The troubling issue with California's Proposition 37 is not its failure, but rather how have we as a society have reached the point where such a proposition is even necessary. Can we really even call our food "food" anymore if we need to pass laws in order to know exactly what is in it?
Over the past several decades, America's mass production of industrial crops and meat have resulted in a dramatic transformation of our food system, and challenged the definition of what is considered "natural." One of the biggest transformations occurred in the chicken industry. Meat animals were increasingly raised indoors systematically in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), creating high output at the lowest cost. Farm Forward estimates that 99 percent of our poultry meat now comes from these factory farms breeding genetically modified birds. With the introduction of antibiotics, growth hormones, and vitamin D into the birds, scientists were able to overcome the natural benefits which were lost in moving birds into a confined indoor existence.
Industrial meat contains large amounts of hormones, saturated fat, and cholesterol, which promotes obesity, diabetes, as well as several forms of cancer (and which, according to the U.S Center for Disease Control and Prevention, kills roughly 1.4 million Americans a year). Additionally, people are contracting more chronic disease from zoonoses, and there are growing risks due to antibiotic resistant bacteria and non-response to antibiotics in humans caused by overuse of antibiotics in animal feed. The New York Times estimated that over 80 percent of the antibiotics produced in the U.S. are now given to farm animals.
Why do Americans continue to eat this way? There exists a disparity between the food we see on our plate and where it comes from -- the "out of sight, out-of-mind" syndrome. I recently experienced this firsthand when I slaughtered my first chicken last month as part of a Duke University-offered chicken processing workshop where students visit a local sustainable farm and "meet their meat." As I held the flailing bird by its feet, I was overcome with anxiety and doubted whether I could voluntarily take a life. I regularly eat chicken of course, but I could not connect the chicken I held tight in my hands to the food on my plate.
This is precisely the problem with our food system. We have become so detached from our food and hidden from its production that we assume it is natural without knowing much about it. With the knife in my hand and the bird's head on the ground I realized the chicken on my plate is, in fact, a dead animal. We may modify its name, its form, and how we produce it in order to distance ourselves from the reality of where our food comes from. However, as a result our meat has lost its connection to the nature it comes from.
One would think that having killed a chicken and seen it previously alive and kicking, that it would be difficult to actually eat it. Strangely, however, it had the opposite effect. I felt comfortable eating the bird I killed because I knew about it. I was knowledgeable about where this chicken had come from, what it ate -- and had even shaken hands and spoken to those who had raised it. I knew it died humanely in an open-aired pasture outside where it lived, and that its blood would contribute to compost for crops. This cannot be said for most of the meat on grocery store shelves, which comes from the same few factory farms, and which has labels intentionally designed to confuse and mislead (and are therefore pretty useless).
Big agriculture companies spent $45 million in California to ensure the failure of Proposition 37 which would require specific labeling of genetically modified foods (and unfortunately it did fail, 53 to 47 percent). As non-consenting guinea pigs of industrial food, we all need to question and investigate what we are putting into our bodies and the impact our choices have on the planet overall. We may not always be successful voting with our ballots, but we will certainly always be able to have an impact voting with our wallets.
Photo courtesy of Jenna Goldring