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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2006
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Cheap Food Nation
Produce to the People
From Cotton to Collards
Ten Ways to Eat Well
Secrets of the Supermarket
Truth in Labeling
Home Cooking
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
The Green Life
Hey Mr. Green
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Cheap Food Nation
Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than anyone else, but it costs us dearly
by Eric Schlosser
November/December 2006

{Editor's Note} What's for dinner? Few questions are as environmentally fraught. Bad choices can lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease for us, and pollution, loss of biodiversity, and climate change for our favorite planet. Unfortunately, there's easy money to be made in those bad choices, and so our food marketing system has made them the path of least resistance.

This issue of Sierra celebrates efforts to carve out a new, greener cuisine: local, organic, and delicious. We begin with Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation, who explains why food can be too cheap. Then we profile the activists who are making delicious, healthy produce available in inner cities and rural areas. Sierra's own Mr. Green offers ten easy tips for fine environmental dining, nutrition guru Marion Nestle decodes supermarket aisles, and we sort through the sometimes confusing profusion of food labels. Finally, author Gary Paul Nabhan describes our tasty yet endangered regional food traditions. Happy eating! --Paul Rauber

Eric Schlosser: "Changing your eating habits can send ripples far and wide."
WHENEVER A WELL-KNOWN ATHLETE gets caught using anabolic steroids to run faster, pedal harder, or hit a baseball farther, there's a universal chorus of disapproval. Most Americans regard steroid use in sports as an unhealthy form of cheating. Under federal law, all performance-enhancing synthetic hormones are class III controlled substances; obtaining them without a prescription is a felony. Steroid users may suffer from a wide variety of physical and mental ailments, some of them irreversible--and the long-term effects of the drugs are unknown.

Meanwhile, for the past two decades, a number of the same steroids abused by athletes have been given to U.S. cattle on a massive scale. Without much publicity or government concern, growth hormones like testosterone are routinely administered to about 80 percent of the nation's feedlot cattle, accelerating their weight gain and making them profitable to slaughter at a younger age. The practice is legal in the United States but banned throughout the European Union, due to concerns about its effect on human health. A recent study by Danish scientists suggested that hormone residues in U.S. beef may be linked to high rates of breast and prostate cancer, as well as to early-onset puberty in girls. Hormone residues excreted in manure also wind up in rivers and streams. A 2003 study of male minnows downstream from one Nebraska feedlot found that many of them had unusually small testes. When female minnows in a laboratory were exposed to trenbolone--a synthetic hormone widely administered to cattle--they developed male sex organs.

The whole idea of bulking up cattle with growth hormones symbolizes how the country's food system has gone wrong. Within a single generation, fundamental changes have occurred not only in how cattle are raised but also in how hogs and chicken are reared, fish are farmed, crops are grown, and most food is processed and distributed. The driving force behind all these changes has been the desire to make food cheaper and produce it faster. The industrialization of agriculture and livestock has made it possible for Americans to spend less of their annual income on food than anyone else in the world. But the true cost of this system can't be measured by the low prices at Wal-Mart and McDonald's. When you consider the harm being done to animals, the land, ranchers, farmers, and our national health, this fast and cheap food is much too expensive.

A narrow and ruthless vision of efficiency now extends throughout the U.S. livestock industry, transforming sentient creatures into industrial commodities. Giving steroids to cattle doesn't improve the taste of beef. It doesn't make it more nutritious. It just makes beef cheaper by causing cattle to grow faster. The same pursuit of cheapness also removes livestock from their natural settings. Some feedlots now hold more than 100,000 animals. They live in each other's manure, eating grain from concrete troughs. Poultry houses typically contain tens of thousands of birds that see the outdoors only twice in their lives--on the day they're born and on the day they're taken to the slaughterhouse. Pigs are sensitive, affectionate animals, perhaps more intelligent than dogs. At modern hog farms, they often spend their entire lives crammed into small crates, becoming anxious, hostile, and depressed.

On the prairie, cattle manure serves as a natural fertilizer, scattered intermittently for miles. At U.S. feedlots and factory farms, more than a trillion pounds of manure are deposited every year. On that scale and at such concentrations, a perfectly natural substance can become a toxic one. When the two cattle feedlots outside Greeley, Colorado, operate at full capacity, they produce more excrement than Atlanta, Boston, Denver, and St. Louis combined. But unlike those cities, factory farms don't have elaborate waste-treatment facilities. They either spray the manure on nearby fields or dump it into giant pits, euphemistically known as "lagoons." Runoff from these lagoons and fields is one of the leading causes of water pollution in the United States. The manure also pollutes the air with dangerous chemicals like hydrogen sulfide, causing respiratory and neurological illnesses. And it poisons the land with heavy metals like cadmium, selenium, zinc, copper, and arsenic, which are frequently added to livestock feed. When not fully digested, these mineral additives wind up in manure, then in the soil--and eventually in the animals and people who eat the crops grown in that soil.

For years, U.S. farmers and ranchers have been told that the latest chemical and technological advances--hormones, pesticides, genetically modified crops, concentrated animal feeding operations--would increase their income. Instead, farmers and ranchers are steadily being driven off the land. Nine out of ten hog farmers have left the business since 1979. Those who remain are essentially employees of big processors like Smithfield Foods. Poultry growers have lost their independence in much the same way, investing large amounts of their own capital while obeying the directives of Tyson Foods. This concentration has been exacerbated by the lax enforcement of antitrust laws. In 1970, the top four meatpacking companies controlled 21 percent of the beef market. Today they control nearly 85 percent. The industry is more concentrated than it was in 1906, when Upton Sinclair attacked the unchecked power of the beef trust in The Jungle.

Such systemic changes might be justifiable if all this fast, cheap food greatly benefited the people who eat it. During the past 30 years, however, industrialized agriculture has posed grave new threats to human health. The incidence of food-borne illness has risen, as gigantic processing facilities serve as an ideal vector for spreading pathogens far and wide. The emergence of mad cow disease and E. coli O157:H7 has been linked to changes in how cattle are raised. The indiscriminate use of antibiotics in livestock feed has helped to create new superbugs that can sicken people. And the mass marketing of inexpensive, fatty, high-calorie foods has fueled epidemics of obesity and diabetes. The cost of a 99-cent hamburger doesn't include the dialysis you may need years later.

None of this was inevitable. Nor was it the result of the invisible hand or free-market forces. Despite a fondness for free-market rhetoric, the country's large food companies--ConAgra, Archer Daniels Midland, McDonald's, Kraft--have benefited enormously from the absence of real competition. They receive, directly and indirectly, huge subsidies from the federal government. About half of the annual income earned by U.S. corn farmers now comes from government crop-support programs. Cheap corn is turned into cheap fats, oils, sweeteners, and animal feed. Nearly three-quarters of the corn grown in the United States is fed to livestock, providing taxpayer support for inexpensive hamburgers and chicken nuggets. On the other hand, farmers who grow fresh fruits and vegetables receive few direct subsidies. The farm bills Congress enacts every year, with strong backing from agribusiness, help determine what Americans eat, promoting unhealthy foods and making wholesome ones relatively more expensive.

Throughout the European Union, laws have been passed to guarantee food safety and animal welfare, restrict the use of antibiotics among livestock, ban genetically engineered foods, encourage organic production, and begin the deindustrialization of agriculture. These laws do not mean a return to the 19th century. On the contrary, they encourage the wise, careful application of 21st-century technology, along with a sense of humility before nature.

U.S. fast-food and agribusiness companies aren't deliberately trying to mistreat animals, poison the land, or sicken their customers. But their relentless pursuit of the fast and the cheap is doing those very things. Like the chemical companies a generation ago that dumped toxic waste in streams without a second thought, they're imposing external costs on the rest of society. And nobody is stopping them--yet.

It would be wonderful if our government cared more about public safety and environmental health than about the profits of a handful of corporations. It would be terrific if the passage of new laws solved every one of these problems. Meaningful change, however, isn't going to come from the top. It's going to come from people who realize that there's a direct link between the food they eat and the society they inhabit. Changing your eating habits can send ripples far and wide in support of agricultural practices that are humane, diverse, and sustainable. "The condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition," Wendell Berry writes. "One reason to eat responsibly is to live free."

Eric Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). A film version by Richard Linklater, starring Patricia Arquette, Paul Dano, Ethan Hawke, Greg Kinnear, Kris Kristofferson, and Bruce Willis, is being released this fall nationwide.

Hundreds of Sierra Club members are monitoring rural stream quality, leading "Tours de Stench," and helping small towns stand up to Big Pig, Big Chicken, and Big Cow. You can join them at For information about The True Cost of Food, a 15-minute video produced by the Club's Sustainable Consumption Committee, go to

"Green Cuisine" logo by Greg Mably, photo by Lori Eanes

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