“Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” So said Michael Pollan in a widely quoted and rarely followed bit of advice. “Eat local” says, well, almost everybody. Food should be simple, unprocessed, and eaten close to where it was produced. Everybody from the National Institute of Health to the nation’s editorial pages have waged a full scale assault on processed food for a generation. Listen to academia on the subject:
“You’re introducing ingredients that shouldn’t be there in the first place, that don’t naturally exist in food and instead are brought in purely by human preparation,” says Qi Sun, MD, ScD, an associate professor of nutrition at Harvard University. “You basically destroy the structure of the food and reorganize it -- introducing a new food matrix.”
Anyone following these issues could be forgiven for believing that original sin occurred in some food scientist’s lab, where mad scientists in the employ of heartless corporations industrially prepared concoctions perfectly designed to trip our taste buds and cause us to become addicted to potato chips like they were oxycontin, plus salt. It was not that long ago that the only way to avoid sickness and obesity was to eat only lightly washed carrots grown in our own garden.
We are told again and again that the crops grown in most of the Midwest aren’t really food at all. Nothing is more evil than corn, because it isn’t normally eaten directly from the field, Soybeans are almost as bad. Corn is the epitome of industrial, used only for producing junk food, corn syrup, and ersatz gasoline. Or as the Scientific American puts it: Only a tiny fraction of corn grown in the U.S. directly feeds the nation’s people, and much of that is from high-fructose corn syrup.”
By this accounting, grain grown for livestock feed doesn’t produce food, or at least food that any responsible person would eat. The food system that demands ingredients like corn and soybeans is by its very nature evil, because it’s complicated. We should never use arable ground to produce anything but foodstuffs that can be directly consumed with a minimum of processing.
That was how we were supposed to think about food until…... about yesterday. Now, according to a recent editorial in the New York Times, we should celebrate the discovery of a rare fungus in Yellowstone Park, which, after fermentation and processing, results in something that can substitute for hamburgers. The company developing the fungi has raised 160 million dollars.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Bee Wilson has discovered the glories of mushrooms, substituting them for ground beef and fooling her carnivorous 12-year-old son. She is striking a blow for the planet with this bit of harmless legermain, quoting Mark Bittman, whose mind is made up regarding animal husbandry: “an ecological and moral mess, nearly as degrading to human souls as it is to animal life.”
Simple is out, and the more cutting edge the food science that appears on our plate, the better. Nothing is more simple than raising beef, which involves a cow, a bull, some grass, a couple of years for the resulting calf to eat the grass, and a method of processing that hasn’t changed in its essence for centuries. Talk about your Slow Food!.
But that kind of simplicity is no longer the ideal since the consumption of beef is the cause of so much global warming and degrading of souls. Even local cows, raised on nothing but grass, are evil in a way that mankind can no longer abide, causing global warming and eventually leading to the end of the world as we know it as the Pacific ocean heads towards the middle of the country. Simplicity, tradition, and great-grandma have been tossed over the side of the fungus powered lifeboat that is all that stands between us and extinction.
It is amusing to hear people who were just yesterday preaching the joys of simplicity and local now pumping for the latest startup that aims to grow a beef substitute with stem cells and giant vats in sterile laboratories. It’s hilarious to think about the quandary faced by those who realize that the earliest participants in this very industrial and quite artificial meat substitute market use genetically modified ingredients. This abrupt reversal of field has passed without notice, as processed food takes its unexpected role as the solution rather than the problem. If it tastes like bacon, it must be ok.
None of this is to argue that climate change isn’t a real and pressing concern, or that the consumption of meat isn’t a source of carbon emissions. Farmers and agriculture scientists are quick to point out that beef production in the U.S. is responsible for only about 3.3 % of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, compared to well over 50% for transportation, and that the carbon emission per unit of production of all agricultural production has decreased 24% over the past 30 years. Farmers have much work to do in learning how to produce with a smaller carbon footprint, but the good news is that many of the farming practices that sequester carbon have other environmental benefits as well.
This won’t matter to food experts like Ms. Wilson, who tells us that “our current levels of meat consumption can’t continue.” Because, I guess, Mark Bittman says so. It has never been clear to me why meat, and particularly beef, is the bull’s eye in the fight against global warming. Each of us chooses what we consume, and in what amounts. Everything we buy in a modern economy has a carbon footprint, from Facebook to private jets. We are unlikely to return to a subsistence economy. Not only that, but beef producers are more than willing to grow their animals in ways that are responsive to consumers who are uncomfortable with intensive animal production methods.
To make matters even more complicated, intensive agricultural production is more efficient, using less of everything, including carbon. To substitute highly processed food for beef may decrease your carbon footprint, but substantially increase your consumption of every other resource. The reason U.S. cowboys are always careful to talk about the carbon footprint of U.S. beef production is that meat production in the rest of the world produces much more carbon per unit of meat production than the U.S. It’s a given that critics of U.S. meat consumption will always use global figures for meat based carbon emissions, even though we import almost no meat.
I’ll gladly give up any future opportunity I might have to fly on a Lear jet for beef, and goodness knows both my diet and my mental health would be improved if I spent less time and electricity on social media and more preparing a good steak. Society may need to increase the costs of carbon consumption, but individuals ought to have the freedom to decide how we deal with those increased costs. Let’s leave the poor cow alone. After all, she’s turning the grass and forages that we can’t consume into nutritious and delicious food. And, by the way, many of those mushrooms are grown in what she leaves behind.
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Blake Hurst is a farmer and greenhouse grower in Northwest Missouri.