Part I: Industrial
The Omnivore's Dilemma follows the author as he tries to figure out what 4 different meals are made of. He follows his food all the way from its beginnings in the soil to the ending in his belly.
The first [and only] meal I've read all the way to its conclusion is the McDonald's hamburger, which has its beginnings in the lowly corn plant. I'm glad I took AP Bio, or else I probably wouldn't have understood the first chapter of the book.
C-4 photosynthesis? Whoozeewhatsit?
Apparently a phenomena that I thought had no importance outside of my 3rd period with Mr. Friedman.
But apparently biology is everything. C-4 photosynthesis allows corn to be extremely productive, even in hot, dry areas. It allows corn to store up gigantic stockpiles of starch. And we take advantage of this...corn powers everything! Well, not everything. it doesn't run our cars [yet. But if ethanol and biodiesel become popular...]
Corn is in 1/4 of the items in our supermarket. Utilizing the power of enzymes, we can break down the materials in it and rearrange it into lots of crazy food additives...high fructose corn syrup, high dextrose corn syrup, lecithin, lactic acid, cornstarch, etc. It's pretty admirable that the food industry has found out a way to utilize corn in so many ways. But in some ways it's kind of scary, esp. looking at the economics of it.
We keep on producing more and more corn, thanks to a crazy system of price subsidies and increasing economic efficiency [our system, unfortunately, is not ecologically efficient. But capitalism is a crazy system that doesn't answer to natural laws.]. But where does it go? People can only eat so much. Or can they? One of the reasons for the new prevalence of processed food is that we have to shove more calories into a smaller space, in order to get rid of all the extra food. That's where Corn Flakes, Cheez Wiz and Pop Tarts all come in.
Another problem is what we're doing to our animals. Surprise: eating meat isn't bad for us! It's eating corn-fed meat that's bad for us. Not even chicken and pigs, per se..both have evolved to eat corn happily. It's eating corn-fed BEEF. [Boy, do Americans eat a lot of it.]
Feeding cows corn is a cheap and quick way of producing lots of steaks. But it produces really fatty meat, which causes all sorts of problems in us. In addition, the cow's rumen wasn't evolved to deal with eating grains....so when cows eat corn, they produce a lot of farts. Sounds funny, until you consider how all that cow farting contributes to global warming. [no lie.]
The ingestion of corn also makes a cow's stomach unnaturally acidic. [normally the cow's rumen is neutral.] This new similarity between cow stomaches and our stomaches mean that the nasties living inside cows become resistant to acid [E. coli O157-H7, anyone?]..and are thus more easily passed on to us.
I realized that a lot of the statistics that PETA, etc often spouts to support veganism are a bit misleading. For one, it is true that grazing cattle takes up a lot of land. But grass evolved because it needs animals to graze on it and help it reproduce. Also, grasslands often occur in places that are too arid to support intensive agriculture. [The farms of the Great Plains survive through amazingly engineered, but unsustainable, systems of irrigation.] It is also true that cows contribute to global warming. but they don't, normally.
If we contribute to sustainable agriculture, then we can solve a lot of the problems associated with our diet. And that doesn't mean not using pesticides. It does, however, mean less waste. Dumping 200 pounds of fertilizer when 100 would do is ridiculous. It also means that we need to eat less meat. Our system of cheap and abundant meat is built on corn. If we want to salvage our health and our environment, the sad truth of the matter is that we're going to have to eat fewer burgers.
How about buffalo?
Buffalo are perfectly adapted for grazing the great plains. After all, they've been there for thousands of years. And they're very tasty, and leaner than beef.
Also: we just need to eat less red meat, period.
The subsidies on corn need to be ceased. The price of corn needs to rise naturally, on its own.
Excitement about NAFTA! That'll basically wipe out the high fructose corn syrup industry, and Big Sugar, all at once.
Ethanol is a great way to get rid of all the corn. But is it really as emissions-free as people claim it is? Or efficient?
I'm bracing myself for a lot of neo-Luddite nonsense in the organic chapter. :]