I heard about this documentary a while ago and just got around to watching it. (You can watch it on Hulu.) It follows two friends’ search to figure out why and how corn become such a giant part of our food system, such a common ingredient in foods at grocery stores. It’s hard to believe how ubiquitous corn is. In this movie, Michael Pollan tells us to consider a McDonald’s happy meal. What corn could there be in a burger, soda and fries? Surprisingly, there is almost a 100% chance that the beef was fed on a diet that consisted mainly of corn. The soda’s main ingredient and source of sweetness is high fructose corn syrup. The fries have probably been deep fried in corn oil. This is all the product of a massive increase in corn production over the last 30 years, after the government started promoting a “get big or get out” philosophy with commodity crops like corn. Across the country, people are planting more acres of corn, and producing more corn per acre. This corn isn’t even edible to humans before it’s processed into corn oil or high fructose corn syrup. We’re producing more corn than we know what to do with, so it ends up in giant granaries, its supply disproportional to demand. The government has to buy the corn from farmers and subsidize it to keep them in business. Farmers are motivated to increase their yield per acre, increasing supply and feeding this wasteful, costly cycle.
To investigate this phenomenon, friends Ian and Curtis buy an acre of farmland in Greene, Iowa. They grow their own corn crop, taking part in the process from planting to harvesting. On top of learning firsthand through farming, they talk to scientists, politicians, and local farmers. They try to trace their corn’s path to the supermarket. It proves impossible because they lose track of their individual harvest as soon as it is poured into the grain elevator, lost in a sea of Greene corn. In the end though, they learn about the system so that it becomes easy to predict the corn’s journey. It will go from farm to grain elevator through processors to become animal feed or high fructose corn syrup or corn oil. Ian and Curtis learn just how ridiculous this journey is. The system sacrifices the health of American citizens, cattle, and the environment in its pursuit of economic stability. It’s not cheap in environmental costs nor is it sustainable. It’s hard to imagine how we could change a system with so much momentum and so many people behind it.
We want to counter this “get big or get out” philosophy. We need to give our support to farms that are built on sustainability, part of a more balanced system. Knowing that corn is in so many processed foods makes me want to eat fresh, whole foods even more. And as important as personal choice is, I think that this issue ultimately requires change within the government to be solved. The government is the force perpetuating the system, so the government must be the force to stop it. The more people that know about the issue, the more who will want to fight it and get things done. Our job is just to support what we think is right and spread the word until the controversy becomes so big that the government can’t ignore it.
This thorough report by the Environmental Working Group looks at a range of foods’ carbon emissions across different stages of their lifecycle, from production to disposal http://www.ewg.org/meateatersguide/a-meat-eaters-guide-to-climate-change-health-what-you-eat-matters/ I really value the information presented in this report because of its approach. It isn’t raw numbers; it’s all comparative and evaluative. It’s holistic and takes into account every part of the process, detailing how every step contributes to the over-all environmental impact of a food. The pie charts and bar graphs give simple visuals, but there are also in-depth explanations. The study brings to light that just wasting food contributes a large percentage of emissions to a food’s total. It has always made sense to me to eat everything that you take and I think it is part of valuing and enjoying a food to its fullest. Food has to mean something to us. It is not something to just throw away. And now I know there is scientific evidence to back that up, as this contributes to the large percentage of a food’s emission that comes from avoidable waste. The report also backs up that composting can help reduce carbon emissions; less food waste going into land fills, more going back into the garden. It is therefore not only important what food you buy, but what you do with the product after you buy it: how much you’ll eat, how you will dispose of it, etc.
The page on nutrition speaks to me because I am always trying to convince people they can get more than enough protein without meat, as well as plenty of other nutrients. You don’t need to look far to see the health benefits of cutting down meat intake. And if there is a meat you’re going to cut down on, I think the study makes it clear that ruminants are the worst polluters and red meat the worst for your health. At the same time, pasture-raised and organic beef seems like a good alternative. And while decreased inputs and no chemicals or antibiotics makes for a less harmful practice, I think that beef farming inherently involves a big environmental impact, as is true with pretty much all agriculture on a larger scale. It really depends on the place and I think this study is very strong in it’s specificity and lack of generalizations. Organic might mean a lot in certain cases, and nothing in others, which is what I’ll talk about next post.
“Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.”
-Cree Native American Proverb
One of my English teachers has a poster with this quote in her room, and I have never really understood its meaning until recently. I realized that so much of what humans do is for money, that we don’t even realize we are destroying the world around us. From a young age, we are taught to want to be successful and make money, making us forget other things that matter too; how many of you aspire (or aspired) to be rich and famous as opposed to being someone who saves the environment. This Cree proverb tells us to live in balance with nature or the consequences will be severe. Cutting meat out of your diet is the best way to live in balance with nature. Deforestation in Brazil accounts for 75% of their greenhouse gas emissions, a very large number seeing as Brazil is the worlds 4th biggest greenhouse gas emitter. From 1996-2006, Brazil cleared 10 million hectares of rainforest, about the size of Portugal, and 80% of the rainforest cleared was for cattle farming. So how do you stop cattle farming, and therefor deforestation? Simple- stop eating beef. Rivers being polluted (poisoned) is also a huge issue in the world, as there are some pollutants that just can’t be filtered. Most rivers are polluted by farm runoff, which happens when cows poop and it rains, the rain sending all sorts of pollutants rushing into the river nearby. The river could very well be the same river that the town downstream gets their water from. Again, stopping the cattle farming producing the farm runoff is easy to do; all you have to do is stop eating beef. Fishing seems to be harmless to most people, after all the ocean is so huge you can’t possibly fish everything out of it. This thought is false however, as trawling is killing out fish faster than we could ever expect. By 2050, 90% of the species of fish we eat will be extinct, plus other species of plant or animal killed by the destructive nature of trawling. Like I said before, the easiest way to stop trawling is to cut fish out of your diet.
The situation in the proverb is happening faster than we think, every day we pollute more rivers, clear more acres of rainforest, and trawl more fish. The way to stop this is simple however, just stop eating meat.