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Our food from a photo camera perspective

From the air he sees what is invisible to the vast majority of people. He can, indeed, have a different perspective of the food we all eat. George Steinmetz, well-known photographer looks from the Sky to see a bigger picture. Massive greenhouses in Spain, palm oil fields in Malaysia and rice terraces in China. „I am not activist, I am just an observer“ – he says and shares his feelings about the food we eat.

We need more transparency. We should be able to enter the kitchen, where our meal is being prepared or see the way the animals are processed for example in a slaughterhouse. But while the restaurant may permit you to enter, the pork producer will not let you in the door. Why can’t we see how our meals are being produced? This is a question that George Steinmetz is asking, and flies around the globe to see the real picture. He even got arrested when working for National Geographic as a journalist, after flying over a cattle feedlot. Even though it was legal to do it, the owners didn’t want him to see some things, keeping him away from their animal farm.

Zaneta Geltz: Why you are doing this type of photographing from the Sky?
George Steinmetz: I feel that we should be more aware of how the food we eat is made. The food decisions that we make three times a day have significant environmental consequences that we should all be more aware of.

ZG: And how it is made, should we worry?
GS: I think we should consider how we are treating animals that we raise for food, and the precariousness of our food supply when it depends on large-scale monoculture. Some methods are cheaper in the short term, but the long-term costs are not always being considered. Producers aim at efficient production, they compete to make food more price competitive, but there are significant ecological impacts. We don’t always realize that. Should we choose the wild salmon for example, instead of one from fish farms. Wild salmon may be better for our, but wild fish leads to cutting the natural population. There is no easy solution for this, but only trade-offs. More transparency is needed.

ZG: Which region in the world you find attractive as for food quality?
GS: I have been taking photos in the US, China, Brazil and a little in Europe. My focus is large-scale agriculture, which you don’t find much of in Europe. Europe is the most restrictive region in the World for food standards and labeling. I visited a Swedish organic diary farm and most of what I saw was fine. The animals are having the right space, they go out to graze on grass, and are in the fresh air for so many hours, so they are qualified organic, but still – I noticed that they eat also a dry food supplement that contains soybeans. And these soybeans come from Brazil, where much of the harvest comes from areas that were recently clear-cut from primary forest. And then China is buying this milk from Sweden as organic modified milk for their baby formula, and Europeans are eating it as organic cheese. The global food supply is all inter-connected, and it is difficult to get to totally organic food right now.

ZG: What is it that you want people to see in your pictures?
GS: Most of the people living in urban areas only encounter food in the supermarkets and have little idea of where it comes from. They don’t realize the big animal farms, being under economic and financial pressure, often have systems where cows, pigs or chickens are kept in confinement. Our food choices have significant ecological consequences, we either support cage chickens or cage-free chickens for example. The producers are only responding to the demands of our food choices. Most of the people drinking café latte have no idea where the milk comes from, or ice cream they eat or yoghurt, etc. It is not so nice to see animals in confined places. But free-range animals consume more food, and at least in the case of chickens, have higher mortality. So if you want to eat poultry with your eyes open, you have to make a difficult decision.
There will always be a need for the cheapest food possible and we can’t eliminate these situations, but if more people raise their awareness and buy meat that was raised in ways they are comfortable with, we can make better decisions. Everybody makes their own decision to shape the system that comes forward.

ZG: What are your feelings about palm oil production?
GS: Palm oil is particularly worrisome as it replaces some of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on Earth. It also provides income from the lands that are otherwise not very economically valuable for the people who live on or near it, so it is a difficult trend to stop.

Cutting room of the world’s largest pig slaughterhouse in Shandong in China. There is 1800 workers hired and annual productions is 32 millions of pigs. Photo by George Steinmetz.

ZG: What kind of food will we be eating in 20-30 years, if we are going to develop from 7 to 9 billions of people?
GS: We are producing more food than ever before in the human history, but are also consuming ever-increasing amounts of the biosphere, and natural resources such as water, soil, and fertilizer. But if we compare Chinas population to Americas, we see that it has 3-4 times more people, and far less arable lands, and only 10% of their country can be used for food production, then we see start to grasp the challenge. Most of the people in China want a diet more like Europeans, or even worse – like Americans, including more meat. Chinese families are quickly getting much more wealthy, and buying more cars and consuming more food which has to be produced and imported from outside. That is going to be a real challenge to meet the increasing demands of the global food supply. And who are we, to say that we can eat meat, but they can’t?

ZG: I saw your pictures of 30 000 ha of plastic green houses in Spain. Did you try the food grown there?

GS: Actually yes, the food is very good. They fertilize them with some organic compost, they avoid airborne diseases, because they have covered the plantation with plastic roofs to keep them warm and humid and in the winter and isolate them from airborne pests.

It would be better if we could avoid eating foods from other climates and seasons and keep to our local food. Like in Poland it’s better if you can eat your locally grown potatoes, not to buy the food that is coming to you for thousands kilometers in trucks, ships and airplanes. Or strawberries – it’s better not to buy them in February! Do you know where they come from? If you don’t buy them, your grocer won’t import them from Israel or Ethiopia, or wherever they grew them. Even if they are organically grown, think about the volume of carbon it produces to get them over to your store. All these environmental issues should be in our scope of interest.

ZG: We covered toxic issues, carbon issues, organic farming and ethical aspects, so what is it what is most important for people as for food, we eat?
GS: I think that we need to find a balance between economic growth and our environment. People in China are experiencing a increased standard of living, but there have been significant health and environmental costs associated with that. They want to buy good food too! An interesting case is India. They also have a huge population and big economic growth, but they are self-sufficient in the food they eat. A big part of that appears to be that they have a largely vegetarian diet, but I haven’t looked into that yet. It would be nice if we could all try to be more self-sufficient in food.

ZG: Do you eat meat?
GS: Yes, I do, with enjoyment, and a certain amount of guilt.

ZG: Do you find ecological farming a good solution for people?
It seems like a very positive trend, but still not everyone cares about it. In the US, also hydroponic food can be called “organic” which I find strange, because these are plants having nothing to do with the soil. We have little idea of what they put in the chemical soup that they use to grow their tomatoes. In the US, usually what we perceive as organic food primarily means that it contains no pesticides.

We should focus on reading labels carefully, demand certified food, considering ethical aspects of our food production. This is what we can do. This is my hope.

George Steinmetz
Known f­or his exploration photography, George Steinmetz has a restless curiosity for the unknown: remote deserts, obscure cultures, the ­mysteries of science and technology. A regular contributor to National Geographic and GE­O Magazines, he has explored subjects ranging from the remotest str­etches of Arabia’s Empty Quarter to the­ unknown tree people of Irian Jaya.

Photo by Nell Steinmetz

His expeditions to the Sahara and Gobi deserts have been featured in separate National Geographic Explorer programs. In 2006 he was awarded a grant by the National Science Foundation to document the work of scientists in the Dry Valleys and volcanos of Antarctica. George has won numerous awards for photography during his 25-year career, including two first prizes in science and technology from World Press Photo. He has also won awards and citations from Pictures of the Year, Overseas Press Club and Life Magazine’s Alfred Eisenstaedt Awards, and was named National Geographic’s Adventurer of the year in 2008. Born in Beverly Hills in 1957, George graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Geophysics. He began his career in photography after hitchhiking through Africa for 28 months. His current passion is photographing the world’s deserts while piloting a drone which enables him to capture unique images of the world, inaccessible by traditional aircraft and most other modes of transportation. George lives in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, with his wife, Wall Street Journal editor Lisa Bannon, their daughter, Nell, and twin sons John and Nicholas.