Sunday, May 23, 2010

book review: the omnivore's dilemma

Warning: I'm taking a new approach to my blog entries: fast and furious. In the past I have edited and re-edited so many times that I end up spending an hour on a few paragraphs. So, until my brain catches up to the new writing pace (if it ever does) expect some less coherent writing and more spelling mstakes.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals is one of the best books that I've read so far this year. It tries to answer a seemingly simple question: "Where does our food come from?"

The most intriguing part of the book is the first of the book's three sections; it deals with the topic of industrial corn. It is eye-opening and disheartening to learn how government subsidies have distorted our agriculture in such a way that corn can be sold for less than it costs to produce it. This artificially reduced cost has led to corn being used in virtually everything -- more than a quarter of the items in the typical grocery store contain come form of corn. And since corn is so cheap to buy, it is also used to feed cows, instead of the grasses that they have evolved to eat. The cows inability to process the corn leads to illness which is treated by giving them antibiotics.

Take a moment to "digest" the insanity of this...The government is using our tax dollars to artificially lower corn prices, making it the cheapest food for cows, but this makes the cows sick, which we "fix" by stuffing them with antibiotics. Then we eat the meat, which makes us sick and adds to rising costs of health care.

On top of this, since the corn can be bought for less than the cost of growing it, the people raising the cattle don't grow their own corn, they buy it. So the normal balance of a farm, between animals and plants (using the manure to feed the plants and the plants to feed the animals) has to be broken, and we end up with massive corn growing operations and CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). These CAFOs have a huge number of animals which produce a lot of waste, but they don't have any crops, so the manure becomes a pollution problem instead of a fertilizer. At the same time the huge corn farms don't raise any animals, because it would be to costly to feed them the corn they were growing, and then they have to buy fertilizers -- which were plentiful and cheap from the chemical surpluses after WWII. Plus since the corn subsidies are so high, the farmers have to grow as much corn as they can, reducing the variety of foods they produce.

As a result of some policy change during the Nixon era, the agricultural subsidy program that was helping to balance the seasonal over and under production of crops was been turned into a wild incentive program that hurts:
  • the farmers by driving down costs
  • the animals by force feeding them corn
  • and the consumer by producing food filled with corn byproducts and antibiotics

It seems like the only people that are really winning here are the companies that sell the corn seed (which the farmers are legally prevented from reusing -- that's another whole crazy mess), and more importantly, it's helping the food producers that are using corn to: feed the cattle, sweeten the soda, and mix into every product they can. Essentially, the government is helping the big food companies buy their ingredients.

We've become dangerously disconnected from where our food comes from, and it is insane to believe that the production of the food doesn't have an effect on our health. If you don't have time to read this book (which you should) at least watch the movie Food Inc. which covers much of the same information.

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