Our Food and How It Gets That Way


Ruminations on Our Food and How It Gets That Way

by Rev. Peter Connolly

Presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, September 20, 2009.

Somewhere in Iowa, a pig is being raised in a confined pen, packed in so tightly with other swine that their curly tails have been chopped off so they won’t bite one another. To prevent him from getting sick in such close quarters, he is dosed with antibiotics. The waste produced by the pig and his thousands of pen mates on the factory farm where they live goes into manure lagoons that blanket neighboring communities with air pollution and a stomach-churning stench.

He’s fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. When the pig is slaughtered, at about 5 months of age, he’ll become sausage or bacon that will sell cheap, feeding an American addiction to meat that has contributed to an obesity epidemic currently afflicting more than two-thirds of the population. And when the rains come, the excess fertilizer that coaxed so much corn from the ground will be washed into the Mississippi River and down into the Gulf of Mexico, where it will help kill fish for miles and miles around. That’s the state of your bacon—circa 2009.

—Bryan Walsh, “America’s Food Crisis and How to Fix It,” Time, August 31, 2009.

When I was a kid, my parents would often take me and my brother and sister along with my dad’s uncle and aunt on a Sunday drive to the country where we would stop at a farm. We kids would run around in delight, the adults would stroll and talk and we’d always purchase a dozen or two eggs from the farmer to last us for the week.

Both of my parents grew up on farms in rural Western Ireland. There was not a lot of money, but there was always fresh food on the table, my mother liked to say. I can’t imagine what they would think of the farming methods described in today’s reading and I have a hard time understanding that things have changed as they have in what after all, is just a couple of generations. What will the world of farming and our pattern of eating look like in a generation or two from now?

It’s not an idle question, and it does not have a readily identifiable answer. It seems that there are a number of components that go into the answer. These include: the continuation of the policy of government subsidies to industrial farms; education of the general public as to the current practices and their physical, ecological, social, and moral implications; the actions of consumers in response to that education while weighing the concerns of personal finance; and what, in the end, is sustainable.

Reading through the material that’s readily available on the topic and watching the documentaries and other films available on digital video, there are certain themes and terms that surface and repeat. Much of what you learn is disturbing.

The film Food, Inc. is not playing in Bowling Green or in Nashville or in Louisville. I actually doubt that it’s playing anywhere in Kentucky, so I was not able to fulfill my plan to see it as part of my preparation for this sermon. I had to content myself with a compilation of the film reviews. Most of them were laudatory. I’ll read a few sentences from some. Owen Glieberman’s review in Entertainment Weekly refers to:

“Huge, aggressively lobbied government subsidies for corn to the transformation of farms into factories of mass-produced, corn-fed cattle, which are then slaughtered and turned into “hamburger meat filler;” which is cleaned by ammonia (to kill the bacteria) so that we can all eat a double-cheeseburger for 99 cents” calling the film a “big picture vision of conglomerate duplicity and control.”

“Days after seeing the movie” he says, ” you may find yourself eating something—a cookie, a piece of poultry, cereal out of the box, a perfectly round waxen tomato—and you’ll realize that you have virtually no idea what it actually is.”

Manohla Dargis’s review in the N.Y. Times refers to “industrial feed lots,” “animal abuse in industrial food production,” “images of sick and crippled cows being prodded to join the ill-fated herd.”

She says that “Millions of cruelly crammed cattle mill about in their own waste until slaughter” and “Millions of consumers gobble down industrially processed meat and an occasional serving of E. coli bacteria.” Manohla concludes by saying that “There’s something horribly wrong with a system in which a bag of chips costs less than a bag of carrots.”

Doing the research for this sermon was a discouraging enterprise. The problems with food production and consumption in this country today are many, the market forces which make industrial farming possible are very powerful and deeply entrenched.

The problems do not stop with methods of production: they extend to methods used (or not used) to manage waste. They continue with a widely perceived understanding that food is plentiful and cheap. And the poor eating habits that this method of production fosters result in layers of health problems that are then addressed by a health care system that we all know is inefficient, extremely costly and controlled by, again, powerful corporate interests.

The topic is challenging for a minister preaching a sermon in which the goal is to offer hope and a way to cope, to make progress and to put in motion steps that will lead to healthier ways of living.

Well, let’s look a little more deeply into the problem. This week I watched the DVD of the film Fast Food Nation. It’s a drama starring a number of recognizable Hollywood actors, including Greg Kinnear, Bruce Willis, Kris Kristofferson, Wilmer Valderrema, and Bobby Canavale. It is based on the book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, an investigative journalist who writes for the Atlantic Monthly. Its subtitle is “The Dark Side of the American Dream.”

In the book, Schlosser describes a visit he took to a slaughterhouse in Lexington, Nebraska. He interviews a resident who tells of “three odors that pervade the town, ‘burning hair and blood, that greasy smell, and the odor of rotten eggs.'” Hydrogen sulfide is the gas that’s responsible for the smell.

“It rises from the slaughterhouse wastewater lagoons, causes respiratory problems and headaches, and at high levels can cause permanent damage to the nervous system (in January, 2002, the Justice Department sued IBP, Inc. for a violation of the Clean Air Act at its Dakota City plant.” (This from the Wikipedia article on the book.)

Schlosser describes his visit to one of the nation’s largest slaughter-houses “somewhere in the High Plains.” He describes the different jobs that are involved in turning a steer into packaged meat. It is the job of the “sticker” to sever the carotid artery of a steer every ten seconds. “The knocker stuns cattle on arrival to the slaughterhouse by shooting them in the head with a captive bolt stunner.”

A quote from the book as reported in the encyclopedia article:

The animals keep strolling up, oblivious to what comes next, and (the knocker) stands over them and shoots. For eight-and-a-half hours, he just shoots. As I stand there, he misses a few times and shoots the same animal twice. As soon as the steer falls, a worker grabs one of its hind legs, shackles it to a chain, and the chain lifts the huge animal into the air. I watch the knocker knock cattle for a couple of minutes.

The animals are powerful and imposing one moment and then gone in an instant, suspended from a rail, ready for carving. A steer slips from its chain, falls to the ground, and gets its head caught in one end of a conveyer belt. The production line stops as workers struggle to free the steer, stunned but alive, from the machinery. I’ve seen enough.

And I assume you’ve heard enough. That’s the slaughterhouse piece of the story– at least as it concerns the animals that become our food.

Because industrial farming (and the more you find out about the practice, the less satisfying that term becomes because it does nothing to capture the horror of the meat-production system) aims to maximize short-term profit for large corporations, not only is it important for the production lines to move fast, it is important to use workers who get paid little, who can be intimidated easily and who are unlikely to sue for workplace injury.

In other words, it maximizes profits to hire migrant workers from developing countries. They “make up the majority workforce” in the slaughterhouses. In this way, industrial farms have a social as well as economic implication.

The film Fast Food Nation is effective in capturing the effects of this kind of employment degradation on the lives of people who are trying to live on the margins with dignity. Systematically, it is denied them. In one scene, a worker is seen slipping while taking a step across a machine that’s in motion. In his resultant fall, his leg is caught up and mangled in the machinery.

The human resource representative assigned to brief the worker’s wife on the tragedy says that drug tests have shown the presence of methamphetamines in the bloodstream of the victim. The movie makes clear that the company has every reason to manufacture this evidence in order to escape liability and that the worker’s wife, for whom English is a second language, has little recourse but to submit to the verdict.

With no other options for employment, she applies for a job at the meat factory. She is assigned to the kill floor. We last see her with a tear streaming down her face and slipping into her sanitary mask.

The old Chicago meat packing plants slaughtered about 50 cattle an hour. These modern plants slaughter up to 400 an hour. The book reports that “injured workers are a drain on profits, many of these injuries go unreported” and that “Injured workers report being given the most unpleasant jobs and their hourly wages are cut.”

If the first dimension of the problem is the brutality of the slaughter-house system used by industrial farms and the second is the illness and disease caused by the fecal contamination of meat, seemingly an inevitable by-product of the business, and the third is the inhumanity of the exploitation of migrant workers, the fourth is the political strength of the industry as reinforced by government subsidy. The livestock is fed almost exclusively on corn.

An excerpt from the Time magazine article:

Over the past decade, the Federal Government has poured more than $50 billion into the corn industry, keeping prices for the crop— at least until corn ethanol skewed the market—artificially low. That’s why McDonald’s can sell you a Big Mac, fries and a Coke for around $5—a bargain given that the meal contains nearly 1,200 calories, more than half the daily recommended requirement for adults. “Taxpayer subsidies basically underwrite cheap grain, and that’s what the factory-farming system for meat is entirely dependent on,” says [Doug] Gurion-Sherman (Senior Scientist, Food and Environment Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists).

The fifth dimension of the problem comes from the consequences of the use of the fertilizer that makes the yield of the corn crop so great. Bryan Walsh, in the Time article says that American farmers “produce an astounding 153 bushels of corn per acre, up from 118 as recently as 1990.” But to do so, it takes 10 million tons of fertilizer for the corn; 23 million tons for all crops the U.S. produces.

The reading that preceded today’s sermon spoke briefly about the ecological consequences in using this massive amount of fertilizer. The article expands upon that report:

When runoff from the fields of the Midwest reaches the Gulf of Mexico, it contributes to what’s known as a dead zone, a seasonal, approximately 6,000-square-mile area that has almost no oxygen and therefore almost no sea life. Because of the dead zone, the $2.8 billion Gulf of Mexico fishing industry loses 212,000 metric tons of seafood a year, and around the world, there are nearly 400 similar dead zones. Even as we produce more high-fat, high-calorie foods, we destroy one of our leanest and healthiest sources of protein.

It turns out that there is another name for the industrial farm. They are also called “concentrated animal feeding operations”— CAFOs. The term refers to how densely packed the animals are placed in order to maximize profits.

The sixth dimension of the problem is also ecological. Bryan Walsh asks the question “Where does all that manure go?” His answer: Pound for pound, a pig produces approximately four times the amount of waste a human does, and what factory farms do with that mess gets comparatively little oversight.

Most hog waste is disposed of in open-air lagoons, which can overflow in heavy rain and contaminate nearby streams and rivers.Creeks that a generation ago folks used to wade in, that their parents could drink out of, kids cannot go near for fear of bacterial illness.

Every step of the process causes a mess which either just stays a mess or causes the introduction of a remedy that in itself causes yet another problem which itself either stays a mess or invites another consequential remedy.

In order for animals to survive in the close confinement of “concentrated animal feeding operations,” they need what Bryan Walsh euphemistically calls “pharmaceutical help”—antibiotics. And there’s only just so much that antibiotics can do, as I’m sure most of you know, before they become ineffective. This is the seventh dimension of the problem. Again, from the Time magazine article:

Overuse of antibiotics on farm animals leads, inevitably, to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and the same bugs that infect animals can infect us, too. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that about 70% of anti-microbial drugs used in America are given not to people, but to animals, which means that we’re breeding more of those deadly organisms every day. The Institute of Medicine estimated in 1998 that antibiotic resistance cost the public health system $4 billion to $5 billion a year—a figure that’s almost certainly higher now.

Representative Louise Slaughter is sponsoring a bill to limit antibiotic use on farms. She says that the use of antibiotics is not to treat sick animals, but all animals because “it’s a preventative measure because they are kept in pretty unspeakable conditions.”

The eighth dimension of the problem of industrial farming to fast-feed the nation is in our health. In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser states that “the United States has the highest obesity rate of any industrialized nation. More than half of all American adults and about one-quarter of all American children are now classified as obese or overweight. The proportions have increased dramatically over the past few decades with the increase in the consumption of fast food, with the rate of obesity among US children twice as high as in the late 1970s.” (Wikipedia on “Fast Food Nation”.)

And this, of course, leads to the ninth dimension of the problem, which is the added strain to the health care system, in terms of time, health site occupancy and financial cost. Obesity-related diseases include heart disease, diabetes, gout, sleep apnea, and, I imagine, a variety of pulmonary problems.

The health-care debate which has been consuming and frightening and dividing the nation over these past few weeks and months, is in some part, yet another product of our methods of food production and habits of consumption.

So, for those without scorecards, our present method of food production through industrial farms and concentrated animal feeding operations has the intended advantage of producing cheap food: one point in its favor. It has the disadvantages of

  • (1) subjecting animals to degradation and abuse;
  • (2) during which there is inevitable contamination of our food through fecal bacteria;
  • (3) exploiting poor and marginalized persons in an inhumane way in the workplace;
  • (4) the over-reliance of one crop—corn—to feed livestock and us and, by the way, to produce the high-fructose corn syrup used to flavor most of our foods including the six 12-ounce soft drinks that each of us consumes daily, on average;
  • (5) thousands of square miles of oxygen depleted dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and in almost 400 other places in the world;
  • (6) the contamination of our fresh waterways by lagoons of manure;
  • (7) the inevitable resistance in animals and humans to bacteria-born illnesses;
  • (8) an incidence of obesity which is both a scandal and an epidemic; and
  • (9) a health care system which is unnecessarily burdened by obesity-related health problems which are, in fact, avoidable.
  • And just to round it out to an imperfect (10), there is an investment of government funds to subsidize one industry (corn production) over others, which amounts to socialized benefits for the rich and powerful.

So—I ask you, “What do we do?”

If you would not mind a slightly unorthodox insertion into the sermon, I will ask of you all for your testimony at this time. If you care to and are able, I would ask you to place your orders of service and hymnals and purses and pocketbooks and any other lap-occupiers under your seat or under the seat in front of you.

And if you would not mind standing in testimony of decisions you might have made, can I ask you to please stand if you have adopted a vegan diet at present? I ask you to continue to stand or to raise your hand if standing is difficult for you. Are there those who have made a commitment to a diet devoid of meat? Please continue to stand. Are there those who make it a practice not to eat at the kind of fast-food restaurants that drive the market for the kind of industrially farmed meat that we have been talking about?

Let us honor those who have shown us leadership in maintaining a diet that leads to sustainable living. You may sit.

The Time magazine article is not just a message of doom and gloom. Suggestions are offered for “getting it right.” The traditional farming methods that many of us grew up with offer a sustainable alternative.

One per cent of all cattle raised are raised organically. They are fed grass with a smattering of hay. They are allowed to roam freely over pasture land and they are shifted from field to field to allow the land to recover. They are given no drugs, no hormones, no additives. The grass-fed beef is higher in beta-carotene, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids than conventional beef (Time).

Some restaurants will use only beef from traditional-style farms. Chipotle is mentioned in the Time article in this capacity—their motto is “Food with integrity.” One point of the article is that cheap food is only cheap in the short run—and life is not a sprint. “Once you factor in crop subsidies, ecological damage and what we pay in health care bills after our fatty, sugary diet makes us sick, conventionally produced food looks a lot pricier.”

The Time article, Fast Food Nation, and Food, Inc. all make the point that our current mode of food production is not sustainable. Change will have to come. It will be, in large part, fueled by consumer habits and consumer demand. Bryan Walsh says that “if there’s one difference between industrial agriculture and the emerging alternative, it’s…consciousness.”

I will ask us to stop now for a few moments and to sit together in silence. As we sit together in shared meditation, I’ll ask you to do what you may already have begun to do as this exposition has unfolded: to think of one change that you can make in your life and the life of your family, that will move you toward a more healthy diet and move us all one step in the direction of a culture of food that is more humane, more sensible, more ethical, more soul-satisfying.

{The sounding of the bell of mindfulness.}

[Followed by Discussion]


Digestion (October 8, 2009)

Two weeks ago I offered you an odd and ugly gift: the results of my research on the state of food production in the United States in 2009. It was a deeply disturbing experience for me, reading the material that substantiated the state of affairs and watching the video of the film Fast Food Nation. Many of you reported that it was a harrowing experience for you, too, to listen to that sermon.

At the end of that talk, I asked you to take a moment to reflect on what you had heard and to offer one change in your personal eating habits and those of your family that would move us all one step closer to a culture of food that is more humane, more sensible, more ethical, more soul-satisfying. Some of you did. Some offered names of farmers’ markets, organic food purveyers, Internet options. Some of you sent me e-mails in the following days to tell me how your thoughts and feelings were stirred by what you heard.

Last week I spoke to you about the function of sermons, to provoke thought, to provide intellectual stimulation, to offer comfort and a broader perspective—yes, all of these things. But sometimes, the message stirs the impulse to action.

At the Social Action Committee meeting, when we discussed the book we are reading, The Prophetic Imperative, I was asked if I consider myself a prophet. The awkward truth is “Yes,” it is the one of the functions of a minister to speak prophetically. The role of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible has often been oversimplified to “they predict the future.”

The real function of the prophet is to look deeply into things as they are and to reveal the truth buried under the surface of what has become routine, to provoke the appropriate emotional response, to advocate for change and to predict what will happen if there is no change.

The evidence from a variety of sources is clear: in the name of efficiency and streamlined profits, we have allowed the development of a factory farm system that is abusive to the animals that provide our meat; that systematically exploits the poorest and most marginal among us, workers from foreign countries, living on survival’s edge; that produces thousands of square miles of dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, despoiling the ecosystem and killing the fish; that creates lagoons of animal waste that fouls the air and destroys the health and usefulness of fresh waterways—there were ten such disturbing consequences as you recall.

For us to make no changes would be unconscionable. For us to expect to make radical changes all at once is unrealistic. I am unwilling to leave the issue where it is, lying in the open, left so inadequately addressed. The miasma of hypocrisy will stink up our sanctuary if we expose the roots of problems, shake our heads, say “What a shame,” and resume our life as if nothing has changed.

The role of the prophet is to predict the future: in this case, it’s easy— our methods of food production are not just an insult to our dignity as human beings, they are unsustainable. We depend on an interconnected web of being. We are daily destroying that delicate web by our thoughtless consumption. We cannot honor our principles in words and do nothing in deeds.

In today’s order of service, there is a blank sheet of paper. We have provided some pens for your use. I ask you to take a moment now to note one change that you have decided to make to address the problem of “evil,” to use an old-fashioned word, in our system of food production.

We’ll compile a list and raise in our consciousness our actions towards change. Some changes that others have offered: resolve to no longer patronize the fast food establishments that provide the engine for so-called cheap food production; begin a garden; double the size of the garden you already have; add wild-caught fish to your diet; reduce the amount of meat in your diet; stop eating meat altogether; join in a nutrition education venture; consider bringing the meat of only humanely treated animals to our church pot lucks and events.

My change is to stop supporting fast food establishments. I am not your model on this issue. I am one of you, making one change at a time. To quote one of our church leaders: “We’re all about steps.” We’ll ask our ushers to pass a basket to collect your offerings. Thank you.

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