From left, Associate Professor Joshua Greenberg, author Eric Schlosser, student Charles Caster, Professor Milan Shipka visit at UAF May 27.While dining on an Alaska-grown meal with SNRAS faculty, students, and staff May 27, author Eric Schlosser asked, “What is your vision for agriculture by 2025?”
“People would be growing more food and would better utilize forage for ruminant livestock,” Professor Milan Shipka said. Dean and Director Carol Lewis added that she hopes there will be more controlled environment facilities that run on efficient energy to help prolong the growing season.
Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, was in Fairbanks to give a lecture for Summer Sessions and agreed to meet with key players from the agriculture school who are involved in food security and food production. “What you do is important to the future of this state,” Schlosser told the luncheon guests Thursday.
At the filled-to-capacity UAF Davis Concert Hall that evening, Schlosser compared the food movement of the past forty years to the environmental movement. “The food we eat has changed more in the past forty years than it had in the previous 40,000 years,” he said.
He recalled the first Earth Day in 1970 when the young people who started it were criticized. The year before, Apollo astronauts had captured a photo of “this blue, fragile disk adrift in total blackness. From space there were no borders and it was so beautiful that people thought maybe it was worth saving and protecting,” Schlosser said. In the past four decades the environmental movement went from a fringe element to part of the fabric of American life.
At the same time that caring for the environment was improving, there was a big problem brewing in the country’s food systems. “It has happened without most people knowing about it,” Schlosser said. “There has been no debate about whether this is a good idea.”
Fast food companies and agribusinesses don’t want people to know what is in their food or how it’s made or where it came from, Schlosser said. “They want you to buy it and eat it and like it and buy more.”
$3 billion per year is spent on television advertising by fast food companies. “Those ads don’t show the feedlots,” Schlosser said. “The success of the entire modern food system depends on our ignorance of how it operates.” He said Americans have a deeply unhealthy relationship to food. “Mass culture celebrates thinness and at the same time mass marketing of food is almost guaranteed to make you fat.” While the young who are poor tend to be obese, the wealthy lean toward eating disorders to stay thin. “We have a disconnect from food,” Schlosser said.
The public is unaware of the conditions animals are raised in. Forty years ago there were thousands of meat slaughter houses in the US; now there are thirteen huge ones where “living, breathing creatures have been turned into industrial commodities.” Thousands of chickens crammed into dark buildings never see the light of day. Hogs' immune systems become so compromised that they could not survive outside the buildings they live in. Cattle stand crowded together in their own waste. “If you saw them you would not want to eat that meat,” Schlosser said. “Never in human history has livestock been raised the way we are raising them now. It is like a bad science fiction movie.”
A McDonald’s slogan of a few years back, “One Taste Worldwide,” sums up the problem for Schlosser. In 1970 there were 1,000 McDonald’s restaurants; today there are 30,000, and hundreds of other companies have copied the model. Fast food restaurants are the largest purchasers of many food products and this has changed the way food is produced, distributed, and consumed. It has promoted centralization and industrialization of food so everything at each restaurant in the chain tastes the same.
He also addressed social justice issues of people working at fast food restaurants, meatpacking plants, and farms for low wages and no benefits. “This is a vulnerable workforce,” he said. He has been working to prevent slave labor in Florida’s tomato industry.
On the health side, Schlosser mentioned the rise in food poisoning due to entirely new and dangerous pathogens in food. One hamburger patty at a fast food restaurant contains meat from thousands of different cattle, Schlosser said, increasing the risk of disease. “Think of that when you are about to bite into your next Big Mac,” he advised.
The antibiotics given to animals are making humans sick, he said. “70,000 Americans die every year from antibiotic resistant bugs.” The same types of steroids illegal for athletes to use are routinely implanted in the ears of feedlot cattle. Schlosser suspects the increases in breast and prostate cancers may be due to hormones in food. Fish that live downstream from feedlots have been found to have deformities.
The people most at risk are children and the elderly. Fast food, which is high in fat, sugar, starch, and salt, compromises the health of these vulnerable citizens. “These are ideal foods to make you unhealthy,” Schlosser said. “And they sell tons of soda because it is the most profitable thing they sell.”
While people in the US used to be some of the most fit people now they are terribly unfit. The obesity rate has nearly doubled for toddlers and tripled for children ages 6 to 11. “Alaska has one of the highest obesity rates in the US,” Schlosser said. “Alaska has more in common with Alabama and Mississippi than western states when it comes to obesity.”
Diabetes is another concern, with one in three children born in 2000 destined to develop diabetes. Among poor people the number is one in two.
“What is to be done?” Schlosser asked. “That all sounds really grim but an entirely different system is possible and necessary.” He stressed organic foods, buying local food, and reconnecting people with where food comes from. He said he is encouraged by the interest in sustainability found on college campuses.
“The fast food system exploits the weak and the poor and threatens our entire democratic system,” he said. “We need an agricultural system based on social policies and access to healthy, nutritional food for every member of society.”
He added, “Hey, you guys in Alaska gotta grow your own. You need to remember where food comes from. Alaska is the most food insecure state; that is not good.” He said Alaska has 15 million acres suitable for agriculture, yet only 30,000 acres are cultivated. (See addendum.) “Rhode Island has twice as many farms as you and their value of agricultural products is twice as big. Now come on, you guys need to grow food in your back yards, have school gardens, and buy food grown in this state.”
He closed with a passage from the book, Alaska – Our Northern Wonderland, written in 1923 by Frank Carpenter. The book praises the abundance and variety of crops grown in the Tanana Valley at that time.
“It can be done here and it needs to be done,” Schlosser said. “Next time I come to Fairbanks I hope to be served cantaloupe that was grown here.”
Addendum (From SNRAS Dean and AFES Director Carol Lewis, June 1, 2010): The 15 million acres is a wonderful quote, but if you look at Roeger (1958), you'll see the rest of the story. Only 500,000 are accessible by road or rail. There are opportunities to use non-agricultural lands if we use controlled environments and composting, however. There are more than 30,000 acres actually cleared and in Delta alone there are about 100,000 acres.