On my way to a golf tournament in Sun Valley, Idaho, I passed mile after mile of potato fields and thought about a book, "The Botany of Desire" by Michael Pollan.
One of the chapters is about the potato industry and the 14 applications of pesticide that go into those spuds. After one particularly virulent poison is applied to fight pests, no human being can be allowed to walk onto the field for five days --- even for an emergency repair on those huge rolling irrigation systems. Potato farmers, some of whom are farming more than 3,000 acres of potatoes, will only eat those they grow naturally in their own vegetable gardens.
How can we expect to live long enough to enjoy a hard-earned retirement if the food industry is trying to kill us? A friend who just returned from Scotland said that his cattle-farming host had pointed out that antibiotics in cattle were banned in Britain 14 years ago. Meanwhile in South Korea, people are rioting as the country lifts the ban on U.S. beef. What do they know? Are we like sheep to some slaughter?
The story with the meat processing industry is that it has been dramatically consolidated from lots of small farms into giant industrial complexes that grow cattle and hogs as fast as possible. Massive doses of antibiotics are the only hope for keeping these animals alive long enough to slaughter.
And then there are those "free-range" chickens. Apparently, to earn this designation for its fowl, a chicken processor has only to make available an open fenced-in area at the end of a large chicken "coop." Unfortunately, for those of us who would like to think we are eating chickens that got a lot of fresh air and sunshine in place of antibiotics, the chickens tend not to want to go outside. They like to hang out with a few thousand of their friends --- inside.
Let's start connecting the dots. Today, in hospitals across the country, staff infections resistant to antibiotics seem to be an epidemic. It's a safe guess that all the antibiotics in meat may have contributed to our resistance to antibiotics.
The greatest downside of any surgical operation is the possibility of infection. The threat doubles with every 15 minutes of operating time, because germs just float around in the air. My father-in-law, a general surgeon, chose to have his two hip operations in a children's hospital's operating room because he knew that they were the least germ-infested.
My 88-year-old mother, who was a registered nurse in her professional life, says that nobody pays attention to anti-septic discipline anymore like they did back in her day. Hospital professionals are just walking around in street clothes, and in her estimation, many don't wash their hands enough. My mother notices these things, and appreciates what they mean as a growing contributing factor to infection.
By being at the end of the food chain that has ingested all those antibiotics, we may be sitting ducks for incurable infections when we go to get those knees replaced.
Apart from responding better to antibiotics, we can reduce our odds of getting cancer by 50 percent if we become vegetarians. Having been there and done that, for awhile anyway, I can say that it's not much fun to be staring at a plate of eggplant parmesan and wishing that it was, instead, a piece of veal smothered in cheese and marinara sauce.
Eating less with more attention to quality may be the most practical answer. The Japanese, last month, took the bull by the horns with their new law against over-eating. Everyone aged 40 to 70 has to have an annual physical and their waist-line can't measure more than 33 inches --- or they pay a fine. I don't think that draconian approach would work very well here, because, well, some of us are "big boned." But with the odds stacked against us, some good food coaching may go a long way toward adding more years of a healthy retirement.
Steve Butler is president of Pleasant Hill-based Pension Dynamics Corp. and author of the book "401(k) Today." You can e-mail him at email@example.com.