Food has become a fungible commodity, and our nation produces it on an industrial scale.
In the past century, we have dedicated the majority of our arable land to growing a half-dozen crops which we select, hybridize and (more recently) genetically modify to enhance yield. We then plant these crops in huge monocultures, a method of cultivation that requires us to till and fertilize the soil, which contributes to erosion and water loss and upsets the carbon and nitrogen cycles. Since vast monocultures are prone to attacks from diseases and insects, we must aggressively protect our investment by applying deadly chemicals which foul the environment. The industrial farm no longer depends exclusively upon the sun for its energy; it is an operation that is turbo-charged with energy released from fossil fuels.
We do not directly consume the bounty that we wring from the land in this fashion. The bulk of what we grow is fed to confined ruminants, fowl or swine on which we, in turn, later dine. Confined animal feeding operations, known by the acronym "CAFO's", are comparable to the monocultures which cover the land. CAFO's must supplement this diet of grain with antibiotics to contain the pathogens which prosper under such crowded conditions. Such manipulation of the natural environment assures the survival of only the fittest, acid tolerant antibiotic-resistent microbes, which await the propitious moment to jump species to homo sapiens.
Most of what grain remains we convert into ethanol for our automobiles, a process so inherently inefficient that there is a net loss of energy. In fact, ethanol production from grain is so wasteful that our government must protect it with punitive duties against imports from friendly countries like Brazil, which produce ethanol efficiently and cheaply from sugar cane. In this manner, the American taxpayer indirectly subsidizes oil from the Middle East.
That small portion of the gain which we do consume directly (as opposed to running it through an animal first) is almost always processed into incomprehensible products such as high fructose corn sweeteners, which are reassembled into "foods" like Twinkies, chips and soft drinks. We extract the oil from corn and soybeans and then alter its chemistry through the process of hydrogenization, a reverse alchemy that assures stability in a high temperature fryer, but at the cost of obesity and heart disease in those who indulge in fried foods.
In this manner, the American farmer can feed about 129 people, a marvel of productivity if one considers only the number of bushels produced per man-hour, or the number of bushels produced per acre. But paradoxically, that efficient farmer cannot earn enough at farming to feed his own family. The collapse of commodity prices, which was a forseeable consequence of overproduction, has occurred despite the overall increase in human population and generous subsidies for ethanol production. As a consequence, the American farmer today survives only by the grace of additional federal subsidies in the form of price supports. Faced with dwindling margins, farmers have no choice but to consolidate their operations and bring even more acres under the plow.
Food produced on an industrial scale is cheap indeed. Too cheap.
The price we pay for our food does not account for the cumulative costs of soil erosion and soil degradation and (in arid regions) the permanent loss of ancient aquifers. Our food tab does not count the damage done by nitrogen, carbon, methane, pesticides or herbicides discharged into the environment. It does not consider the real cost of the petroleum which we must buy from unfriendly countries, or the petrochemicals that we manufacture from it.
And the supposedly efficient industrial farm model mocks a basic fact of energy conservation: nine-tenths of the sun's energy that can be fixed by photosynthesis is lost when we feed grain to ruminants rather than simply letting them graze on grass directly.
We are taxing these costs to future generations as we, ourselves, wrestle with the health complications of taking on too much nutrition. In terms of raw calories consumed, we are the best fed generation in our nation's history. But very likely, we will be the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than our parents.
Food produced on an industrial scale doesn't taste very good, either. The Story Inn made the commitment a long time ago to eschew processed foods and to make everything it can from scratch, employing only wholesome and natural ingredients. This has added to food costs, but the dramatic improvement in quality was much appreciated by the Story Inn's customers and well worth the price.
Wholesome food is not to be confused with "organic" food. The latter is now being produced on an industrial scale as well. Our own U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has rendered the term "organic" meaningless, and now awards bogus certifications for the privilege of employing that word. A steer forced to live its days in a CAFO two thousand miles away will yield "organic" beef, providing it is fed "organic" grain and infused with antibiotics in response to infection, rather than to prevent it. Click here for more information. We are not so easily bamboozled at the Story Inn.
For these reasons, the Story Inn is now embarking upon another, more ambitious project: to source its food locally, and thereby side-step the industrial food chain. The terms "local" and "sustainable" are accurate and descriptive. For the moment at least, we are at liberty to employ these terms, at least until the USDA seizes these words from the English language by the power of eminent domain, as it did with the word "organic".
Currently the Story Inn grows a good deal of its own greens, herbs and fruit in the gardens right by the kitchen. Our gardener enriches the soil with compost, never applying pesticides, herbicides or artificial fertilizers. That which we cannot grow here, we will buy locally, if it is available. a local farmer brings us eggs each Friday; his wife painstakingly pencils the laid-date on egg. The Story inn already buys maple syrup from local farmers, and dairy, cheese, eggs and meat from local producers.
The Story Inn is seeking new purveyors of local foods who engage in sensible, sustainable farming practices. If you have a product that you would like to feature on the Story inn's menu, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Life is too short to eat fast food!
Read an interesting academic paper by Rich Hofstetter, a 2012 graduate of Butler University, on the classification of genetically-modified crops. Click HERE.