Friday, November 7, 2014

The Cornivore's Dilemma

In his 1951 post-apocalyptic novel 'The Day of the Triffids', John Wyndham writes about a plague of blindness that befalls the whole world, allowing the rise of an aggressive species of plants. Bioengineered by the USSR, Triffids are carnivorous super plants that can walk and talk and are trying to take over the world.

We have a similar situation happening in real life, where the invasion of the giant tropical grass known as 'corn' is invading our farms, our food supply and our bodies. You might say: 'Well, what's wrong with that? I like corn, it's healthy and it tastes good.' But the corn that we produce in such abundance is not grown for direct consumption; it is grown to feed cattle, to produce ethanol for our cars and as additives to processed foods.

In his book 'The Omnivore's Dilemma', Michael Pollan explains how this real life Triffid has been able to take over our food supply. Modern corn, already having a natural advantage because of its efficiency at using sunlight to grow, has made itself doubly attractive by tolerating many climates. 'The plant gratifies human needs, in exchange for which humans expand the plant’s habitat, moving its genes all over the world and remaking the land, clearing trees, plowing the ground, protecting it from its enemies, so it might thrive.' (from: When Corn Becomes King).

So one wonders, who has domesticated who? Corn has also shaped the trillion dollar Farm Bill. The Bill was first created during the Great Depression to give financial assistance to farmers who were struggling due to an excess crop supply. This is what civilizations have always done: store grains as a safety net to cover the lean years. But the Farm Bill changed as a result of pressure from free market proponents who didn't see any reason for farmers to get subsidized. So, when the price of corn went down, farmers had to plant more of it to stay afloat, which made the price of corn go down even more. Thus, Zea Mays has triumphed by making itself indispensable not to farmers (whom it is swiftly and surely bankrupting) but to the Archer Daniels Midlands, Tysons and Coca-Colas of the world, who could buy it dirt cheap.*

This is why our American farmland is dominated by industrial agriculture—a system of chemically intensive food production, featuring enormous single-crop farms and animal production facilities. Farming single crops requires such heavy use of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides that it is responsible for 68% of species endangerment. It seeps into the ground, the rivers, the air and since it is derived from fossil fuels, it subsidize the oil industry. The way we grow food is so toxic that we are fouling our own nest at an alarming rate. It is unsustainable.

America has a landmass of almost 2 billion acres, slightly smaller than all the countries of Europe combined. Only 5% is developed, 39% is forests, which leaves 56% to pasture and cropland. That's more than half of the country! But most of that land is not to grow 'food' but 'food ingredients' that feeds the Industrial Agricultural beast. The real food, which is called 'specialty foods' in industry jargon, i.e. fruits and vegetables, is grown on 2% of farmland. It receives no subsidies, even though it accounts for 29% of cash receipts. (source: The Truth About Land Use in the United States)

In his book Michael Pollan compares 3 types of food chains: The industrial food chain, the pastoral food chain (organic) and the hunter/gatherer food chain. Obviously, the shorter the food chain, the less energy it requires to feed someone.

The industrial food chain has replaced sunlight with fossil fuels to grow its food and it does not directly feed us, but feeds the millions upon millions of livestock on feedlots (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations ), where the cattle never sees a blade of grass, are force fed a concoction of corn, antibiotics, vitamins and other foods that makes their meat 'marble' *, which is what people like when they buy steak. They live a short, miserable life, are often sick and bloated, since they are not meant to eat grain, but grass. Although Michael Pollan does not spend a lot of pages on how much suffering we are causing to other living creatures by this industrialized process, I personally feel that it has added a moral dimension that is impossible to ignore. Eating industrially produced meat has now become a matter of conscience, not just a matter of being environmentally 'incorrect'. To give you an example: In it's natural environment, a cow or steer has an average life span of 18 years. Cattle on feedlots are slaughtered at 18-22 months. Because of overcrowding and bad sanitation, they suffer from foot rot, respiratory problems, eye infections, parasites and mastitis. When a cow or steer gets sick from lying in its own feces day in day out, it passes on its bacteria to the person that eats its flesh. If this is the only way they can fight back, who can blame them? (Source: Cattle Care)

The second type of food chain, the 'pastoral' food chain, is what we call 'organic'. But organic doesn't mean that it is more energy efficient. In fact buying a bag of California spring mix at Whole Foods in Boston, takes 56 times more calories to produce than it provides as food. It is 'organic' only because it has not been treated with chemical fertilizers, but it is just as environmentally destructive as a commercial bag.

The 3rd food chain, the hunter/gatherer food chain, is the one that is the most friendly to Gaya. But if you eat meat, this is not an option, since you would have to hunt your dinner, and I don't know how many people are willing to do that. Solution: become vegetarian and eat off your garden.

The expression 'America is the bread basket of the world' is no longer true. In fact if you define “productivity” not as pounds per acre but as the numbers fed by that same area, America ranks behind China and India as well as Bangladesh, because what is grown goes to feeding livestock and bio fuels, not people.

Food has become a Pandora's box. If you are honest with yourself, every bite you take has enormous consequences. If we could only take a bird's eye view and try to understand what the word 'food' really means. But a lot of us don't really want to take flight. We don't want to know what happens to the 100 million heads of cattle in our feedlots, lying in their own filth, the 23 million chickens that are killed every day, the trillions of wasted calories between the food producers and your stomach. Food is no longer produced for the benefit of the eater, it is for the benefit of the feeder, the Monsanto's, the Cargill's and the MDA's of this world.

Of course this is unsustainable and there is a counter movement on the march, people like Joe Salatin who talks about a declaration of independence from bureaucracy and corporations. He has taken the bird's eye view and calls himself a 'grass farmer'. There are visionaries like Daniel Imhoff, author of 'Food Fight: A Citizen's Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill'.

In the meantime, I am going to go out there and cover my veggie patch with cover crops, compost and manure. Try to take one more step away from the toxic fumes of the food industry. There is nothing more unpleasant and invigorating than to have someone rip the blinders off your eyes. I for one, am ready to put on my garden gloves, gather my tomatoes and cucumbers and start a real good 'food fight'.   leave comment here

* The 2014 Farm Bill cuts $8 billion in food stamps, which will go to the crop insurance companies and other special interest groups that benefit from farm subsidies. More corn will be planted at the cost of more people going hungry.