Corn: our friend, our foe, our shadow

Pollan M. 2007. Omnivores Dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York (NY): Penguin Books. p. 15- 119.

As I begin to write this blog it is an early Friday night, and I have plans to go out for a friends birthday later. After reading this book I’m feeling particularly turned off of corn. That’s when the thought struck me, what am I going to drink. I could put an ignorant faith that the beer I’ll be drinking doesn’t contain any high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) but my instincts tell me it does. My quick googling skills tell me that most hard alcohols are out (except for rum apparently). So, I guess I’ll be one of two people, the guy drinking wine in the club, or the guy taking straight shots of rum. Please don’t judge. This dilemma reinforces what Pollan says, Corn is everywhere. From our drinks to our condiments and to the feed for our meat you’ll find corn. Without us even realizing, corn has become our staple food. It is nearly unavoidable. It follows us everywhere, just like our shadow.

The premise of Pollan’s book seeks to answer two questions. What am I eating? And where did it come from (p. 17)? Throughout his journey he generally finds two answers, corn and Middle America. As he says, “it is now we in the North who are the true people of corn” (p. 23).

So apparently we really like corn. Should you care? Maybe not. Corn is an easy way to keep food prices down and load that food up with energy (p. 106). If you can avoid overindulging and the negative health effects that it has, that’s a great thing. Unfortunately, there’s so much more to the story. By buying that cheap (albeit tasty) food, you’re also supporting a system that is oppressing farmers in Middle America, contributing to the obesity epidemic and leaving a large ecological footprint. Who knew that Big Mac was so political?

I’ll start with the oppression of American farmers. Back in the depression corn hit an all time low. A bushel of corn was effectively worthless (p. 48). In an attempt to avoid this financial catastrophe one part of the New Deal was when prices were low the government would offer farmers a loan and store their corn. If prices rose, the farmer could return the money and collect his corn, if the prices stayed low the farmer could keep the loan. This helped the farmer in two ways, that corn wouldn’t enter the market, further saturating it, and it provided a safety net in what would be a tough year for the farmer. This program was relatively cheap and very effective in keeping corn prices high (p. 49-50). In the early 1970’s this program drastically changed based on two events. The first was the sale of 30 million tons of American grain to Russia in 1972. The sale also coincided with a historically bad year leading to astronomical grain prices. This drew people back to the family farm as corn was now a viable crop to grow (p. 51). In 1973 these high prices and inflation lead to expensive grain. To compensate for this increase in price, farmers were pressured to increase their output. The New Deal system was also replaced and instead of being a loan program, just bought corn outright from the farmers. This led to farmers selling their corn at any price so when prices were low the market still became saturated, leading to a spiral of oversupply when there wasn’t always demand (p. 52). This is beneficial to the large corporations as they now always have a cheap supply of corn but catastrophic to the small farmer. Now, every bushel of corn costs more than it creates and the shortfall is subsidized by the government. So in short, the farmers of Middle America are forced to sell as much corn as they can to stay afloat, which in turn further saturates the market and drives prices down. In essence, the American government is subsidizing profits of the corporations. These farmers are on the brink of bankruptcy with ruined land, forced to produce as much corn as possible. They’re pigeon-holed. When I read this part of the book I became absolutely infuriated. My political ideology is incredibly anti-corporation and to know that I was helping a system like this made me feel awful.

This surplus of corn leads to our next problem. Obesity in America. With the huge surplus of cheap corn, companies like General Mills and Cargill found innovative things to do with it. Pollan visits the Center for Crops Utilization Research where they are working on new ways to use corn. He also shows us how much corn is already used in the foods we eat with out us even knowing. Maltodextrin, sorbitol, MSG, citric and lactic acid are some examples (p. 86). I did some investigating of my own in my fridge and cupboard and low and behold, every packaged product contained one or more of these ingredients. These foods also happen to be the cheapest. People with limited money (like most of us) will buy these products because they are the cheapest and offer a large neurobiological reward (p. 108). As companies reduced the price per ounce, consumers began eating and drinking more and more of the corn syrup they were selling (p. 105).

Lastly, the ecological footprint of corn. Since farmers are forced to grow so much corn to keep their land, fertilizer and pesticide use is rampant. As George Naylor says, “they say you only need a hundred pounds per acre. I don’t know. I’m putting on closer to 180. You don’t want to err on the side of too little” (p. 46). This fertilizer use has a direct environmental impact as it flows down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico creating huge anoxic dead zones (p. 47). It also burns fossil fuel at an astounding rate. As Pollan estimates it takes around 50 gallons of oil to grow an acre of corn now (p. 45).

So the decision is now up to you. Yes, our current food system provides cheap calories and can support a lot of people, but it’s the same system that’s destroying our land, bodies and supporting the large corporations. In this day we have very little political power. Our most important votes we have left are the ones we make with our dollar every day. Now the next time you go to the supermarket you will know what you are really voting for.

 

Advertisements

How your bowl of cereal shaped the world

Diamond, J. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human societies. 1999. New York (NY). Norton Paperback. p. 85-1113, 131-156.

Cereal is one of the most common breakfast foods there is in North America, but I bet you never thought about it’s role in human history. No, this isn’t about how sugary cereals are making you fat. This is about how cereals, one of the first cultivated crops, changed the course of human history. I’ll even argue that cereal was the final step that pushed us out of the animal kingdom and into civilizations. Who knew that bowl of Cheerios was so important.

Our quest to find out how cereal changed the world starts in the Mediterranean some time around 8500 B.C. in what is dubbed the Fertile Crescent. Now, before this time humans around the world were relatively successful. These people were what we would call hunter-gatherers. The rest of the animal kingdom probably thought of them as weird looking-pyromaniac chimps with an odd obsession for sticks and stones but we’ll just call them hunter-gatherers for our purposes. Anyways, this time in the Fertile Crescent was a particularly special time. The Mediterranean climate leads to mild winters and hot, dry summers. This type of climate favours annuals. Typically, annuals spend less time on the production of woody tissues because they won’t be around to reap it’s benefits so it’s a waste of time for them. Instead, the annuals spend their energy on seed production. This made the area hugely productive which in turn lead the way to a large diversity of wild mammals including the success of us humans (p. 136). This large productivity made an easy transition from hunting and gathering into domestication. The annuals were so productive little changes had to be made to begin cultivation and the mammals were easily domesticated. This allowed for a sufficient food production package. This package contained three cereals, four pulses and four domestic animals (p. 142). With such a strong package, agriculture could be competitive with the hunter gatherer lifestyle. Agriculture was developed independently in many other places with a less successful package. Sometimes agriculture only became a supplemental food source when hunting was not successful.

So why were cereals and pulses so important? This is because they have such a high protein content. New Guinea highlanders suffer from protein deficiencies because their staple crops are only 1 % protein while the cereals and pulses are much more protein.

Once agriculture is developed, human populations can expand quite rapidly. Agriculture is favoured in these rising populations because it produces more food per acre than hunting/ gathering (p. 88). The farming lifestyle also allows more children to be born. A farmer who is settled can have as many kids as they can feed. Conversely, a nomadic hunter-gatherer can only have as much as she could carry, so having many toddlers would be impossible (p.89).

The food surplus also opened the door for an opportunity unavailable in hunter-gatherer societies, specialization. In these hunter-gatherer societies people were forced to spend a majority of their time collecting food (p. 90). With a food surplus, professional soldiers can be paid allowing for conquests as seen in Britain’s attacks on the Maori population of New Zealand (p. 90). Specialization is not reserved for soldiers though. Food storage can also allow for priests, artists and scribes, all important parts of our modern societies (p. 90). Without agriculture our technology would likely be far less advanced. Agriculture separated us from the animals. Now we weren’t just another species fighting for survival. We were thriving. And we had the time to think about it.

Who knew your morning bowl of cereal did so much.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is that bird a farmer? Is the potato a shepherd?: Revisiting the poorly named process of artificial selection.

Pollan, M. The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. 2002. Toronto (ON). Random House Trade Paperbacks. p.xiii-xxv.

Diamond, J. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human societies. 1999. New York (NY). Norton Paperback. p. 114-130.

“To say that one of us are more ‘advanced’ really depends on how you define the term, on what ‘advances’ you value. Naturally we value abilities such as consciousness, toolmaking, and language, if only because these have been the destinations of our own evolutionary journey thus far. Plants have traveled all that distance and then some-they’ve just traveled in a different direction” (p. xix Botany of Desire). Powerful words from Micheal Pollan, the type of words that force one to reevaluate their own sense of self and the role of the human in this world, but we’ll come back to that.

“Botany of Desire” challenges the stigma we put to species that are domesticated. This stigma that we hold is that domestication means lesser. If we can conquer a species and enslave it, then it is not worth our reverence. A house cat could no longer survive in “nature”, but natural selection selects for traits that are best suited for their environment, at that time and the house cat’s environment is now a house. The house cat’s domesticated behavior is perfectly suited for it’s current environment and, from an evolutionary perspective, are very successful. Surely, if a cougar was in your home, you would not hesitate to kill it. The same cat whose power that we awe. The cougar in the house is an extreme, and unlikely scenario but a parallel situation happens all the time when cougars wander out of “nature” and into the city. This city wandering behaviour can sometimes lead to death of the cougar. What I am trying to illustrate is that the cougar is not well suited for the city environment and that this city environment is still nature. As Pollan says, “today, ‘fitness’ means the ability to get along in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force” p. xxiii. This is a major theme in “Botany of Desire”. That even though we live in comfortable houses and can domesticate species, we are still apart of nature. Once we come to terms that we are apart of nature, we come to the realization that we are still subject to the laws of nature.

The definition of artificial selection is quite simple. The intentional reproduction of individuals of a species to gain it’s desirable traits. However, when applied to the natural world this definition is challenged. In “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, Diamond talks about the relationship between strawberries and birds. The fruits on strawberry plants do not turn red, sweet, and tender until their seeds are mature. The red color of the strawberry then attracts the thrushes to eat the berries. The seeds are then dispersed through the birds defecation. “The greener and more sour the young strawberry, the fewer the birds that destroyed the seeds by eating berries before the seeds were ready; the sweeter and redder the final strawberry, the more numerous the birds that dispersed its ripe seeds” (p. 116 Guns, Germs, and Steel).  Any biologist would claim this to be natural selection at it’s finest. However, this is the same relationship that we have with many plants that we harvest. We desire potatoes for their size and taste. The bigger and tastier potatoes are selected by us and will multiply more effectively (p. xiv-xxv Botany of Desire) and yet we call this latter scenario artificial selection. We will also often call the person who selects the bigger, tastier potatoes a good farmer. So if this is the case, are thrushes really just strawberry farmers dispersing the seeds of the sweetest and reddest berries? Is the potato a shepherd, actively domesticating us to perform the plants work? Of course not. Diamond brings us back to earth with his statement, “Naturally, strawberry plants didn’t set out with the conscious intent of attracting birds when, and only when, their plants were dispersed. Neither did thrushes set out with the intent of domesticating strawberries. Instead, strawberry plants evolved through natural selection” (p. 116 Guns, Germs, and Steel). However, this thought is what forces us to reconsider our role in the world. We do have free will, but at the same time, we are apart of a coevolutionary relationship with plants.

Pollan is very good at showing the reader that we are involved in a coevolutionary relationship with the plants that we harvest. The plants give us food, beauty or altered consciousness. In turn, we do the work of planting, dispersing and clearing areas for these plants to grow. “The fact that one has evolved to become intermittently aware of its desires makes no difference whatsoever to the flower or the potato” (p. xv Botany of Desire).”That’s why it makes sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees” (p. xxi Botany of Desire). The evolutionary goal of all species is to pass their genetic information on. Clearly, the domesticated plants have done an exceptional job of this. So maybe the plant is more advanced than we give it credit for. Just because in our own evolutionary monetary system we value conscious thought, doesn’t mean it’s really worth that much at all.

Triumph of Seeds

Hanson T. The triumph of seeds: how grains, nuts, kernels pulses & pips conquered the plant kingdom and shaped human history. New York (NY): Basic Books. p. xix-18; 55-80.

The chapters referenced in this book illustrate to us how powerful seeds are. In the introduction, the author tells us about the characteristics of seeds and relates it to how humans use them. We are then walked through the mystery of seed germination as Hanson takes us through his own process of getting avocados to germinate. We are then taken to a coal bed in New Mexico where we learn that seeds may have been thriving before we had previously thought. Finally, the author walks us through Mendel’s famous experiment as he conducts it in his own backyard.

I found it amusing when the author was trying to break open his seed in his office and could not. I was amazed at the lengths he was going to attempt to break this seed and was shocked that they wouldn’t break. This part of the book was quite funny but it also forced me to ask the same question Hanson did, which was why were seeds so hard and how does a plant break through it’s shell so easily?

I also enjoyed reading along as the author was digging in New Mexico. I learned a lot about the Carboniferous/ Permian times and how it is believed the seed plants may have been thriving in the dry uplands. This is not well shown in the fossil record due to the fact that terrestrial plants do not preserve well. This creates a preservation bias as the author informs us  on page 60. I also like the illustration on page 59 that shows what a forest in the Carboniferous times may have looked like, a habitat dominated by gigantic ferns and horsetails. I had never thought about a fern being able to grow so huge.

One thing I didn’t like about the book was the opening quote in the introduction. The quote reads, “Think of the fierce energy in an acorn! you bury it in the ground, and it explodes into a giant oak! Bury a sheep and nothing happens but decay”. I found this to be a false analogy because the author is comparing two different parts of the life cycle when he compares an acorn to a sheep. The acorn is an embryo, and the sheep is an adult. If I were to bury an oak tree (the adult) decay would occur to it, same as the sheep. When comparing the embryo of a sheep to a seed there is just as much “fierce energy” and the process that occurs to make the sheep is just as miraculous!

With the sections read, I think the author intends to make us appreciate the power and mysterious biochemistry that goes on in a seed. I think he also wants us to realize the versatility and the resiliency of seeds.

 

100 Mile Diet (1st half)

Smith A, MacKinnon JB. 2007. The 100 mile diet: a year of local eating. Toronto (ON): Vintage Canada Edition p. 1-148.

The 100 mile diet is a novel about a couple who decide to eat locally for an entire year. The chapters are based on the months of the year starting in March and I will be responding to the book up to October. The authors switch every chapter giving two different perspectives of the story and are written in a journal type entry.

The couple decide to start this diet due to the impact of two events. The first being a wonderful meal they enjoyed in Northern BC that they foraged themselves and a study that found North American food travels on average 1,500-3,000 miles. This statistic sparks the couple to eat all ingredients within 100 miles. This proves to be quite challenging in the beginning as the couple struggles to find local food sources. Eventually, they find their footing and along the way learn that local eating is not only possible, but the food that can be grown in their region was more than they imagined.

A paragraph that I found quite powerful was on page 5. The author implies that he and his partner were environmentally conscious. However, as he says, “[they] had no cause to feel holier-than-thou…[they] were living on an SUV diet”. This gave me a realization that many of the small environmental efforts we make individually and as a society that we applaud ourselves for are in vain when we consider that our food selection makes such a large part of our ecological footprint.

One point I would like to bring to light is the fact that the authors, who were vegetarian for 15 years, were forced to abandon their vegetarian diets. As Smith says on page 71, “our vegetarian diet depended on a long distance food system”. One page earlier on page 70 she also tells the reader that it takes fourteen pounds of corn to produce one pound of meat. I find an interesting dilemma in this. The book is set in the urban environment of Vancouver, and with the knowledge that raising meat is so costly, if Vancouver residents were all to take up the 100 mile diet the livestock necessary to support the city would be near impossible to raise within the boundaries. The residents of Vancouver would be forced to drastically reduce their meat consumption and pushed towards a more vegetarian diet. I go on to believe that this is a viable option when James has a conversation with a farmer named Dan Jason on pages 95-100. The conversation with Dan brings to light that the growth of many crops that to my knowledge could not be grown in the Pacific Northwest could. This leads me to believe that the legumes and protein rich plants could be grown to supply a more vegetarian appetite if required.

The idea that our region has more diversity than I imagined is further illustrated by James in the September chapter. His talks with Richard Hebda talk about the abundance of life that I can not even fathom. Hebda also delivers a powerful message on page 144 when he says, “we don’t realize that [nature is] a skeletal form. Not understanding that it’s skeletal we also have no idea how close to perishing it is”.

The 1st half of this book is used to show the reader that although time and effort are needed, eating locally is possible. The authors are able to find many local products and farmers that they were unaware of and have been brought much more connected to their food.