The bad news is that food is the new Big Corporate Game in town. It has been for a while, actually after all everyone has to eat to live, whereas we don’t have to have iPods or DVDs or even cell phones to live but Corporate Food just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger. It’s gotten to the point where four beef processors control over 80% of the market and four chicken processors process 95% of the chicken consumed in the U.S. (One company controls 98% of the world trade in tea.)
But on to the good news: along with the trend towards Big Food becoming Giant Monopolistic Food, there are also more and more local farmers offering their products directly to consumers through avenues like farmer’s markets, co-op programs, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), and cowshares. If you live in a metropolitan area, chances are there’s a farmer within a ten-mile radius who’s ready and wanting to sell you food that truly is farm-fresh. It’s just a matter of hoofing it to the nearest farmer’s market or drop-off point to get the good stuff. (Many co-ops and CSAs have drop points in the heart of the city you order your food online, then go pick it all up once a week. Much quicker and more pleasant than trudging through endless fluorescent-lit aisles.)
Along with produce, farmers often offer eggs, milk products, and meats from pastured animals that is, cows who have grazed all day, hens who have pecked in the dirt all day, pigs who have happily rooted about in search of a tasty meal all day … you get the idea. Farm animals, not factory/feedlot animals. Just by being allowed to behave the way they’ve evolved to behave and eat what their stomachs have adapted to eat, these animals greatly contribute to our well-being: they support the ecology of the farm by fertilizing the fields (the waste from factory animals is collected in “lagoons” that pollute in the kind of way that only raw, untreated sewage can), they support the overall regional environmental quality by not contributing to toxic run-off and soil depletion and airborne odors so strong that farmers faint in the fields and children are kept inside, and they support our local economies by providing farmers with a means to earn a living and consumers a way to purchase top-quality, health-promoting animal products. (If you’d like to be educated about factory meat in a fun, science-fiction-turned-fact kind of way, check out The Meatrix . If you’re curious about agriculture and farming in the U.S. watch Food, Inc. or The Future of Food. )
And about the health-promoting part… Without getting into too many particulars and boring the moo out of you, suffice to say that eggs, milk products, and meats from pastured animals are so different that they may as well be considered different products altogether. An egg from a pastured hen, for example, has 34% less cholesterol and 300% of the vitamin A of a battery hen’s egg. The omega-3 ratio of fats is also much, much higher in true farm animals. Ground beef from a grass-fed steer has half the saturated fat and half the calories of 75% lean ground beef from a feedlot steer. Grazing animals also even offer us adequate amounts of vitamin C, which explains how people living in the Arctic Circle can be perfectly healthy despite the utter lack of vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables in their diets. The important question to ask, then, is not whether or not you want an egg for breakfast the important question is where did the proffered egg come from? Or the steak, or the cream used to make the ice cream?
If you want to support your local economy, the national economy, the quality of our air, the safety of our food, your health, and the health of your family and friends, choose products from grass-fed (also called pastured, grazed, and/or farmed) animals. Allowing animals to behave and eat the way they’ve evolved to live is a sane and logical way to make the best use of our farmlands and fields. Factory farming is not. Read a couple of the books I’ve listed under “Recommended Reading: Food Politics” to get a bigger picture. Visit www.eatwild.com to find pastured products in your area. Talk to your friends and see if any of them already have some contacts with local farmers. Check out your local farmer’s market to see what they have to offer.
Oh, and another thing pastured animal products flat-out taste better. I put about 1/2 tsp. of vanilla extract, 1/2 tsp. of cinnamon, and 2 tsp. of agave nectar into my mug of raw milk yesterday and I swear it tasted just like eggnog, except fresher. Mmm … can’t wait to try using my soup bones to make stew!