Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Back to basics

When I think of rural landscapes, images of bucolic farms with happy animals often come to mind. Cows grazing on lush fields of green grass, chickens dust-bathing in the shadow of a barn, pigs rooting around in dark soil- pleasant enough to make even the most cosmopolitan of us yearn for the countryside. But does the idealization match reality?

Modern farming entails the use of industrial techniques to increase efficiency, a process pejoratively referred to as "factory farming." Estimates of how much of our animal products come from factory farms vary, but it is unquestionably a significant amount. The specific practices used vary depending on the animal. For example, egg-laying hens are housed in cages "about the size of an open newspaper, six or seven to a cage." Dairy cows are commonly injected with hormones such as rBGH that increase milk production, and beef cattle are slaughtered as quickly as possible, which often leads to violations of USDA regulations and increased animal suffering. More animals in smaller spaces, bred to grow or produce as much as they can, killed and brought to market as quickly as possible- it's all about minimizing costs.

But the factory farming model of efficiency doesn't take all the relevant costs into account. The price paid by the animals is clearly high, but the surrounding communities also bear a heavy burden. Factory farms pose a danger to drinking water, air quality, and our physical and mental health. Even producers of "organic" products sometimes use labor practices that are less than fair.

Beyond all the more quantifiable costs, I think factory farming has also severed the cultural connection to our food sources. Animal products today are often seen as just another item at the grocery store, without any real appreciation of where they came from. Recent pop culture examples of people bridging the gap between the farm and their dinner table, such as this New York Times article about killing your own Thanksgiving turkey, or the show "Kill It, Cook It, Eat It" on Current TV, highlight just how far removed we are from the food we eat.

Although rurality and farming are not synonymous, farming is quintessentially a rural activity. When politicians and pundits mention the importance of the "heartland," they are trading on the connection between rural places and food production, which is the most basic human activity. Ideally, farming encompasses values that are ironically even more important in the high-technology driven 21st century than ever before: conservation, sustainability, respect, and community. Factory farming however, is a complete rejection of these values in the name of efficiency.

If we can purchase food without having to give a thought to the animal that was killed, the resources expended, and the farmers and packers who brought it to the supermarket, we certainly won't think about the cultural costs either. Reconnecting with our food sources is not just a yuppie fad, it facilitates honest reflection on modern farming practices and the loss of its core values. If more consumers knew the path that their hamburger patty, egg, or gallon of milk traveled to reach their refrigerator, maybe they would be more concerned about not only the environment and the animals, but the loss of what makes farming so special. I believe our respect for rural life in general would increase as a result.


Sarah J said...

I was just reading about how items in the grocery store labeled "organic" and "free range" do not always translate to fair treatment or sustainable practices. This shocked me quite a bit actually, as I pretty much allow myself to feel "good" about my purchases as long as that big "organic" is slapped across the top and there is a picture of a happy-looking cow on the front. It just shows that people, including myself, will rationalize our disconnect with rural farming as best and as fast as we can. I don't know that by being more connected to actual farming practices the urban population would actually change their purchasing habits, but I agree that awareness is always a good thing.

N.P. said...

I actually read an interesting article about urban renewal and urban farming that contrasts with your blogpost. Specifically, the article demonstrated how the gentrified concept of urban farming was fueling economic development in a small in Pennsylvania that now belongs to the Rust Belt. I think in cases like this it may be hard to have such an awareness of rural farming, especially if we are catering to a demographic that considers farming a novel past time - and one that represents an upwardly mobile (rather than stagnant) class.