April and Kevin in Kuna Yala, the northeast coast of Panamá

Sunday, September 2, 2007

What the corn told me

We recently stayed with a wonderful family that produces the majority of their own food through farming and fishing. They live in a beautiful spot that overlooks the water to the south of the island. They occasionally get beautiful sunsets to the west. They are also shorter than us, so all of their clotheslines are low enough to be a walking hazard.

While we lived with them we tried to pitch in regularly with their daily work – both to be a part of the family and to learn more. One night we shucked a saco (a large sack a little bigger than the size of a large bag of dog food) of maiz (field corn) and then sat around companionably talking as we removed the corn kernels from the cobs. Removing the kernels can either be easy or hard to do depending on how dry the ear of maiz is. We sat and worked together, 4 of us, for about an hour all told in order to fill a 5 gallon bucket with corn kernels.
Chickens huddling under the eaves to stay dry while it rains.
They go through this process every couple of days to provide enough food for their flock of chickens and ducks. That moment, after completing the work to feed the poultry for 2 days, is when it struck me the amount of work that goes into meat production here. They use about 2-2.5 gallons of corn kernels (in addition to 3-7 coconuts) a day to feed the chickens and ducks in order to have meat available when they want it.

Feeding the chickens and ducks (should also say that the dogs howl when the chickens get fed which is very amusing.)
I have known for a long time that being a meat eater means that it takes more resources to feed me than it would if I were a vegetarian. I know the simple facts that animals eat plants and it takes a lot more plants to produce meat than it takes to fill my tummy with veggies. But I had never directly experienced the magnitude of work involved in these facts.

Suddenly I had a very real example to put those ideas into a new light. I could clearly imagine the work that they did to plant the maiz, and the work to tend it. I know the work involved to harvest it and haul it to the house and remove the kernels. The amount of labor, time, and their resources involved to produce meat is staggering. And they don’t eat poultry every day…at most once a week.

My experiences here have made it easier to understand the idea that, for some people, eating meat is a luxury. Some simply can’t afford the time that goes into producing or money that goes into buying meat. That doesn’t mean that they don’t eat meat; instead, because eating meat is a part of the culture, a large amount of their resources goes into obtaining meat even though it might be more efficient or healthier to use those resources differently.

I know that, back home in the States, much of the work involved in commercial production of meat is done with machines. The feed is not produced by hand, but the resources (land, water, plants, energy, etc) involved in meat production are still much higher than those needed to produce the same quantity of plant-based food products.
Cecilia using a pilon (pronounced peeloan) to prepare maize for food. This process breaks up the corn to remove the casing from the kernals and facilitates faster cooking. She is MUCH better at using a pilon than I will ever be.

No, I am not going vegetarian, but I am thinking more about what I am eating and the labor that it took to produce it…it is easier to think that way when you know the people who did the labor. With this in mind, I will be eating a bit less meat here in Panama, and probably when I return as well. 2+ gallons of corn a day could more than feed me.

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