The subject of farming comes up in my conversations more often than the average person, I’d guess. When I’m chatting with someone like Shaun Doty (chef, restaurateur, a founder of Georgians for Pastured Poultry) for the purpose of No Harm No Fowl in this month’s magazine, it’s easy — there’s a lot of nodding in agreement. But I find that “the perils of factory farming” isn’t necessarily the cocktail party-friendliest of subjects. Rightly so — it’s like a truly disturbing photograph that you can’t un-see; once you know the truth about where the overwhelming majority of our nation’s meat comes from, it haunts you.
The outcome of factory farming is layered, with facts that most find bothersome at best and downright horrifying at worst: Chickens are now the most engineered animal humans consume, pumped with antibiotics and mutilated beyond recognition. They live in unimaginable conditions that foster disease, pain and unnatural actions, including cannibalism. And it’s not just the cruelty to the birds affecting compassionate humans; it’s also the negative impact factory farms have on human and environmental health — deforestation, biodiversity, air and water pollution.
My apologies to anyone reading this over breakfast, but think about it: When you pile too many animals on top of each other in too little space, their manure piles up, too. This means the waste isn’t treated naturally (the soil can only incorporate so much) and instead creates a build up of bacteria that seeps into the water, air, and the slaughterhouses via the animals and farm workers, and sometimes into your mouth (remember all those cases of foodborne illnesses just last year?). Gross — I’m sure we’d rather not think about that, really.
Turning a blind eye isn’t an option, for the sake of our personal health, the air we breathe, the land we live on, the water we drink, and our local economies. Heavy? Yes. True? Yes.
If you’re not well-versed in factory farming, there are myriad resources for education, from FarmForward.com to Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer (included in “What to Read” for December 2013|January 2014). Once you’re all schooled up, you’ll likely be asking, “Now what? What ever will I eat?”
For me, becoming a “weekday vegan” and eating mostly “real food” is the answer — I know where and how the majority of the food I consume grew and was raised.
This is easier than you may think: Start by going to your local farmers’ market and chat up the farmers (both produce growers and meat purveyors). They are typically quite happy to tell you what they grow and how, and also what their fellow farmer friends specialize in. Plan your weekly shopping around the market and buy the bulk of what you need there. Also research restaurants in your area that support local farmers (hint: they are typically the locally owned joints; not usually the big chains) — go to their website to see where they source produce and meat; if you can’t find it there, send them an email or message via social media. Or stop in and just ask. If they source local they are typically quite proud of it and love to chat up curious customers.
Does this mean I quiz every cook on where exactly his birds were raised before I chow down on a plate of fried chicken? No. Does this mean I’ll ask my friend where she’s buying her meat before I accept her dinner invitation? Absolutely not. Does this even mean that I will never, ever eat the unholiest, foulest of foods: the ballpark stadium hot dog? Batter up, baby — pass that dog and a Budweiser. But it does mean that I consider the origin of the vast majority of food that I consume with these questions: “Is what I’m eating a benefit or a burden on this planet I share? Did air, land, water, or living creature suffer just so I could take this bite?” I want the answer to be a confident “no” most of the time. It’s the least I can do.