Monday, November 02, 2009

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Part II

In my previous post I introduced the notion of government distortion of the agricultural system. Industrialized corn has become the building block of the American diet. For example, high-fructose corn syrup became the sweetener of choice over sugar. Corn became the new peanut. Look up "corn by products" online and you'll find that corn is in things like glue, to aspirin, to paint. These corn by products in our food are believed to be responsible for an increase in obesity and type II diabetes. Unnatural uses for corn in high volumes have led to consequences that few realize, and without most realizing what has happened.

Pollan wrote an article entitled, "We Are What We Eat," which espouses the same ideas as the book. He writes,

"Take a typical fast food meal. Corn is the sweetener in the soda. It's in the corn-fed beef Big Mac patty, and in the high-fructose syrup in the bun, and in the secret sauce. Slim Jims are full of corn syrup, dextrose, cornstarch, and a great many additives. The "four different fuels" in a Lunchables meal, are all essentially corn-based. The chicken nugget—including feed for the chicken, fillers, binders, coating, and dipping sauce—is all corn. The french fries are made from potatoes, but odds are they're fried in corn oil, the source of 50 percent of their calories. Even the salads at McDonald's are full of high-fructose corn syrup and thickeners made from corn."

He continues, discussing the consequences of our industrial food model:

"I believe very strongly that our overproduction of cheap grain in general, and corn in particular, has a lot to do with the fact that three-fifths of Americans are now overweight. The obesity crisis is complicated in some ways, but it's very simple in another way. Basically, Americans are on average eating 200 more calories a day than they were in the 1970s. If you do that and don't get correspondingly more exercise, you're going to get a lot fatter. Many demographers are predicting that this is the first generation of Americans whose life span may be shorter than their parents'. The reason for that is obesity, essentially, and diabetes specifically.

Where do those calories come from? Except for seafood, all our calories come from the farm. Compared with the mid-to-late 1970s, American farms are producing 500 more calories of food a day per American. We're managing to pack away 200 of them, which is pretty heroic on our part. A lot of the rest is being dumped overseas, or wasted, or burned in our cars. (That's really how we're trying to get rid of it now: in ethanol. The problem is that it takes almost as much, or even more, energy to make a gallon of ethanol than you get from that ethanol. People think it's a very green fuel, but the process for making it is not green at all.)

Overproduction sooner or later leads to overconsumption, because we're very good at figuring out how to turn surpluses into inexpensive, portable new products. Our cheap, value-added, portable corn commodity is corn sweetener, specifically high-fructose corn syrup. But we also dispose of overproduction in corn-fed beef, pork, and chicken. And now we're even teaching salmon to eat corn, because there's so much of it to get rid of."

The "Old Me" would dismiss this as alarmism and unprogressive, but these are not arguments, they are mindless dismissals. As Pollan writes in the book, Americans became obsessed with technological progress in the 1970s and we continue to be. We then ceded more control over our food system to large industry which promised to deliver healthier foods through scientific processes. The model, rather than being biological and holistic has become mechanical, technical, and chemical. Though the change has been largely transparent to most, the change has been significant. Rather than eating a diverse diet, we are eating more corn and corn by products than any other nation on earth, including Mexico, who is known to consume a great deal of corn.

1 comment:

Bob said...

I found this to be a fascinating post. Thanks for stopping by my blog, too!