Last week, I drove across Nebraska. Nebraska is a really BIG state. Big and Flat. It's January, so there wasn't much growing as I passed through, but the remnants of our nation's great corn industry fanned out before me in field after field of broken stalks and barren irrigation contraptions. I know most people think this part of the country is boring, and perhaps I did feel a tinge of boredom after 300 miles on I-80 with nary a curve in the road to distract me. But mostly I think Nebraska and her sister states of Iowa, Kansas, and the Dakotas, are beautiful. Beautiful in the way that Jennifer Grey was before she got her nose job…a little plain, but kind of wild and alluring just the same.
So, I'm driving through Nebraska and I start to notice that out among the broken corn stalks in 4 out of 10 fields are herds of stout, black cows foraging freely. Foraging freely? In Nebraska? This is a state firmly in the grips of Our Nation's Food System. Subsidies are handed out here like handshakes at a campaign rally. Aren't all those cows supposed to be penned up, in chains, unable to move, force-fed unnatural diets of grain and animal parts and injected with all sorts of horrible anti-biotics? Isn't that what Fast Food Nation and King Corn tell us? Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to say that doesn't happen, because it does. In fact, most, if not all, of those cows I saw munching away in the great open plains are destined for that very fate. Soon. And I passed those very feedlots the next day, in Colorado, and those animals are inhumanely jammed in there and there are MOUNTAINS of manure and it looks to be a pretty horrible existence. But, BUT, my east-coast, bleeding-heart, liberal, Slow Food sensibilities were kind of rocked when I saw those cows apparently enjoying themselves roaming freely amongst the corn stalks.
Then I got to thinking. And this is what I thought: what I'm seeing here might not be a quaint antithetical anecdote to the Evil Feedlot/Bionic Beef nightmare we know exists, but instead might be, in actuality, THE SADDEST INDICATOR OF HOW F***** UP OUR FOOD SYSTEM REALLY IS. Now, I'm still a little emotional about this, as you can tell. I'm going to try and lay this out clearly, but bear with me if it gets a little tangled. Here goes. These fields, in the spring, were most likely planted with GMO corn destined for one of three fates: feedlot grain, high-fructose corn syrup, or biofuel. Now, I need to make one thing clear: this corn is inedible. People cannot eat it. It can and will only be used for one of the three products I just listed. The farmers who grow this corn are most likely losing money on each acre and are subsidized by Uncle Sam to ensure the United States' bread-basket (note the irony here, given that these crops are not destined for food) remains productive. So, the sun shines, the fields are irrigated, the corn grows. Now in the good old days, some of these fields would be something other than corn and that other stuff would be harvested to feed animals like cows through the winter before a short diet of grain was imposed to fatten them up before slaughter.
I say a short diet of grain because grain is toxic to cows. Their stomachs can only tolerate it for a short period before it becomes infected, they sicken, and they die. Anyway, growing that other stuff became less and less profitable once the government began writing the checks. The government will really only write checks for corn and a few other, mostly non-edible, staples, so it didn't make much sense to be growing acres of crops that you wouldn't get paid for. Besides, science and technology had, in the meantime, invented all of these glorious drugs you could give your cows that prolonged the period that they could tolerate grain. So now you could send cattle to the feedlot at an earlier age, keep them on corn for longer, and they'd fatten up faster. Sounds like a win-win, right? Well, I think everyone reading this blog knows it's not, but I want to get back to the cows I saw munching away in the barren fields.
So, I'm driving along and I won't lie, my black Brooklyn heart warmed a bit when I saw those happy cows in the fields, but it soon iced back over when I realized the sad irony. Here were cows, spending their last short weeks before the feedlot, scavenging in snow-covered fields for the remnants of GMO corn that they would soon be force-fed in too-close quarters while standing in their own waste. These poor animals will never know what it feels like to follow their natural instincts. Over the years, they've had those instincts bred out of them. They're bred to eat, and eat they will, anything they can find. And in these fields, what they were finding would soon kill them. Then that heart got even colder and more ice-covered when I thought about this: what if those fields were used to grow actual food, for actual people. Food that nourished and provided our population with the nutrients and vitamins that many of us so desperately need. And what if, once that food had been harvested, the remnants of that system were left to be slurped up by hungry animals who could turn it not only into further nourishment, but also into natural fertilizer, making those fields even more productive next season. Ahh, what if? I'm no farmer, so I'm sure it's just a crazy idea dreamt up by a silly kid from the city who doesn't know what she's talking about, but I kind of feel like I might be on to something here.
by Cecily Upton