Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Feeding Our Cornholes

There I go again, reading.

Learnin' stuff.

The more I learn about how our world operates, the more I believe that ignorance really is bliss. Because The Omnivore's Dilemma : a Natural History of Four Meals, a book by Michael Pollan, is bumming me out.

Basically, it's about how we're all just big ole' walking piles of corn. Bushels and bushels and bushels of corn. It's in almost everything we eat. It's in a lot of things we don't eat. It's what the things we eat eat. It's what the things we drive eat.

As omnivores, humans eat both plants and meat. We're not like koala bears, who eat nothing but eucalyptus leaves. The "dilemma" in Pollan's title is, when you have such a wide range of possibilities, what do you eat? Well, it turns out that more and more, we Americans eat corn. And we don't have much choice about it.

According to Pollan, 45 out of the 60 items on a McDonald's menu contain some form of processed corn. It's in the drinks, it's in the hamburger bun, it's in the cheese, it's in the fries. The McNuggets? Fuggedaboudit! They're loaded with corn products! (Ironically, actual corn is not on the menu.)

Because of all this cornhole stuffing, we're becoming less like omnivores and more like the koala. "This is what the industrialized eater has become: the koala of corn."

That's what you are.

Pollan lays out lots of reasons why it's become almost unsustainable for farmers to grow anything but corn in this country: "A quarter century of farm policies designed to encourage the overproduction of this crop [corn] and nothing else."

The problem is-- this overproduction of corn at the expense of all other crops-- it's bad for us. It's bad for farmers, who, because of the supersaturated market, can't get a good price for their corn, but because of subsidies can't afford to grow anything else. It's bad for the environment. It's bad for the livestock who eat it. (Cattle don't naturally eat corn.) Hence, it's bad for us who eat the livestock who eat the corn. It's bad for our health, because of all the unhealthy ways it's processed. ("We subsidize high fructose corn syrup in this country, but not carrots.")

The only people who benefit by this overproduction of corn is (SURPRISE!) the large food corporations (ADM and Cargill) who process all this cheap, overabundant corn into the high-calorie products that we stuff down our fat gullets.

It should come as no surprise that this policy, which has hurt the little guy (farmers) at the expense of big corporations, was instituted by a Republican administration. Earl Butz (heh, heh, you said "butts") was Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture. He made it a priority to change many New Deal farm subsidy programs, to the detriment of small farms. According to Wikipedia (this quote sounds like it was lifted from Pollan's book):
His mantra to farmers was "get big or get out," and he urged farmers to plant commodity crops like corn "from fencerow to fencerow." These policy shifts coincided with the rise of major agribusiness corporations, and the declining financial stability of the small family farm.
Incidentally, after implementing policies that would dismantle the family farm, rape the nation's soil, stuff livestock into unsustainable factories, and cause the current obesity epidemic, Butz went on to make offensive and racist statements which forced him out of office. Oh, he also went to jail for tax evasion. What a guy!

For a more sympathetic view of Butz that considers historical context, see this:


This whole story just bums me out because it once again shows how we live in a corporatocracy. Corporations wield all the power, and all the big decisions get made based on the bottom line. Our health, our environment, our standard of living-- none of that matters when it gets in the way of a corporation making a big pile of money.

Another example from the book: the "Industrial Organic" industry. That sounds like an oxymoron, but it's actually how most of the "organic" food that we buy is grown. What started out as an alternative movement to grow food on smaller farms in a sustainable and healthy way has grown into a huge industry, run by giant corporations. The corporations themselves have a hand in defining how the FDA labels things as "organic." So of course they allow a lot of the same practices that support the economic model of the factory farm.

An economic model that, though efficient and financially successful to the large corporation, is overworking the land and its resources. As Pollan warns, "Civilizations that abuse their soil eventually collapse."

So as organic farmers have become more successful, they have turned into the very thing that they originally set out to oppose. Overworking the land for economic gain. It's depressing to see how human nature does that. How even the best intentions get corrupted.

Seriously, how can you think of anything but corruption when you hear phrases like, "organic Twinkie" or "organic frozen dinner"?

Ugh, it hurts my head to think about. Where's my corn-coated organic aspirin?

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