I know I promised to report on The Omnivore's Dilemma, and I will share more soon, but I'm not quite finished with it. I read quite a bit of it on Christmas vacation, and it's really such an amazing book! Today I wanted to share just a few tidbits that you may not know - I certainly didn't!
The first part of the book goes into the history of corn, which you would think would be a less than fascinating subject, but it is very well written, and I found myself drawn into the strange world of this exotic and unique plant, which has shaped so much of our culture and food chain, and without which our country would probably look very different right now. Interestingly enough, it is a very co-dependent relationship, as without humans, corn would likely not have survived as a species either!
It is hard for me to adequately explain the ridiculous and convoluted system that has made corn the basis of our entire food system, or the full scope of destruction this system is wreaking on our land, our farmers, and our health. The book goes into it in depth, and for a more detailed explanation I recommend you grab a copy, but here are the highlights:
1. The farmer grows corn,
2. The farmer sells corn,
3. Companies buy corn and make it into food, (see below for more details)
4. You buy the food products and eat them.
This is probably how people think of the corn-based food chain (if they think of it at all). But there are myriad forces at work below the surface. For example: Farmers are basically forced to grow corn, because that is what the heavily subsidized market demands (along with soybeans). But government subsidies keep the price of corn so low, farmers can't live on what they make selling corn most of the time, so they are constantly looking for ways to increase yield, increase yield, increase yield - at the expense of the soil, water, and air. This leads to depleted and degraded land, meaning the farmer has to add more and more chemicals to his crops to help them survive and maintain production. The more corn he produces, the lower the prices go, and the more corn he has to produce just to make a living - and he still most likely gets deeper and deeper in debt!
You might think that the market would "correct itself," but economics don't apply to farming the same way they do for a company - especially not when the government's involved. As one farmer explains in Pollan's book, "The demand for food isn't elastic - people don't eat substantially more just because food is cheap, and laying off farmers doesn't reduce supply" (as someone else would just farm the land and grow the same crop).
Not to mention, the US government spends over $5 billion per year just on corn subsidies. That's a lot of money the taxpayer is paying to "impoverish farmers, degrade the land, and pollute the water" growing corn.
So just where does all this corn go? Quite a bit of it goes into fuel via ethanol subsidies. But overall, much of it ends up in you and me. A large portion of it feeds the animals we eat (and don't get me started on the CAFOs or I'll never stop), and more still goes to the processed food industry (HFCS, etc.).
Some animals can survive fine on a diet of grain, but cows are an exception. (I highly encourage you to read the chapter on the feedlot - you will never look at a hamburger the same way again!) As Pollan says, "animals exquisitely adapted to live on grass must be adapted by us - at considerable cost to their health, to the health of the land, and ultimately to the health of their eaters - to live on corn, for no other reason than it offers the cheapest calories around and because the great pile (of corn) must be consumed."
So what exactly does a diet of corn do to a cow? I'll let Pollan tell you the details, but as just one quick example, take E. coli. Most E. coli bacteria used to be relatively harmless to humans. This bacteria had adapted to live in the neutral pH in the stomachs of cows, and if some made it onto the meat via contamination, the higher acidity of the human stomach would kill it on contact. Unfortunately, feeding cows a diet of corn makes their stomachs nearly as acidic as ours, so new, acid-resistant strains of the bacteria have evolved, which can survive our stomach acid and go on to kill us.
There is an easy solution - in fact, studies at the University of Cornell have found that just by "switching a cow's diet from corn to grass or hay for a few days prior to slaughter reduces the population of E. coli in the animal's gut by as much as 80%." But the cattle industry considers this solution "impractical," and instead treats meat with radiation before it is sold to you in an attempt to sterilize it.
Obviously this unnatural acidity probably isn't too good for the cow either. In fact, Pollan's disturbing journey to find out what the life of a feedlot cow is like may just put you off your "corn-fed beef" for good.
For one thing, the high acidity of a corn-fed cow's stomach gives them major heartburn - to the point that they get sick, have diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, liver disease, and weakened immune systems that leave them vulnerable to a host of other diseases. This is why you hear so much about conventionally raised cattle and antibiotics - basically many are so unhealthy they would not survive to slaughter weight without constantly being pumped full of drugs (in fact, the majority of antibiotics sold in America today are fed to animals). The feedlot vet that Pollan talked with suggested that the cattle may not survive much longer than 150 days on a diet of corn.
When it comes to the impacts of using beef as an outlet for some of the vast surplus of corn, the final words of the vet are more telling than anything, "if you gave them lots of grass and space, I wouldn't have a job."
But where else does corn go and wreak its havoc? You may be surprised to know that each person in the US consumes about 1 ton of corn per year! Obviously we're not eating that many tortilla chips, so where else does it go, besides feeding the meat you eat?
Check back next week to find out just how much corn you're really eating, and why you should care!