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Most of us have heard, "You are what you eat." As advice to eat right to grow strong or as an admonishment for eating junk, the phrase has proved useful for self-discipline, personal guilt or parental nagging.

However, we rarely think about where our food comes from when we stroll by selections packaged and lined up neatly on grocery store displays. The fertilized fields and livestock pens where our sustenance is grown are dim realizations that we do not mentally include when we think about what we are eating. Yet, how and where our food becomes food is as much a part of what we eat as the finished product itself. Production and consumption are two sides of one coin, which is why it is imperative we know if pesticide residue, or animal antibiotics, or sea water contamination have become part of our food, which becomes part of us.

Understanding how our food is produced has hit especially close to home in Arkansas in the last couple of years with the knowledge that a confined animal feeding operation is sitting on porous ground near a creek that feeds into the Buffalo National River. Called "CAFOs," these factory farms produce meat like other industries produce gadgets and gizmos.

To better comprehend pros and cons of industrial agriculture, three organizations will host a free program at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Fayetteville Public Library. The event features John Ikerd, an internationally known author and speaker, once a proponent of large corporate agriculture. He has titled his presentation, "Why bigger is not better."

Ikerd, professor emeritus from the University of Missouri in Columbia, is particularly focused on what sustainable food production is and the impact food makes on what sustains that production -- soil, water, air, people, communities and the economics surrounding those parts of the food puzzle. With degrees in agricultural economics, Ikerd has authored books that reflect his specialty, with such titles as: "Sustainable Capitalism: A Matter of Common Sense," "Essentials of Economic Sustainability," "Crisis and Opportunity" and "Small Farms are Real Farms."

On Ikerd's web page, he writes, "While factory farms are often touted as the future of agriculture and a logical strategy for rural economic development, decades of rural economic and social reality provide compelling evidence of the direct opposite. Whenever and wherever family farms have been replaced with CAFOs, 90 percent or more of the independent family livestock and poultry producers have been driven out of business."

His description of real farming sounds like an ecosystem functioning because of the integration of the work of farmers, their families, their neighbors and their surrounding communities with merchants, fire departments, barbers, churches and schools. He points out that in contrast, factory farms gain an economic advantage because they pay low wages to a few workers, and because of massive production they export to more profitable markets elsewhere in the world. Often they externalize what should be their costs, and "extract the wealth [from a community] while leaving their chemical and biological waste behind."

Those nearby residents and other Arkansawyers defending the Buffalo River fear this residue of chemicals and waste will kill this river, the life blood not only of plant and animal ecosystems, but the economic generator for people who make a living because the river exists.

Knowing what we eat requires tracing our food backward to the conditions of its generation. Ikerd says, "The treatment of farm animals ultimately is an ethical or moral question, not a question of cost-benefit ratios or productivity. In CAFOs, animals are treated as inanimate mechanisms in a factory, not as living, sentient beings in a herd or flock. The fundamental questions are whether it is ethically or morally right for hogs to spend their lifetime in crates so small they cannot even turn around; [or] whether laying hens should be kept in cages with each having space smaller than a sheet of writing paper."

We would not pick something out of a sewer for dinner, but our ignorance of what we consume can do us similar harm. In 2013, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention stated, "Use of antibiotics in food-producing animals allows antibiotic-resistant bacteria to thrive while susceptible bacteria are suppressed or die. Resistant bacteria can be transmitted from food-producing animals to humans through the food supply."

As we used to say in the early days of computer software development, "Garbage in = garbage out." The same formula works on our bodies and what we put in them.

Commentary on 11/01/2016

Print Headline: What we eat

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