WHY we should NOT eat REGULAR store BEEF #2





by  Michael  Pollan



........"Growing corn is just riding tractors and spraying," Naylor told me; the number of riding and spraying days it takes to raise five hundred acres of industrial corn can probably be counted in weeks. So the farms got bigger, and eventually the people, whom the steadily falling price of corn could no longer support anyway, went elsewhere, ceding the field to the monstrous grass......


I've oversimplified the story a bit; corn's rapid rise is not quite as self-propelled as I've made it sound. As in so many other "self-made" American successes, the closer you look the more you find the federal government lending a hand—a patent, a monopoly, a tax break—to our hero at a critical juncture. In the case of corn, the botanical hero I've depicted as plucky and ambitious was in fact subsidized in crucial ways, both economically and biologically. There's a good reason I met farmers in Iowa who don't respect corn, who will tell you in disgust that the plant has become "a welfare queen.".....


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 promply bankrupting its fertility......


The discovery of synthetic nitrogen changed everything—not just for the corn plant and the farm, not just for the food system, but also for the way life on earth is conducted. All life depends on nitrogen; it is the building block from which nature assembles amino acids, proteins, and nucleic acids; the genetic information that orders and perpetuates life is written in nitrogen ink. (This is why scientists speak of nitrogen as supplying life's quality, while carbon provides the quantity.) But the supply of usable nitrogen on earth is limited. Although earth's atmosphere is about 80 percent nitrogen, all those atoms are tighdy paired, nonreactive, and therefore useless; the nineteenth-century chemist Justus von Liebig spoke of atmospheric nitrogen's "indifference to all other substances." To be of any value to plants and animals, these self-involved nitrogen atoms must be split and then joined to atoms of hydrogen. Chemists call this process of taking atoms from the atmosphere and combining them into molecules useful to living things "fixing" that element. Until a German Jewish chemist named Fritz Haber figured out how to turn this trick in 1909, all the usable nitrogen on earth had at one time been fixed by soil bacteria living on the roots of leguminous plants (such as peas or alfalfa or locust trees) or, less commonly, by the shock of electrical lightning, which can break nitrogen bonds in the air, releasing a light rain of fertility.

Vaclav Smil, a geographer who has written a fascinating book about Fritz Haber called Enriching the Earth, pointed out that "there is no way to grow crops and human bodies without nitrogen." Before Fritz Haber's invention the sheer amount of life earth could support—the size of crops and therefore the number of human bodies—was limited by the amount of nitrogen that bacteria and lightning could fix. By 1900, European scientists recognized that unless a way was found to augment this naturally occurring nitrogen, the growth of the human population would soon grind to a very painful halt. The same recognition by Chinese scientists a few decades later is probably what compelled China's opening to the West: After Nixon's 1972 trip the first major order the Chinese government placed was for thirteen massive fertilizer factories. Without them, China would probably have starved.

This is why it may not be hyperbole to claim, as Smil does, that the Haber-Bosch process (Carl Bosch gets the credit for commercializing Haber's idea) for fixing nitrogen is the most important invention of the twentieth century. He estimates that two of every five humans on earth today would not be alive if not for Fritz Haber's invention. We can easily imagine a world without computers or electricity, Smil points out, but without synthetic fertilizer billions of people would never have been born. Though, as these numbers suggest, humans may have struck something of a Faustian bargain with nature when Fritz Haber gave us the power to fix nitrogen.


Fritz Haber? No, I'd never heard of him either, even though he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1920 for "improving the standards of agriculture and the well-being of mankind." But the reason for his obscurity has less to do with the importance of his work than the ugly twist of his biography, which recalls the dubious links between modern warfare and industrial agriculture. During World War I, Haber threw himself into the German war effort, and his chemistry kept alive Germany's hopes for victory. After Britain choked off Germany's supply of nitrates from Chilean mines, an essential ingredient in the manufacture of explosives, Haber's technology allowed Germany to continue making bombs from synthetic nitrate. Later, as the war became mired in the trenches of France, Haber put his genius for chemistry to work developing poison gases—ammonia/then chlorine. (He subsequendy developed Zyklon B, the gas used in Hider's concentration camps.) On April 22, 1915, Smil writes, Haber was "on the front lines directing the first gas attack in military history." His "triumphant" return to Berlin was ruined a few days later when his wife, a fellow chemist sickened by her husband's contribution to the war effort, used Haber's army pistol to kill herself. Though Haber later converted to Christianity, his Jewish background forced him to flee Nazi Germany in the thirties; he died, broken, in a Basel hotel room in 1934. Perhaps because the history of science gets written by the victors, Fritz Haber's story has been all but written out of the twentieth century Not even a plaque marks the site of his great discovery at the University of Karlsruhe......


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.....


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 fiom the logic of biology and embrace the logic of industry. Instead of eating exclusively from the sun, humanity now began to sip petroleum......


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.

One problem with factories, as compared to biological systems, is that they tend to pollute. Hungry for fossil fuel as hybrid corn is, farmers still feed it far more than it can possibly eat, wasting most of the fertilizer they buy. Maybe it's applied at the wrong time of year; maybe it runs off the fields in the rain; maybe the farmer puts down extra just to play it safe. "They say you only need a hundred pounds per acre. I don't know. I'm putting on closer to one hundred eighty. You don't want to err on the side of too litde," Naylor explained to me, a bit sheepishly. "It's a form of yield insurance."

But what happens to the one hundred pounds of synthetic nitrogen that Naylor's corn plants don't take up? Some of it evaporates into the air, where it acidifies the rain and contributes to global warming. (Ammonium nitrate is transformed into nitrous oxide, an important greenhouse gas.) Some seeps down to the water table. When I went to pour myself a glass of water in the Naylors' kitchen, Peggy made sure I drew it from a special faucet connected tp a reverse-osmosis filtration system in the basement. As for the rest of the excess nitrogen, the spring rains wash it off Naylor's fields, carrying it into drainage ditches that eventu-i ally spill into the Raccoon River. From there it flows into the Des Moines  River, down to the city of Des Moines—which drinks from the Des Moines River. In spring, when nitrogen runoff is at its heaviest, the city issues "blue baby alerts," warning parents it's unsafe to give children water from the tap. The nitrates in the water convert to nitrite, which ads to hemoglobin, compromising the blood's ability to carry oxygen to the brain. So I guess I was wrong to suggest we don't sip fossil fuels directly; sometimes we do......


"The free market has never worked in agriculture and it never will. The economics of a family farm are very different than a firm's: When prices fall, the firm can lay off people, idle factories, and make fev widgets. Eventually the market finds a new balance between supply and demand. But the demand for food isn't elastic; people don't eat mor just because food is cheap. And laying off farmers doesn't help to reduce supply. You can fire me, but you can't fire my land, because sor other farmer who needs more cash flow or thinks he's more efficie than I am will come in and farm it. Even if I go out of business this la will keep producing corn."

But why corn and not something else? We're on the bottom: of the industrial food chain here, using this land to produce energy; protein, mostly to feed animals. Corn is the most efficient way to produce energy, soybeans the most efficient way to produce protein. The notion of switching to some other crop Naylor gruffly dismisses. "Am I going to grow here, broccoli? lettuce? We've got a long-term investment in growing corn and soybeans; the elevator is the only one in town, and the elevator only pays me for corn and soybeans. The market is telling me to grow corn and soybeans, period." .....


So the plague of cheap corn goes on, impoverishing farmers here and in the countries to which we export it), degrading the ] polluting the water, and bleeding the federal treasury, which spends up to $5 billion a year subsidizing cheap corn. But though I subsidy checks go to the farmer (and represent nearly half of net farm income today), what the Treasury is really subsidizing are the buyers of all that cheap corn. "Agriculture's always going to be organized by the government; the question is, organized for whose benefit? Now it's for Cargill and Coca-Cola. It's certainly not for the farmer.".....


The immense pyramid of corn I stood before in Farnhamville is of course only a tiny part of an infinitely more immense mountain of corn dispersed over thousands of grain elevators across the American Corn Belt every autumn. That mountain is the product of the astounding efficiency of American corn farmers, who—with their technology, machinery, chemicals, hybrid genetics, and sheer skill—can coax five tons of corn from an acre of Iowa soil. All this you can see with your own eyes, hanging around during the harvest. What is much harder to see is that all this corn is also the product of government policies, which have done more than anything else to raise that mountain and shrink the price of each bushel in it.

The Iowa Farmers Cooperative does not write the only check George Naylor will receive for his corn crop this fall. He gets a second check fiom the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—about twenty-eight cents a bushel no matter what the market price of corn is, and considerably more should the price of corn drop below a certain threshold. let's say the price of a bushel falls to $ 1.45, as it most recently did in October 2005. Since the official target price (called the "loan rate") in Greene County stands at $ 1.87, the government would then send farmers another $0.42 in "deficiency payments," for a total of $0.70 for ewery bushel of corn they can grow. Taken together these federal payments account for nearly half the income of the average Iowa corn farmer and represent roughly a quarter of the $ 19 billion U.S. taxpayers ^jend each year on payments to farmers......


My plan when I came to Iowa was to somehow follow George Naylor's corn on its circuitous path to our plates and into our bodies. I should have known that tracing any single bushel of commodity corn is as impossible as tracing a bucket of water after it's been poured into a river. Making matters still more difficult, the golden river of American commodity corn, wide though it is, passes through a tiny number of corporate hands. Though the companies won't say, it has been estimated that Cargill and ADM together probably buy somewhere near a third of all the corn grown in America.

These two companies now guide corn's path at every step of the way: They provide the pesticide and fertilizer to the farmers; operate most of America's grain elevators (Naylor's member-owned cooperative is an exception); broker and ship most of the exports; perform the wet and dry milling; feed the livestock and then slaughter the corn-fattened animals; distill the ethanol; and manufacture the high-fructose corn syrup and the numberless other fractions derived from number 2 field corn. Oh, yes—and help write many of the rules that govern this whole game, for Cargill and ADM exert considerable influence over U.S. agricultural policies. More even than the farmers who receive the liecks (and the political blame for cashing them), these companies are true beneficiaries of the "farm" subsidies that keep the river of ap corn flowing. Cargill is the biggest privately held corporation in world.


Cargill and ADM together comprise the vanishingly narrow sluice through which the great corn river passes every year. That gate is virtually invisible..... Both companies declined to let me follow the corn river as it passes through their elevators, pipes, vats, tankers, freighters, feed-lots, mills, and laboratories on its complex and increasingly obscure path to our bodies. The reason this segment of our food chain is essentially off-limits, they explained, is "food security."


Even so, it is possible to follow a bushel of George Naylor's corn, provided you are willing to regard it as the commodity it is—that is, treat it not as a specific physical entity you can hold in your hands but as a generic, fungible quantity, no different from any other bushel of number 2 field corn boarding that Cargill train or any other. Since Naylor's corn is mixed in with all the other corn grown this year, the destinations of the kernels in any one of his bushels will mirror, more or less precisely, the ultimate destinations of the crop as a whole—export, livestock, high-fructose corn syrup, etc.

So where do those ninety thousand generic kernels wind up? After they've been milled and fractionated, processed and exported and passed through the guts of cows and chickens and pigs, what sort of meal do they make? And—at the risk of employing a word that might sound extreme attached to something as wholesome and all-American as corn—what sort of havoc can those ninety thousand kernels wreak?

The place where most of those kernels wind up—about three of every five—is on the American factory farm, a place that could not exist without them. Here, hundreds of millions of food animals that once lived on family farms and ranches are gathered together in great commissaries, where they consume as much of the mounting pile of surplus corn as they can digest, turning it into meat. Enlisting the cow in this undertaking has required particularly heroic efforts, since the cow is by nature not a corn eater. But Nature abhors a surplus, and the corn must be consumed.

Enter the corn-fed American steer.


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