Saturday, March 9, 2024

Saturday Snippet: It all comes down to corn


First published in 2006, Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" exposed the hugely artificial, compromised nature of our First World food chain.  It's been a source of enlightenment and controversy ever since.

The blurb reads:

What should we have for dinner? Ten years ago, Michael Pollan confronted us with this seemingly simple question and, with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, his brilliant and eye-opening exploration of our food choices, demonstrated that how we answer it today may determine not only our health but our survival as a species. In the years since, Pollan’s revolutionary examination has changed the way Americans think about food. Bringing wide attention to the little-known but vitally important dimensions of food and agriculture in America, Pollan launched a national conversation about what we eat and the profound consequences that even the simplest everyday food choices have on both ourselves and the natural world. Ten years later, The Omnivore’s Dilemma continues to transform the way Americans think about the politics, perils, and pleasures of eating.

I'm still in the process of reading the book.  I'm finding it fascinating, and learning a lot as I proceed.  I thought I'd start you off with the strange tale of how the humble corn plant has come to dominate so much of our food production and consumption.

Air-conditioned, odorless, illuminated by buzzing fluorescent tubes, the American supermarket doesn’t present itself as having very much to do with Nature. And yet what is this place if not a landscape (man-made, it’s true) teeming with plants and animals?

I’m not just talking about the produce section or the meat counter, either—the supermarket’s flora and fauna. Ecologically speaking, these are this landscape’s most legible zones, the places where it doesn’t take a field guide to identify the resident species. Over there’s your eggplant, onion, potato, and leek; here your apple, banana, and orange. Spritzed with morning dew every few minutes, Produce is the only corner of the supermarket where we’re apt to think “Ah, yes, the bounty of Nature!” Which probably explains why such a garden of fruits and vegetables (sometimes flowers, too) is what usually greets the shopper coming through the automatic doors.

Keep rolling, back to the mirrored rear wall behind which the butchers toil, and you encounter a set of species only slightly harder to identify—there’s chicken and turkey, lamb and cow and pig. Though in Meat the creaturely character of the species on display does seem to be fading, as the cows and pigs increasingly come subdivided into boneless and bloodless geometrical cuts. In recent years some of this supermarket euphemism has seeped into Produce, where you’ll now find formerly soil-encrusted potatoes cubed pristine white, and “baby” carrots machine-lathed into neatly tapered torpedoes. But in general here in flora and fauna you don’t need to be a naturalist, much less a food scientist, to know what species you’re tossing into your cart.

Venture farther, though, and you come to regions of the supermarket where the very notion of species seems increasingly obscure: the canyons of breakfast cereals and condiments; the freezer cases stacked with “home meal replacements” and bagged platonic peas; the broad expanses of soft drinks and towering cliffs of snacks; the unclassifiable Pop-Tarts and Lunchables; the frankly synthetic coffee whiteners and the Linnaeus-defying Twinkie. Plants? Animals?! Though it might not always seem that way, even the deathless Twinkie is constructed out of…well, precisely what I don’t know offhand, but ultimately some sort of formerly living creature, i.e., a species. We haven’t yet begun to synthesize our foods from petroleum, at least not directly.

If you do manage to regard the supermarket through the eyes of a naturalist, your first impression is apt to be of its astounding biodiversity. Look how many different plants and animals (and fungi) are represented on this single acre of land! What forest or prairie could hope to match it? There must be a hundred different species in the produce section alone, a handful more in the meat counter. And this diversity appears only to be increasing: When I was a kid, you never saw radicchio in the produce section, or a half dozen different kinds of mushrooms, or kiwis and passion fruit and durians and mangoes. Indeed, in the last few years a whole catalog of exotic species from the tropics has colonized, and considerably enlivened, the produce department. Over in fauna, on a good day you’re apt to find—beyond beef—ostrich and quail and even bison, while in Fish you can catch not just salmon and shrimp but catfish and tilapia, too. Naturalists regard biodiversity as a measure of a landscape’s health, and the modern supermarket’s devotion to variety and choice would seem to reflect, perhaps even promote, precisely that sort of ecological vigor.

Except for the salt and a handful of synthetic food additives, every edible item in the supermarket is a link in a food chain that begins with a particular plant growing in a specific patch of soil (or, more seldom, stretch of sea) somewhere on earth. Sometimes, as in the produce section, that chain is fairly short and easy to follow: As the netted bag says, this potato was grown in Idaho, that onion came from a farm in Texas. Move over to Meat, though, and the chain grows longer and less comprehensible: The label doesn’t mention that that rib-eye steak came from a steer born in South Dakota and fattened in a Kansas feedlot on grain grown in Iowa. Once you get into the processed foods you have to be a fairly determined ecological detective to follow the intricate and increasingly obscure lines of connection linking the Twinkie, or the nondairy creamer, to a plant growing in the earth someplace, but it can be done.

So what exactly would an ecological detective set loose in an American supermarket discover, were he to trace the items in his shopping cart all the way back to the soil? The notion began to occupy me a few years ago, after I realized that the straightforward question “What should I eat?” could no longer be answered without first addressing two other even more straightforward questions: “What am I eating? And where in the world did it come from?” Not very long ago an eater didn’t need a journalist to answer these questions. The fact that today one so often does suggests a pretty good start on a working definition of industrial food: Any food whose provenance is so complex or obscure that it requires expert help to ascertain.

When I started trying to follow the industrial food chain—the one that now feeds most of us most of the time and typically culminates either in a supermarket or fast-food meal—I expected that my investigations would lead me to a wide variety of places. And though my journeys did take me to a great many states, and covered a great many miles, at the very end of these food chains (which is to say, at the very beginning), I invariably found myself in almost exactly the same place: a farm field in the American Corn Belt. The great edifice of variety and choice that is an American supermarket turns out to rest on a remarkably narrow biological foundation comprised of a tiny group of plants that is dominated by a single species: Zea mays, the giant tropical grass most Americans know as corn.

Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak. Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn. The eggs are made of corn. The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.

Head over to the processed foods and you find ever more intricate manifestations of corn. A chicken nugget, for example, piles corn upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn, of course, but so do most of a nugget’s other constituents, including the modified corn starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter that coats it, and the corn oil in which it gets fried. Much less obviously, the leavenings and lecithin, the mono-, di-, and triglycerides, the attractive golden coloring, and even the citric acid that keeps the nugget “fresh” can all be derived from corn.

To wash down your chicken nuggets with virtually any soft drink in the supermarket is to have some corn with your corn. Since the 1980s virtually all the sodas and most of the fruit drinks sold in the supermarket have been sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—after water, corn sweetener is their principal ingredient. Grab a beer for your beverage instead and you’d still be drinking corn, in the form of alcohol fermented from glucose refined from corn. Read the ingredients on the label of any processed food and, provided you know the chemical names it travels under, corn is what you will find. For modified or unmodified starch, for glucose syrup and maltodextrin, for crystalline fructose and ascorbic acid, for lecithin and dextrose, lactic acid and lysine, for maltose and HFCS, for MSG and polyols, for the caramel color and xanthan gum, read: corn. Corn is in the coffee whitener and Cheez Whiz, the frozen yogurt and TV dinner, the canned fruit and ketchup and candies, the soups and snacks and cake mixes, the frosting and gravy and frozen waffles, the syrups and hot sauces, the mayonnaise and mustard, the hot dogs and the bologna, the margarine and shortening, the salad dressings and the relishes and even the vitamins. (Yes, it’s in the Twinkie, too.) There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn. This goes for the nonfood items as well—everything from the toothpaste and cosmetics to the disposable diapers, trash bags, cleansers, charcoal briquettes, matches, and batteries, right down to the shine on the cover of the magazine that catches your eye by the checkout: corn. Even in Produce on a day when there’s ostensibly no corn for sale you’ll nevertheless find plenty of corn: in the vegetable wax that gives the cucumbers their sheen, in the pesticide responsible for the produce’s perfection, even in the coating on the cardboard it was shipped in. Indeed, the supermarket itself—the wallboard and joint compound, the linoleum and fiberglass and adhesives out of which the building itself has been built—is in no small measure a manifestation of corn.

And us?

. . .

Americans eat much more wheat than corn—114 pounds of wheat flour per person per year, compared to 11 pounds of corn flour. The Europeans who colonized America regarded themselves as wheat people, in contrast to the native corn people they encountered; wheat in the West has always been considered the most refined, or civilized, grain. If asked to choose, most of us would probably still consider ourselves wheat people (except perhaps the proud corn-fed Midwesterners, and they don’t know the half of it), though by now the whole idea of identifying with a plant at all strikes us as a little old-fashioned. Beef people sounds more like it, though nowadays chicken people, which sounds not nearly so good, is probably closer to the truth of the matter. But carbon 13 doesn’t lie, and researchers who have compared the isotopes in the flesh or hair of North Americans to those in the same tissues of Mexicans report that it is now we in the North who are the true people of corn. “When you look at the isotope ratios,” Todd Dawson, a Berkeley biologist who’s done this sort of research, told me, “we North Americans look like corn chips with legs.” Compared to us, Mexicans today consume a far more varied carbon diet: the animals they eat still eat grass (until recently, Mexicans regarded feeding corn to livestock as a sacrilege); much of their protein comes from legumes; and they still sweeten their beverages with cane sugar.

So that’s us: processed corn, walking.

. . .

Early in the twentieth century American corn breeders figured out how to bring corn reproduction under firm control and to protect the seed from copiers. The breeders discovered that when they crossed two corn plants that had come from inbred lines—from ancestors that had themselves been exclusively self-pollinated for several generations—the hybrid offspring displayed some highly unusual characteristics. First, all the seeds in that first generation (F-1, in the plant breeder’s vocabulary) produced genetically identical plants—a trait that, among other things, facilitates mechanization. Second, those plants exhibited heterosis, or hybrid vigor—better yields than either of their parents. But most important of all, they found that the seeds produced by these seeds did not “come true”—the plants in the second (F-2) generation bore little resemblance to the plants in the first. Specifically, their yields plummeted by as much as a third, making their seeds virtually worthless.

Hybrid corn now offered its breeders what no other plant at that time could: the biological equivalent of a patent. Farmers now had to buy new seeds every spring; instead of depending upon their plants to reproduce themselves, they now depended on a corporation. The corporation, assured for the first time of a return on its investment in breeding, showered corn with attention—R&D, promotion, advertising—and the plant responded, multiplying its fruitfulness year after year. With the advent of the F-1 hybrid, a technology with the power to remake nature in the image of capitalism, Zea mays entered the industrial age and, in time, it brought the whole American food chain with it.

. . .

Naylor has no idea how many bushels of corn per acre his grandfather could produce, but the average back in 1920 was about twenty bushels per acre—roughly the same yields historically realized by Native Americans. Corn then was planted in widely spaced bunches in a checkerboard pattern so farmers could easily cultivate between the stands in either direction. Hybrid seed came on the market in the late 1930s, when his father was farming. “You heard stories,” George shouted over the din of the tractor. “How they talked him into raising an acre or two of the new hybrid, and by god when the old corn fell over, the hybrid stood straight up. Doubled Dad’s yields, till he was getting seventy to eighty an acre in the fifties.” George has doubled that yet again, some years getting as much as two hundred bushels of corn per acre. The only other domesticated species ever to have multiplied its productivity by such a factor is the Holstein cow.

“High yield” is a fairly abstract concept, and I wondered what it meant at the level of the plant: more cobs per stalk? more kernels per cob? Neither of the above, Naylor explained. The higher yield of modern hybrids stems mainly from the fact that they can be planted so close together, thirty thousand to the acre instead of eight thousand in his father’s day. Planting the old open-pollinated (nonhybrid) varieties so densely would result in stalks grown spindly as they jostled each other for sunlight; eventually the plants would topple in the wind. Hybrids have been bred for thicker stalks and stronger root systems, the better to stand upright in a crowd and withstand mechanical harvesting. Basically, modern hybrids can tolerate the corn equivalent of city life, growing amid the multitudes without succumbing to urban stress.

You would think that competition among individuals would threaten the tranquility of such a crowded metropolis, yet the modern field of corn forms a most orderly mob. This is because every plant in it, being an F-1 hybrid, is genetically identical to every other. Since no individual plant has inherited any competitive edge over any other, precious resources like sunlight, water, and soil nutrients are shared equitably. There are no alpha corn plants to hog the light or fertilizer. The true socialist utopia turns out to be a field of F-1 hybrid plants.

Iowa begins to look a little different when you think of its sprawling fields as cities of corn, the land, in its own way, settled as densely as Manhattan for the very same purpose: to maximize real estate values. There may be little pavement out here, but this is no middle landscape. Though by any reasonable definition Iowa is a rural state, it is more thoroughly developed than many cities: A mere 2 percent of the state’s land remains what it used to be (tall-grass prairie), every square foot of the rest having been completely remade by man. The only thing missing from this man-made landscape is…man.

. . .

There are many reasons for the depopulation of the American Farm Belt, but the triumph of corn deserves a large share of the blame—or the credit, depending on your point of view.

When George Naylor’s grandfather was farming, the typical Iowa farm was home to whole families of different plant and animal species, corn being only the fourth most common. Horses were the first, because every farm needed working animals (there were only 225 tractors in all of America in 1920), followed by cattle, chickens, and then corn. After corn came hogs, apples, hay, oats, potatoes, and cherries; many Iowa farms also grew wheat, plums, grapes, and pears. This diversity allowed the farm not only to substantially feed itself—and by that I don’t mean feed only the farmers, but also the soil and the livestock—but to withstand a collapse in the market for any one of those crops. It also produced a completely different landscape than the Iowa of today.

“You had fences everywhere,” George recalled, “and of course pastures. Everyone had livestock, so large parts of the farm would be green most of the year. The ground never used to be this bare this long.” For much of the year, from the October harvest to the emergence of the corn in mid-May, Greene County is black now, a great tarmac only slightly more hospitable to wildlife than asphalt. Even in May the only green you see are the moats of lawn surrounding the houses, the narrow strips of grass dividing one farm from another, and the roadside ditches. The fences were pulled up when the animals left, beginning in the fifties and sixties, or when they moved indoors, as Iowa’s hogs have more recently done; hogs now spend their lives in aluminum sheds perched atop manure pits. Greene County in the spring has become a monotonous landscape, vast plowed fields relieved only by a dwindling number of farmsteads, increasingly lonesome islands of white wood and green grass marooned in a sea of black. Without the fences and hedgerows to slow it down, Naylor says, the winds blow more fiercely in Iowa today than they once did.

Corn isn’t solely responsible for remaking this landscape: It was the tractor, after all, that put the horses out of work, and with the horses went the fields of oats and some of the pasture. But corn was the crop that put cash in the farmer’s pocket, so as corn yields began to soar at midcentury, the temptation was to give the miracle crop more and more land. Of course, every other farmer in America was thinking the same way (having been encouraged to do so by government policies), with the inevitable result that the price of corn declined. One might think falling corn prices would lead farmers to plant less of it, but the economics and psychology of agriculture are such that exactly the opposite happened.

Beginning in the fifties and sixties, the flood tide of cheap corn made it profitable to fatten cattle on feedlots instead of on grass, and to raise chickens in giant factories rather than in farmyards. Iowa livestock farmers couldn’t compete with the factory-farmed animals their own cheap corn had helped spawn, so the chickens and cattle disappeared from the farm, and with them the pastures and hay fields and fences. In their place the farmers planted more of the one crop they could grow more of than anything else: corn. And whenever the price of corn slipped they planted a little more of it, to cover expenses and stay even. By the 1980s the diversified family farm was history in Iowa, and corn was king.

(Planting corn on the same ground year after year brought down the predictable plagues of insects and disease, so beginning in the 1970s Iowa farmers started alternating corn with soybeans, a legume. Recently, though, bean prices having fallen and bean diseases having risen, some farmers are going back to a risky rotation of “corn on corn.”)

With the help of its human and botanical allies (i.e., farm policy and soybeans), corn had pushed the animals and their feed crops off the land, and steadily expanded into their paddocks and pastures and fields. Now it proceeded to push out the people. For the radically simplified farm of corn and soybeans doesn’t require nearly as much human labor as the old diversified farm, especially when the farmer can call on sixteen-row planters and chemical weed killers. One man can handle a lot more acreage by himself when it’s planted in monoculture, and without animals to care for he can take the weekend off, and even think about spending the winter in Florida.

. . .

The great turning point in the modern history of corn, which in turn marks a key turning point in the industrialization of our food, can be dated with some precision to the day in 1947 when the huge munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, switched over to making chemical fertilizer. After the war the government had found itself with a tremendous surplus of ammonium nitrate, the principal ingredient in the making of explosives. Ammonium nitrate also happens to be an excellent source of nitrogen for plants. Serious thought was given to spraying America’s forests with the surplus chemical, to help out the timber industry. But agronomists in the Department of Agriculture had a better idea: Spread the ammonium nitrate on farmland as fertilizer. The chemical fertilizer industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on poison gases developed for the war) is the product of the government’s effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes. As the Indian farmer activist Vandana Shiva says in her speeches, “We’re still eating the leftovers of World War II.”

Hybrid corn turned out to be the greatest beneficiary of this conversion. Hybrid corn is the greediest of plants, consuming more fertilizer than any other crop. For though the new hybrids had the genes to survive in teeming cities of corn, the richest acre of Iowa soil could never have fed thirty thousand hungry corn plants without promptly bankrupting its fertility. To keep their land from getting “corn sick” farmers in Naylor’s father’s day would carefully rotate their crops with legumes (which add nitrogen to the soil), never growing corn more than twice in the same field every five years; they would also recycle nutrients by spreading their cornfields with manure from their livestock. Before synthetic fertilizers the amount of nitrogen in the soil strictly limited the amount of corn an acre of land could support. Though hybrids were introduced in the thirties, it wasn’t until they made the acquaintance of chemical fertilizers in the 1950s that corn yields exploded.

. . .

On the day in the 1950s that George Naylor’s father spread his first load of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, the ecology of his farm underwent a quiet revolution. What had been a local, sun-driven cycle of fertility, in which the legumes fed the corn which fed the livestock which in turn (with their manure) fed the corn, was now broken. Now he could plant corn every year and on as much of his acreage as he chose, since he had no need for the legumes or the animal manure. He could buy fertility in a bag, fertility that had originally been produced a billion years ago halfway around the world.

Liberated from the old biological constraints, the farm could now be managed on industrial principles, as a factory transforming inputs of raw material—chemical fertilizer—into outputs of corn. Since the farm no longer needs to generate and conserve its own fertility by maintaining a diversity of species, synthetic fertilizer opens the way to monoculture, allowing the farmer to bring the factory’s economies of scale and mechanical efficiency to nature. If, as has sometimes been said, the discovery of agriculture represented the first fall of man from the state of nature, then the discovery of synthetic fertility is surely a second precipitous fall. Fixing nitrogen allowed the food chain to turn from the logic of biology and embrace the logic of industry. Instead of eating exclusively from the sun, humanity now began to sip petroleum.

Corn adapted brilliantly to the new industrial regime, consuming prodigious quantities of fossil fuel energy and turning out ever more prodigious quantities of food energy. More than half of all the synthetic nitrogen made today is applied to corn, whose hybrid strains can make better use of it than any other plant. Growing corn, which from a biological perspective had always been a process of capturing sunlight to turn it into food, has in no small measure become a process of converting fossil fuels into food. This shift explains the color of the land: The reason Greene County is no longer green for half the year is because the farmer who can buy synthetic fertility no longer needs cover crops to capture a whole year’s worth of sunlight; he has plugged himself into a new source of energy. When you add together the natural gas in the fertilizer to the fossil fuels it takes to make the pesticides, drive the tractors, and harvest, dry, and transport the corn, you find that every bushel of industrial corn requires the equivalent of between a quarter and a third of a gallon of oil to grow it—or around fifty gallons of oil per acre of corn. (Some estimates are much higher.) Put another way, it takes more than a calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce a calorie of food; before the advent of chemical fertilizer the Naylor farm produced more than two calories of food energy for every calorie of energy invested. From the standpoint of industrial efficiency, it’s too bad we can’t simply drink the petroleum directly.

Ecologically this is a fabulously expensive way to produce food—but “ecologically” is no longer the operative standard. As long as fossil fuel energy is so cheap and available, it makes good economic sense to produce corn this way. The old way of growing corn—using fertility drawn from the sun—may have been the biological equivalent of a free lunch, but the service was much slower and the portions were much skimpier. In the factory time is money, and yield is everything.

There's a whole lot more in the book to explore and think about.  It's certainly opened my eyes to the fundamentally unnatural way in which we feed ourselves today - unnatural in the sense that if our food production were suddenly to be left to nature alone, without scientific and technological assistance, most of us would starve to death within a matter of weeks.

It also exposes the dangerous fallacy that if society goes to hell in a handbasket, preppers and survivalists will be able to grow their own food on secluded farms to keep themselves alive.  That sort of mixed-production family farm no longer exists in most cases, and where it does, it usually has to be subsidized by some sort of outside income.  It's simply no longer economical to grow or raise everything one needs out of one's own resources.  It can be done, but it takes so much effort to do so without the aid of technology (which won't be available in a long-drawn-out crisis or emergency) that it's effectively impossible for all except experienced farmers - of whom we have very few these days.  Those who succeed in doing so will almost certainly not be growing or raising everything they need, anyway, and will have to trade for things they can't produce themselves - but who will be producing those things in such a situation?

Food for thought indeed.



Michael said...

Excellent article Peter.

Energy In product out. Sunshine and natural processes vs oil produced (MUCH HIGHER Energy Input) is a problem.

Population USA pre electrical grid (pre-big oil) 62,979,766
The 1890 United States census was taken beginning June 2, 1890. The census determined the resident population of the United States to be 62,979,766, an increase of 25.5 percent over the 50,189,209 persons enumerated during the 1880 census.

Already farming advances and immigration had boosted our population by 25%!

Population USA 1940 when chemical fertilizer become common. 132,164,569
The 1940 United States census, conducted by the Census Bureau, determined the resident population of the United States to be 132,164,569, an increase of 7.6 percent over the 1930 population of 122,775,046 people.

Population NOW: 341,814,420

Used to be you starved your enemies by setting fire to their wheat crops.

Now all you have to do is REDUCE CARBON and eliminate Oil as an energy source. I could post immense reports but LOOK UP Sri Lanka for a bad example of this.

NON-Oil based fertilizer and sunshine could feed WELL Population USA pre electrical grid (pre-big oil) 62,979,766.

BUT we're now Population NOW: 341,814,420

Do the math. And remember that all the old school KNOWEDGE of "natural farming" is essentially gone, all the animal drawn tools are gone. Oh yeah, a few decorative plows and harrows around here. Good luck breeding up and training up the animals for them before you starve among the angry HUNGRY demanding food now.

That EMP 90% loss of population doesn't look so unlikely, eh?

A deep larder can buy you and yours time to ride out the social shitstorm.

Dan said...

All true. And this system has allowed humans to thrive in numbers. In America less than 1% of society easily feeds the rest of the country with an enormous amount of food left over that is exported. It's not a perfect system, no system is. But without it I doubt we would have achieved as much as a society since far more people would be spending far more time just trying to acquire calories. Those people for the past century have instead put massive thought and effort into other endeavors. And we see those results every day in modern conveniences.

Anonymous said...

As an avid gardener for decades, I marvel at these 'preppers' that purchase a tin of sealed heirloom seeds to stash away for one day in the future.
Just scatter the seeds in the wind and you'll have food, eh? Thats your plan?
No practice, no learning curve. Just gonna pop open that sealed packet and voila!

Ultimate Ordnance said...

Wow! Thanks for that. I knew it was bad, but not THAT bad!
I have been planting non-hybrid seeds for a long time, knowing that seeds from hybrids are not worth saving. I also reasoned that hybrids had been developed in a time of cheap chemical fertilizer, which I do not use.
Since 2006, when the book was written, the use of Genetically Modified Organisms in agriculture, and corn especially, has exploded. While recently researching the use of GMO in foods, I read that virtually all corn that is not grown organically should be considered to be genetically modified.

E. C. said...

My dad's allergic to corn, so we learned to read labels for all possible corn by-products long ago. Of course we're not perfect at it (it's not a life-threatening allergy, thank God), but it's certainly made us very aware of the prevalence of corn in the average American diet.
Because of that allergy, we grow a garden and preserve about 50% of our own food. I agree with Anonymous above; learn to grow SOMETHING before you need to! Start small; grow an herb pot, a 5-gallon bucket of potatoes, or a couple of chickens (awesome little trash compactors, truly). You do not want to be figuring out how to grow food in an emergency with no backup plan. The more decentralized our food system is, the more resilient we as a nation will be.

Ultimate Ordnance said...

Regarding the " 'preppers' that purchase a tin of sealed heirloom seeds " mentioned in a previous comment: all seeds have a viability (shelf life). The older the seeds are, the fewer of them will germinate. Parsnip and onion seeds are only viable for one year, corn is good for two years, tomato seeds are viable at four years. Five years is about the limit for most things. Expect disappointment when those sealed cans are opened.

Hamsterman said...

We haven’t yet begun to synthesize our foods from petroleum, at least not directly.

I hope not. Petroleum gives me gas.

Anonymous said...

"The mixed production family farm no longer exists." When I I was very young, those farms and farmers still existed. The one thing I remember is that the OLD men from the farms-with blue lips and palsied hands-were in their late fifties and early sixties. When you have to do things the hard way day in and day out, sunrise till after dark it takes a toll. Without the modern conveniences: electric and gasoline power, aspirin, vitamins...the list is endless, you get old very fast and hope starts to die. I fear that what was old, may become new again.

Anonymous said...

Pick up a copy of Metabolical...another real eye-opener! Avoid ALL processed foods - your body will thank you.

Anonymous said...

"Mixed production" is also called safety-first agriculture. There are some places in the Great Plains (Land Institute, a few others) that are trying to find ways to revive the idea in a way that 1) uses less water and 2) reduces the biological risks that monocrop agriculture has. Planting more kinds of grains and other things reduces the chances of a major plant disease outbreak spreading very far, for example.

Do NOT get me started on the foolishness of planting corn (maize) west of the 20" rainfall line, outside of a few microclimates or where surface irrigation is possible (near streams). It is such a waste of water, especially the corn that is used for ethanol.


Empire of Kristi said...

Thanks for this.

In this vein, I can highly recommend books by farmer Joel Salatin, especially 'Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal' and 'The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer.' Great stuff, very engaging writer.

Old NFO said...

And the lawsuits over 'stolen' seeds... As a child, we grew most of the veggies we ate in a one acre 'truck garden'. And corn was not the major crop, maybe one or two rows. More beans, potatoes, other beans, and peppers. Oh, and tomatoes!

E. C. said...

@ Ultimate Ordnance,
There are certainly some of the seeds you mentioned that have terrible germination after their best shelf-life - parsnips in particular. However, if stored properly, seeds can certainly survive much longer than you think. I have tomato & pepper seeds from 10 years ago that I'm still planting with nearly 90% germination. And if you don't try planting them, you never know what'll grow. Emmer and spelt have been germinated that were stored in pharaoh's tombs 2,000 years ago.
@ Empire of Kristi,
I love Joel Salatin! He's such a delightfully unorthodox farmer, and while his methods may not always work everywhere for everyone, he's done a lot of good in helping people create a better way to farm.

Greg said...

It is a great book, and well worth reading. A big chunk of the middle chapters introduces Joel Salatin, a proponent of sustainable farming, and well worth reading as well.

Anonymous said...

If only life were so simplistic. Just eat like this, and have a long and healthy life. Avoid that, it's certain death. You see, the key to life and health is to find that one little trick that doctors don't want us to know.
Just eat a variety of foods and you'll be fine. The only caveat, (and I've seen this repeatedly), is to avoid eating lots of new foods when you get old to avoid stresses on your body chemistry.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter

Around this area

Chiefio noticed this down a bit in there – “C40 Cities”

“The C40 has established an “ambitious target” to meet the WEF’s goals by the year 2030.

To fulfill the “target,” the C40 Cities have pledged that their residents will comply with the following list of mandatory rules:

“0 kg [of] meat consumption”
“0 kg [of] dairy consumption”
“3 new clothing items per person per year”
“0 private vehicles” owned
“1 short-haul return flight (less than 1500 km) every 3 years per person”
The C40 Cities’ dystopian goals can be found in its “The Future of Urban Consumption in a 1.5°C World” report.

The report was published in 2019 and reemphasized in 2023.”

More on them here and a list –

Francis Turner said...

I wonder what an analysis of a European or Asian supermarket would show. From observation there is far less corn grown (though the US exports a lot so that doesn't mean it isn't consumed) and Asians in particular are serious rice eaters so there must be less corn in the diet. But there is still plenty of fossil fuel and fertilizer in it either way and lots of specialized strains of these crops too. But I do see more variety of crops rather than the corn monculture. So fields are wheat or barley or oilseed rape or peas or (soy)beans

Likewise meat production is just as industrialized as in the US for the most part. Certainly regarding pigs and chickens and probably quite a lot of beef and milk. Whether non-US cows eat corn or some other grain is unclear to me.

Xoph said...

I've been homesteading for 3 years now raising cows, sheep and chickens. Gardening is a whole other challenge. The garden area from 2 owners ago was herbicided by the last owner to make a playground for his kids. Nothing grows but grass and I’m watching the fig trees die as the groundwater takes the herbicides their way. I have moved the garden.

"A Bold Return to Giving a Damn" is another great book on this subject.

The average family farm, which produces 80% of feeder cattle loses $880/year. The farmer gets about 15 cents of every food dollar.

Soil is a living thing composed of thousands of different micro-organisms that help free minerals out of the bedrock. Nitrate fertilizers kill these organisms and stop the process. Herbicides kill them. Pesticides kill them. Current industrial farming is causing us to lose 2-10mm of soil a year. We are stripping the soil and not allowing it to replenish itself. We know regenerative agriculture can reverse this but it is very difficult in the current system for a farmer/rancher to make any money using regenerative techniques.

There is so much we as a nation could do, but it would require toppling down Agri-business. Many people do report when they turn to a healthier diet, even though the food is more expensive, they spend less. Support your local farmers markets and co-ops.

Paul said...

I live in the middle of what the author describes. It is true that most farmers are growing corn.

That does not take away from the fact this same ground will feed a family with the output of one acre.

Year after year if you take care of it. As to heirloom varieties, Yes, they will stay true from year to year but they do not yield more than hybrids. Yes, you should be planting some of that seed now if for no other reason than to get a handle on what you should do.

Most of your beef is coming from Brazil now anyway. Cows are becoming harder to find around here.