Pollan on Food, Politics and Health
By Brian Small at Apr 07, 2009
Eating is an economic and political act
not to mention health choice.
I was talking with some guys that research nutrition and fat, food-related areas. We were on a bus for an hour so I tried to learn why Michael Moore want to ban high fructose corn syrup and Michael Pollan says you can's sell huge sodas with sugar in them. Corn syrup sweeteners don't send your brain the same signals to stop eating, your full, you have enought calories already. I was told you can't eat anything if you start reading lables and thinking about ingredients. If you have a chance to do some planning, line up fair trade coffee and a thermos it's possible - these guys are university teachers - it's not like they're running around with 3 part-time jobs and very little pay. You would think Supersize Me and Fast Food Nation DVDs would be right down their alley. I promised to send them the backing for my questioning of fructose and corn - since I have all these links and clippings lined up - I might as well inflict them on the Zblogs audience (if there is one, now).
Why are Americans so fat? According to Michael Pollan, it's not just supersized portions and sedentary lifestyles that make obesity the second-highest cause of preventable death in the United States. It's corn.
It's probably no coincidence that the wholesale switch to corn sweeteners in the 1980's marks the beginning of the epidemic of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in this country. Sweetness became so cheap that soft drink makers, rather than lower their prices, super-sized their serving portions and marketing budgets. Thousands of new sweetened snack foods hit the market, and the amount of fructose in our diets soared.
This would be bad enough for the American waistline, but there's also preliminary research suggesting that high-fructose corn syrup is metabolized differently than other sugars, making it potentially more harmful. A recent study at the University of Minnesota found that a diet high in fructose (as compared to glucose) elevates triglyceride levels in men shortly after eating, a phenomenon that has been linked to an increased risk of obesity and heart disease. Little is known about the health effects of eating animals that have themselves eaten so much corn, but in the case of cattle, researchers have found that corn-fed beef is higher in saturated fats than grass-fed beef.
We know a lot more about what 80 million acres of corn is doing to the health of our environment: serious and lasting damage. Modern corn hybrids are the greediest of plants, demanding more nitrogen fertilizer than any other crop. Corn requires more pesticide than any other food crop. Runoff from these chemicals finds its way into the groundwater and, in the Midwestern corn belt, into the Mississippi River, which carries it to the Gulf of Mexico, where it has already killed off marine life in a 12,000-square-mile area.
I love this ecoliteracy site below. Why shouldn't Food Education be a subject just like Physical Education? There should be gardening and cooking teachers, From Seed to Table classes, in every school. There's a nice chunk of stimulus package for you. Mike Davis says the Green New Deal is a good idea but more teachers and public education would have more direct effects for local economies as there isn't so much bleeding off to European windmill and tram manufacturers.
So how did Michael Pollan discover that corn is the root of much dietary evil in the States. Was it the SaveHarryPotter site or some other people that talk about children being mal-nourished and obese at the same time?
If you are what you eat, and especially if you eat industrial food, as 99 percent of Americans do, what you are is corn. During the last year I've been following a bushel of corn through the industrial food system. What I keep finding in case after case, if you follow the food back to the farm -- if you follow the nutrients, if you follow the carbon -- you end up in a corn field in Iowa, over and over and over again.
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.
Corn is the keystone species of the industrial food system, along with its sidekick, soybeans, with which it shares a rotation on most of the farms in the Midwest. I'm really talking about cheap corn -- overproduced, subsidized, industrial corn -- the biggest legal cash crop in America. Eighty million acres -- an area twice the size of New York State -- is blanketed by a vast corn monoculture like a second great American lawn.
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. ã€‚ã€‚ã€‚
There's something about getting diabetes at a young age that is really, really bad too. My own efforts at Food Education center on transmitting my own childhood jargon. All those empty calories you see near the supermarket and convenience store cash registers? Well that's all 'sugar shit'(Sato No Unchi). The idea to go back a generation or too, or at least consult the Dr. Spock generation wasn't unique. If you were wondering what Pollan would say if you asked him what to eat, USA today helps.
His answer is his fifth book, out this month, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. Here's the gist, inscribed on the front cover: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Pollan says we should eat only foods that our great-grandmothers would have recognized. He started out saying just grandmother but realized she wouldn't necessarily predate fat-free sour cream, breakfast bars and butter-flavor crystals.
While you're at it, avoid products that have five or more ingredients, especially if you've never heard of or can't pronounce them.
Pollan sees himself in the role of Dr. Spock — Benjamin Spock, the baby doctor. During the 1950s and '60s, when everyone was busy "professionalizing" child care, Spock told mothers to relax and trust their instincts.[Michio Matuda does this in Japan.]
"Spock said, 'Your mother was right, you know a lot of this stuff.' And that was a very comforting, liberating tactic to people. Not to mention, it was right."
This over reliance on corn is worrisome no just in the personal diet, but you get all these envrionmental, economic and political issues to mull over too. Here's the true coast of corn mentioned in the Washington Post.
High-fructose corn syrup "may be cheap in the supermarket, but in the environment it could not be more expensive," Michael Pollan, author of "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto" (Penguin Press, 2008), writes in an e-mail.
And here's corn and political subsidies in the Christian Science Monitor.
Corn's place in the US economy is secure, judging by Congress's approval this spring of an unprecedented $190 billion farm-subsidy package. One of its largest beneficiaries was corn growers.
In an interview, Pollan talked about why he says that this brazen vegetable is calling the shots.
What exactly led you to corn?
When you see that a plant has taken over - like grasses and lawns, and like corn - it has somehow manipulated us. We're doing its evolutionary job, spreading it around, because it's made itself attractive to us. Corn is like this second great American lawn - I mean miles and miles of it, all through the Midwest, and even where I live in Connecticut. This plant is so successful. And the productivity of corn is astonishing. The reason is that it responds very well to fertilizer. We've gotten the yield per acre from 20 bushels a hundred years ago to 160 now.
Why is the productivity of corn a problem?
We're producing way too much corn. So, we make corn sweeteners. High-fructose corn sweeteners are everywhere. They've completely replaced sugar in sodas and soft drinks. They make sweet things cheaper. We also give it to animals. Corn explains everything about the cattle industry. It explains why we have to give [cattle] antibiotics, because corn doesn't agree with their digestive system. It explains why we have this E.coli 0157 problem, because the corn acidifies their digestive system in such a way that these bacteria can survive.
And we subsidize this overproduction. We structure the subsidies to make corn very, very cheap, which encourages farmers to plant more and more to make the same amount of money. The argument is that it helps us compete internationally. The great beneficiaries are the processors that are using corn domestically. We're subsidizing obesity. We're subsidizing the food-safety problems associated with feedlot beef. It's an absolutely irrational system. The people who worry about public health don't have any control over agricultural subsidies. The USDA is not thinking about public health. The USDA is thinking about getting rid of corn. And, helping [businesses] to be able to make their products more cheaply - whether it's beef or high-fructose corn syrup. Agribusiness gives an immense amount of funding to Congress.
What about corn growers?To pull out of that system for them is very hard. It depends on where they live. They should be diversifying and growing other things, niche crops, and getting away from commodities. It's very hard to compete with agricultural commodities. Somebody [at the Berkeley conference] said that 40 percent of farm income is represented by subsidies. Say the farmer could make more money doing strawberries. There's no subsidy for that. So he's taking an enormous risk, and he's giving up for all time his corn subsidy.
What about economies of scale? We've been able to feed more people, democratize meat.
I don't know if democratizing beef is a good thing. The industry can always make the popular arguments, because they certainly make things cheaper. But is it really cheap? Think of the taxpayer, who's actually subsidizing every one of those burgers. All that corn requires an immense amount of fossil fuel. Corn requires more fertilizers and pesticides than other crops. It takes the equivalent of half a gallon of gasoline to grow every bushel of corn. [Almost] everything we do to protect our oil supply ... is a cost of that burger.
And then there are the health costs. It's not really good for us. Corn-fed beef has much more saturated fat. So, yeah, it's cheap, if you only look at the price tag.
You talked about how you were encouraged by the idea of engineering corn so it could be a perennial.
I have no problem with interfering with nature. We live in places where we can only live by changing the environment. This is the human condition, and I don't think that's bad. It's working with nature. It's taking the prairie and figuring out a way to get food out of [it] without having to plow, without having to break the sod. If you could make corn and wheat and rice perennials rather than annuals, you would just come and mow it, and get your food that way, instead of having to tear it up every year. That could help end world hunger.
Many people read your book and think of ... Thoreau.
Like him, I'm interested in looking at my relationship with the natural world, and doing it in my backyard rather than wandering around in Yosemite or the Amazon. And he used his everyday experiences to explore his connections to the much larger world. However, I see us as having much more participation in the natural world. I don't have as much of a sense of opposition between nature and culture. At this point, I think we have more to learn by looking at the working landscape: farms and gardens. I think we have said all we can say about the 8 percent of this country that's untouched. It's still very important. However, there is this other 92 percent. We need models of how to take care of that.
Pollan is sounding like Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry at The Land institute above. I'd like to see him spend some time with Lappe and Bello at foodfirst.org too when he talks about world hunger.Here's more Gringo Politics from the New York Times. The Farm Bill is a Food Bill. I'm wondering if this issue could help you start figuring out how policy shapes your life. It's hard to grasp how highway subsidies moved people out into the suburbs. The massive costs cars foist on city planning. Food might be a way to ease into these patterns of thinking in policy terms.
Americans have begun to ask why the farm bill is subsidizing high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils at a time when rates of diabetes and obesity among children are soaring, or why the farm bill is underwriting factory farming (with subsidized grain) when feedlot wastes are polluting the countryside and, all too often, the meat supply. For the first time, the public health community has raised its voice in support of overturning farm policies that subsidize precisely the wrong kind of calories (added fat and added sugar), helping to make Twinkies cheaper than carrots and Coca-Cola competitive with water. Also for the first time, the international development community has weighed in on the debate, arguing that subsidized American exports are hobbling cotton farmers in Nigeria and corn farmers in Mexico.
On Capitol Hill, hearings on the farm bill have been packed, and newspapers like The San Francisco Chronicle are covering the legislation as closely as The Des Moines Register, bringing an unprecedented level of attention to what has long been one of the most obscure and least sexy pieces of legislation in Congress. Sensing the winds of reform at his back, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told a reporter in July: "This is not just a farm bill. It's a food bill, and Americans who eat want a stake in it."
Right now, that stake is looking more like a toothpick. Americans who eat have little to celebrate in the bill that Mr. Harkin is expected to bring to the floor this week. Like the House bill passed in July, the Senate product is very much a farm bill in the traditional let-them-eat-high-fructose-corn-syrup mold.
For starters, the Old Guard on both agriculture committees has managed to preserve the entire hoary contraption of direct payments, countercyclical payments and loan deficiency payments that subsidize the five big commodity crops -- corn, wheat, rice, soybeans and cotton -- to the tune of $42 billion over five years.
The Old Guard has also managed to add a $5 billion "permanent disaster" program (excuse me, but isn't a permanent disaster a contradiction in terms?) to help farmers in the High Plains struggling to grow crops in a drought-prone region that, as the chronic need for disaster aid suggests, might not be the best place to grow crops.
When you consider that farm income is at record levels (thanks to the ethanol boom, itself fueled by another set of federal subsidies); that the World Trade Organization has ruled that several of these subsidies are illegal; that the federal government is broke and the president is threatening a veto, bringing forth a $288 billion farm bill that guarantees billions in payments to commodity farmers seems impressively defiant.
How could this have happened? For starters, farm bill critics did a far better job demonizing subsidies, and depicting commodity farmers as welfare queens, than they did proposing alternative -- and politically appealing -- forms of farm support. And then the farm lobby did what it has always done: bought off its critics with "programs." For that reason "Americans who eat" can expect some nutritious crumbs from the farm bill, just enough to ensure that reform-minded legislators will hold their noses and support it.
It's an old story: the "hunger lobby" gets its food stamps so long as the farm lobby can have its subsidies. Similar, if less lavish, terms are now being offered to the public health and environmental "interests" to get them on board. That's why there's more money in this farm bill for nutrition programs and, for the first time, about $2 billion to support "specialty crops" -- farm-bill-speak for the kind of food people actually eat. (Since California grows most of the nation's specialty crops, this was the price for the state delegation's support. Cheap indeed!)
I had been following the movement for White House 'Victory Garden' kind of place for a while. I think it might have gone through. Did someone like Alice Waters of ecoliteracy.org end up in the White House Chef position? I think these food and agricutultural topics are important. You want all the Znetters and activists to stay healthy and well, active - and it's also a way to ease into critical thinking on corporations and politics, even in 'polite company.' I also like that Pollan is a 'hopelss otimist' it makes you think of the Gramsci quote (only words of his I've seen) about 'Pessimismo of the intellect, Optimism of the will.' The SierraClub interview is great on GMOs and corporate agriculture. I hope Pollan is on his way to finding the Poclad people to inform his views on Corporate Agriculture. Someone get him a copy of Hope in the Dark and Rats in the Grain(ADM - haven't read it miyself).