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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Notes & Quotes: The Omnivore's Dilemma (Part One "Industrial - Corn")

Today - more notes and quotes from the book The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

Part One "Industrial - Corn"

p. 17 "...a working definition of industrial food: Any food whose provenance is so complex or obscure that it requires expert help to ascertain."

p. 20 "...the food industry has done a good job of persuading us that the forty-five throusand different items of the supermarket...represent genuine variety rather than so many clever rearrangements of molecules extracted from the same plant." (that being corn, of course - so we've traded in true variety of diet for the appearance of variety)

p. 23 " 'When you look at the isotope ratios...we North Americans look like corn chips with legs.' Compared to us, Mexicans (who have traditionally been associated with a diet high in corn) today consume a far more varied carbon diet.... So, that's us: processed corn, walking."

p. 38 "A case can be made that the corn plant's population explosion in places like Iowa is responsible for pushing out not only other plants but the animals and finaly the people, too."

"This diversity (before the industrialization of the farm) allowed the farm not only to substantially feed itself - and by that I don't mean feed only the farmers, but also the soil and livestock - but to withstand a collapse in the market for any one of the crops."

But corn is relatively healthy, right? I mean, sure, it isn't a great idea to have a diet based so solidly on one crop, but if it has to be something corn isn't so bad, right?

Well, for one thing:
p. 41 "Hybrid corn is the greediest of plants, consuming more fertilizer than any other crop." (fertilizers that are largely made of petroleum products - so this crop is one that is particularly loaded with chemicals)

p. 45 " find that every bushel of industrial corn requires the equivalent of between a quarter and a third of a gallon of oil to grow it - or around fifty gallons of oil per acre of corn."
So, why this dependence on corn? Well, it all starts with farm policy.

p. 49 "America's farm policy was forged during the Depression not, as many people seem to think, to encourage farmers to produce more food for a hungry nation, but to rescue farmers from the disastrous effects of growing too much food - far more than Americans could afford to buy. ... When it comes to food, nature can make a mockery of the classical economics of supply and demand.... So, going back to the Old Testament, communities have devised various strategies to even out the destructive swings of agriculutral production. The Bible's recommended farm policy was to establish a grain reserve. ... This is more or less what the New Deal farm programs attempted to do. ...(these policies) did a fairly good job of keeping corn prices from collapsing in the face of the twentieth century's rapid gains in yield."

p. 52 However, that all changed with the 1973 farm bill which "...began replacing the New Deal system of supporting prices through loans, government grain purchases, and land idling with a new system of direct payment to farmers. ... Instead of keeping corn out of a falling market, as the old loan programs and federal granary had done, the new subsidies encouraged farmers to sell their corn at any proice, since the government would make up the difference. Or as it turned out, make up some of the difference.... Instead of supporting farmers, the government was now subsidizing every bushel of corn a farmer could grow...."
(therefore, the purchasers of this cheap corn are the true beneficiaries and those purchasers would be the big industrial agricultural companies: ADM, Cargill, etc.)

p. 62 "This system is designed to keep production high and prices low." The result is a "mountain of cheap corn" that needs to be made into a higher-priced and desirable product. "Moving that mountain of cheap corn - finding the people and animals to consume it, the cars to burn it, the new products to absorb it, and the nations to import it - has become the principal task of the industrial food system, since the supply of corn vastly exceeds the demand."

p. 64 " The place where most of those kernels wind on the American factory farm, a place that could not exist without them. Here, hundreds of millions of food animals that once lived on famly farms and ranches are gathered together in great commisaries.... Enlisting the cow in this undertaking has required particularly heroic efforts, since the cow is by nature not a corn eater. ... Enter the corn-fed American steer."

Ok, am I the only person in America that did not realize cows aren't designed to eat corn? I know I'm a city girl, but how did this escape me?

Does this make any sense to feed an animal that which it cannot easily digest? Whether you believe in simple evolution or God's design it seems pretty foolhardy to go against an animal's nature and expect it to stay healthy! But cows aren't the only animals being fed corn - on p. 67: "like the farmed salmon now being bred to tolerate grain."

But what about the praries being ruined by overgrazing? I am sure I remember hearing that this was a problem. Somewhat like we now hear about the seas being overfished. Isn't there something to this? And aren't industrial farms alteast helping to alleviate these problems?

p. 70 "While it is true that overgrazing can do ecological harm to a grassland, in recent years ranchers have adopted rotational grazing patterns that more closely mimic the patterns of bison.... In fact, a growing number of ecologists now believe the rangelands are healthier with cattle on them, provided they are moved requently. ... growing meat on grass makes superb ecological sense: It is a sustainable, solar-powered food chain...."

But... "Cows raised on grass simply take longer to reach slaughter weight than cows raised on a richer diet...tremendous quantities of corn, protein and fat supplements, and an arsenal of new drugs."

p. 75 "Yet this corn-fed meat is demonstrably less healthy for us, since it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than the meat of animals fed grass."

It is also extraordinarily less healthy for the animals and has led to the heavy use of antibiotics in the feedlots. Pollan explains the biology behind all this, but suffice it to say that corn ruins the health of the cow. Unfortunately, the more antibiotics used the more resistant the germs in these feedlots including E. coli, which is lethal to humans and had never been seen before 1980).

Set aside the biology and consider the environmental impact: an average feedlot cow "will have consumed in his lifetime the equivalent of thirty-five gallons of oil - nearly a barrel." Remeber that in times past, this was an entirely solar-powered enterprise. That is pretty shocking. What is even more shocking is that we are paying for this with our nation's health.

So, that is what happens to the majority of the corn grown in our country...what about the rest of that mountain of corn?

From page 86, it is made into a whole selection of ingredients you may have seen on a food label: "citric and lactic acid; glucose, fructose, and maltodextrin; ethanol (for alcoholic beverages as well as cars), sorbitol, mannitol, and xanthum gum; modified and unmodified starches; as well as dextrins and cyclodextrins and MSG, to name only a few."

p. 90 "...this is where we come in. It takes a certain kind of eater - an industrial eater - to consume (these products), and we are, or have evolved into, that supremely adapted creature: the eater of processed food."

p. 91 "In many ways, breakfast food: four cents' worth of commodity corn (or some other equally cheap grain) transformed into four dollars worth of processed food. What an alchemy!"

At this point in the book, I threw up my hands and said, "NO MORE COLD CEREAL!" Ok, so in my house that isn't entirely realistic. I fix a "real" breakfast many mornings, but sometimes I do resort to cold cereal. And my kids (and I!) do like it. So, maybe the point is to find a good one with *real* grains - I wonder if that is possible.

Processors of food still had to figure out a way to get us to eat all that processed food...the solution was relatively simple once it was figured out: Supersizing!

p. 106 "Researchers have found that people (and animals) presented with large portions will eat up to 30 percent more than they would otherwise. ... Our bodies are storing reserves of fat against a famine that never comes."

And who is the king of "Supersizing"? McDonald's of course.

p. 116 "Some time later I found another way to calculate just how much corn we had eaten that day. I asked Todd Dawson, a biologist at Berkely, to run a McDonald's meal through his mass spectrometer and calculate how much of the carbon in it came originally from a corn plant...the atomic signature of those carbon isotopes is indestructible, and still legible to the mass spectrometer.... soda (100 percent), milk shake (78 percent), salad dressing (65 percent), chicken nuggets (56 percent), cheeseburger (52 percent), and french fries (23 percent)."

And it gets worse - this isn't just about health, or is also a justice issue.

p. 118 "I mentioned earlier that all life on earth can be viewed as a competition for the energy captured by plants and stored in carboydrates, energy we measure for calories. There is a limit to how many of those calories the world's arable land cdan produce each year, and an industrial meal of meat and processed food consumes - and wastes - an unconscionable amount of that energy. To eat corn directly (as Mexicans and many Africans do) is to consume all the energy in that corn, but when you feed that corn to a steer or a chicken, 90 percent of its energy is lost - to bones or feathers or fur, to living and metabolizing as a steer or chicken.... But processing food also burns energy....the amount of food lost in the making of something like a Chicken McNugget could feed a great many more children than just mine, and behind the 4,510 calories the three of us had for lunch stands tens of thousands of corn calories that could have fed a great many hungry people."

And a taste issue -

p. 119 "The more you concentrate on how it tastes, the less like anything it tastes. ... And so it goes, bite after bite, until you feel not satisfied exactly, but simply, regrettably, full."

Oh, my have I known that feeling. I've often wondered if this contributes to obesity as well. We don't truly feel satisfied by fast or processed food - perhaps because the taste is lacking. So we eat more trying to reach that point of satisfaction, only to get full in the process.

So, how much corn do you eat on regular basis - corn that doesn't look like corn. I'm pretty shocked to realize just how much we ingest - and we are pretty healthy eaters. For sometime now, I've been avoiding high fructose corn syrup and corn syrup itself, but I had no idea that there were so many other invisible corn products in my food everyday.

For us this means we are going to make a more concerted effort to eat whole, real foods rather than those that have been processed in any way. At first, I thought that wouldn't leave much, but in reality it opens up wonderful doors of diverse menus!


Ann Kroeker said...

Have you seen the documentary film King Corn?

Also, you might be interested in watching a documentary on the big, bad "seed" (in reality, *chemical*) company, Monsanto. A blogger pulled together the whole documentary in several sections with YouTube links here:

You might appreciate these in light of your reading material.

Shauna said...

I'm currently reading this book in a food course im taking, and believe me it has been more than eye-opening. I wish everyone could read it as the knowledge would maybe alleviate some of our health problems

Anonymous said...

We read this book in my college english class...or we were supposed to. I found this very helpful for a paper i have to write. We spent many days discussing not only this book but many other sources about the food industry and it truly is disgusting what our nation is doing with our food supply.