Take a road trip through central Illinois sometime (or really, anywhere in the Midwest), and you'll soon find yourself driving through endless fields of America's favorite two crops: soybeans and--you guessed it--corn. When I was younger, my family made the trip down through Illinois farm country from Chicago every summer, and I never minded the long drives through the nearly empty freeways and never-ending fields. Back then the landscape of old roads and cornfields was just one part of our family's summer experience. I learned to drive my grandfather's tractor at an age that probably wasn't technically legal, but as young adventurous kid there was no better feeling than plowing through those rows of sky-seeking stalks.
Well-known author Michael Pollan has written a number of books discussing the ways that the science of nature clashes with the processes that dominate our food landscape today. In an interview with Frontline, Pollan discussed the ways in which the current model for meat production, the one being sustained by corn, is responsible for instigating long-term problems not only for the animals, but also for the people that ultimately consume the meat products. Pollan described the evolutionary beauty in the natural life process of a cow, explaining, "A cow out on grass is just an incredible thing to behold. They have the most highly evolved digestive organ on the planet, called the rumen. It takes cellulose in grass, and turns it into very nutritious protein. We can't do that. We can't digest grass. So to take land that is not good enough for agriculture--that's growing grass and nothing else, that's been doing that for 10,000 years since the buffalo--and put a cow on it...there's something beautiful about that, and it's just the way it was meant to be."
Today's model that represents a total disregard for the natural processes of raising livestock is so severely swayed in favor of capitalism that many captains of industry have let the balance slip in favor of a system that has higher short-term earning potential. Logistically, it does make sense: feed the cows whatever will cause them to mature fastest, slaughter as early in their life as possible to sell the meat and make space for the next batch of animals. However, what Pollan reminded us of is that the corn-based diet these animals are fed is responsible for many more long-term problems. For one, cows must be trained to digest corn; this feat is accomplished by sneaking antibiotics into the feed, which consequently ends up on our dinner tables at the end of the day. Additionally, the smaller spaces where livestock are raised contribute to a number of local pollution problems, while larger-scale pollution problems are similarly reduced when animals are allowed to graze the way nature intended, drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Fixing the problems that the food industry is facing will take a lot of willpower and willingness from the nation. We can't expect that a few people choosing local every once in a while will be of much use for a longer-term solution, but don't discount the power of a few communities coming together to take a stand against the issues that matter. This industry, like any other, is ruled by supply and demand. As long as people continue to purchase the same mass-produced meat that they always have, these companies will continue to produce meat in the same ways that have worked for them in the past. By choosing local, you are putting your money and your trust in the hands of the local farmers that are also committed to creating a shift in the industry.
For more information about America’s corn dilemma, check out Scientific American’s article about the corn system here. All images courtesy of Pixabay.