Monday, May 31, 2010

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

This week, I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. It is the story of one family's attempt to eat only locally grown produce and meat for a year. It was entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking. Kingsolver definitely has a political agenda, as evidenced in this and other books, so I took some of the information with a grain of salt. However, overall, I think she made some very good points. I have always been very skeptical about organic produce. It is so expensive, and it's unclear to me how much it actually differs from other produce. Well, turns out my skepticism was somewhat founded. "Organic" food from large, national companies is very loosely regulated and often not substantially different from other produce.

Which is one reason Kingsolver advocates locally-grown food and/or maintaining a personal garden. When you know the farmer, you can be sure that his or her products are actually organic and that the workers are fairly paid. Another big concern of Kingsolver's is reducing fuel consumption. Each item in a typical American meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles. The number of calories expended in producing, packaging, shipping, and refrigerating food can often be hundreds of times the calories available in the food itself. Some of this is understandable for foods that don't grow well in the Northern hemisphere, for example. But, the U.S. imports 1.1 million pounds of potatoes and exports 1.4 million pounds. That seems a little ridiculous, even to a non-tree hugger like myself.

The information about cattle and chicken farming was particularly disturbing. Animals are often forced to live in tiny cages, eating their own excrement and the by-products of their own kind. This greatly increases risk of disease, especially mad cow disease. The UK now tests 100% of its cattle for mad cow. The U.S. tests less than one-half of one percent. Yikes.

I'm not sure exactly what I'm going to do with this information. I try very hard to keep our grocery budget low, and the prices at our farmer's market seem high to me. But, I could probably cut out some other items in order to afford more local produce and perhaps some grass-fed beef or free-range eggs. I could not rely solely on locally-grown produce, though. First of all, Illinois' growing season is fairly short. Second, I could not give up tropical fruits like bananas or pineapple completely. I will definitely look into the issues raised by this book more (in some less-biased sources) and take some baby steps toward changing our food habits.

If you're interested in gardening, cooking, or where your food comes from, I highly recommend this book. While I think sometimes it leans toward "the sky is falling" thinking, (the author predicts near-starvation conditions in the not-too-distant future due to the lack of biodiversity and fuel shortages), it does present a great case for growing your own food, eating more whole foods, and supporting small farmers. It also includes some good recipes.


Kalyn Gensic said...

My CSA that I participate in is a good example of eating local produce. I pay into a local organic farm, and I actually drive out to the farm every week to pick up my produce. I know the family pretty well now, I know exactly where my food is coming from, and I know what organic farming techniques they utilize.

My thinking on the price of food is a little different. Americans today spend a minuscule percentage of their income on food in comparison to any other people at any other time in history. I figure, if there is one area in my life where I should spend more for better quality, it is food. To me, it is a matter of cutting back in other areas of my life in order to have the best quality of food. Of course, financially, I usually come out ahead because my CSA is very affordable and I make most other food we eat from scratch. All in all, I believe food is the most important thing we spend money on. However, I admit that on weeks when the budget is tight, I don't shy away from non-organic food. Sometimes, you just have to settle for what you can afford.

Sallie said...

Very interesting. Glad you read the book and summarized it for me! Kalyn's comment is thought-provoking as well.

John Pierce said...

Hey Kayla,
I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle recently, too, and agree with everything you said about it. And I've struggled, too, to figure out what to do with all of the information. One thing that has helped, and that I'd really, really recommend is Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food. It's short and practical, and it lacks the little bit of eccentricity that creeps into Kingsolver's book. The final section of In Defense of Food is a short instruction manual--how to eat. It's wonderful.

I'd also recommend the documentary Food, Inc. (though not nearly as highly) because I think it's especially convincing on the subject of cattle and chicken farming. I think it's on Netflix watch-instantly, and it's very good, too.

Clint and Whitney said...

Kayla, glad to hear you read this book. I really enjoyed it as well. I don't know why but I love to read about people's cooking adventures.

On to the controversial topics. I think I am probably one of the "eccentrics". I don't buy meat anymore. I have chosen to buy my protein in other forms. This comes from my research and belief that we have totally exploited animals and that God did not intend for us to use them as we do. I will eat it occasionally when we go out to eat and also when we are at other people's homes. I also agree with Kayln. I am going to be putting this food into my body so I want to make sure I get better quality and not just quantity. For a stepping off point, I would suggest the website It has recipes for meatless dishes and is basically an effort to help improve people's health and the health of the planet. See my blog, (for others that don't know it) I'm going to post some stuff about this.