Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio, compiles photographs of families around the world surrounded by one week’s worth of the food they eat. Since the book includes copious notes about the families, the countries and their diets, it’s really quite revealing.
Consider the meat. Americans eat 275 pounds of meat per person per year. The English, who I always thought were meat crazy, only eat 175 pounds per person per year. There are three American families in the book all up to their eyeballs in meat placed in neat styrofoam trays and encased in cellophane. Even the Australians (who still eat less meat than Americans at 235 per person per year) pictured here buy it in bulk. As the journalist Michael Pollan explains in an essay inside the book:
“Meat comes from the grocery store, where it is cut and packaged to look as little like parts of animals as possible.”
I’ve covered the quality of meat at Wal-Mart in a post a week or so ago. But what about the cost? I gave my wife, who’s studying cooking and organic food issues, the DVD, The Future of Food, for Christmas. In the extra disk, there is a short film of Michael Pollan answering a question about the cost of organic food. As it’s one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever heard, I have transcribed much of his answer below:
Yes, good food, healthy food, organic foodâ€¦you can say thatâ€™s expensive and maybe thatâ€™s the mystery, or maybe you can look at it the other way around and say “Why is conventional food so cheap?” And once you understand that, you begin to understand how we might begin to level the playing field. If you look at something like a 99 cent hamburger at McDonalds, which is astonishingly cheap. How is it so cheap? And you start finding that it actually isnâ€™t so cheap. The price is very low, but the cost of producing it in terms of the environment, in terms of public health, in terms of karma [laughter]â€¦the animals I meanâ€¦is exorbitant and there is also the costâ€¦the cost to the taxpayer in terms of the subsidy. I mean that hamburger is made with cheap corn which is made with $22 billion in annual subsidies, four or five billion a year just to the corn growersâ€¦.
If you want to head back to the farm with that burger, you will find that the amount of nitrogen fertilizer that it takes to grow the corn to grow the beef that makes that burger is more than any other crop, is polluting the water, is causing the mothers of Des Moines in the spring not to be able to give water to their babies because there are blue baby alerts. Because the nitrates in the water are so high that if you cook with tap water around Des Moines at certain times of year you starve your babyâ€™s brain of oxygen. Thatâ€™s the cost of a 99 cent hamburger. That nitrogen keeps going and it runs into the Mississippi eventually and runs down into the Gulf where it has created a dead zone, an area where nothing can live, the size of New Jersey. That is a cost of a cheap hamburger. And if you go the other way you know there are tremendous public health costs. We know weâ€™re paying with the obesity epidemic. That is the cost of a 99 cent hamburger. There is the cost in terms of food poisoning. When you grow cattle that way in feedlots under those conditions, feeding them all that cornâ€¦their meat often contains pathogens that can kill children. So that is a cost of a 99 cent hamburger. So cheap food isnâ€™t so cheap. The challenge is how do you get better food onto peopleâ€™s tables? I think thatâ€™s a very complicated issue.
I do feel strongly that weâ€™re not paying enough for food. That it is an issue, in part, of priorities. We only pay 11% of our disposable income on food in this country. That is less than anywhere else on Earth and that is less than any other civilization that has ever been on this Earth. For some reason we do not want to spend more….I think when people see that the quality of food can be an incredible boon and blessing in their lives when itâ€™s better, people will spend more.
In short, since we can’t understand the process by which our food is made, we can’t begin to appreciate the true costs. I’m no vegetarian, but don’t you think it might be a good idea if we as Americans at least cut our meat consumption down to the level of the English?
In the conclusion to Hungry Planet, Peter Menzel explains the full definition of the term “malnutrition:”
Malnutrition – the imbalance from either a deficiency or an excess of nutrients and other dietary elements necessary for health – now manifests itself worldwide in obesity as well as emaciation. Even with a cornucopian food supply, the world today has record levels of malnutrition in one form or another.
[emphasis in original]
Yup, Americans are mal-nourished; not in the same way starving people in Africa are, but malnourished nonetheless.
So, I ask you, is selling lots of meat at ever cheaper prices at Wal-Mart (or elsewhere for that matter), really a good idea? Why single out Wal-Mart in this diatribe? Because at Wal-Mart, cheap case-ready meat, cut and packaged off site is the only kind of meat you can get. There is no high-quality, environmentally-friendly alternative. [Of course, the same thing goes for McDonald's, but you knew that already. Besides, only the "heavy-users" (to quote my favorie laugh line from Morgan Spurlock's film, Supersize Me) of McDonalds food eat more meat there than at home. I'm talking families here.]
If you want to solve the problems that Pollan outlines, you have to change the system. Since Wal-Mart is now the largest grocer in the United States, to change the system you have to solve the problem that is Wal-Mart first.