June 13, 2011

Another Omnivore's Dilemma

"Specialists without spirit, sensuality without heart, this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved." Max Weber

I can see how people who begin looking into the questions surrounding America's food supply get caught up in the subject. It tells you an awful lot about how things actually work in a society, since food is as basic as it gets. Thoreau's simple formula for survival, maintaining one's vital heat, depends on food for the "internal fire;" and when you think about it, if those earliest humans had not decided to venture north out of Africa, an exterior shelter might never have been necessary. Still, where we live food and shelter are essential for survival, but that's the whole short list.

In reading the various books I have about food and where it comes from, I have found Michael Pollan's to be the most humane, thoughtful and illuminating. He describes the "omnivore's dilemma" in terms I can relate to. We've evolved to thrive on a modicum of animal-derived fat and protein, accompanied by plant-based carbohydrates, including leafy greens, berries and nuts.

Unfortunately, the way that we derive our animal fat and protein in modern times is little short of completely dismaying and disgusting. I suspect that the disturbing implications of this meat-factory approach to supplying food is one of the reasons that humans are so receptive to the idea that you shouldn't eat saturated fat. Indeed, in terms of a diet, I personally much prefer the ideas of Francis Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet than the blood-drenched routine of Gary Taubes and his meat triumphalism. (I think Taubes is generally right, and his writing has incited something of a beneficial revolution, particularly about the problem of sugar in the obesity epidemic and in "Western diseases" generally. But his carno-centric approach gets a little sickening when it's considered in the context of how food is actually produced in this country.)

The problem is that homo sapiens is a species that is built on the evolutionary chassis of a hunter-gatherer, and that's the reality we have to deal with. The other reality that we have to come to terms with, as noted above, is the industrialized process that produces meat for consumption, now that the vast majority of us never hunt for anything except bargains at Safeway. Pollan's writing inspired the documentary "King Corn" (available on streaming Netflix), which chronicles the return of two Boston-area college graduates to their ancestral home in Greene, Iowa. They decide to grow one acre of corn and then follow the results into the food chain. I learned some interesting things, things that must be obvious to everyone in Iowa but which I had never heard. Neither had the two new young farmers from Boston.

Such as: For the most part, you can't eat the corn grown in Iowa. It's genetically modified (Liberty seed was used by the film makers) so that it will survive the herbicides dumped on the fields, but the result is inedible corn on the cob. It tastes like sawdust. The corn farmers in Iowa do not "live off the land," because they don't grow anything they can eat. The sole purpose of the corn is to supply a fermentation product for ethanol distillation (about 20%); cow feed (close to 50%); and the balance for producing high fructose corn syrup, corn oil and other derivatives. Those giant, monoculture farms, subsidized by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture with absolutely critical payments, are concentrated in fewer and fewer hands as the years go by, and can best be thought of immense commodity factories run on solar power.

Every use of the corn produced is a bad idea. Ethanol from corn produces less energy than the sum total of the energy necessary to produce it. Cows should not eat corn; they are grazing animals, and one does not ordinarily see cows grazing in corn fields. As Michael Pollan detailed (and as the movie graphically shows), cows get very sick eating corn, and thus about 70% of all antibiotics consumed in the United States are consumed by feed-lot cows. Yum. HFCS is a hepatotoxim, a carcinogen (under some theories), and maybe the major obesogenic substance in the world. Corn oil has a high smoke point, which is unfortunate, since its best use would be to burn it all up. It's certainly a bad idea to cook with it or to eat margarine made from it.

The reason for all of the above is that mass, monoculture farming of corn keeps the price down, both of beef and of beverage sweeteners. The farmers in the movie seemed like a dispirited bunch, honestly. They know they're growing crap that isn't really food, not even (not especially even) for cows. In a basic sense, it's all completely insane, those hundreds of thousands of acres of this weird stuff growing in worn-out soil gassed with anhydrous ammonia, poisoned with herbicides and insecticides, and then mainly fed to cows and to Big Gulp enthusiasts.

Like most of the defense department and its wars to protect oil sources (read the Washington Post's latest [http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/conflict-in-libya-us-oil-companies-sit-on-sidelines-as-gaddafi-maintains-hold/2011/06/03/AGJq2QPH_story.html] on why we're really in Libya), industries like corn growing and endless foreign wars are just legacy businesses that continue on their own momentum, solely for the sake of money, an institutionalized form of insanity that is fundamentally anti-life, and, as Max Weber says, a complete nullity. And so very typical of a mass, unconscious society.

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