Thanksgiving is truly a celebration of America.
Our turkey probably came from North Carolina, Arkansas or Missouri. The stuffing from California, along with the celery, and the onions probably from Texas or Washington, but possibly from Colorado. The sweet potatoes were probably grown in North Carolina, Louisiana/Mississippi or California. The cranberries are likely from California or New England and the orange from Florida. The green beans are from our own garden. The pumpkin in the pie was local, from somewhere outside Denver, as was the whipped cream. The flour in the dressing, pie crust, rolls and gravy was grown somewhere in the plains states or mid-west. We’re drinking California wine and Colorado beer with a post-meal sip of scotch whisky from Scotland – of all places.
Recent studies have examined American food production and consumption in units bouncing among pounds and gallons and calories and nutrients and acres, resulting in a complicated mix of human requirements, food availability, climate/environment and actual values versus needs. For example, there is very little data on the human daily requirement for Big Macs, but we can count their calories and nutrients, and estimate how many cows produce the cheese and how many acres for the buns and the cattle feed. As consumers, we eat them heedlessly anyway.
While it’s easy to believe that almost all our food comes from overseas or California, the locavore movement is inspiring people to consider what food might be grown or produced locally. Dan Nosowitz looked into the ability of metropolitan areas to supply their own foods locally, or at least regionally. He noted, “that 20 percent of MSAs (metropolitan statistical areas of at least 50,000) already produce enough milk and eggs to feed their individual populations. For fruits and vegetables, that number drops to 10 percent, which is still pretty significant.” If one cow produces enough milk for consumption by roughly three and a half people, that’s still a lot of cows and a lot of cattle feed. I think it’s fair to say that cities and major metropolitan areas will rely on food imports for the foreseeable future. Nosowitz also noted that “Much of the country most associated with farming – the bread basket, for example – is not, primarily, growing crops for direct human consumption. Corn and soy are processed into animal feed or oil or various other products.”
Our food comes to us not just from within this country, but from other places as well. Currently, there is much concern about palm oil orchards replacing tropical forests due to the increased demand by consumers avoiding soy and corn oils. Our food preservation and transportation systems seem to be better at adapting to changing consumer demand than our agriculture industries, resulting in the greater availability and use of food from foreign places.
Of course, the range of food sources highlights the diversity of food that we consume. We like lots of different foods and truly, we require a variety of nutrients in food to be healthy. A major topic in health and diet circles is our reliance on red meat (51.4 pounds of beef per person per year), sweets (57.7 pounds total corn sweeteners – high-fructose corn syrup, glucose syrup, and dextrose and 69.1 pounds refined cane and beet sugar – and fatty foods that taste so good, but are not particularly good for us in excess. They can also be bad for the environment or contribute to climate change or waste natural resources.
As they say, “How do you like them apples?” Well, on average each person consumes annually 14 pounds or 1.6 gallons of apple juice, 10.7 pounds of fresh apples, and 3.3 pounds canned, dried, and frozen apples. If that can’t keep the doctor away, I don’t know what will.
Consumer tastes, however, drive the food market. We like bananas (11.4 pounds bananas per person per year) even though they cannot be grown commercially in the mainland U.S. We buy primarily what tastes good, not necessarily what’s good for us.
We do try, but we’re only human, and I’m thankful for that. Since it’s Thanksgiving today, I will get to load up my plate with roast turkey and dressing slathered with gravy, sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberry relish, rolls and for dessert, pumpkin pie with whipped cream. I’ll follow the beer with a little wine, and the wine with a wee dram of scotch to help the pie along.
I wish each of you a happy Thanksgiving and your own international turkey feast!
Dan Nosowitz, Can Cities Produce Enough Food to Feed Their Citizens? October 11, 2018, Modern Farmer
USDA Economic Research Service, September 14, 2017