When a typical consumer purchases a rib-eye steak for dinner, he or she will pay far less than his or her grandfather did for the same cut of meat. This is because of the efficiencies generated by the commercial meat industry. While the cow will begin its life in a manner similar to that of cows of the past -- by the side of his or her mother on a ranch -- that will quickly change. "Cows raised on grass simply take longer to reach slaughter weight than cows raised on a richer diet, and the modern meat industry has devoted itself to shortening a beef calf's allotted time on earth" (Pollan 2002). On a factory farm, cows are quickly weaned from their mother and fed a corn-based diet or 'finished' on corn while they are held in pens. Instead of 4 or 5 years at slaughter as was the case previously, today's beef cattle are slaughtered at 14 to 16 months thanks to growth hormones (Pollan 2002). The cow's flesh will also be more marbled than it would on a grass-fed diet, due to the corn-based feed it eats, its lack of activity, growth hormones, and antibiotics designed to make its food easier to digest at an earlier age (Linn 2012). The cows are then processed, graded according to USDA standards of prime, choice, and select, and sent to supermarkets all over the nation.
Vegetables like potatoes and green beans are also similarly sourced from commercial means of production, on large farms where they are sprayed with pesticides and grown in soil with fertilizer designed to speed their growth. The crops are then washed, packaged, and processed. "Just as an industrial enterprise might seek to boost profits by becoming bigger and more efficient, many American farms have gotten larger and have consolidated their operations to become leaner as well. In fact, American agriculture increasingly has become an 'agribusiness,' a term created to reflect the big, corporate nature of many farm enterprises in the modern U.S. economy" (Farming as big business, 2012, U.S. Department of State). Wheat, along with the other major cash crops of soybeans and corn is likewise produced on large, commercial farms.
The butter used on a baked potato or other dairy-based goods such as ice cream likely comes from milk that is the product of a large mechanized dairy farm. On one dairy farm, there are "robots to help feed the cows, robots to help clean the barn, even robots that can milk the cows. The farmers used to spend three hours milking, twice a day. 'Now," says Lori [the dairy farmer], 'we wake up in the morning, and the robots have already milked all the cows'" (Big dairy enters the era of big data, 2012, Businessweek). Some smaller dairies do make their products available at commercial supermarkets, like Cabot Creamery, which is an organic brand of milk and cheese. There are also commercially-sold vegetables marked as organic and beef marketed as 'grass-fed,' although critics contend that these items are often the products of 'big organic' agriculture rather than of truly local, sustainable producers.
Even though most of the meat, butter, ice cream, wheat products like bread, and fresh vegetables a consumer purchases in the supermarket are likely to have an American source (this is not necessarily the case of canned products, imported baked goods, and fish) it still extricates a high price from the environment. Depending on where one lives and how far one must drive, there are often more localized sources of meat, vegetables, and dairy available. Local specialty producers may sell directly to the public, and farmer's markets are a source of home-grown vegetables and even meat and dairy as well. The problem is that often these foods (at very least, meat and dairy) are more expensive than the average supermarket, and with even standard food prices going up, few people can afford to buy the majority of their products from local sources. Foods raised 'ethically' such as free-range, grass-fed beef or small-scale dairy requires more labor-intensive means of production.
However, buying locally may not be the best way to reduce the carbon footprint of one's food and increase the sustainability of one's diet. "It turns out that more greenhouse gas emissions are released from producing a juicy steak (or any red meat for that matter) than any other form of food. Red…