Tortoises; Food, INC.

July 28, 2009

I am dog-sitting and tortoise-sitting for my friend Julie. The dogs consist of one extremely sweet, extremely dull-witted Shi-Tzu* and one extremely charming Chihuahua. The tortoise is… I don’t know. About the size of a pancake. Only, obviously, more three-dimensional. Otherwise I don’t really know anything about his personality except for the fact that he constantly tries to escape (when he’s not sleeping). Like you have to take him out once a day and put him in a kind of little bath, and he’s all “I’M OUTTA HERE SUCKAS!” and then you put him back in his house and he’s all “YOU’LL NEVER TAKE ME ALIVE!” and then he realizes that you gave him food and then he very slowly wanders over and starts nomming on the pile of greens.

The other awesome thing about the tortoise is that the Slow Shi-Tzu is obsessed with him. She gets extremely excited if she sees him out and about. If he’s on the floor, she lovingly lies down next to him and kind of embraces him with her paws. Even though the tortoise is trying to eat her the entire time.

***

I saw Food, INC the other night. It’s a documentary about the American food industry. It will fill you with rage, even if you’re not some kind of Vermont hippie. It’s all about outrageous corruption and deceit and corporations taking handouts from taxpayers and then turning around and BENDING TAXPAYERS OVER THE TABLE… ahem. Pretty much if the bailout made you mad, Food, INC will make you want to go to your state capitol and be the weirdo on the corner holding up a sign reading DEMAND A SAFE FOOD CHAIN NOW.

The one thing I would liked to have seen more of in the movie is something I am kind of obsessed with: food security as it relates to the fact that huge swathes of our food production are way too closely related.

About 90% of all soybeans grown in this country are GM soybeans sold by a single scary corporation. Depending on your politics, you may find that splendid, a real triumph of capitalism, or scandalous. But unless you are a rare breed of, um, slow Shi-Tzu, you will probably find it kind of alarming that a major base of the food-chain pyramid that feeds you and your family and every other family in the country (and many families around the globe!) has very little genetic diversity. Even a generation ago, individual farmers saved open-pollinated crop seeds from one season to the next, picking out the best seeds from the best plants, creating a kind of sub-breed exactly adapted to their micro-climate. But in the charge to increase production (or, you know, profits for giant corporations) we’ve since wound up with this system where most people who grow soy are growing basically the exact same plant, coast to coast, border to border: they – and almost all other soy farmers – have to purchase the seeds each year from the single scary corporation.

Pretty much all you need is one freaky airborne fungus to come through that this particular soy has no resistance to, and entire crops could be lost. Soy and its many derivatives are in everything. It’s not just tofu-munching hippies who would lose out if we lost a year’s worth of soybeans. Same goes for corn. Same goes, weirdly, for a lot of our dairy cattle- YOU LIKE CHEESE, right? Then it should kind of give you pause to realize that lots of the dairy cows born every year are half-sisters of each other, because the dairy industry naturally pushes for higher and higher output, so if you have a bull who sires good milkers, you, uh, take his semen and freeze it and sell it to dairy farmers all around the country. So again, you end up with these clusters of highly efficient cows (whoo!), who are too closely related to have a good spread of resistance to weird diseases that may yet pop up (boo!)

I have no illusions that Food, INC. will change anything, because I kind of suspect that people who are interested in seeing it are people who already think about things like safe food supplies and feed lots and how E Coli ends up in the food supply (THE ANSWER IS: FEED LOTS) and why we subsidize corn even though it’s grown by giant monolithic corporations who should probably not be subsidized by taxpayers. But, you know… it’s a good movie. I also thought it was reasonably even-handed. It does not present organic farming as some kind of pastoral fantasy. It shows Joel Salatin** slaughtering chickens, and the chickens are not like “La la la, organic farming is the BEST!” (although in comparison to the Tyson and Perdue chicken farms shown earlier, you know… the Salatin chickens are basically like the old dude in Soylent Green who gets to drift off while listening to music and watching a slide show of nature.)

***

I had a meeting last week, and there wasn’t any parking. I mean… there WAS parking, but they were all labeled spots, spots labeled things like “SORKIN”. So I parked somewhere and ran in and asked the assistant where I should park, and this other writer sitting there waiting said: “You should park in Aaron Sorkin’s spot.”

And I said: “Ha ha ha.”

And he said: “Seriously, what could go wrong?” because of course Aaron Sorkin seems like the kind of guy who is SUPER easy-going about finding someone else in his spot.

(I did not actually park in Aaron Sorkin’s spot. They found me plebe parking elsewhere, thank you.)

Ah, meetings, where other writers try to TRIP YOU UP SO THEY CAN GET THE JOB…

*Seriously. Have you ever wondered if there is such a thing as a retarded dog? This dog, bless her heart, answers the question.
**Joel Salatin, a nice Christian-libertarian type who runs a traditional farm in the Shenandoah Valley, is super-famous to a certain kind of person. Do you ever think about how weird stuff like that is? Like I bet I could poll 50 people and most of them would go “…who?” and then two of them would go “OMG POLYFACE FARMS I WISH TO SEE IT BEFORE I DIE!!!!!!!!”

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6 Responses to “Tortoises; Food, INC.”

  1. Janiece Says:

    How sad is it that as soon as you said Joel Salatin was in this documentary then I immediately decided I wanted to see it, before reading your footnote?

    Jeez.

  2. Nathan Says:

    Janiece,

    A wise woman recently said to me:

    Seriously, dude.

    Seek help.

    😀

  3. Dean Says:

    I am compelled to point out that all foods are essentially GM. My point is that since the days of Friedrick Mendel we have been modifying the genetic makeup and consequent morphological traits of plants and animals using the rather slow and dangerously unpredictable method of selective breeding. Now come along the evil scientists (actually Mendel was one of these) who have managed to figure out a more accurate and managable way to modify genetic material to create better foodstuffs, pets, etc. While I might agree with you on the inherent risks of monoculture I cannot buy into the wide spread paranoia over genetically modified foods. Let’s face it, we are now able to feed more people at a lower cost than ever before. Now we need to figure out how to distribute this to more folks who need it. I for one, am not willing to return to being a locavore, living on hyper expensive locally slaughter meat and only having strawberries for 2 weeks each summer. Life is better now…

  4. Nathan Says:

    Dean,

    I tend to agree with you…mostly. I have no problem per se with genetically modified foodstuffs, but I’m a little more paranoid than you seem to be about the lack of diversity. Science is certainly able to build some diversity into the system.

    I understand that the logical question becomes, “why should we we purposely make part of each crop from a less successful strain?” And the answer is pretty much the same as in financial investment. Not every stock is a huge winner, but people who put all of their eggs in one basket tend to get bitten in the ass eventually. I think most of Bernie Madoff’s investors would agree with that now.

  5. Cher Says:

    I thought GM referred to corn with fish genes in it to make it more resistent to some disease, or something like that.
    Plant strains bred to be more resistant, to bear more or to adapt to a different climate(dry, say) result from what Mendel started or systematized, since farmers had always done something along those lines.

    Those things with genes from other species have to be labelled GM. I don’t think the others do.

  6. Dean Says:

    Nathan,

    I must agree that there certainly is value in maintaining genetic diversity, however this doesn’t in and of itself mean that direct genetic engineering necessiarily have to result in the diminution of diversity, does it?

    Cher,

    You are incorrect on this one. GM refers to living cells created from directly modified genetic material. It has nothing to do with combining genetic material from different species. However, GM can be used to do this, while natural selection (liger notwithstanding) is more problematic in this respect. Don’t be brainwashed into equating GM with Frankenstein creations from SciFi novels…


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