lot slower than it was a couple of months ago, and I have some time in the evening to read and even, occasionally, to think. One of the things that I think about most is the future of agriculture and American health. I am hardly indifferent to the health of other countries, but I like to start at home, and the fact is that by many parameters we have worse health outcomes than most first-world countries and many third-world countries. I have put a few references below, but the short version is that you name the health parameter, from overall longevity to infant mortality to rates of cardiac death to obesity and diabetes, and we’re not doing well. I will only be addressing factors that have some well-established link to diet and therefore to agriculture.

This is the article that provoked this post:

Why Small Local Organic Farms Aren’t the Key to Fixing Our Food System

This article is an example of the stuff going around in the popular press right now, because a great way to get clicks is to attack the current mantra whatever it is, and “organic and local” is the current food mantra.  And I believe that this article is partially correct: the production of grain, legumes, etc. does benefit from some economies of scale because of the land and equipment involved, and even raising grassfed large livestock requires a lot of grass and, therefore, a lot of land.

This is where I disagree:  the article does not address the fact that what small local organic farms are producing, mostly produce and small livestock, is exactly what most of us would benefit from eating more of, and the environment would be better off if we did.  I believe that in many ways American agricultural thinking is still stuck in the old model of maximum calories per acre, even though nobody would ever talk about it that way anymore.  Corn, for instance, can produce a huge number of calories per acre, and therefore a huge amount of food, most of it not good for us. The only reason to grow so damn much corn is to produce a huge number of calories. So I invite you to just look around you, and figure out how many people of your acquaintance or visible in any public place are suffering from a calorie deficiency.  I am not talking here about nutrient deficiencies, but about simple calorie deficiencies. Calorie deficiencies  exist in America, definitely, but they are not common. I follow a lot of lifespan, healthspan, and mindspan research,  and much of it looks at what has nourished healthy populations, not for a part of one lifetime, but for generations and even millennia.  Vegetables keep emerging as a theme. One of the things that I think could benefit every single American without necessarily changing anything about cooking techniques,  overall diet, specialty ingredients, etc. is simply to think in terms of removing half of what is on an average plate and replacing it with more vegetables. Not the starchy sweet ones but the real ones, especially leafy greens. Nobody is in a better position to help you with that than your local small farmer.

Another issue arises when it comes to the question of how your local small farmer can make a living, because the organic local produce that he or she produces clearly has to be more expensive than most other factory-farmed produce, so that farmers can stay in business. So how can low-income people with  little ability to spend flexibly make better food choices? I think this might be the place to use government subsidies creatively. Right now, subsidies make it possible for Big Ag farmers to make a profit producing huge amounts of GMO corn that go into feeding animals in unhealthy ways and making corn-based sweeteners that make us fat and sick. If, instead, farmers were subsidized for things like employing local labor and using good employment and environmental practices, this would be the beginning of a solution. With topsoil erosion a huge agricultural problem and steadily worsening, subsidizing the farmers who don’t contribute to it could make a real difference.  If low income consumers were also subsidized for using local farm resources, say for example foodstamp dollars would buy one dollar at a grocery store but two dollars at a farmers’ market, it would become more possible for low income people to eat high quality produce. And yes, I would advocate taking away the subsidies that make GMO corn profitable. Cheap beef is sick beef, and cheap sweetener is the basis of an obese society. It is unclear to me why taxpayers should pay for the privilege of making people and animals fatter and sicker. Some people don’t believe in any subsidies at all, but if we’re going to have them, I’m in favor of using them for long-term improved health of soil, animals, and people.

I can’t resist adding (because, after all, it’s what this blog is about) that if you have just a little bit of land, you are in a good position to help yourself.  Put in a vegetable garden and plant a few fruit trees,  or identify fruit trees in other places that you can harvest from (many people don’t want the fruit from their trees or get a lot more fruit than they can use,) and you are in an excellent position to make a salutary change in your diet at minimal expense.

WHO stats of life expectancy by country:

(1) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy

We are 31st per 2015 statistics. Really.  And remember the China and its administrative region Hong Kong do not participate in the world health organization and are not in their statistics, but both have significantly greater longevity on average than America. So if they were added in, we would drop further.

Stats of rate of cardiac-related death by country:

http://www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/cause-of-death/coronary-heart-disease/by-country/

In cardiac death rates we look okay at first, down at number 107 among countries for which stats are available, but then you notice the long list of countries, including some third-world nations, that have lower rates than we do. You may also notice that France, Italy, the UK, Germany, Switzerland, and most first-world countries generally are doing a good bit better than we are, with notably lower rates of cardiac death. It is very legitimate to ask what we need to do better.

Prevalence of diabetes by country:

https://www.indexmundi.com/facts/indicators/SH.STA.DIAB.ZS/rankings

Here, too, we look okay at first, down at 42nd place in percentage of people age 20-79 diagnosed with diabetes. But then notice Spain down at 89th place, Canada at 95th, Norway at 130th, France at 143rd, the UK at 152nd,  and in fact all developed and many undeveloped nations showing diabetes rates well below ours, and it is imperative to ask how we can do better.

2 responses to this post.

  1. I think you have a very good, and accurate, point of view here Heather. Developing systems people can use to grow their own is very important in my mind. The biggest problem we find in this area is actually not mentioned here, or in the article you cited, and that is convenience.
    People really prefer to eat out whenever they can, and prefer to buy what they want, when they want it. Producing is not so valuable as the service of storage and preparation. We are considering dropping our CSA offering this year, and plant sale, and are now forced to majorly cut back on our beef sales because there is just no demand. Two years ago, a CSA we knew the owners of had to quite business due to bankruptcy. You would think that such a large fixture would mean every other CSA nearby woukd be swamped with new customers. The nearby CSA’s actually dropped, and many went out of business the next year. What do people say they are doing when they leave? Shopping at Farmer’s Markets (That’s a joke. I see market growers dropping like flies just like CSA’s). Even talking to those who are still in our share, it’s obvious they eat out a lot, and have a lot of pasta and humus, etc. When I ask how they liked certain things we passed out, they often respond they haven’t eaten any of it yet a week after we passed it out (or months in some cases, which isn’t hard to read into. The one year we sent home buckets for compost collection was a real eye opener for how much of our products go unused into the trash). Selling to restaurants of course looks like the way to go in that case. But aside from getting the price low enough, which the subsidy idea may help with, it is very hard for small farmers to supply restaurants. We have had 16 cows go in a year, but when restaurants only serve flank steak sandwitches (there are only 2 flank steaks on a cow) it is pretty hard to keep up.
    So people growing their own, and learning to cook their own is top prority in my mind. You are really doing great things here to promote that, and I so love seeing that happen. As a designer, I’m looking to make gardens and produce easier (hence the PASSIVE garden name). Thanks for such a thoughtful article.

    Reply

  2. Posted by wooddogs3 on November 26, 2017 at 8:02 pm

    Thanks for your input. I am surprised and saddened to hear you talk about CSAs and farmers market growers going out of business. I grow so much of my own produce that I realize I have gotten very out of touch with people who grow for market. And your comment makes me wonder if people who read my blog ever grow or cook anything at home on any regular basis. I do remember someone telling me that the exponential increase in cooking shows on television over the last decade corresponds to an equally large decrease in the number of people actually cooking at home. Convenience seems to be everything, and while I know that we are all busy, so were our great-grandparents, and they cooked. I find this all especially discouraging because eating at restaurants regularly, even well-intentioned restaurants, is the fast track to weight gain and blood sugar problems as far as I can tell. We seem to have a national genius for finding ways to make ourselves fat and sick.
    What you say does square with my experiences in trying to give away produce. I bring extra eggs to work and give them to my coworkers, who are thrilled to get them, but when I have offered lettuce and salad greens nobody wanted them because they would have to be washed. I even considered doing the washing myself just to try to get people to eat them, but then decided that was going a bit far for free produce, especially given that I am working the same hours they are.
    Oh well, keep doing what you do. I really think that the PASSIVE system will help some people.

    Reply

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