Pay Now… or Pay Later (part 1)

I just finished watching a film last night called Food, Inc. Now, I didn’t expect this to be a happy movie, and I did exp ect to be shocked by some of the things that I saw. What I didn’t expect was to be completely appalled and disturbed by our food system and the lack of government power to ensure the safety of our food supply.

The film, very elegantly produced, is based in large part on Michael Pollan’s research and his books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. The movie basically explores five major subjects of food: the pastoral ideal, industrial corn, industrial meat, grass farming and the lack of industry regulation. (While this was a very American-centric film and talked about American politics and regulation, a lot of this still applies in Canada.)

The pastoral ideal is basically the image that many of us hold in our minds of what farms are like and how our food is grown and raised – aided, or course, by large marketing budgets and companies’ understanding of shopper psychology. Look on a package of meat or eggs in the store, and you might see a nice picture of a farm, green pastures, and happy cows roaming under the sunshine. Unfortunately, while this pastoral imagery may have represented reality 30 years ago, it is no more than an “ideal” in our world today. The vast majority of our meat is in fact raised in what are called CAFO’s, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Acres upon acres of cows are forced to stand ankle deep in their own manure and over-crowded with other cows 24 hours a day. They are fed cheap corn (more on that later), animal fat and other such things that their wonderful ruminant digestive systems were simply not designed to handle. As a result, these cows get sick and must be treated with antibiotics. And because they have to stand around ankle deep in their own poop their entire lives and are covered in dried and caked manure, their meat gets contaminated in the slaughterhouse, which give us the added the benefit of being exposed to dangerous strands of E. Coli.

Why do we raise cattle in such appalling conditions and feed them food they have no business eating? All for our “right” to cheap food. According to Pollan, the average American now eats over 200lbs of meat every year. We have it embedded in our minds that we HAVE to eat meat at every meal, and that meat should be cheap. How else can you get enough protein? I admit, I am trying to get over that mentality myself, but it’s difficult. I know I can get protein from legumes and that quinoa and buckwheat both have complete amino acid profiles. I’ve even gotten past the “drink milk or you won’t have enough calcium and your bones will shrivel up” mentality already – so really, getting over a need for meat at every meal shouldn’t be much harder.

One of the points that the film makes, is that we are creating these problems, like superbugs and E. Coli infestations, because of the completely unnatural and industrial processes that we’ve imposed on our very natural and living food supply. And to deal with these problems, we’re asking “how can we make this process work better,” when we should be asking “should we still be using the process in the first place?”

Whenever I think of food, I always try to put it into a caveman’s perspective. Before industrialization and civilization – how did we live, and what mechanisms of survival did we have to survive and thrive? If you think about it, the only times we really run into trouble with our health is when our lifestyles or habits diverge from the caveman way of life. Adrenaline, for example, is pumped into our bloodstream when we face danger so that we can fight or flee from a situation where our lives are in danger. But translated to a hostile work environment where our bodies produce adrenaline in response to a looming deadline, then you run into trouble.

Then there’s milk. People used to only drink milk from their mother’s breast as babies, yet now we drink milk from animals into adulthood. How is this right? We are the only animal on this entire planet that drinks milk past infancy, and are the only animal that drinks the milk of another animal! If we had to drink milk into adulthood to get enough calcium to keep our bones healthy, I think we would have been in a lot of trouble a long time ago. Milk is not our only source of calcium. This very important mineral is also in leafy greens like broccoli and kale. In researching my book, I even came across data that showed a link between the development of osteoporosis and the consumption of milk amongst people who are lactose intolerant (likely because undigested lactose in the intestine becomes lactic acid, and bones do not do well in an acidic environment). Not something the dairy industry is warning us about.

Then there’s our constant desire for sweet, salty and fatty foods – pop, candies, snack foods, processed foods, fatty lattés, burgers and more. Well, to cavemen, sugar, salt and fat were rare things to find, but were essential to overall health (in moderate amounts). So, seeking out these flavours in ripe fruits, minerals and meats was an evolutionary design to help us survive. The problem today is that we were never meant to eat highly refined and processed sugar, salt and fat – and we definitely weren’t meant to eat these things in the copious quantities we are now. According to the movie, Food, Inc., 1 in 3 Americans born after 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetimes. Hmmm… I wonder if that has something to do with all the sugar and refined carbs that we are stuffing into our mouths everyday? So many people think that drugs are our answer to managing diabetes – but how many people think that preventing the onset of the disease through proper diet and nutritional habits is in fact the better solution?

The filmmakers also interviewed a lower income family who fed their kids fast food everyday because they thought it was cheaper to spend $12 on fast food for dinner than to buy fresh fruit and veggies. Yes, you can get a bottle of pop for less than you can get a bunch of broccoli, but seriously… do you really need to drink pop in the first place? And are you really going to eat all that broccoli in one meal? Eating really unhealthy, highly processed food can be really cheap, I agree. And eating healthier packaged food is much, much more expensive. But, eating healthy fresh, unprocessed and whole foods can actually be very affordable. You can fill your fridge with $50 worth of fresh produce that will last you over a week, or you can fill a small basket full of organic TV dinners and gluten-free bread (or even meat) for the same amount. It’s all in the choices you make. I spend more money on food than most, but I believe that when it comes to food, you pay now, or you pay later.

Well, I’ve talked so far about the pastoral ideal, industrial meat, and my own take on looking to caveman life for guidance on how we can live healthier lives. Check back for part 2 where I’ll talk about industrial corn, food safety regulation and grass farming.

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