Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday Rant - Feeding corn to fish

I just started reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. It's a book rather in the same vein as Fast Food Nation, in that it's tracing the roots of our food system. Fast Food Nation focuses on fast food (no kidding, right?), whereas Pollan's book is focused more on what makes up our everyday food from the grocery store. And the answer to that is corn. And soybeans. When the price of one spikes, the other is used, in anything from cereal to frozen yogurt, beer to Cheez Whiz, coffee whitener to ketchup, soups to candies, cake mixes to gravy, syrups to hot sauces, mayonnaise to mustard, margarine to bologna, salad dressing to vitamins. That's right, corn's in everything.

But you'd never know it, because on the ingredients, it's listed as the following:
- modified or unmodified starch
- glucose syrup
- maltodextrin
- crystalline fructose
- asorbic acid
- lecithin
- dextrose
- lactic acid
- lysine
- maltose
- HFS and MSG
- polyols
- caramel color
- xanthan gum

All of these mean corn, processed in many different ways. They did a study comparing the levels of corn-consumption markers in Americans vs. Mexicans. Now, keep in mind that Mexicans eat about 40% corn in their diet via tortillas and the like. Americans eat about 7-8% of obvious corn in our diets. I say obvious because the levels of corn in our system far outstripped the levels of corn in the Mexicans' diets. Because pretty much anything we eat that's been processed in any way has some fraction of corn in it. Diet Coke? Corn. Ice cream? Corn. Meat? Corn.

What, what, meat?

That's where the corned fish comes in. (Little digression - I was interested to learn that corned beef has nothing to do with corn - "corn" used to mean any kind of grain, and so that included grains of salt).

Corn in this country is very inexpensive. In August, you can find ears of corn for $.50, and that's for the good stuff we eat straight. Number 2 corn is the corn used as components in other processed foods. This was helped along by the Nixon administration, which broke down the system FDR put in place for stabilizing the farming system and farmer's income vs. market prices. Now, there's so much corn on the market, the prices keep going down. But because the prices go down, the farmers plant more so they can harvest more and pay their bills. Which then depresses prices more. Vicious cycle.

So what do they do with all this corn? They take them to wet mills (basically, the mills where they turn them into components besides flour and starch). And quite a bit of the corn is turned into food for cattle (which is also mixed with protein, vitamins, and antibiotics). That's shipped off to the cattle mills.

Now the problem with feeding corn to cattle is this - cattle have evolved to eat grass. They are ruminants and their rumine processed grass well, not corn. The corn they eat makes their rumine highly acidic (normally they are acid neutral), much as our own stomachs are acidic. And when bacteria grows in their stomachs (such as e. coli), it grows much hardier and more resistant to acid, which then in turn can prove harmful or even fatal to us upon consumption. If the cattle were fed grass for only a month before slaughter, their rumines would be able to recover acid neutral enough to be much less of a danger to us (as far as e. coli).

At least they're not being fed pulverized cattle bone and brain and meal anymore (BSE scared that process out of us). But cattle meal isn't entirely out of the system - it's being fed to chickens and pigs. And chicken and pig meal is then fed back to the cattle, which seems to me to just be a round-about system of feeding cattle to cattle.

And now they're even engineering salmon to eat corn. Salmon! Unless I have my ecology really wrong, salmon have never even seen corn, never mind evolved on it.

All of the chemicals sprayed on the corn, then the chemicals and medicines poured into the cattle, the bacteria rampant in the abattoirs, all of that just makes me wonder what the hell we're doing. I mean, if you tinker with nature too much, it's bound to tinker right back, wouldn't you think? If we get too reliant on corn to the exception of other crops (as many farmers are one-crop exclusive now, as they never used to be), then what happens when the corn market finally goes flop?

In one of Michael Pollan's other books, The Botany of Desire, he talks about the tulip market in Holland a couple centuries ago. It started off as a simple trading of tulips, like in an everyday market. But fairly soon, it started to spiral up until they were trading in tulip futures, and the tulips became an idea rather than a reality (a farmer couldn't actually go to market and sell actual flowers, because everybody was buying futures, not flowers). And then it crashed.

I'm hoping that there's something we can do about this before it crashes. Whether that crash comes in the form of people getting sicker, or whether it's a financial crash of the farmers (and in turn the processors and packagers). Our market is doing terribly right now, but if the system of oversupply isn't corrected, I don't think it's going to get any better for the farmers once the rest of the system corrects itself. And what happens when the farmers are bankrupt? Do we start importing our food? Do we go back to square one, rebooting our food system? Am I being an alarmist?

How's about that for a damn-heavy Friday post! Any attempts to lighten this up are greatly appreciated! :)


Leah J. Utas said...

Thanks for this. I had no idea many of those items listed were from corn.
Soylent Green is people. Everything else is corn.

Anonymous said...

Corn is a very good ingredient and has been consumed by humans and animals for thousands of years. That it can be further processed is also good; it allows consumes access to a wide range of products that wouldn't be available.

In the absence of science, doomsayers will try and spread bad elements about products but in reality corn is an amazing gift to mankind. I am not in the corn industry; just a happy consumer of all of the miracles of life available to me. Pollan's work is an over reaction.

The Lethological Gourmet said...

I don't think that corn is bad, or that scientific progress is bad. I think corn is a wonderful ingredient. However, I think that we're using it in unfortunate way. We're causing larger bacterial outbreaks that have an impact on our health, consuming more and more chemicals instead of natural ingredients, and creating an untenable economic situation for a lot of people.

So it's not science or corn that's the problem, it's the economic forces imposed on the system.

Romny said...

I have a food allergy to corn so basically, I'm cobbed! How's that for a corny response...HA! Get it, corn, cob, corny...o.k. I'll shut up.

WeightingGame said...

I love Ebn and Jerry's new Chunky Corn Ice Cream. Yumm.
Seriously, tho, you have inspired me to check this book out of the library (after I finish Such a Pretty Fat, inspired by MizFit).

Gopi said...

The thing is if caveman were around today, he would go for corn because its available a-plenty. Of course, we have knowledge that caveman didn't possess. So we should exercise that knowledge.

Corn is the sort of "food" you can do without. Whereas something like (organic) blueberries are at the other end of the spectrum. I don't have a microwave 'cause I figured I wasn't going to eat any food that needed microwaving. I prefer pan roasted, boiled or grilled stuff anyway. Although when I am at the occasional fair, I might go for corn on the cob. It won't kill me...