Friday, September 29, 2006

Value Added Agriculture or Added Calorie Agriculture?

Yesterday in Western Farm Press an angry editorial was published, Last straw – farm programs blamed for obesity, penned by Elton Robinson, a staffer at Editorial Press. He ranted about recent remarks by Dr. Philip James, the British chairman of the International Obesity Task Force at the 10th International Obesity Congress in Sydney, Australia.

In his statement, Dr. James said that existing farm policies, particularly agricultural subsidies in the European Union and the United States, have been damaging people’s health for decades.

“We have concentrated on using taxpayers’ money to featherbed the very parts of the food chain that are causing the obesity epidemic today. The over-production of oil, fat and sugar, largely due to government subsidies to protect farm industry revenues, has contributed over decades to the health crisis we have today.

“People have paid three times over – firstly in taxes to support hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies in the United States, the EU and elsewhere, secondly in the resulting harm to the health and thirdly in the health insurance taxes and premiums required to cope with a major burden of preventable chronic disease.”

James says there is a fourth cost in terms of jobs in developing countries, saying the trade distortions generated by the use of public funds to prop up domestic sugar production in the United States and the EU has cost more than 1 million jobs among sugar-growing developing countries.

You can read Mr. Robinson's rant in the article, here I want to address one paragraph in particular, found near the end of the editorial:

U.S. farmers are tired of being made the scapegoat for the world’s problems, and this charge by James is the last straw. If the world’s health industries really want to solve the growing world obesity epidemic, start by advocating personal responsibility. Tell people the truth. You are what you eat.

While I totally agree that farmers shouldn't be the target of disdain here, I find Mr. Robinson's remarks disingenous and his finger is pointing in the wrong direction too.

It's really easy to point the finger at the public, insisting the problems of obesity and ill-health start and end with individual responsibility; afterall, it's hard to argue that anyone is forced to eat any particular food or even overeat.

What an individual eats really is a choice.

Or is it?

Like most Americans, I didn't have a clue about where most of my food came from, let alone what farm subsides were, until recently. The world we live in today, in the United States, has created a gap between the farm and table that leaves most people unaware of where their food comes from - how it is grown, produced, refined, value-added, manufacturered, packaged and transported before they ever see it appear in an advertisement or on a supermarket shelf to purchase.

Part of this disconnect is our own fault - we lead busy lives, are more urbanized today than ever before, and don't feel the need to head out to the farm to see how things are done, let alone buy our food at the farm; plenty is available right at the local supermarket. A totally understandable reality - life as we know it in the United States - anything and everything you need is available at the supermarket, so why learn where your food comes from?

Well, for one thing, the other part of the disconnect is the confidence food manufacturers have that we don't care where our food comes from - what's available in the supermarket is simply assumed to be comparable to something we might make at home. Such confidence we have in our food supply - few today question what the long list of ingredients are in the food they're buying, often unaware of what farm crop was processed to create the ingredient in the food in their shopping cart.

Basically, most of us are really naive when it comes to understanding what's called "commodity" foods; these crops are a largely homogeneous product that starts simply as a crop grown by various farmers and upon harvest, the end result is pooled together from different farms where the crop from farm A isn't differentiated from farm B - a uniform standard of quality is assumed and all farmers get the same price for their crop, and this is where subsidies come into play for the farmer.

But, since this isn't about subsidies - how about we talk some truth about what happens next to these crops?

The truth is, it's what happens next - well before any crop reaches the supermarket - that we're painfully lacking in knowledge as a population. It's the next steps in the process from farm to market that Americans must - if they are to be "responsible" consumuers - understand if they're to have any chance of making good decisions about what to eat.

Let's take a look at the largest commodity crop in the United States - corn.

Did you know that the corn you buy in the market, on the cob, in a can or in a bag in the frozen section, isn't the same corn that's in the majority of the food you buy throughout the supermarket?

Commodity corn is hugely profitable - it feeds livestock and is processed into a large number of ingredients used in foods. As the Corn Refiners Association states on it's website page Tapping the Treasure in Corn, "Corn refining is today's leading example of value added agriculture."

"The eight member companies of the Corn Refiners Association, Inc. use over 1.4 billion bushels of U.S.-grown corn to produce a broad array of food, industrial and feed products for Americans and for the world market. Corn refiners use shelled corn which has been stripped from the cob during harvesting. Refiners separate the corn into its components -- starch, oil, protein and fiber -- and convert them into higher value products."

Almost all the corn grown in the United States is sold to the eight companies who "refine" it for use as something else. The CRA includes a flow chart on their website to highlight the refining process and the many end-products that come from the crop.

Corn is refined to become an ingredient - a food sweetener - and supplies more than 56% of the added sugars in our diet today. Yes - corn; not as food, but as sweetener, with no nutritional value whatsoever, simply calories as corn syrup, dextrose and high fructose corn syrup.

Then there is the starch - as the CRA highlights on their starch page, "Literally thousands of supermarket staples are produced using both regular and specially modified starches. Many of today's instant and ready-to-eat foods are produced using starches which enable them to maintain the proper textural characteristics during freezing, thawing and heating. Other starches are the backbone of instant pie and pudding fillings which require little or no cooking compared to traditional formulations."

There are also the bioproducts too, citric acid, lactic acid, food gums, vitamin c, vitamin e, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and xanthan gum. Oh, and let's not forget - corn oil, with the majority produced in the United States used in cooking and salad oils, margarines and shortenings.

All this from a cob of corn that none of us would willingly eat if given an ear to chomp on - it's a different corn, definitely not the sweet corn we think of as corn on the cob!

Not only is this corn refined beyond any point of recognition as corn, the entire step-by-step process from farm to market is highly inefficient and wastes energy; and I'm not just talking calories. I was shocked to learn just how much oil and electricity is required in the growing, refining and transportation of this one crop.

On the farm - synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, made from natural gas and the use of electricity; fuel to drive the tractors, combines and other farm equipement; fuel to take harvested crop to central grain elevator.

At the grain elevator - electricity to run elevator; fuel to drive crops in trucks to processing plants.

Processing plant - electricity to run plant; fuels required to intensively process crops; fuel to drive ingredients to manufacturers.

Manufacturers - electricity & fuel to run operations; fuel to transport refined products to distribution centers by truck, planes and trains; plastics (petroleum based) to package foods.

The we drive the products all around the country to various supermarkets, convenience stores, restaurants and fast food establishments.

Again, all this from a cob of corn that none of us would willingly eat if given an ear to chomp on - it's a different corn, definitely not the sweet corn we think of as corn on the cob!

Hardly anyone in the US ever sees this intensive use of energy to make foods that are highly processed, complicated food products that no longer resemble the food crop they started as.

As Michael Pollan said in We Are What We Eat, in an edited excerpt of a plenary speech delivered at the Ecological Farming Conference in Asilomar, CA, in January 2005, "Take a typical fast food meal. Corn is the sweetener in the soda. It's in the corn-fed beef Big Mac patty, and in the high-fructose syrup in the bun, and in the secret sauce. Slim Jims are full of corn syrup, dextrose, cornstarch, and a great many additives. The “four different fuels” in a Lunchables meal, are all essentially corn-based. The chicken nugget—including feed for the chicken, fillers, binders, coating, and dipping sauce—is all corn. The french fries are made from potatoes, but odds are they're fried in corn oil, the source of 50 percent of their calories. Even the salads at McDonald's are full of high-fructose corn syrup and thickeners made from corn."

Why do we process corn? According to Pollan, "There is a powerful industrial logic at work here, the logic of processing. We discovered that corn is this big, fat packet of starch that can be broken down into almost any basic organic molecules and reassembled as sweeteners and many other food additives. Of the 37 ingredients in chicken nuggets, something like 30 are made, directly or indirectly, from corn."

I don't want anyone to think I'm picking on corn - other commodity crops include wheat and soybeans. Those crops are also highly processed into a large number of ingredients that make their way into thousands of foods sold in the supermarket - again, often not even close to resembling what the original crop started as, and always dependent on our naivate of the process, energy cost and nutritionally inferior end product.

So, if Mr. Robinson wants some truth - here's a start - get to know what's in your food, where it came from, why it's used to enhance profits. Then think about just how much it really costs in terms of energy wasted (electricity and oil), excess energy provided (calories consumed) and long term health effects.


  1. Anonymous1:31 PM

    Thank you Regina, thank you very much.

    I have some well-intentioned, intelligent friends with whom I can discuss diet and health issues. But the one area that is hardest for me to find information on is the charge that we cannot feed the worlds millions without relying on grains.

    Your article digs out the hidden financial costs of grain production. There are also massive environmental costs to an economy based on grain monoculture.

    Usually all we talk about is the toll grains take on our health. A wider perspective is needed in order to persuade thinking people to seriously consider low-carb as a responsible, sustainable way of life for all of us, not just the elect.

    In so very many ways, we cannot afford to keep eating this way.


  2. I find it quite interesting that living in Australia our media didn't highlight Dr Philip James' message about farming. I think he should have added Australia onto the list of countries with dumb farm policies. Our wheat & sugar industries are just 2 of the big contributors to the obesity epedemic. His words are true & while not wanting to blame the farming communities around the world maybe they need to look at the crops they are growing & their roles in the weight / health problems of the world.
    Remember how the wheat companies screamed when bread sales dropped. Atkins became the devil incarnate. It is not chance that makes the media, big argiculture, drug companies & foundations like diabetes & heart to name a couple all hate low carb with a vengence. It makes people healthy & takes away all their profit from every angle. We have to keep pushing the message & hopefully soon every one will start to use their brains, if they can get away from the carbhydrate fog they live in & maybe farming will change a bit to more healthful food production for all.

  3. keep this up and the corn police will come for you!!

  4. You need to come and be with the farmers. We here in Ohio, know all too well what happens with the corn when it leaves our farm. We also are very underpaid for most of the hard work we do, and we also have to pay large prices for the anhydrous ammonia and fuels for our large farming equipment. In order for farmers to make a living, they must rent large acreage to harvest their grains, because at 4.10 a bushel, you don't get much from a few acres to feed your family. Farmers do not follow, the supply and demand like other companies do. When the supplies are down, their prices do not necessarily go up on grains. The stock market has the control on this and they keep the prices really low. If I could figure out why the screw the american farmers out of their profits, I would come up with a better idea on how to farm. But, for now, most farmers have to buy bigger equipment, farm more acreage, and do it in a must more efficient manner to make their ends meet. I also want to say that corn is not just used for food. Field corn, as we farmers call it, is used in plastics and makeup and rubber and so many other products that you use day to day.


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