Back to Kumbaya

(Stand back) Thoughts at Large by Mary Meldrum

Buckle up. What follows is meant simply to connect the dots between science, nature, American agriculture, man’s interference, greed, politics and kumbaya.

While America marches toward obesity oblivion, our government stands by an over-simplified message and policy of eat less and exercise more. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that the complexity of the American circumstances with food deserves a wee bit more in-depth examination than that. Portion size, genetics, social factors, food addictions, technology addiction, lack of open spaces, food additives that disrupt hormones, GMOs (especially GMOs!) sedentary lifestyle, depression, stress, food availability (vending machines), lack of sleep, eating disorders (psychological), and high fructose corn syrup are just a few factors that contribute to the soup of the American condition.

Let’s examine a few of the items on this list. I will leave GMOs for another time since this is a huuuuuuuuuuuuuuge complicated subject.

Stress is pretty common. Historically, stress used to be associated with imminent life-or-death circumstances and was accompanied by an appropriate physical action response – such as run, jump, work harder, climb a tree, plow more rows of food – to things that threatened our existence. That extra burst of adrenaline that triggered the release of cortisol that increased our hunger and urged us to eat more was accompanied by a higher level of activity, which made for the perfect response to stress.

Few of us need to respond physically to stress in our lives today. Sources of stress are less tangible or solve-able. Modern day stress comes in the form of overdue bills, family obligations, and work deadlines -- and one of the biggest stress generators, a culture of fear. Fear of guns, of disease, of terror, of hostile weather, murder, rape, all keep us agitated and stressed. And none of these things can be solved. They are daily pressures and fears that loom, keeping the drip of adrenaline and trickle of cortisol streaming along. We cannot rid our lives of these by physically rising up and running a few miles, but they do cause the same reaction in our brains, which then responds by releasing cortisol – the stress hormone – that increases our appetite. So we eat. Stress = poundage.

What about food availability. Nobody can argue that food products that were once relegated solely to grocery stores are now available pretty much everywhere. Dr. Kelly Brownwell, Author of Food Fight, coined the term “Toxic Environment” referring to large portions and heavy promotion of unhealthy foods by the food industry. If you think about it, over-exposure to food in unassociated retail environments, such as book stores, gas stations, hardware stores, hair salons has numbed Americans to accepting food on a level that erases the lines of traditional meals. Food – mostly junk food – is an add-on, point-of-purchase sale in all retail environments now, and people can eat anytime they want to. Where historically and traditionally food had its time and place and portion in our daily lives, and we all had a “John-Boy” hunger to rush home at 6:00 every evening for dinner, now most families eat on the run when they can in between activities and snacks. There is a food connection to everything we do now. The food industry recognized that people could be easily “baited” to buy and eat food at any time of the day – and particularly junk food, which is highly addictive.

Add to this the fact that the sugar in these foods biochemically alters our natural rhythm of hunger, and has no nutritional value for the body. Sugar artificially jacks up blood sugar giving us a short burst of energy, and then quickly crashes it down again, leaving a person hungry and with a sugar hangover a short time after the sugar meal. In case you didn’t catch that, junk food alters our mood as well as destroying our meal rhythm. We are more and more a nation of cranky, hungry chubbies.

In America, children as young as 12 years old are lining up for liposuction and gastric bypass procedures. Diabetes, cancer, heart disease, immune disorders, allergies and psychological imbalances are all associated in some way with our Western diet. Nowhere in the world does the human population suffer from these once rare disease processes like they do inside our borders. Welcome to America, land of the free and home of Prozac and Accu-Check Insulin supplies.

So why don’t the people in power in this country take a more informed and helpful stance on our food issues? To understand the evolution of our personal and political relationship with food, we need understand some basic science and examine our history. Get some carrots and read this.

The earth draws its energy from the sun, and through the magical process of photosynthesis, life on earth has thrived for millions of years. The sun has been the sole source life-giving energy, and the only limit set on fruitful growth and expansion of life has been the amount of surface area on our planet covered by green leaves (or algae) that could convert that energy to life. The earth could produce no more “life fuel” than what plant life could generate, with the surface area of our planet setting the boundary. And let’s face it, not all of earth’s surface area can be utilized for photosynthesis.

So a balance was struck between our sun and our earth, with the moon dancing in between to help draw the tides, and keep a monthly cadence to the seasonal rhythm of organisms. A celestial Kumbaya. With the advent of humans on the scene, it wasn’t long before we figured out that sitting at one end of the food chain, waiting every day for meat and nuts to mature and wander into our paths so we could eat that day, wasn’t as advantageous as enjoying a steady stream of food and feasting from the entire length of the food chain. So we moved from hunter/gatherers to a more settled life of agriculture. We domesticated our animals, cleared the land of native plants, and grew our own human-specific plant foods. Num, num. Life was good and we rejoiced. Kumbaya.

Some people seem to think – or want to think – that is how things still flow through agriculture and the food chain. We picture some farmer sitting on a three-legged stool, milking Bessie twice a day to bring us fresh natural milk. Yeah. Let’s wake up, people.

The United States Department of Agriculture was founded by Abe Lincoln in 1862 to preserve and improve America’s 1 billion acres of fertile, tillable soil. Super forethought, Big Guy. This was government’s first foray into the matters of agriculture, and it seemed thoughtful and harmless enough. After World War II, individuals in power, both in government and industry, realized that food, which was locally grown and contained within small towns and communities, could be made into a conglomerate industry and serve corporate interests. Farming now became the target of big business enterprise, which could access control of this industry through – you guessed it – the US Department of Agriculture.

Commodities of soybeans were added to the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) in 1936. Hello, game-changer. In the decades to come the list of commodities in America expanded to include grains, butter, eggs and potatoes, to name a few. A giant of a market was opening up, and with it came new innovations around packaging, preservation, warehousing, transportation, international trade and financing. Booyah. Agriculture fueled a myriad of peripheral businesses and new ways to make money. A lot of money. This caught the attention of corporate types, who were in a financial position to create the avenues of agricultural flow in America. Timing is everything. Just ask Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. JP Morgan.

At first, riding the roller coaster of commodities trading was harrowing because of man’s inability to predict or control Mother Nature’s fluctuating moods. Drought, floods, soil depletion, early/late frost, infections, swarms, plagues, vermin, etc., all wreak havoc on trying to predict whether or not to invest in corn and wheat, especially when you don’t have Doppler radar and predictive data model systems of modern day meteorology. So fortunes were made and lost in a game of chance and risk.

But man is not one to be marginalized by the likes of chance, no, sir. So man set about gaming the system, and changing the odds. Irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, weed-o-cides and other pest control methods shifted the perspective of commodities traders. Add to the arsenal a maturing method of predicting weather, and now you have a trading platform that is more favorable for a steady stream of wins.

Technology that took us to the moon in the 1960’s brought us a lot of solutions to our weather prediction and crop disaster control problems. So now all we had to do was produce…and produce we did. In 1970 Earl Butz was elected U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under the Nixon administration. Earl Butz is the most publicly recognized of the political catalysts of the industrial complex of big business over small farmers. He is famous for telling farmers to “Get Big or Get Out”, instructing farmers to plant grain from fence row to fence row. America’s golden waves of grain became the beast of burden for big business, as harvest production exploded to billions of bushels, and outpaced the American population growth. There was no food shortage. We were living in surplus. Instead of slowing production, farmers were urged to keep production high, and the government paid them for every bushel produced – even though it wasn’t needed in the food chain, and was being stock piled.

America was now caught in this big business production-for-profit, where excess harvest is tied to excess profits from government subsidies. But corporations discovered that the stock piled grains could be sold and used for different things. Big business created different ways to implement and sell their surplus grain and generate more revenue streams.

Corn and wheat are now found in all types of food, such as thousands of products with high fructose corn syrup and grain alcohol, but also in items that you would never expect. Did you know that there is corn in your toothpaste? It’s in diapers, adhesives, shampoo, aspirin, perfume, makeup and even milk. Yes, milk. Cow’s are fed corn (very unnatural diet for a cow, but that is what we have a surplus of, so we force feed it to cows), and there is Vitamin D added to the milk that is made with corn. There is corn in your coffee. Eew. That’s a real buzz-kill for those of us who lust for the stuff, isn’t it?

These dirty little secrets about corn pale in comparison to the big secret that shadows corn in every step of its life cycle: Oil. Ah-ha! Now we’re getting somewhere!

Oil fertilizes food, processes food, transports food. Ten calories of fossil fuel energy produces one calorie of processed food in America. 20% of the fossil fuel that America burns goes into our food system. America’s hunger for food and its hunger for fossil fuel are intimately tied to one another. And this, my friends, is not a sustainable model, especially when you look at how fat America is becoming. We use 1 billion gallons more of gas now than we did in the 1960’s just because we weigh so much more. It takes more energy to sustain us at these weights. It takes considerable more energy to transport us at these weights. For every extra pound of weight that each American gains, we use 39 million gallons of additional fuel. Let me repeat that in a different way, because it bears repeating: If each American lost just one pound, we would save 39 million gallons of fuel for each of those pounds lost.

I was so intrigued by this number, I actually Googled the American population, and found that there are roughly between 300 and 400 million people living in America. Let’s talk conservatively, and say there are 300 million of us. So if we each lost a pound, we could save over 11 billion gallons (I only got a “B” in multiplication in 4th grade. Check my math) of fossil fuel a year. Whoa. Think about the impact that could have on our global position with the oil industry. Think about the impact that could have on the carbon footprint of the planet.

I want to go back to oil being in fertilizer. Remember how the sun was the source of energy for our food system in the olden days? Humans figured out that we could increase production using the same amount of acreage if we boosted the energy level in the soil. We couldn’t “add” more sunshine, so we went to the energy source that we love and abuse so well: Oil. Yes, oil is in ammonium nitrate with fuel oil (ANFO), also known as commercial grade fertilizer, and even better known for its explosive qualities, as seen on the news in stories like the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995.

Corn absorbs oil from the fertilizer in the soil, and we eat the corn (or we eat the cow that was force-fed the corn). And we have absolutely no idea what the magnitude and scope of consequences that “mad cow” cocktail will eventually produce in our offspring, but I think if you do a quick look around our nation’s schools, you will notice that the children of today do not physically resemble the children of the 1950s. In general, kids today are huge. Kids today are sick. Kids today lack energy and motivation. And it is not their fault. It is our fault. We feed them oil and processed corn and crap. Yeah, we do.

Did you know that the USDA regulations allow for a minimum of 650 calories in a school lunch, but there is no maximum established for our school lunch programs! So our children are allowed to eat however many tater tots and cookies they can cram into their mouths, because according to the USDA, it’s all about a calorie count. On the other hand, a simple meal of fruit, salad and a modest sandwich does not meet USDA regulation standards because it does not fulfill the caloric count minimum. Seriously. What are we doing? As a result, nutritional deficiency diseases that were wiped out a century ago, like scurvy and rickets, are showing up in fat American children because they are being allowed – or in the case of school lunch programs, forced – to ingest food with no nutritional value. It is the equivalent of putting sand in your gas tank. Eventually, you are going to break down.

So why doesn’t the government put better food into the school lunch programs? Because the government is controlled by the food industry lobbyists, who feed us what makes them a profit, and that is what they have in surplus (where have I heard that before? Oh yeah, a few paragraphs ago when we were discussing feeding surplus to COWS!). They are not in the business of keeping America’s children healthy. They are in the business of making money. Oh Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore!

The food system is broken. We are enhancing a culture of sloth and gluttony by being uninformed and quiet about this catastrophic issue. We are allowing the food industry lobbyists and government to choose to feed us whatever it decides is profitable for them. In the meantime, even our children are now turning to pharmaceuticals and surgery to correct our apathy around their diet and health. This is on our watch, and we need to man-up and make this right.

This is really the culmination of several generations of change in the way our nation regulates the management and perspective of food. It started when we chose to not respect and value our land, and decided to engage in leveraging an unhealthy profit margin from our abundant farmland – something that was divinely gifted to America. We stopped recognizing the wisdom of natural limits placed on growth cycles, eating proportions, organic methods, and family meals. We would be wise to take a step back to sustainable methods, reasonable constraints on processing and consuming foods, and once again accepting the limits of these as divine. Back to Kumbaya.

Here’s what you can do: Shop local at every opportunity, which will remove a lot of fossil fuel from this system. Buy organic at every opportunity. Stop whining, I know it’s expensive. Educate your children, your neighbors, your spouse, anyone who will tolerate your rants. Knowledge is power. And lose one pound.