Book review: In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

Some time ago, I wrote a series of posts on the politics of food where I examined some of the ideas in Michael Pollan’s 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan has come out with a new book in 2008 titled In Defense of Food that was triggered by the response to the first book. People kept asking him what he recommended they should eat, now that he had exposed the adverse impacts on our food and health of the industrial food complex dominated by agribusiness.

He said that by posing that very question, people revealed the extent that what he calls the ‘Western’ diet has divorced people from their roots when it comes to food. In most cultures, he argues, food decisions are largely determined by tradition in the form of their cuisines. Food is seen as serving many purposes, such as taste and aesthetics. Food is something to be savored, to give pleasure in addition to nourishment. It is in the west that people obsess about what they eat and look to ‘experts’ to guide them, and he suggests that this, paradoxically, is why people in the west are so unhealthy.

He begins his book with three pieces of advice, encapsulated in just seven words. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

The advantages of the last two suggestions are fairly self-evident, though he does elaborate on them in the book. It is the first that requires some explaining. What does he mean by “Eat food”? What else do we do?

What he means is that a lot of what passes for food these days is really a kind of quasi-food product. Today’s stores are filled with processed foods that are far removed from the basic foods and ingredients that traditional cultures would recognize as food, and this development has been bad for us. He says that this is a result of the success of what he calls the ideology of ‘nutritionism’ promoted by the ‘nutritional-industrial complex’. Using the methodology of reductionism, nutrition scientists have tried to reduce our bodily needs to a set of nutrients and this has led to viewing foods as sources of specific nutrients.

Seen this way, each food item is seen as a delivery vehicle for one or more nutrients. This explains why in the US diets lurch from one fad to another as this or that nutrient is identified as good or bad for you. We now talk fluently in the language of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, antioxidants, transfats, cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and so on, instead of in terms like chicken or fish or specific vegetables or fruits.

Humans have co-evolved with food as complex, integrated systems, not collections of items. Our bodies know how to extract the required nutrition from real food, but it may not know how to deal with nutrients that have been removed from their natural environment. Any food item, however simple, is far more complex than the agglomeration of the few nutrients that we are currently able to identify in them.

To think that the interaction of a highly complex system like a food with another highly complex system like the human body can be reduced to the transfer of an identifiable set of nutrients, is to oversimplify on a dangerous scale. Our bodies have evolved to deal with corn but not with high-fructose corn syrup. An orange is far more than a source of vitamin C that can be dispensed with by taking a vitamin C supplement. Who knows how those things that we tend to ignore about corn and oranges (all the other identified and unidentified nutrients, along with the pulp, fiber, and the degree of dilution provided by the water) influence the way that the nutrients interact with our bodies, in ways that a pill or another food supplemented with vitamin C or high-fructose corn syrup might not?

He says that the inability of big industries after 150 years to produce infant formulas to reproduce the benefits that breast milk provides shows complex natural food is.

Pollan argues that the reductionist approach to food is marketed by the nutritional-industrial complex, aided by scientists, the media, and even health organizations, who can repeatedly use the alleged benefit of this or that single component to market new processed quasi-foods.

Pollan makes some practical suggestions for how to fight this tendency and eat more healthily:

  • don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food if she saw it in a store;
  • avoid foods that contain more than five ingredients, have ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, or that include high-fructose corn syrup;
  • avoid food products that make health claims;
  • as far as possible avoid supermarkets for food and buy directly from the growers via farmer’s markets and the like;
  • and if you have to use supermarkets, buy from the periphery of the store (where real food such as produce, meats, and dairy are to be found) and avoid the center where all the processed food is.

Most importantly, he says that you won’t go far wrong if you simply cook your own food and not eat pre-cooked food.

Michael Pollan is a good writer and In Defense of Food is a terrific book for anyone who seeks to escape from the clutches of the industrial food machine and the nutritional-industrial complex.

POST SCRIPT: Michael Pollan on The Colbert Report

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Michael Pollan
colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Keyboard Cat

It is a tribute to Colbert’s skill that some conservatives think that he is truly conservative and only pretending to be ironic.

The politics of food-9: Sustainable farming

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

For me, the most interesting part of the book (p. 190-237) was the section on sustainable farming, in particular what is known as ‘grass farming’. Grass farmers grow animals for meat, eggs, milk, and wool. But the whole system is designed as a food chain based on grass. It is a surprisingly precise process, starting with understanding the life cycle of grass.

Grass has a growth cycle like an S-shaped curve, starting slowly, then rising rapidly and then leveling out after about fourteen days, depending on the season and the weather. The farmer has to know how long it takes for grass to reach its optimum height and then he allows cows to graze on that grass. The 80 cattle on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia are allowed into a section of the pasture at the very top of the blaze of growth in that pasture. The cattle are allowed to take one bite but not allowed to take a second bite of the same pasture, in order to avoid overgrazing. This means that the amount of cows per unit area of pasture per day has to be strictly controlled. As soon as they have done their one-bite grazing, they are moved to the next paddock where the grass has also reached its optimum height and might be thigh-high. And so on.

To carry out this strategy, Salatin divides his pasture into several dozen paddocks of about one to five acres, depending on the season and the weather, since those things affect the rate of growth of grass.

As they graze, the cows spread and fertilize grass seed with their manure, and their hoof prints create little pockets of exposed soil for water to collect and germinate grass seeds. After the cattle leave, that section of pasture is then left alone for the grass to grow back and to enable worms and grubs to enrich the soil. The pasture is then visited by broiler chickens in 10’x12′, two-foot tall floorless pens, that are moved every day by 10 ft. This enables the chickens to feed on the grubs and other life forms that have fattened on the rich soil left behind by the cows. Chickens also get some corn, toasted soybeans and kelp along with the grass they eat. Chicken feed is the only important input for the farm that is brought in from outside and constitutes about 20% of the chicken’s diet.

The layer hens are also taken in a mobile henhouse called the Eggmobile housing 400 hens into a pasture three days after the cows have left, and they are let out into the pasture so that they can eat the fly larvae that have grown into grubs. These provide the chickens with protein. The chicken droppings fertilize and replenish the soil and help more grass growth.

Rabbits and turkeys and pigs are parts of similar cycles to ensure that nothing goes to waste.

So the whole process is a closed loop where the output/waste of one part of the cycle becomes the input for the next. This means that you cannot scale up one part alone. As Joel Salatin says:

In an ecological system like this everything’s connected to everything else, so you can’t change one thing without changing ten other things.

Take the issue of scale. I could sell a whole lot more chickens and eggs than I do. They’re my most profitable items, and the market is telling me to produce more of them. Operating under the industrial paradigm, I could boost production however much I wanted – just buy more chicks and more feed, crank up the machine. But in a biological system you can never do just one thing, and I couldn’t add many more chickens without messing up something else.

Here’s an example: This pasture can absorb four hundred units of nitrogen a year. That translates into four visits of the Eggmobile or two passes of a broiler pen. If I ran more Eggmobiles or broiler pens over it, the chickens would put down more nitrogen than the grass could metabolize. Whatever the grass couldn’t absorb would run off, and suddenly I have a pollution problem. (p. 213)

This is why farms like Salatin’s are incompatible with giant organic chains like Whole Foods. The chains want to be able to purchase large but varying quantities according to the needs of the national market. On Salatin’s farm, the needs of the environment determine the range and amount of food that he produces. Such farms end up catering to those members of the local community that care about how their food is produced.

The rise of farmer’s markets and the locavore/localvore movement (consisting of people who try to buy food produced in the local area) are signs that people are becoming more conscious of their food. Some parts of the country cannot practice year-round agriculture making it hard for people to be fully locavore, but doing as much as they can is a start.

POST SCRIPT: Please support Antiwar.com

One of the best news and analysis sites around is Antiwar.com. Started during Bill Clinton’s war in the Balkans, it has taken a consistent stand against the many wars that have been conducted, irrespective of the ideological labels attached to the protagonists. It has correctly identified the pro-war/pro-business single party nature of American politics and steadfastly opposed its war-like policies. Although the people behind the site are mostly libertarian-conservatives, as a result of its principled stand, the site has attracted support from people all over the political spectrum.

The site does not take advertising and depends on reader support. It is currently running a fund-raiser so please support it if you can.

The politics of food-8: The cost to animals and our health

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

In the previous post, it was pointed out that the reason that grain is fed to animals is that despite the energy inefficiency incurred, grain is cheap and animals fed on it gain weight about four times faster than they do if they are fed just grass. Every day, a corn fed steer converts 32 pounds of feed into four pounds of gain in the form of muscle, fat, and bone. (p. 80) Cows raised on grass take longer to reach slaughter mass (3 to 4 years) than cows raised on richer diets like corn (14-16 months). (p. 71).

But there is a big price that is paid for this faster growth. Corn-fed meat, although now touted by the advertising industry as some sort of high-quality, desirable product, is actually less healthy for us because it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than grass-fed animals. The recent studies warning of the dangers of eating beef are actually problems associated with corn-fed beef, not grass-fed beef.

Furthermore, cows are ruminants, which mean that they have evolved to be able to convert grass into protein via the rumens in their stomachs. Cows fed a diet of corn that they are not evolved to eat can get very sick in many ways and this has to be combated with antibiotics. (p. 78)

Pollan’s description of what happens to animals kept and fed this way is chilling:

A concentrated diet of corn can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike our own highly acid stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn renders it acidic, causing a kind of bovine heartburn that in some cases can kill the animal, but usually just makes him sick. Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw and scratch their bellies, and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, rumenitis, liver disease, and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to the full panoply of feedlot diseases – pneumonia, coccidiosis, enterotoxemia, feedlot polio.

Cattle rarely live on feedlot diets for more than 150 days, which might be as long as their systems can tolerate…[A]nother vet told me the diet would eventually “blow out their livers” and kill them. (p. 78)

It is to deal with these problems that most of the antibiotics sold in America today end up in animal feed, a process that is speeding up the evolution of new drug-resistant bacteria. (p. 78)

The need to force feed animals food they are not evolved to eat in conditions that are not natural to them result in the creation of these so-called ‘feedlots’ or Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), and these are not pretty places.

Pollans describes driving to one such CAFO called Poky Feeders and how the overpowering stench of it hit him long before he reached the pen. A total of 37,000 cattle were housed in cattle pens each holding a hundred or so animals standing or lying around “in a graying mud that, it eventually dawns on you, isn’t mud at all.” (p. 66)

Pollan points out how odd it is that food, which is so important to us, is sold purely on the basis of price. There is no reason that much more information about the history of our food could not be given to us so that we could make decisions based on other criteria as well. It would not be hard for the bar codes on our food packages to give information on the conditions under which the food has been produced, to enable consumers to make choices based on ethical values as well.

Supermarkets in Denmark have experimented with adding a second bar code to packages of meat that when scanned at a kiosk in the store brings up on a monitor images of the farm where the meat was raised, as well as detailed information on the particular animal’s genetics, feed, medications, slaughter date, etc. (p. 244)

But this kind of increased information is being fought by governments and agribusinesses because if more people were aware of the conditions under which these animals were kept, they may rise up and demand improvements, even if they were not vegetarians or animal rights activists.

Most of the meat in our supermarket simply couldn’t withstand that degree of transparency; if the bar code on the typical package of pork chops summoned images of the CAFO it came from, and information on the pig’s diet and drug regiment, who could bring themselves to buy it? Our food system depends on consumers’ not knowing much about it beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner. Cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing. And it’s a short way from not knowing who’s at the other end of your food chain to not caring – to the carelessness of both producers and consumers. Of course, the global economy couldn’t very well function without this wall of ignorance and the indifference it breeds. This is why the rules of world trade explicitly prohibit products from telling even the simplest stories – “dolphin safe,” “humanely slaughtered,” etc. – about how they were produced. (p. 244, 245)

ADM and Cargill keep their processing plants off-limits to outsiders, as do the big slaughterhouses. USDA regulations are designed for industrial food with its secretive closed facilities and actually hurt small farmers even though they are more transparent.

POST SCRIPT: Japan leading the way on cutting waste

Read how Japan is taking steps to reduce waste and the town of Kamikatsu has zero waste as its goal.

[The mayor of Kamikatsu] also says it was time to go against the tide of gauging wealth by the accumulation of more stuff. “We want to produce things that take into account what happens after it’s used. If it can’t be recycled in any way, then you can’t produce it.”

The town now has an 80-percent recycling rate, up from 55 percent 10 years ago. (The US national recycling rate is an average of about 34 percent, with some cities considerably higher.) The local hotel – where tourists arrive by the bus load to dip into baths fed by mountain hot springs – is heated with biomass burners, saving 7 million yen annually, or about $76,000, and reducing its CO2 emissions.

The politics of food-7: The energy equation

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

One of the disturbing things about the industrial food chain system is its extensive use of energy, in the form of fertilizer and for transport. But in addition, the use of agricultural crops as animal feed also results in heavy energy use.

When corn is fed to chicken or a cow, 90 % of its energy is lost to bones, feathers, or to staying alive, so by eating corn-fed animals rather than corn directly, we have a factor of ten loss in energy efficiency. There is a pretty standard rule of thumb that for each rung you go up the food chain, you lose a factor of ten in energy. So if you eat an animal or fish that has itself eaten another animal or fish that ate plant food, you have gone two steps up the chain from the original plant source of energy and thus only 1% of that plant’s energy comes to you. So, all other things being equal, getting one’s calories from plants is the most efficient, which is why environmentalists urge people to eat ‘low on the food chain’.

The reason that grain is fed to animals is that despite the energy inefficiency incurred, grain is cheap and animals gain weight about four times faster than they do if they are fed just grass. Every day, a corn fed steer converts 32 pounds of feed into four pounds of gain in the form of muscle, fat, and bone. (p. 80) Only half of that four pounds is in the form of edible meat. (p. 115) For chickens, two pounds of feed converts to one of meat.

But in addition, there is a lot of energy consumed in the food transportation system. For example, a one-pound box of pre-washed lettuce contains 80 calories of food energy. But “growing, chilling, washing, packaging, and transporting that organic salad to a plate on the East Coast takes more than 4,600 calories of fossil fuel energy.” (p. 167) “Only a fifth of the total energy used to feed us is consumed on the farm; the rest is spent processing the food and moving it around.” (p. 183) This is part of the reason that the ‘locavore’ (or ‘localvore’) movement, that encourages people to eat food grown locally, is gaining ground as can be seen in this article by Selena Simmons-Duffin.

The use of fertilizers has, while increasing corn yield, had a negative impact on energy efficiency. Before the advent of chemical fertilizer, corn farms “produced more than two calories of food energy for every calorie of energy invested.” Now “it takes more than a calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce a calorie of food.” (p. 46)

Furthermore, the use of corn to feed animals results in huge amounts of land being deforested just for this purpose, with negative impact on the contributions to greenhouse gases.

[I]f the sixteen million acres now being used to grow corn to feed cows in the United States became well-managed pasture, that would remove fourteen billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year, the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road . . . as much as a third of all greenhouse gases that human activity has added to the atmosphere can be attributed to the saw and the plow. (p. 198)

It is the availability of cheap energy that has enabled the extensive use of fertilizers and massive worldwide food transportation networks that can produce food at lower direct cost than that grown on sustainable farms locally, although the indirect costs to the environment and health is greater. But with the rise in oil prices, the balance may shift in favor of local sustainable farms.

POST SCRIPT: Israel and Palestine

Two good analyses of the current state of affairs in the Middle East by Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, who both rip through the official media narrative of the reasons for the appalling treatment by Israel of the Gazans in particular and the Palestinians in general, and get to the heart of the real reasons for that treatment. Well worth reading.

The politics of food-6: Corn and obesity

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

The abundance of corn has made the economics of food shift towards unhealthier foods. If you have a limited budget, you can buy more calories based on corn-based fast-food products that you can from healthier foods. $1 buys 1,200 calories from potato chips and cookies vs. 250 calories from whole foods like carrots; 875 calories from soda vs. 170 calories from fruit juice from concentrate. (p. 108) Is it any wonder that poorer people, in order to feel satiated, are more likely to eat potato chips and follow it up with a soda than they are to eat carrots and follow it up with juice, since the cost of a calorie is five times as much for the latter meal?

In fact, an article published in the January 2004 edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Dr. Adam Drewnowski (director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition in the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine) and Dr. S.E. Specter (research nutrition scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center in Davis, Calif.) reports that the correlation of obesity with income levels is striking. Unlike in the developing world where obesity is often the result of wealthy people eating a lot of rich and fancy food, in the US, obesity afflicts a lot of poor people trying to save money on food.

The study says that:

Energy-dense foods not only provide more calories per unit weight, but can provide more empty calories per unit cost. These foods include French fries, soft drinks, candy, cookies, deep-fried meats and other fatty, sugary and salty items. The review shows that attempting to reduce food spending tends to drive families toward more refined grains, added sugars and added fats. Previous studies have shown that energy-dense foods may fail to trigger physiological satiety mechanisms – the internal signals that enough food has been consumed. These failed signals lead to overeating and overweight. Paradoxically, trying to save money on food may be a factor in the current obesity epidemic.

What are ‘empty calories’? This Wikipedia article explains:

Empty calories, in casual dietary terminology, are calories present in high-energy foods with poor nutritional profiles, typically from processed carbohydrates or fats. An “empty calorie” has the same energy content of any other calorie but lacks accompanying micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, or amino acids as well as fiber as found in whole grains but less so in white flour. Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, coined the term in 1972.

Generally, unnecessary calories are converted in the body to fat. However, if calorie intake is limited for the sake of reducing weight, insufficient vitamin and mineral intake may lead to malnutrition. Dieticians recommend in every case that nutrient-dense food such as fruit and vegetables be substituted for empty-calorie food.

Drewnowski adds that the drive for lower costs is replacing nutrition-rich calories with empty calories:

It’s a question of money. . . The reason healthier diets are beyond the reach of many people is that such diets cost more. On a per calorie basis, diets composed of whole grains, fish, and fresh vegetables and fruit are far more expensive than refined grains, added sugars and added fats. It’s not a question of being sensible or silly when it comes to food choices, it’s about being limited to those foods that you can afford.

As result of policies designed to produce more and more corn, corn has been on a silent and unseen rampage though our diet, resulting in a whole host of undesirable effects. The massive output of corn has led to the “rise of factory farms and the industrialization of our food, to the epidemic of obesity and prevalence of food poisoning in America.” (p. 62) Since the explosive growth of corn production and cheap food containing mostly empty calories in the 1970s, obesity has risen since 1977 and the average American’s food intake has risen by 10%. (p. 102)

Since what we eat ends up being the source material that goes into creating the tissues in our own bodies, it is now possible to analyze human hair to see how much of us originates in corn. It turns out that the US diet contains so much of corn in various hidden forms that our bodies are becoming increasingly made up of tissues that originated in corn. As Professor Todd Dawson (Director of the Center for Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley) who has analyzed the corn component in food and in our bodies, says, “we North Americans look like corn chips with legs”. We have a greater component of corn in our bodies than societies like Mexico that ostensibly seem eat more corn. (p. 23)

POST SCRIPT: Nuns beauty pageant cancelled

Two days ago, I reported on an Italian priest who had organized a beauty contest for nuns to show off their looks, and asked prospective contestants to send in photos.

He now says he has had to cancel his plans because of objections from his superiors in the church. I can’t imagine why.

The politics of food-5: Tracking the corn in our food

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

One of the surprising things I learned is that it is possible to track corn as it proceeds through the food chain, even as it is transformed into other things.

One thing that many people do not realize is the amount of a plant’s weight that comes from the air. If you ask people where most of a plant or tree’s mass comes from, they will likely say that it comes from the ground, absorbed through the roots. But most of a plant is carbon, and this carbon was initially in the air as carbon dioxide. During the photosynthesis process, plants absorb this carbon dioxide, retain the carbon, and release the oxygen back into the atmosphere. Some of the water the plant absorbs also comes from the water vapor in the air. Pollan says that in the case of corn, 97% of the plant comes from the air and only 3% from the ground. (p. 22)

Carbon atoms in the atmosphere contain two kinds (called isotopes) of carbon atoms: those containing a total of 12 protons and neutrons (called C-12) and a much rarer isotope that contains a total of 13 (C-13). The chemical properties of these two isotopes are almost identical so that they are usually equally likely to take part in the chemical and biological processes of life. But not always. It turns out that the photosynthesis process is one situation where they differ slightly and this enables us to distinguish the carbon in corn from the carbon in almost all other plants.

It turns out that most plants during photosynthesis create compounds that contain three carbon atoms. Such plants are called C-3 plants. But a very few plants (corn and sugar cane are examples) make compounds that contain four carbon atoms (C-4). It turns out that C-4 plants have a larger C-13/C-12 isotope ratio than C-3 plants, and this signature can be used to identify the amount of carbon in plants and animals that originate in corn (or sugar cane). Thus we can track the amount of corn-based carbon in our food. (p. 21)

The way corn has dominated our diet so that we have become a nation of corn eaters can be seen in how much of the carbon content of a typical McDonald’s meal originates in corn: soda (100%), milk shake (78%), salad dressing (65%), chicken nuggets (56%), cheeseburger (52%), and French fries (23%). (p. 117) Since one in five of all meals in America are eaten in the car (a number that I found to be disturbingly high), we can see how the corn in fast food is dominating our diet. (p. 110)

Perhaps the most telling marker of the power of corn has been the rise of the now ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup, which has become the sweetener found in almost all processed food. It is surprising to learn that high fructose corn syrup did not even exist until 1980 but now about 530 million bushels of the annual corn harvest is turned into 17.5 billion pounds of it. (p. 103)

But all this corn production and subsidies does not necessarily mean that corn farmers are raking in the dollars. It turns out that most of this money goes to the big agribusiness giants like Archer Daniel Midland (ADM) and Cargill, and food processors like Coca-Cola and Kellogg that turn the corn into finished products like high fructose corn syrup. For example, for every dollar consumers spend on eggs, 40 cents goes to the producer. But for every dollar spent on corn sweeteners, only 4 cents goes to the grower. ADM, Coca-Cola, and Kellogg get most of the rest. (p. 95)

So we have this situation where American farmers have incentives to grow as much corn as they can, while the government tries to keep the prices high, either by subsidies or by mandating the use of corn in fuels (in 2007, nearly 20% of the corn harvest went to ethanol), and food processors find ways to replace other ingredients in our food with corn-based products that can provide high profit margins.

Recently the price of corn has risen sharply but the relationship of the price of corn that the farmers get to the price we pay for food is not simple.

When there are cost shocks in the food production system due to changes in the commodity or farm product market, most retailers respond by passing on a fraction of their higher costs to consumers. Among factors affecting this pass-through rate is the level of processing and value-added services that take place between the farmgate and the grocery store aisle. Products that require more processing and packaging are usually less directly linked to changes in farm prices, while the price of less processed foods more closely follows the changes in farm prices. For example, changes in farm prices for eggs, fresh fruit, and fresh vegetables show up in more volatile retail prices for these less processed foods.

What people may not realize is that most of the cost of the food we purchase has little to do with the actual food.

For example, an 18-ounce box of corn flakes contains about 12.9 ounces of milled field corn. When field corn is priced at $2.28 per bushel (the 20-year average), the actual value of corn represented in the box of corn flakes is about 3.3 cents (1 bushel = 56 pounds). (The remainder is packaging, processing, advertising, transportation, and other costs.) At $3.40 per bushel, the average price in 2007, the value is about 4.9 cents. The 49-percent increase in corn prices would be expected to raise the price of a box of corn flakes by about 1.6 cents, or 0.5 percent, assuming no other cost increases.

So despite the dominance of corn in the food chain, the price of almost all our foods are do not fluctuate as widely as the prices that farmers get for their corn.

POST SCRIPT: Darwin talk

David Quammen, author of the biography The Reluctant Mr. Darwin will be the featured speaker at CWRU’s fall convocation at 4:30 pm in Severance Hall on Thursday, August 28, 2008.

The event is open to the public and more details can be obtained here.

The politics of food-4: The dominance of corn

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

One of the things that I had not fully appreciated was how dominant corn is in our diet. Like most people, I am only rarely conscious of actually eating corn, usually during the summer months when it appears in the produce section of the supermarket or when I eat tacos. But it turns out that we all consume a vastly greater amount of corn than we perhaps realize. In fact, corn is the colossus in the American food chain, dominating everything.

To get a sense of the magnitude that corn plays in our lives, here are some numbers. The annual harvest of corn in the US is about ten billion bushels (p. 85). . One bushel of corn is defined to be 56 pounds exactly. This is for shelled corn, after the husks and cob have been removed. The number of kernels in a bushel is approximately 72,800.

The amount of corn we eat directly as corn is less than one bushel per year person or less than 3% of the total. The rest has gone into the production of beef, chicken, pork, soft drinks, breakfast cereals, snacks, citric and lactic acid, glucose, fructose, matodextrin, ethanol (for alcohol and for cars), sorbitol, mannitol, xanthan gum, MSG, etc. (p. 85, 86)

So how did we end up growing so much corn anyway?

Part of the growth in production came with the development of new hybrid seed varieties in the 1930s followed by the introduction of synthetic chemical fertilizers in the 1950s. Then in 1973 the government began establishing a ‘target price’ for corn that makes up as direct payments to the farmer for some of the difference between the target price and the sale price. The later explosive growth of corn is the direct result of this new system of farming subsidies that exists to this day and encourages farmers to grow more and more corn.

Instead of supporting farmers, the government was now subsidizing every bushel of corn a farmer could grow – and American farmers pushed to go flat out could grow a hell of a lot of corn . . . Iowa State University estimates it costs roughly $2.50 to grow a bushel of Iowa corn; in October 2005 Iowa grain elevators were paying $1.45 . . . Yet the corn keeps coming, more of it every year. (p. 53)
. . .
This is a system designed to keep production high and prices low. In fact, it’s designed to drive prices even lower, since handing farmers deficiency payments (as compared to the previous system of providing loans to support prices) encourages them to produce as much corn as they possibly can, and then dump it all on the market no matter what the price – a practice that inevitably pushes prices even lower. (p. 62)

Corn production went from a 1920 average of 20 bushels/acre to a present output of 200 bushels/acre. (p. 37) This massive production increase now placed demands on finding ways to dispose of the corn. A human being can eat about 1,500 pounds of food per year in all its forms. (p. 94) You cannot force people to eat more food, let alone more corn. The only way to increase corn consumption is to use it to replace, directly or indirectly, other things in our diet, and even in our energy supplies.

Moving that mountain of cheap corn – finding the people and animals to consume it, the cars that 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. 62)
. . .
To help dispose of the rising mountain of cheap corn farmers were now producing, the government did everything it could to help wean cattle off grass and onto corn, by subsidizing the building of feedlots (through tax breaks) and promoting a grading system based on marbling of beef that favored corn-fed over grass-fed beef. (The government also exempted CAFOs [Confined Animal Feeding Operations] from most clean air and clean water laws.) (p. 200)

Thus the government and researchers have deliberately tried to switch the diet of cattle from grass, which they have evolved to eat, to corn, since animals can be made to grow faster on a corn diet than on grass and growing grass requires more land. As a result of this push, about 60% of the commodity corn produced in the US goes towards feeding livestock. (p. 86) Federal mandates have also pushed for corn surpluses in the form of ethanol to be used to dilute gasoline. (p. 111)

And yet, the corn keeps coming, more and more, like an overflowing dam that will eventually drown us.

Next: How corn dominates our diet.

POST SCRIPT: Beauty contest for nuns?

An Italian priest, annoyed by what he feels is the unfair negative image that nuns have, has organized a beauty contest to show off their looks and asked prospective contestants to send in photos.

But he says that they will not be required to pose in swimsuits. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The politics of food-3: Organic illusions

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

One thing the book did was rob me of much of the illusions that I had about organic food production. Somehow, I had developed a romantic idea of organic food as being produced on multi-crop family farms with animals roaming freely. This pastoral idyll can still be found, but rarely.

While most such small farms are actually more productive than the big factory farms of the industrial food system, buying food from a large number of small suppliers is too cumbersome for the big organic food supply and marketing chains. Most organic food production, by virtue of its very success and subsequent growth, has been forced to adopt many of the undesirable features of the industrial food chain, such as its creation of a monoculture system and huge energy-intensive transportation networks. Giant organic chains like Whole Foods prefer to deal with a few suppliers to meet all their needs, rather than a large number of small organic family farms. Martha Rosenberg highlights some of the awful practices of factory farms including Whole Foods.

But that small family farm image is so appealing to consumers who purchase organic food that the industrial organic system fosters what Pollan calls the ‘Supermarket Pastoral’ narrative for its produce, encouraging customers by its labeling to think that the food they are buying comes from such places, so that they would be more willing to accommodate the higher price. He describes how the eggs he bought came from ‘Judy’s Family Farm’.

The Judy’s label had always made me picture a little family farm, or maybe even a commune of back-to-the-land lesbians up in Sonoma. . . . Who could begrudge a farmer named Judy $3.59 for a dozen organic eggs she presumably has to get up at dawn each morning to gather? (p. 171)

The reality of organic farming is different from the pastoral narrative. It turns out that Judy is the name of the wife of the owner of Petaluma Poultry, a giant organic factory farm.

Pollan found that “some (certainly not all) organic milk comes from factory farms, where thousands of Holsteins that never encounter a blade of grass spend their days confined to a fenced “dry lot,” eating (certified organic) grain and tethered to milk machines three times a day. The reason much of this milk is ultrapasteurized (a high heat process that damages its nutritional quality) is so that big companies like Horizon and Aurora can sell it over long distances. I discovered organic beef being raised in “organic feedlots” and organic high-fructose corn syrup.” (p. 139)

What about the “free-range chickens” label, which gives the impression that the chickens spend their time clucking happily in grassy open spaces? Pollan found that these too are often grown in factory farms where in any given facility you might find about twenty thousand chickens in large sheds that, apart from eating certified organic feed, live lives almost identical to any industrial factory farm. What allows them to be called “free range” is merely the existence of a little door in the shed that leads to a small grassy yard. But since that door is open only from the time when the chickens are about six weeks old until they are slaughtered just two weeks later, and since most chickens do not take advantage of the door to take a stroll, the labeling hardly matches the image created. (p. 140)

The reason that the chickens are not allowed or encouraged to go outside is because of fears that they will get an infection that, because they are organic, cannot be treated with antibiotics, and this is part of the problem with trying to grow organic food within the framework of the large scale industrial production model.

Maintaining a single-species animal farm on an industrial scale isn’t easy without pharmaceuticals and pesticides. Indeed, that’s why these chemicals were invented in the first place, to keep shaky monocultures from collapsing. Sometimes the large-scale organic farmer looks like someone trying to practice industrial agriculture with one hand tied behind his back. (p. 221)

So while the industrial organic farms are undoubtedly better than their non-organic counterparts, the best solution to these unavoidable problems of both industrial models is the sustainable mixed farm that supplies food locally. Pollan argues that we should seek to buy our food from farms practicing such sustainable agriculture because it benefits all of us in many ways.

[T]here are good reasons to think a genuinely local agriculture will tend to be a more sustainable agriculture. For one thing, it is much less likely to rely on monoculture, the original sin from which almost every other problem of our food system flows. A farmer dependent on a local market will, perforce, need to grow a wide variety of things rather that specialize in the one or two plants of animals that the national market (organic or otherwise) would ask from him. (p. 258)

Until I read Pollan’s book, I had not fully appreciated the negative aspects of monocultural farming. It arose with the use of chemical fertilizers on crops and new hybrid varieties that enabled farmers to get huge yields out of a single crop.

The extensive production and use of chemical agricultural fertilizers began right after World War II when the US found itself saddled with huge surpluses of ammonium nitrate, a key ingredient of explosives, and the factories to produce it. Shifting its use to crop fertilizer provided new uses for the product and a way to keep the production factories running. “The chemical fertilizer industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on poison gases developed for the war) is the product of the government’s effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes.” (p. 41)

Next: How we all became walking corn chips

POST SCRIPT: Social Security

Many people have been frightened into thinking that Social Security is going bankrupt soon. This article from the Economic Policy Institute argues that these dire predictions are overblown and that young people have little to fear.

The politics of food-2: The benefits of sustainable farming

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

The previous post examined the four kinds of food production systems in existence.

The sustainable farm model is easily the best one for animals, people, and the environment, and if widely adopted could have hugely beneficial effects on us all in many ways. But unfortunately it is very rarely found in practice. This is partly because the cost of the food produced this way is more (though not a lot more) than that produced by the industrial food chain. This discourages many consumers who have been conditioned to think of price as the determining factor when making food choices. In supermarkets, the only information we are usually given is the price, weight, and price per unit weight, not under what conditions the food was produced, so we have no basis for comparison other than price.

Another reason that such farms are not more widespread is that they cannot be scaled up easily to meet changing demands. In the industrial farm model, if the demand for eggs (say) goes up, one simply builds new coops, purchases more chickens and chicken feed, and thus produces more eggs. But sustainable farms, because of the interdependence of the various components, cannot simply change one of the components in the cycle. As a result, such farms tend to be smaller and cater to a limited number and geographical range of customers.

A third reason for the relative scarcity of sustainable farm practices is that because it supplies just a limited geographical range, the food it produces is largely seasonal and determined by the climate of that region. But we have become accustomed to treating as a right to have whatever food we want all year around, even if it involves having grapes in winter. This results in creating vast international transportation networks to airlift and truck huge quantities of food from place to place, which consumes huge amounts of energy resources.

The food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States (about as much as automobiles do). Today it takes between seven and ten calories of fossil fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food energy to an American plate . . . All told, growing food organically uses about a third less fossil fuel than growing it conventionally . . . though that savings disappears if the compost is not produced on site nearby. (p. 183)

The claim can be made that the price of food produced by sustainable farm practices, although higher, reflects the actual cost of food. In the industrial food chain, the direct cost to the consumer is lower but there are uncalculated indirect costs to society due to the damage it does to the environment and to the health of the consumers. So what we save as individuals in the supermarkets, we pay collectively as a society in health and cleanup costs.

As sustainable farmer Joel Salatin says: “[W]ith our food all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water – all of the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap.” He says that the choice for consumers is simple: “You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food.” (p. 243)

But there is another important reason that the kind of sustainable farming practiced by Salatin does not get much support. It does not feed an economic mindset that advocates consumption:

It isn’t hard to see why there isn’t much support for the sort of low-capital, thought-intensive farming Joel Salatin practices: He buys next to nothing. When a livestock farmer is willing to “practice complexity” – to choreograph the symbiosis of several different animals, each of which has been allowed to behave and eat as they evolved to – he will find he has little need for machinery, fertilizer, and, most strikingly, chemicals. He finds he has no sanitation problem or any of the diseases that result from raising a single animal in a crowded monoculture and then feeding it things it wasn’t designed to eat. This is perhaps the greatest efficiency of a farm treated as a biological system: health.

I was struck by the fact that for Joel abjuring agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals is not so much a goal of his farming, as it so often is in organic agriculture, as it is an indication that his farm is functioning well. “In nature health is the default,” he pointed out. “Most of the time pests and disease are just nature’s way of telling the farmer he’s doing something wrong.” (p. 221)

For those of us who prize conservation, this lack of need for outside inputs is a good thing. But in our present society of warped values which urges people to consume more and more, a sustainable farm in which most of the input comes from the energy of the sun does not ‘stimulate the economy’. All it does is produce healthy food and protect the environment, and ‘the market’ does not value such things.

POST SCRIPT: Bill Maher on Larry King Live

Discussing politics and religion:

The politics of food-1: The four food production systems

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

The series of posts on the ethics of food was triggered by a remarkable book that I recently read that caused me to re-think the whole question of my relationship to the food that I eat. Food was not something that I had thought much of before. I am not a gourmet by any means, and food for me is an incidental item in my life, not one that looms large.

But Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) has made me see food in a whole new light and raised some interesting new issues that I had not considered deeply before. It made me realize that what I choose to buy and eat is, whether I like it or not, a deeply political act and that I should pay more attention to it. The book gives a fascinating account of the role of food with all its full political, economic, and moral complexity. The next series of posts will examine some of these issues.

Pollan examines four different food supply systems. The first is what he calls the industrial food chain, which is the source of most of the food that is available in the developed world. This food is produced by large factory farms and distributed nationwide (and even worldwide) and is based on an assembly-line model. It seeks to produce large quantities of food at minimum direct cost to the producer, and considerations of the negative impacts on the environment, the health of the consumer, and animal welfare are of minimal concern, except insofar as it affects the image of the company and the profitability of the enterprise. It encourages monoculture farming, where each farm specializes in a single crop or product, and keeps its animals in cramped conditions in large pens called feedlots.

Then we have the organic food chain. Although it is definitely an improvement on the industrial food chain, a major part of it can better be described as the industrial organic food chain, since it very much resembles the industrial food chain in many of its features. The organic food supply chain is dominated by large companies like Whole Foods that have adopted the assembly line model of its non-organic sibling. Its main improvement, and it is a big one, is the absence of pesticide use on its crops and not giving growth hormones or antibiotics to its animals.

A third system described by Pollan is based on the forager model, where one lives off the land, eating only those plants that can be found growing wild in nature, only the fish that one catches oneself, and only meat from wild animals that one personally kills. Of course, this lifestyle is not feasible for most of us (I personally would not last in the wild for more than a couple of days) and this part of the book seemed like a romantic conceit on the part of the author, trying to recreate the experience of our hunter-gatherer past. It is not a viable model nowadays and I will not discuss it further.

The last model is the sustainable farming model, These farms are carefully planned, mixed systems, which grow a variety of crops and animals, and can best be described as creating a closed system whereby the ‘waste’ products of the plants that are grown (the parts that humans don’t eat) are fed to animals and the ‘waste’ products of animals are fed into the soil as fertilizer, thus eliminating the waste problem and reducing the need for external inputs. (I will describe how this works in more detail later).

As a result, one has a cycle that very much resembles what occurs in nature. This contrasts with the largely monocultural industrial farm model (both organic and non-organic) where one has to obtain animal feed and fertilizer from outside to grow the food, and then find ways to dispose of the huge quantity of waste that is produced.

Raising animals on old-fashioned mixed farms . . . used to make simple biological sense: You can feed them the waste products of your crops, and you can feed their waste products to your crops. In fact, when animals live on farms the very idea of waste ceases to exist; what you have instead is a closed ecological lop – what in retrospect you might call a solution. One of the most striking things animal feedlots do (to paraphrase Wendell Berry) is to take this elegant solution and neatly divide it into two new problems: a fertilizer problem on the farm (which must be remedied with chemical fertilizers) and a waste problem on the feedlot (which seldom is remedied at all). (p. 67)

So given all these benefits, why are sustainable farming practices not more widespread?

POST SCRIPT: Sunday Morning Coming Down

The late, great Johnny Cash singing one of my favorite songs.