Thursday, January 10, 2008

An Industrial Agricultural Disaster

Hillary pulled an upset in New Hampshire, with a suspiciously large gap between polling and votes...

The food we eat is driven by lobbyists rather than nutrition. This is the idea that underlies the first part of Michael Pollan's brilliant work "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals." The first section discusses corn and how it has lodged itself as the primary ingredient in our food, to the detriment of our health, environment and economy.

With the advent of artificial fertilizers and other technologies in the mid-twentieth century, the yields of corn went through the roof. Acres that in the past yielded 20 bushels now approach 200 bushels. With this amazing productivity, farmers began growing primarily corn. Cattle were moved to feedlots, since it was cheaper to feed them corn as opposed to naturally grazing on grass.

With the tremendous glut of corn, prices naturally dropped. Farm lobbyists convinced the government to cover losses. In October 2005 the price of a bushel fell to $1.45. The government maintains a target price of $1.87 (though it often costs more to produce a bushel than the target price). 42 cents is paid for each bushel grown. The taxpayer spends nearly $5 billion a year covering the gap. Farmers still grow broke even with subsidies.

The world appetite for corn is nowhere near the amount produced. Farmers needed to find ways to utilize this corn. 60% goes to feeding cattle, animals whose digestive tracts contain an organ called the rumen designed to process grass. The corn is often mixed with cattle blood and fat, chicken meal, pork meal, fish meal, or chicken feces. When there is too much starch and too little roughage, the system becomes highly acidic which in turn damages the entire body. Low ball estimates indicate that 15 - 30 % of slaughtered feedlot cattle have abcessed livers.

To deal with this and the inevitable infections resulting from living in crowded conditions while standing on their own feces, farmers fill their cows with antibiotics to keep them healthy enough for human consumption. Antibiotics are given to all cattle, not just sick ones. This massive dosage is leading to many common ailments becoming resistant to antibiotics.

The corn not fed to cattle is converted into high fructose corn syrup, a substance unknown to the human body before the 1980's but now constitutes a massive part of the diet. The average American eats 66 pounds of it a year, in addition to the nearly 100 pounds of other sugars. Many processed foods are clever repackaging projects to get the consumer to eat more corn products. Hamburgers, french fries, sodas, breakfast cereals, etc... are full of corn products.

Much of the cheap corn is exported. Mayans in Mexico and Guatemala believe that God made them from corn. Growing corn in small patches plays a central role in their culture. Now they cannot compete with rock bottom prices of imported US corn.

The empire of corn is highly reliant on oil. Among other things the black gold is needed to make the pesticides, drive tractors and transport the corn. Each acre needs 50 gallons of oil. A feedlot cow needs 35 gallons before it winds up on a dinner table.

And all this information came from the first section of the book. It is a startling read, illuminating how our supposed agricultural progress is in fact destructive on many fronts.

1 comment:

Prabhu Singh said...

People talk about biodiesel, but with our modern farming techniques it takes 1/2 a gallon of gasoline to produce a gallon of biodiesel, which is then only 3/4 as efficient. You gain 1/4 more fuel, but you destroy the environment by producing it.

Maybe I should read that book.
"Modern" farming is super destructive and it is one of the forces destroying people and land worldwide. One such place is Punjab, where something called "the Green Revolution" has been extremely destructive. You may be familiar with the author Vandana Shiva and her work "The Violence of the Green Revolution." My brother read it and taught a lot of it to me.
My retirement account is figuring out how to grow my own food. I hope that someday I will live completely sustainably.