the chicken or the egg

October 7, 2010

Recently, after seeing some films like The Road and the powerful documentary Collapse, I found my mind to be more and more concerned with the issue of sustainability.

Have you ever paused in the supermarket, taken a step back and observed all the other consumers around you, and asked youself, ‘where does all this shit come from?’ The walls are stacked high around you with processed, brightly packaged and accessible foods, which are all mostly anonymous (product names often help to obscure the ingredients of what you are eating to a point of utter irrelevance; could any of you tell me the main ingredients in a can of Coke?), appetising and yet tantalisingly affordable.

Take one example; a box of corn flakes, one of the more innocuous staples of any given supermarket. Let’s say the supermarket you are currently standing in has twelve boxes on the shelf. And in the storeroom out the back they have another forty or so. Then in the next supermarket down the road they have a similar amount. So already we are talking about a hundred or so unopened boxes serving a radius of a couple of kilometres at most. This is obviously a highly conservative guess, based on the assumption that there are only two supermarkets in your town. And that is to say nothing of all the half-empty boxes sitting on your (and your neighbours’) shelves.

If an average box is 500g, then in the supermarkets alone we have at least 50kg of dried corn sitting around. Where does all this corn come from? To create this small amount alone would require a pretty decent patch of land.

So first, the land needs to be tilled, the corn planted, and eventually harvested. This is more than likely done by machine, a machine which was manufactured in a completely different place and then transported to the farm at a huge, irreversible environmental cost. Then you must transport this corn to a processing plant (more machines), where it is dried (artificially to increase production) and rolled into flakes by, yep, even more massive machines.

Meanwhile, somewhere else, plastic bags are being made by the millions to hold these little buggers. And there is yet another huge factory dedicated to making boxes, and another dedicated to printing the bright colourful labels. Then, of course, all these components need to be taken to the same place and ‘assembled,’ that is, the corn flakes put into bags, the bags sealed, the boxes folded, the bags inserted, the bags glued shut, and finally, stacked by the tens of thousands onto a vehicle and taken to a distribution warehouse somewhere. There are dozens of massive, heavy machines involved, huge amounts of land, at least four enormous factories, and finally a huge amount of manpower involved just to make sure those crunchy little pellets end up in a correctly labelled carton.

All this for a box of corn flakes.

Then extrapolate these numbers for every single product on the shelves in any given supermarket. I ask again; where does all this shit come from? And what if it were to suddenly disappear?

I first began to ask myself these questions long before I ever saw a movie like The Road. When I started travelling, and visiting grocers and supermarkets in other countries, I was most immediately struck by the similarities more than the differences. Supermarkets are more or less uniform across the entire developed world, with similar price points (comparatively) and similar amounts of stock on their shelves relative to the area they serve.

Admittedly, the population of the ‘developed world’ is dwarfed by those living in poverty or near-poverty without luxuries like supermarkets. Yet proportionately, it is no secret that we as consumers are all taking way more than we are giving back. We all eat an obscene amount of food, and a huge majority of it comes from supermarkets.

What would happen to us if it was all gone?

If we need such huge areas of land to produce that small number of boxes of corn flakes, I dare you to even try to imagine the total amount of land on the planet that is dedicated to making sure our supermarket shelves are constantly stacked high.

If the huge amounts of farmland and other resources required to mass-produce corn flakes, Coke, instant noodles, cooking oil, beer and wine, fruit juice, Mars Bars, whatever, became overloaded and unsustainable, the spill-over effects would likely reduce the efficiency and affordability of supermarkets across entire regions. Eventually, they would cease to be viable, and they would cease to operate. And then, what would you do for food? Does anybody under the age of thirty, living in an urbanised area, know how to grow, harvest and prepare their own food? Personally, I can’t even keep a small bonsai alive for longer than six months. Imagine if we all had to start raising livestock.

These are the feelings I am overcome with when I take a moment to myself at the supermarket. Where does it all come from, and how can there be so much of it without it ever running out?

Overwhelmingly, my thoughts were not with the corn flakes, or the Coca Cola, or even the Pringles or Mars Bars. They were with the meat products. Since these are the freshest products in the supermarket, and since they represent such a huge proportion of our diets, their turnover is orders of magnitude greater than any other product on the shelves.

More significantly, their environmental cost is greater than any other product you can find in the supermarket. And, not insignificantly, the greatest disparity is with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Frankly, I’m not surprised that the Japanese don’t eat much fresh produce. The country is barely bigger than Victoria yet they have nearly 130 million people squeezed in. Most of the places without people are utterly inhabitable. So, where are they gonna grow their apples and oranges? The prices of fresh fruit and vegetables are extortionate, and I frequently get angry that I can’t justify the cost of up to $2 or $3 dollars for an apple or orange.


The Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne. This does NOT exist in Japan.


This is a major reason why my diet, since being in Japan, has gone from ‘not ideal’ to flat-out ‘unhealthy’ over the course of the last two years. I have been irresponsible and more or less lazy in what I eat, whether I am preparing it myself or ordering at a restaurant. But even as a meat eater, I’m constantly shocked and confused at the ubiquity of meat over here. Fast foot outlets routinely advertise portions that come with ‘double the normal amount of meat,’ and it’s not uncommon to encounter items on a menu with not just one, not two, but three or four different kinds of meat on the one plate. This obviously doesn’t sound healthy, and to me, it doesn’t even sound appetising. I don’t think my concerns about eating meat are entirely new, but like so many others, I chose not to think too carefully about them. Everything runs more smoothly that way; grocery shopping and social occasions are just two of the more obvious examples. As some of my friends over here have demonstrated, a diet without meat in Japan is possible, but it’s not exactly easy.

While I had heard bits and pieces of the environmental impact of factory farming, reading Eating Animals helped me to reconcile my suspicions about the ridiculous amount of resources it costs to put cheap meat on your supermarket shelves. Moreover, though, it helped me to align these suspicions about the environment with the very real issue of animal suffering, and see them as equal parts of one huge problem. As a humble consumer, thinking about that stuff is icky and awkward, and more than a little abstracted. How could your juicy fillet of meat have ever had eyes, ears, an imagination, relationships?

Of course, no book of this nature could be completely free of sentimentality. After all, the whole thing is kind of a personal journey for Jonathan Safran Foer, undertaken for the deeply personal reasons of deciding for himself what to feed his son. And any discussion of animal welfare or animal rights is routinely criticised (and often flatly dismissed) for its sentimentality, so I will not be the special exception and pretend that my interest in this subject is wholly environmental or economical. Reading the various accounts of animal abuse at factory farms in Eating Animals – and then discovering their alarming regularity – is confronting, and impossible to ignore.

Safran Foer’s writing is not as quirky or as humorous as in his other (fiction) works, and frankly, it need not be. The material doesn’t call for it. But it is economical, and lets the facts speak for themselves. I did not feel like I was being preached to, and indeed a large part of the book is dedicated to some of the few remaining ‘honourable’ farmers, who still slaughter animals but do it with a measure of dignity that is rapidly disappearing from the Western world. It’s easy to read, insofar as the language is easy to understand. Yet this will probably live on beyond his first two novels as the book that both made the greatest cultural impact and cemented Foer’s reputation as an important modern writer. It’s part memoir, part personal oath, part love story and part scathing expose.

There will come a time where the kinds of farms we rely upon to keep our supermarkets brimming are no longer viable. Simply pausing and observing the shoppers in your local supermarket and all the unnecessary consumption going on around you will convince you of this. If you have ever stopped to consider where all your food comes from, you owe it to yourself to read this book. I don’t think I can continue to eat the meat served up in restaurants and supermarkets knowing the environmental toll it has taken and the suffering that it represents. And this is to say nothing, really, of the unhealthy lifestyle I have found myself sliding into since coming to Japan, where awareness of environmental issues and respect for different cultures and lifestyle choices is so low (how many times have you heard of someone in Japan asking for a vegetarian meal, only to be served up something with bacon or fish in it?).

I don’t want to make empty promises, and I’ve also tried not to get caught up rhetoric, both when I was reading the book and as I was writing this blog. But I can’t, in good conscience, keep living the way I have been living. At the very least, I need to be more responsible with what I eat. I’ve always prided myself on getting things done, even the ugly things, the hard things, the things that need doing. I guess this is another one of those times, maybe the first I’ve come across since moving over here, and it’s going to be one of the hard things, but this is something that I’ve suspected for a while and something that I feel I need to sincerely try.

So long.


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