Where Food Comes From and Why It Matters


kunekune pigs
Our heritage Kunekune pigs feasting on garden scraps.

Here’s how it works.  Basically, every mechanism of growth that becomes part of our diet is powered by the sun, soil, and rain.  At least that’s how it always used to be.  Greens came right from the garden behind the house, meat from animals you raised in the barn yourself.  But for many people now, that route has become greatly obscured.  If you’re not ready to take a hard look at that issue, I’ll see you next week.  But learning to follow back the sequence that led to what’s on your plate is a critical step in discerning the right choice when it’s time to decide what’s for dinner.

Remember, you literally are what you eat.  Each day, with our daily intake of food, our bodies are assimilating the nutrients, proteins, vitamins, minerals, fats, fibers, and more of our diet.  Some of these elements pass through the system, but many are integrated and become part of the living, breathing beings that we are.  We all understand that paying attention to what we eat is important, but have you also been paying attention to what you eat has eaten?

Plants are the real powerhouses in this system.  They harness the sun directly, converting it to sugars or starches.  Plants have found a way to grow in almost every environment—flowering, bearing fruits and nuts and seeds.  Plant-to-human consumption is a direct way of “eating the sun” if you will, infusing your diet with color, texture, and vitamins. 

Sounds idyllic, right?  But the current, mainstream chemical warfare approach to pest and weed management leaves much of our vegetable and fruit supply festooned with residual neurotoxins and cancer-causing agents—to the point where certain types of serious ailments are known to affect produce workers (even in grocery stores) at much higher rates than the general populous.

Grain production is also heavily chemicalized, with vast fields planted over and over again in soybeans and corn, to the point where the once bountiful microcosm of soil has been reduced to a lifeless medium for holding up plants.  We’ve genetically modified over 80% of the crop to be tolerant of harsh herbicide chemical use, and then we feed this grain not only to people but in much greater quantities to livestock. 

This is especially true of livestock kept in close confinement facilities, where a whole new tier of additives, growth hormones, and antibiotic uses come into play.  Crazy things like ground up chicken poop being fed to cows actually happens in commercial feed “rations.”  Does that sound like, well, ick to you?

Layer all this together in one long string, and (if you’re not paying attention) this is what ends up on your plate.  How can we ever hope to have healthy, thriving bodies and minds when such a trail of woe is our source of fuel?  Humans are meant to be omnivores (look at the structure of your teeth), but how can one navigate such dross?

Some folks advocate for a plants-only diet, saying that there’s no win for animal proteins in our current food system.  The plant approach is possible, but it is very difficult to have a fully balanced diet, especially when factoring in essential amino acids.  A recent article published by Cleveland Clinic (Volume 17, No. 1) titled “Choose Nourishing Protein” states “A died that will help maintain a healthy weight and won’t promote inflammation includes vegetables, beans, fruits and whole grains, but also fish, meat and dairy.”  But they stress repeatedly that “what the animal ate also matters.” 

To be honest, if I didn’t have an animal protein source like my own farm, I’d probably be vegetarian.  What animals eat and how they live immensely effects our own health.

Follow the chain from your plate back to the sun.  Ask yourself what is most natural for the animal to eat?  If it’s a cow or sheep, with its four stomachs, it is meant to eat grass.  Keeping cows locked up inside on a feed ration that is designed to “bypass the rumen” is not the way cows have lived for millennia.  They have legs and can walk out on that pasture and pick their own salad for dinner.  The grass is happier for it too—well managed, rotationally grazed pastures sequester more carbon from the air per year than forests.

If your dinner includes chicken, these too are omnivores like us and need grass and grain and bugs in their diet to be happy and healthy.  They also need to be out scratching and roaming and expressing their “chicken-ness.”  Chickens kept in cages or crowded poultry barns have often eaten their roommates, and their meat is infused with fear pheromones.  Yuck!

Now bring the view back to the plant level.  Were these plants allowed to grow and live in dynamic, living soils (or dynamic, living environments like aquaponics), or did they live in a world propped up by chemicals in massive monocropped systems or hydroponics?  The industrial food system is happy to keep you in the dark.  They’d love for you to think that all food is grown on small, idyllic farms.  But word is getting around, and the more that we ask and the more that we demand better for ourselves and our families (including when we go out to eat), the more the system will respond and choices flourish. 

And so I ask you to really look at what’s on your plate tonight.  Can you trace it back through the food chain?  All the way back to the sun?  Everyone eats, and what we eat has eaten as well (even the plants).  Tending that process is tantamount to reclaiming health and wholeness as a species and as a planet.  So here’s to a better food chain story on your plate!  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura and chicken
Laura with a chicken

Laura Berlage

Laura writes our weekly “Down on the Farm” column (launched in 2012), which is featured in several local newspapers. They not only share stories from the farm but also invite you to think about the impact of our daily choices.