Congress is once again considering the reauthorization of the Farm Bill. That’s been going on periodically for most of my conscious life, but until I finished reading Michael Pollan’s devastating analysis of American agriculture, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a month ago, I have to admit I never paid much attention to the issue.
We New Mexicans never seemed likely to be impacted big-time by Department of Agriculture policies; not like Kansas, Iowa or Nebraska. In those Midwest states topics like crop subsidies, production incentives, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, tariffs, trade agreements, and migrant labor aren't obscure points of public policy, they're life-and-death concerns for every family.
But Pollan’s book--which I heartily recommend to anyone who wants to understand why the more diet cola we drink the fatter we get or why our subsidies for domestic corn production are effectively destroying farm economies halfway round the globe--also woke me to the crucial impact on each of our lives produced by government farm policy.
What happens to us at the hands of “Big Farm” is probably just collateral damage, the unintended consequence of what amounts to yet another effort to industrialize every sphere of human activity. "Industrialize" as in “eliminate the profit for everyone except the wealthiest few who push the buttons” on (in this case) agriculture as a machine.
The dilemma faced by omnivores is that of having to make a choice. Simply put, for creatures that can eat anything, choosing what specifically to eat today is not always readily apparent. Koalas have no dilemma about eating: They only consume eucalyptus leaves. Carnivores eat meat, in whatever form and quantity they can find it.
But we omnivores must select from among an enormous buffet of possible meals … and our choices are not always wise ones--for our health, for the widest economic good or for the health of the planet.
I can’t cover all the ground Pollan does. But one little example he presents sticks in my mind. He had a chemistry lab conduct a spectrum analysis of a helping of chicken nuggets, one of the fast foods consumed daily by millions of Americans. Eighty percent of the nugget, by analysis, was corn.
It’s not mostly chicken we’re eating in a nugget but the multiple forms into which grain corn has been manipulated by industrial chemical wizardry: corn pellets forced into chickens confined in feeding factories; corn oil drenching each nugget for cooking; various sweeteners, preservatives, flavor enhancers and binders gluing the whole thing together—all are manufactured from corn. Even the “chicken” flavoring is engineered in a lab … from chemicals that once grew on an ear of grain.
And the incentive for this conversion of our once-diverse agriculture into a mono-culture of corn is, not surprisingly, federal money. The golden avalanche of surplus grain is grown because federal price supports guarantee profit for farms that grow it, regardless of the market. Uncle Sam will buy whatever is produced and then store it on the ground under tarps when silos and elevators overflow with the stuff.
For a while we shipped a lot of it overseas. But even at subsidized prices we had to give it away since so few buyers existed. Then agribusiness came up with a different solution for the surplus: They figured out how to get Americans to consume more corn.
In that process they managed to cram an extra 1,200 calories a day down our craw, calories we haven’t yet figured out how to burn and calories that have made Americans the most overweight society in history, along with all the attendant health problems that much fat creates.
You won’t remember eating that much extra corn. It comes to us in dozens of invisible ways: high fructose corn syrup is used to sweeten every imaginable manufactured “food” from soft drinks to barbeque sauce. Cattle, which won’t eat corn on the farm because their stomachs evolved to digest grass instead, have been tricked into swallowing it in flaked form on feedlots. They pile on the weight rapidly that way … as long as they are also given chemicals to assist digestion.
The end result of this innovation is an amazing flood of inexpensive meat and hundreds of processed “food” items filling America’s grocery shelves. It has also produced a serious decline in our health statistics.
Finally, we have reached the embarrassing endpoint of needing to burn a gallon of fossil fuel to grow, process and transport to market every gallon-equivalent of food.
None of those costs ever show up on the agribusiness ledgers because of our multiple hidden subsidies for production, highway construction and environmental cleanup. We eat cheap because we hide the real cost.
By coincidence, the week after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I enjoyed a meal put together by local Farm to Table advocates and La Montañita Food Co-op. Comprised entirely of foods grown within 250 miles of Albuquerque (salad, quiche, beef, quinoa, spinach, raspberries and ice cream) this lunch was delicious—and educational.
The point Farm to Table was trying to make is that we can break out of the industrial food model and eat well doing so. The key is to buy locally grown foods and to work to encourage more local farmers and ranchers to produce foods for the local market.
Best of all, a spectrum analysis of that meal would have shown zero corn involved.