I N · T H I S · I S S U E
Let's focus on food for a change. I'm inspired by Michael Pollan's bestseller book, the Omnivore's Dilemma. It may be impossible to take its 400+ pages and do it justice in a short column. Its loaded with fascinating facts, insights, and first-hand experiences in three principal food chains: industrial, organic, and hunter/gatherer. If I'd used a highlighter, each page would be laced with color. I can't stop thinking about it
The book begins with the question: "What should I have for dinner?" And at the end of it all, and a mentor of mine, Amory Lovins, used to so ironically say, "I'm confused at a higher level." Actually, after delving in I'm ever-more dedicated to eating healthy food, to buying "non bar code" organic, unprocessed, locally-grown food, and supporting farms that once again brings animals and food farming together. Supporting this direction eliminates a huge number of problems associated with our "national eating disorder" and current food system. While food claims only 5% of our income (its lowest level ever), Pollan exhausts the real costs to the environment and economy, and our health.
I'd never thought about the dominance of corn in what we eat, drink, and soon drive. Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak, it feeds the chickens, and the pig, and the turkey, and the lamb, the catfish, the tilapia, and increasingly the salmon. Corn feeds the cows that provide the milk, cheeses, and yogurt. Pollan dissects a chicken nugget: corn-fed chicken, corn-based food starch to bind the chicken, corn flour to create the coating, corn oil for cooking, and even citric acid derived from corn to keep it fresh. Soft drinks are sweetened with corn syrup; grab a beer and you're likely imbibing a fermented form of glucose-refined corn. Of the 45,000 standard food items in supermarkets, a quarter of them contain corn. From coffee whitener to ketchup and candies. Then the non-edible uses of corn: toothpaste to disposable diapers, trash bags and cleansers, waxes, cardboard, and wallboard.
The proliferation of corn is based on the C4 characteristic of the Zea Mays grass. While most plants have a C-3 carbon count, the four carbons in Zea Mays make it highly efficient at pulling CO2 out of the air and converting it to plant material, especially where water is short. C-4 species recruit an extra carbon atom during photosynthesis to limit its loss of water through its stomata. And then you factor in U.S. farm subsidies and major research funding. High-yield hybrids forms of corn can now reap as much as 200 bushels an acres; 20 bushels an acre was common in the 1920s. There's farm policy, including colorful Earl Butz stories.
While beef production was most disturbing (descriptions of "concentrated agriculture feeding operations"), industrial organic was perhaps the most disillusioning part of the book. J.I. Rodale first chose to use the word organic for foods, implying "that nature rather than the machine should supply the proper model for agriculture." Major organic operations supplying the growing demand are far from nature, far from being sustainable. Wait a second; I love Whole Foods! (That makes me part of our "supermarket pastoral" society.) But shipping fruits and vegetables from continent to continent has a significant ecological footprint. Some organic food requires more diesel fuel use on the farm. Some organic milk comes from factory farms, "where thousands of Holsteins that never encounter a blade of grass spend their days confined in fenced lots." (Weak USDA rules require "access to pasture.")
I'm struck by the parallels between "alternative" agriculture and "alternative energy." As with energy production, sustainable food production is just scratching the surface, a percentage point of the action. Consumers are not aware of and thus are not demanding ecologically sound food production. Distributed and sustainable systems will provide the greatest benefit with the least impact over time, but the economies of scale push society to centralized solutions such mono-cultured factory farms and industrial organic.