You Are What You Eat? Blecch!

So now it turns out that eggs might have melamine in them, too. All I used to know about melamine was that it was the material we chose for our kitchenette cabinets because it was cheaper than the fake wood option, and didn’t look quite as fake. Melamine also is an ingredient in glues, fabrics, and flame retardants. I don’t think the manufacturer ever intended it to be served as a breakfast entree with bacon, toast, and hash browns.

I guess it’s cheaper than what is ordinarily fed to factory-farmed chickens: chicken feed. When I was growing up, working for “chicken feed” meant working for practically nothing. Now, in China, they’ve figured out a way to fatten up chickens on something that’s even cheaper than food.

This doesn’t bode well for the rest of us, because if the chickens eat the melamine, and then we eat their eggs – well, I guess we can get fattened up on non-food too. The global race to the bottom, that has given us institutions like Wal-Mart to buy the cheapest clothes, toys, and housewares that almost-slave labor can make, is now giving us food so cheap and versatile that you can make eggshell-white kitchen cabinets out of it.

You may still believe that you don’t have to worry about any of this because it’s happening in China, or Hong Kong, or somewhere way over there. But everything in the world is turning out to be connected in ways we could never have imagined until they present themselves in blaring news headlines, just as we are sitting down to our morning omelets. For instance, did you know that farmers raise chickens in California, then ship them across the Pacific Ocean to China to be cut and packaged? Then they get shipped back to your neighborhood grocers’ shelves, undoubtedly with a prominent “Product of USA” label.

We face two major problems with our industrial agricultural system today:

  1. Our food is killing us, and
  2. We may not be able to produce enough of it to feed everyone on the planet.

If our food doesn’t kill us before we starve to death, it might still kill us by poisoning our environment beyond recognition. According to Professor Michael Pollan, “the way we feed ourselves contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do – as much as 37 percent.” Mostly this is due to the fact that by using industrial farming techniques, with heavy applications of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, it now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. This is truly mind boggling when you consider that plants are the ultimate solar-energy conversion system, converting free sunlight into food calories.

Our current food production system is simply not sustainable. During the recent gas price spike, for example, the cost of shipping broccoli from California, where almost all of it is now grown, to New Jersey, went from $3 to $10 a case. We’re using 10 calories of pre-historic plants and dinosaurs to produce each calorie of broccoli on a New Jersey plate. New Jersey is nicknamed the “Garden State” because its gardens once supplied New York City with most of its fresh produce. Does it really need California broccoli that badly?

Then consider the transgenic foods that scientists at places like Monsanto are creating to try to increase production to meet the world’s growing needs. Corn with built-in pesticides, tomatoes that can be stacked like cans, salmon with genes from a shark … are we going to eat this stuff, or is it going to eat us?

An irony of the modern world is that there are about as many people suffering from malnutrition, one in seven, as there are suffering from obesity. How about a crash diet where the doctor assigns every dangerously obese person a starving one to live with? The fat guy doesn’t get to eat any of his plate of spaghetti until the skinny guy has had his fill.

Even though Americans spend over $40 billion a year on the diet industry, the obesity phenomena, like my waistline, continues to grow. The average American man today weighs 20 pounds more than he did 20 years ago, and is adding nearly two pounds a year. What passes for a woman’s size 10 today would have been called size 14 in 1940. Airlines spend $275 million a year more on fuel than they did in 1990 just to lift their heavier passengers off the ground. It won’t be long before they have you weigh in at the ticket counter and start charging you for your ticket by the pound.

In order to survive, we’re going to have to come up with new ways of feeding ourselves. Or maybe what we need is to rediscover the old ways of feeding ourselves. As a great eater once said, “It’s impossible to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.”

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