Sunday, February 05, 2006

Michael Pollan: Food Chains, Dead Zones, and Licensed Journalism

I'm using Michael Pollan's book The Botany of Desire in my ENG 101 courses and so I'm doing a little background reading.


Food Chains, Dead Zones, and Licensed Journalism
Michael Pollan, Interviewed by Russell Schoch
Mother Jones

Excerpt from the interview:

You've taken a critical look at what you've called "the cornification of America." What do you mean?

It appears I have a kind of corn obsession. I'm like that character in Middlemarch, Professor Causabon, who thought he had the key to the universe, the key to all mythologies. In corn, I think I've found the key to the American food chain.

How so?

If you look at a fast-food meal, a McDonald's meal, virtually all the carbon in it -- and what we eat is mostly carbon -- comes from corn. A Chicken McNugget is corn upon corn upon corn, beginning with corn-fed chicken all the way through the obscure food additives and the corn starch that holds it together. All the meat at McDonald's is really corn. Chickens have become machines for converting two pounds of corn into one pound of chicken. The beef, too, is from cattle fed corn on feedlots. The main ingredient in the soda is corn -- high-fructose corn syrup. Go down the list. Even the dressing on the new salads at McDonald's is full of corn.

I recently spent some time on an Iowa corn farm. These cornfields are basically providing the building blocks for the fast-food nation. In my new book, I want to show people how this process works, and how this monoculture in the field leads to a different kind of monoculture on the plate.

What does this do to the land?

Corn is a greedy crop, as farmers will tell you. When you're growing corn in that kind of intensive monoculture, it requires more pesticide and more fertilizer than any other crop. It's very hard on the land. You need to put down immense amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, the run-off of which is a pollutant. The farmers I was visiting were putting down 200 pounds per acre, in the full knowledge that corn could only use maybe 100 or 125 pounds per acre; they considered it crop insurance to put on an extra 75 to 100 pounds.

Where does that extra nitrogen go?

It goes into the roadside ditches and, in the case of the farms I visited, drains into the Raccoon River, which empties into the Des Moines River. The city of Des Moines has a big problem with nitrogen pollution. In the spring, the city issues "blue baby alerts," telling mothers not to let their children use the tap water because of the nitrates in it. The Des Moines River eventually finds its way to the Gulf of Mexico, where the excess nitrogen has created a dead zone the size of New Jersey.

What is a dead zone?

It's a place where the nitrogen has stimulated such growth of algae and phytoplankton that it starves that area of oxygen, and fish cannot live in it. The dead zone hasn't gotten much attention, compared to carbon pollution; but, in terms of the sheer scale of human interference in one of the crucial natural cycles, it's arguably even more dramatic. Fully half of the terrestrial nitrogen in the world today is manmade, from fertilizers.

Our dependence on corn for a "cheap meal" is a fundamental absurdity. Seventy percent of the grain we grow in this country goes to feed livestock. Most of this livestock is cattle, which are uniquely suited to eating grass, not corn. To help them tolerate corn, we have to pump antibiotics into the cattle; and because the corn diet leads to pathogens, we then need to irradiate their meat to make it safe to eat. Feeding so much corn to cattle thus creates new and entirely preventable public health problems.

In addition to contributing to erosion, pollution, food poisoning, and the dead zone, corn requires huge amounts of fossil fuel--it takes a half gallon of fossil fuel to produce a bushel of corn. What that means is that one of the things we're defending in the Persian Gulf is the cornfields and the Big Mac. Another cost is the subsidies: For corn alone, it's four or five billion dollars a year in public money to support the corn farmers that make possible our cheap hamburger. Then you've got the problem of obesity because these cheap calories happen to be some of the most fattening.

We're paying for a 99-cent burger in our health-care bills, in our environmental cleanup bills, in our military budget, and in the disappearance of the family farm. So it really isn't cheap at all.

Entire Interview

Excerpt from THE BOTANY OF DESIRE by Michael Pollan:

Sweetness is a desire that starts on the tongue with a sense of taste, but it doesn’t end there...


An NPR interview: A Plant's Eye View of the World

Even an unrepentent republican digs Botany of Desire

Science Daily has an interview with him about the book and Diabetes

Michael Pollen interviewed for the Modern Meat documentary (highly recommended--I have a copy if anyone is interested): Frontline: Modern Meat Interview

An excerpt from his book A Place of My Own (not surprisingly Michael is an avid gardener)

His New York Times article Behind the Organic-Industrial Complex

His New York Times essay Power Steer (Courtesy of Mindfully)

The Organic Consumers Association has this essay from the New York Times: An Animal's Place

A Christian Science Monitor article: When Corn is King

A Sierra Club interview: The Cheapest Calories Make You the Fattest

Tom Dispatch has this profile Followingthe Food Chain with Michael Pollan
(Courtesy of a link at Treehugger who has a recent post for you environmental lovers on 50 Ways to Please Your Lover [Organically/Environmentally] just in time for Valentine's Day)

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