Cows like me. At least, that it what I imagine as I ride along the side of the road. When I ride by, cows stop what they are doing, grazing, and look at me until I pass. Being herd creatures, once one does it, they all do it. If they are facing the road they look straight up, if they have their behind to my path, they do a full U-turn of the neck. I am a diversion in their day. And in the West, where towns are fifty miles apart and ranches ten miles apart and passing cars two miles apart and I find myself counting down the numbers imprinted in the concrete slabs of highway to mark off my pedaling, cows are a diversion in my day as well.
Colorado cows are spread over the thin grassed plains in extended families, maybe eight, maybe twelve, each nibbling away at what little there is, hundreds of feet from each other. Actually they are cattle, but I think of them as cows. They are friendlier that way. Kansas cows are completely different. They are industrial. They live on feed lots, hundreds and hundreds of them, their black hides barely move against the chocolate brown earth of trampled mud. They huddle along feed troughs or cluster under the shade of a single tree or settle into a pond so tight I cannot see any water. Besides being the summer of the Great National Debt Ceiling Debate, 2011 is also the summer of the Great Heat Wave. As I ride fromLamar, CO to Garden City, KS, it is my second day of 100 plus degree temperatures. Little do I know that I will have eleven more to come. It is better that I don’t.
As I ride, I fancy that feed lot cows are less content than open range cows, but that is mere projection. I have read Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma and I want to think they are less happy. In fact, when they look up at me, all cows are equally inscrutable. We like to suppose that cows belong on an open range, but then we like to think that people belong on family farms, when for generations, given the choice, people flock to cities. Cows have no choice, they live where they live, they die to provide us meat, and people who care about the difference pay more for meat that is open range and organic, while others eat whatever is served. The differences in how the animals are raised, the effects of force feeding them a corn diet, the compromises mass processing introduces into the safety of our meat, and the nutritional loss that results are well discussed in either of the above books. I observed only the two most elementary aspects of the process, cows and corn, and came away thinking the term ‘industrial food processing’ is apt; we have twisted nature to create food on a scale never intended.
Southwest Kansasis a giant factory of land. After we pull minerals out of Colorado and ship off all that we can find, we move on, but in Kansas we use and reuse the land over and over. The feedlots full of cows are but a tiny portion of the factory; most of the space is taken up with the cornfields that generate their feed. Over the course of my trip, I spent 50, maybe 60 hours riding beside cornfields in six major corn producing states, but nowhere else did corn have the industrial sheen ofKansas. Southwest Kansas doesn’t get enough rain to grow corn, or much of anything else. But since it sits atop the Ogallala Aquiver, a huge reservoir that runs under the High Plains fromSouth Dakota to Texas, giant rotating sprinkler systems can pull water from beneath the earth to irrigate the corn. The dense green stalks within the neat sprinkler circles are fertile; the land a foot beyond the sprinkler’s reach is parched dust. A third component of theKansas land factory is the other stuff that we pull out of the earth; a smattering of oil and lots of natural gas. These products of the land are channeled through elaborate pumping systems, with boosters along the side of the road every mile or so and mammoth processing plants at greater intervals. As I ride I hear the hissing and clicking of this elaborate system as if the land itself is gargling. The final component of this land factory are the packing plants where the noisy fuels power elaborate machinery that turn the corn fed cows into hamburger and steak, while the rest of the corn is ground into the syrup we use to sweeten just about everything we eat.
Riding out of Dodge City in the early morning light I passed the massive Cargill plant. Rows of tracker trailers stood waiting to be filled with meat to distribute acrossAmerica. The sides of the trailers bore the slogan ‘Meat Solutions’. The phrase puzzled me in every direction. Is meat a problem? Is there something inherently wrong with meat that Cargill feels compelled to fix? Is there something beneficial about what Cargill and their cohorts do to our meat – modifying the digestive structure of cows so they can feed off of corn instead of grass and making our meat so homogenous we cannot isolate contagions? I rode on a few miles, chewed on their slogan like cud, until it occurred to me that ‘meat solutions’ must refer to the sheer capacity of our industrial meat production. Every cut of meat is available in every supermarket in every season in every city and town in America. Whatever we crave for dinner, we can have. That is quite a feat.
No country in the world has a food system as bountiful and ubiquitous as theUnited States. Rib eyes, roasters, pork chops, portabella mushrooms, melons, mangoes, figs, and filberts, everything is available all the time. The industrial food system developed in direct response to our desires in chicken and egg fashion. As we found ways to bring more products to market of predictable quality regardless of season, demand grew. As demand grew, it prompted ever more technological enhancements to bring products to market. We import grapes from Chile to sell through the winter; we keep apples in climate controlled storage in Washington to distribute year round, and we slaughter beef inDodge City on a continuous basis. Over time our food has lost some flavor and nutritional value, but these are evolutionary byproducts; by the time we started to balk at the downsides of industrial food, the system was so entrenched that the alternatives, organically grown food, locally grown, locally slaughtered food, were little more than niche markets.
One unexpected down side of our plenty is just that – plenty. We have much too much food. We hold surpluses to counter bad crop years, we pay farmers not grow in an effort to maintain price levels, and we have so many staples that we dump our excess rice and grain on foreign markets, which undermines the subsistence farming systems that maintain millions of small farmers in developing countries.
We have so much food, our food is really cheap. As a percent of income, food in the United Statesis cheaper than anywhere else in the world, or at any time in history. The average American spends less than ten percent of her income on food, and over 40% of that is in restaurants. During the Depression we spent a quarter of our income to eat, with scant restaurant fare. The percentage of income we spend on food dropped steadily until the 1970’s when it hit around 12% and has continued to float down ever since. People in other developed countries spend 15% or so of their income on food, in developing countries that figure approaches 25% while in some Third Worldcountries people pay more than 40% of their income on food.
Humans evolve over centuries, not years. We are programmed to eat when we can because it wasn’t too many generations ago that we literally did not know where our next meal was coming from. Now we are awash in food, yet we are still programmed to eat when opportunity knocks. Is it any surprise that we keep getting fatter? I started my trip inColorado, the only state in the country with an obesity rate under 20%. (19.8% according to a 2011 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Study, versus a whopping 34.4% for top ranked Mississippi). This sounds great until we recall that a mere twenty years ago, no state in the union had an obesity rate over 15%. We are getting fat very fast, and the further I travelled east, the more obesity I observed.
Like most people on vacation, I ate more food on my trip than usual, and I specialized in hearty local cafes; pancakes at breakfast, biscuits and gravy, meatloaf, barbeque, and soft serve ice cream after a hot summer day. I ate large restaurant portions and feasted on foods I rarely eat at home. Bicycling seventy miles per day, I could do that without gaining weight. But what of the people who sat around me in the restaurants? One night I observed a family of four gulping down an all you can eat buffet. Each of them, even the children no older than ten, hung over their chairs as they slouched over platters of steak and potatoes. Another morning the ample young women in the booth next to me ordered biscuits and gravy and home fries for breakfast. That was it. How can such an unbalanced breakfast provide the energy she needs to navigate her day, let alone get trim? Observing these representative Americans, I doubted that any of them had long bike rides scheduled into their day.
Our food system is upside down in every sense. Never before have the poorest people been the fattest. But since fattening foods are the least expensive, laden with inexpensive ingredients of marginal nutritional value, we have the paradox of people being both overweight and malnourished. Meanwhile, economically affluent people are the thinnest, as they are usually the most knowledgeable about their food choices and can afford to buy more nutritious food. The result of all this cheap food is that it the savings we incur are illusory when we consider the healthcare costs of obesity. Current estimates place the obesity burden on our healthcare system at $270 billion per year, or $870 per person. That is fully a third of the total amount we spend on food every year, $3,300 per person. Even if we paid more for healthier food, we could come out ahead if we reduced the healthcare costs of obesity. The problem, of course, is that statistics are not experienced in this comparative manner. At a given moment we are confronted with easy, abundant, cheap, tasty food. The hidden cost of obesity lingering in that food is not experienced until much later and in more indirect ways.
If we analyze our food system through the lens of our guiding principle, ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’, we must applaud our system for providing us whatever we want whenever we want it. However, it is fair to say that few, if any, of us want to be obese. Obesity is the byproduct of eating too much. What we like is the eating, not the getting fat. The conundrum is that we often pursue short term happiness that does not foster long term happiness. Delayed gratification is not one of our guiding principles. However, we as a country can help align the short term opportunity to eat whatever we want with the long term objective of being trim and healthy – happiness now and later.
First, let us appreciate and capitalize on what is good about our system. We have an unparalleled infrastructure to provide all foods everywhere. In fact, we might question whether all that capacity is actually required or even desirable. We need to ensure that we have enough food, but are we well served by having all we want of everything all the time? I don’t think so. If we let our food system reflect seasonal adjustments, we would be able to look forward to, and savor, strawberries in the late spring, when they taste the best, rather than rely on systems that ensure something the shape and color of strawberries year round. If we loosen up the production side of food so that we don’t expect everything always, we can work towards a more natural system.
We don’t want to deny anyone the ability to eat what they want, or even as much as they want. However, we can try to align costs and actions as closely as possible. Therefore, we can make all foods available, but price them to reflect their true cost to discourage us from making poor choices and to better reflect the social costs of our selections. Again, our food system is upside down on this. Apples should cost less than chips, milk should cost less than soda, and salad should cost less per pound than steak. Yet, just the opposite is true because chips, soda and steak are products of the industrial food system, which is big business with lobbyists and influence, while apples, milk and salad represent smaller players of our food system with less clout.
Aligning food prices with social costs raises that dreaded term, ‘transfer cost’. It is possible for us to tax food low in nutritional value or subsidize food in high nutritional value or some cost neutral combination of the two. Conservatives would yell ‘foul’ at such a proposal, yet don’t we subsidize the industrial food system now? Isn’t our farm policy all about moving us more and more towards large scale, corn-based, mass production food? Why do we make growing corn so cheap even as it is the basic ingredient making us overfed and obese?
A food system based on our individual freedom to choose what we want to eat does not have to equate affordable food with a high calorie, low nutritional value diet. We can offer true choice by educating individuals about the implications of their food selections, by making food prices reflect actual social and economic costs, and by maintaining, or even loosening, our distribution systems. Any negotiations about farm subsidies, transfer costs on unhealthy foods, and seasonal adjustments will be difficult if we approach them from the point of view of fixed interests. We will have to keep in perspective the big picture goal of a food system that provides healthy food to all. We need to appreciate what we do well and acknowledge the consequences of the system as it has evolved. No blame needs to be assigned, but if we collectively decide that our food system can be both cost effective and healthy in every respect, we can do it.
East of Dodge City, past the Cargill plant, I pedaled past a beautiful monument commemorating the northern most point of Coronado’s 1541 pilgrimage in search of the Querecho civilization and their fabled riches. I was surprised to learn that the Spanish colonial empire extended as far asKansas. Then I realized that despite all the cattle I saw in my three days in the state, I did not eat in steak houses while inKansas, each night I ate at local Mexican cafes. Waitresses who spoke no English served delicious food that I ordered by pointing to pictures on the menu. In fact, I saw many more Hispanic people than Blanco’s on the streets of Garden City and Dodge City. They are the laborers of our industrial food system. Spain may have lost its title over lands so far north, but it has not lost its influence.