Bioethics: Food Production
My students and I just finished watching a fantastic film called King Corn. This movie is set in Iowa and follows two friends on their journey to grow an acre of corn. They bumble through the process being guided by seasoned veterans every step of the way. The two come to the quick realization that all that corn being grown in Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, and the rest of the Midwest, is not actually sweet corn. It’s not for eating, it’s for processing.
There’s a fantastic little scene where the filmmakers attempt to eat raw field corn, it felt a little planned, but the effect was funny. (You can’t really eat raw sweet corn either…)
Go rent the movie, if you care at all about food, and haven’t been burnt out by the slew food exposes that are currently waging the nutrition war. (Food INC, Omnivore’s Dilemma, etc…)
Personally, I’m an addict.
Many students admitted to having never once thought about where their food comes from. The interaction of credit card with cash register masks the greater chain of diesel fuel and corn with great effect.
We feel like we’ve done something when we expend the energy to go the grocery store and pick out all of the nicely arranged boxes of corn-sweetened diabetes fodder. We feel like we’ve made progress when we spend 25 seconds picking out the best pesticide-laden, corn-wax covered apple. Apples aren’t shiny when they grow on trees, why are the shiny in stores?
This may sound like hippy-liberal vitriol, but I’m not recommending my students stop showering and learn to play Janis Joplin songs, I’m suggest they actually consider what their body is digesting.
The kids were most interested in the cows. It turns out that all the excess corn we grow here in Iowa has to go somewhere. That somewhere has been manufactured by science and subsidies to be special livestock, built for fattening and damned to sedentary lifestyles. These animals live on corn for roughly 160 days, which is just enough time to cause GI cysts, ulcers, acidosis, and death. Luckily, they get taken to the slaughterhouse at 155 days. This happens because corn is ‘cheap’ (subsidized), and therefore corn-fed beef is also ‘cheap.’ Except for the diabetes, antibiotics, obesity, and fuel costs.
In the name of proper high school science, we proposed a taste test. The only thing that’s going to get normal people to care is if something actually tastes better, argued my students. A dour, but probably accurate assessment.
Corn- (Grain) Fed vs. Grass-Fed Beef:
We had a cook out. It’s February, but the kids brought frisbees and footballs. They wore sandals and snow pants; it was awesome. I grilled up some burgers and steaks. The kids chose, in a blind taste test, the grass fed burgers (Victory!). The steaks were a different matter altogether:
I went to our local organic grocery store, and the meat guy gave me 60 minutes of gold. He taught me all there is to know about producing beef, buying beef, and eating beef. I then passed this on to my students.
Ah, the oral tradition.
The kids chose the middle steak as the best tasting, and the man at the co-op rated the ethics of this steak equal with the ethics of the 100% grass-fed steak. Why? Because the cows ate enough grass to live long healthy lives (>200 days!) with corn as a minority additive late in life. Their GI tracts are healthy on slaughter, and they can exercise and move during their lives.
Again, this may sound like hippy-liberal-douche-type stuff, but happy meat is better meat. It has less and better fat, it has better protein, it has more trace nutrients, it doesn’t require government subsidies, and we’re talking ethics here, folks.