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August 25, 2006

Oil, Corn, Cows

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The fertilizer that's fed to corn is a fossil fuel product ... Cows these days eat an awful lot of corn ... So how much oil does a full-grown cow represent? The answer: 100 gallons. You can learn more facts about our beef industry's bizarre infatuation with raising cattle on corn and antibiotics in this interview with Michael Pollan. "When you learn about the industrial food system, certain foods become unappetizing," he says to another interviewer. I'll second him on that.



posted by Michael at August 25, 2006


Oh, our food is so terrible. That must be why life expectancy is declining every year and all the poor are starving to death for lack of real organic nutrition. Or are they too fat? And that's surely why plagues and infectious diseases and darn it just plain angst are so prevalent. And there's no variety in food stores any more, not like back in the old days when you could get turnips most of the winter.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on August 25, 2006 8:02 AM

Robert -

Life expectancy may be declining in some alternate universe, maybe the one in which Pluto is still the ninth planet, but it is not declining in the world that you and I live in. Similarly, there are no poor people dying of starvation in America, and starvation is not a problem in many places in the world where there are stable economic and political systems. For example, people are starving in Zimbabwe and North Korea because the corrupt and tyrannical governments there block all rational attempts to improve the lives of their citizens.

I love beef and don’t particularly care how many gallons of oil are used to produce it. Resources exist to be used creatively, not to sit in the ground for future generations to stare at. Any problems using those resources are simply challenges.

When I stroll through my supermarket, there is a wealth of fruits, vegetables, and meats that would simply be unimaginable to previous generations. In the real world, people, especially in the West in the 18th through early 20th centuries, ate more salted, preserved, and pickled foods because it was difficult to obtain fresh food year round or to keep it in the store or the home. Do a google search of historical cookbooks or recipes, or think back to your own youth if you are old enough.

Pollan is a fool from top to bottom. The very beginning of his interview, where he talks about cows having a “highly evolved” rumen is scientific nonsense; typically he moves on to some mystical or pseudo-religious nonsense about cows grazing and “the way it was meant to be.”

Typically, Pollan proposes no practical solutions, but his pseudo-progressive approach is typical of hysterics who cannot persuade people to change the way they live, so they resort to scare-mongering and false claims about the fragility of “the planet,” etc. He hasn’t worked up any rational opposition to irradiation of food, so he just leaves off with a limp, “I don’t know,” while slyly implying that inevitably we will soon discover some terrible threat to our health or to the ecology if we keep bombarding our food with gamma radiation. For some hysterics, often on the left, this kind of BS is equivalent to religious fools claiming that more hurricanes will kill us unless we give up porn and get right with Jesus.

Unintentionally revealing passage: “Explain to somebody in New York City what the abbreviated life of a cow is these days.” Guess what? People in cities don’t want to raise cows or grow their own vegetables. So we willingly use fuel to have our food raised elsewhere and transported to us. Everyone for de-industrialization, raise your hands from your keyboards.

He also tips his hand by noting that beef used to be widely available only to the elites (not entirely true) and implying that this is also the way it is supposed to be, only this time, the elites would eat extra-expensive organic and locally grown beef, while everyone else – well, let them eat vegetable cake.

Ironically, Pollan’s implied remedy, less industrialization and more local food production, would result in an absolute decline in health and standards of living throughout the world.

Posted by: Alec on August 25, 2006 3:01 PM

Wow!!! Who would have thought that food and health issues break down along Right vs. Left political lines? Alec seems to have missed Robert's obviously ironic tone. They both appear to be on the same page; who cares where it comes from or what it took to produce it or what it's going to do to my health, if it tastes good and I can afford it, what's the problem? Willful ignorance regarding something (literally) as vital as what one eats is kind of a fascinating political position to take. I'm also curious as to the basis for some of Alec's statements like "less industrialization and more local food production, would result in an absolute decline in health and standards of living throughout the world." This is certainly open to debate.

For reasons neither religious nor overly political our family hasn't eaten much red meat in a couple of decades. Primarily vegetarian, we eat fish and poultry perhaps two or three times a month. Special occasions might find us eating ham (Easter dinner with the family) or even haggis (Robbie Burns supper with friends) and I sometimes give in to a hankering for a BLT. For the most part our habits developed by "listening to our bodies." We eat what tastes good, digests well and helps keep us healthy.

Speaking of "listening to our bodies" we made a batch of major changes about 15 years ago due to persistent health problems my wife was encountering. Conventional medical inquiries proved unsuccessful in diagnosing the source of the problem so she went to a naturopath with an M.D. The primary culprit turned out to be an allergy she had developed to wheat. She also has a sensitivity to (cow) dairy. This is an increasing problem associated with the very high amounts of refined white flour in so many items in our modern diet.

Our hierarchy when shopping is to buy, whenever possible, locally grown organic; then, in order, local conventional, "regular" organic, and finally conventional. For somewhat political reasons we try to avoid knowingly buying genetically modified foods. While, like most tools, genetic modification may be morally neutral in and of itself, the way it is mostly being utilized and by whom is something I choose not to support. (The free market, remember?) Monsanto altering corn and soybeans to make them resistant to its herbicide Roundup so that higher concentrations of this poison can (and must) be used on the fields and then suing farmers whose own crops have been altered by cross-pollination for "patent violations" just does not sit well with me. And, given the lack of long-term evidence, I don't like trusting industry scientists who proclaim there are no health effects whatsoever from eating, for example, corn altered to have pesticide properties built in to its gene structure and so on.

A few years ago the World Health Organization altered its methodology for looking at life expectancy to incorporate what might be deemed the "quality of life" issues pertaining to the health and/or chronic disabilities of various populations in addition to straight mortality rates. In the 2000 estimates for children born in 1999 Japan ranked first with a figure of 74.5; the rest of the top 10 nations are Australia, 73.2 years; France, 73.1; Sweden, 73.0; Spain, 72.8; Italy, 72.7; Greece, 72.5; Switzerland, 72.5; Monaco, 72.4; and Andorra, 72.3.

The shock was that the US rated 24th under this system; female babies could expect 72.6 years of healthy life, versus just 67.5 years for male babies. The underlying causes for this surprisingly low rating include: the number of groups such as Native Americans, African Americans and rural poor with rates closer to those of developing nations due to lack of access to health care and poor nutrition; the high incidence of heart disease (with its well known connection to diet); lung cancer associated with higher rates of smoking; higher levels of HIV; and higher levels of violence, especially homicides, relative to other developed nations. Among the factors that contribute to Japan's number one ranking are their traditional, relatively low fat, diet. Now, compared to the Middle Ages or even the Victorian era, in developed nations we're all doing great, but there are certainly points to ponder here.

Posted by: Chris White on August 25, 2006 8:18 PM


You must feel pretty embarrassed by now.

Posted by: Bill on August 25, 2006 11:15 PM

Life Expectancy in US hits new high. Oddly enough, this is really upsetting to overpopulation zealots.

Government statistics on “Life Expectancy Increases in the US”

The NPR program “Talk of the Nation: Science Friday” had an interview with a food evangelist who, like Michael Pollan, thinks that eating organically and locally is part of our duty to the planet, even if we end up paying twice as much or more for food. One of the unintentionally funniest parts of the show occurs when a caller declares how wonderful it is to forego off-season fruits and vegetables and instead eat root crops and reconstituted dried vegetables (MP3 download available).

Chris White – My comments to Robert work just fine whether or not he was being ironic.

I’m neither left nor right. I put Pollan in the same category as those on the right who deny evolution and want to ban stem-cell research. Boneheads. Pollan’s entire thesis is that we are supposed to care deeply about where food comes from, how it is produced, and how it is transported, and that ecological considerations should be extremely important. Also, it is obvious that if you eat only food grown locally, then foreign food imports would decline, and the people who produce food for international markets would suffer. What are they supposed to do as an alternative?

I’m neither a proponent nor opponent of genetically modified foods and share your skepticism about blanket assurances that these products are safe. On the other hand, India’s Green Revolution between 1967 and 1978, which sharply increased food production, was based on the development of hybrid high-yield seeds, and genetically modified foods is just an expansion of this theme.

When I listen to my body, it often whispers to me, “cha shu (Chinese style barbecue pork) with tofu, sauce, rice and sometimes eggs, and a glass of red wine.” I don’t particularly care whether my food choices are organic or healthy, although I do care that everything tastes good.

I never did the dance of jingoism by claiming that all US food practices or overall health is the best in the world. On the other hand, I know that other countries have their culinary and nutritional quirks. Some of the most popular restaurants in Japan (and in L.A.’s Little Tokyo and in the majority Japanese-American city of Gardena) are in fact Chinese restaurants, with abundant fried foods and sweet and heavy sauces. The native Japanese diet also consists of a lot of smoked meats, bad for you, and odd bits such as super-sweet candies, etc. There is also an incredible amount of junk food in Japan. Chinese life expectancy is much lower than that of Japan, but I would rather eat Chinese food over Japanese food any day of the week (udon excepted).

The WHO’s “healthy life expectancy” calculations produce the statistically nonsensical result of people who are “dead” on paper because of the way that they have been counted even though they are obviously still living. Part of this is because the WHO’s foundational calculation assumption, the DALE (disability adjusted life expectancy) is very flawed. And by conflating U.S. ethnic groups, regions, social classes and other variables without doing some rather basic adjustments, the end results are not always very useful or meaningful. For example, the life expectancy of middle class blacks is much higher than is shown by the typical reporting methods, and the life expectancy of black females is 76.1 years, much higher than the overall life expectancy for black males, and noteworthy even accounting for all the risks that you mention. And social demographers still note the existence of “stroke alley” a region of the South where whites and blacks suffer higher incidences of bad health because of poor eating habits (lots of sugars, fats, etc.) without regard to income or access to health care.

Bill -- I’m feeling mighty fine.

WHO Healthy Life Expectancy,hale&language=english

Disability Adjusted Life Year Defintions and Calculations (for those with a head for statistics)

Posted by: Alec on August 26, 2006 6:38 AM

Hey Everyone, lively discussion going on here...

If interested Organically Speaking a Seattle-base website has released a conversation with Michael Pollan podcast (audio conversation). Interesting tidbits on farmers markets, CSAs, and more!

Some Podcast Show Note Questions:

Q) Why the price difference between conventional food and organic and how do we go about bringing down organic food prices?

Q) How can small local organic farmers remain local in a capitalistic system?

Q) What is the "Food Web" you briefly touch on in your book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

All the best,

Holistic Conversations for a Sustainable World

Posted by: Ricardo Rabago on August 26, 2006 8:21 AM

As crunchy as I am, I don't find the 'life expectancy' line of attack a very promising one as far as agricultural practices are concerned. For one, any correlations that I have seen pointed out have been highly tenuous. And besides, even if it were the case that pesticides, hormones and all that jazz had no direct effect on our health, there are other clear and obvious reasons why we should care about how our food is made.

Sustainability seems to be the most important one.
Is it really so 'boneheaded' to ask oneself: Can this or that agricultural practice be sustained X years into the future?

Transporting food internationally and cross-country uses far more energy in fossil fuels than our body gets from the food. Apart from the gross inefficiancy, can that be sustained?
Exorbitant pesticide use creates monocultures with a dramatically lower structural stability than complete ecosystems. The result is crops that are much more suceptible to environmental irregularities. Can that be sustained?

The point is: there are many factors indicting our current system. Consulting the life expectancy and world health charts is pretty myopic and a little beside the point.

Chris is right about GMOs, btw. Genetically modifying plants isn't bad in and of itself: but over 65% of transgenic acreage is Roundup Ready (modified exclusively so as to allow a higher level of pesticide application) Soybean alone. Transgenic technology in practice is nothing more than an excuse for higher pesticide application.

Posted by: Peter on August 26, 2006 11:01 AM


"My comments to Robert work just fine whether or not he was being ironic."

Actually, your comments are pretty hysterical, in both senses of that word, if Robert was being ironic (actually, I think Robert was being sarcastic, not ironic...didn't we all learn the difference from Alanis Morrisette's example of misusing "ironic"?).

In any case, corn is nice. Especially popcorn.

Posted by: Bill on August 26, 2006 2:29 PM

Making no claims to an expert understanding of the exact methodology involved in the World Health Organization's Disability Adjusted Life Expectancy calculations, I nevertheless think it reasonable to presume that the quality of life of someone suffering obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease is less than it would be if they were not afflicted with these conditions. Given that these particular conditions are quite prevalent and very much associated with diet I don't think it is "boneheaded" to suggest that its sensible to make choices about our diet to minimize the likelihood of developing these illnesses.

As Alec notes there is "stroke alley" in the South where dietary choices lead to a high incidence of stroke among diverse demographics. So, Alec, doesn't that make the point that, if choosing a different diet is likely to lead to, if not a longer life in absolute terms, a longer life with full faculties and abilities, it makes sense? I certainly remember the 15 years or so my grandfather lived after his stroke were extremely difficult and not the sort of life he enjoyed before the stroke.

As in so many discussions these days I find the tendency to set up false dichotomies unproductive. I don't think Pollen is suggesting an absolute ... all local, all organic, all in season, all the time ... I know that I'm not. That said, food that is local, organic, and in season is generally better for the taste buds, better for the body, and better for the local economy than other choices. And while I might not rave about turnips in the middle of the winter, since I am currently feasting regularly on organic heirloom tomatoes from the local farmers' market, I'm always disappointed when I buy supermarket tomatoes, ripened in ethylene gas and so usually don't eat many tomatoes in the winter. As for the world market, again, if one isn't absolutely rigid about, say, eating only food grown within 100 miles, there should be an export trade in all sorts of agricultural items from around the world. [Check the comments on "regular" coffee and make mine Fair Trade organic please.]

Much of this reminds me of a long running debate I've had with a friend about what constitutes hedonism. When I suggest that he might want to reconsider ordering the raw oysters AND the lobster dinner WITH wine AND then pie AND a martini afterwards, he says he's a hedonist and I should enjoy myself more. I insist that I'm the real hedonist and very happy with my spinach and goat cheese salad, broiled haddock and craft brew beer. When he spends the morning moaning about how terrible he feels and I'm feeling great I ask him who is the real hedonist.

Posted by: Chris White on August 26, 2006 4:13 PM

Fertilizer is the skeleton in the closet of the biodiesel and ethanol movements as well. Instead of burning oil-based products for energy, it is cleaner to dump them in the ground and burn the stuff that grows out of the mess?

Chris - he is a hedonist. You are also, but more correctly an Epicurean. Epicureanism is a form of hedonism which emphasises the absence of pain and anxiety as its goal.

Posted by: rvman on September 6, 2006 3:29 PM

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