Monday, November 3, 2014

Fueling up in Cheyenne, Wyoming

An array of fueling options at a gas station in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Even the gasoline contains a corn product-it is 10 percent ethanol.
The wastes from making ethanol are fed to
beef and dairy cows, pigs and chickens.
Fueling up in Cheyenne, Wyoming
By Bill Duesing

The American way of eating is shaped more by the availability of low-cost fossil fuels and government crop and other subsidies than it is by nutrition, health or flavor.

I took the photo above while buying gasoline at a station in Cheyenne, Wyoming this summer. This array is an example of the ubiquitous advertising for these kinds of foods: ground beef sandwiches, often with bacon and/or cheese or processed hot dogs on white bread buns. (For the chicken nuggets, their wheat breading is the bun equivalent.)

It also made me think about the health consequences of eating this kind of food: weight gain, obesity, diabetes, sore joints, heart disease, cancer and possibly even schizophrenia!

Why are foods that may cause so much damage so heavily advertised? A rhetorical question really. The answer: profit.  Much of that profit comes because food industry accounting doesn't include many significant costs.  Health care costs are not included.   The illnesses above, and the foods that cause them, are responsible for millions of dollars in health costs.

Crop Subsidies
Looking at the photo later, I realized that all of the foods featured (five different presentations of meat) were basically made from just three highly processed plants: wheat, corn and soy.  Cows, pigs and chickens in Confined Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs turn these crops into meat. These three are the major commodity crops that are subsidized by our tax dollars.

They are also subsidized by the environmental toll they take on the air, water, soil and climate, and by the social toll they have taken on farm communities now decimated by industrial-scale agriculture.

We should be clear that these crop subsidies aren't really helping farmers.  Farmers are struggling; many are currently selling corn at a loss.  The giant grain handling and export, animal feeding and food processing corporations DO greatly benefit from crop subsidies.  They get very low-cost raw materials.  Note1.

The government spends our tax dollars on subsidizing crops to make foods that make us sick. As a consequence the health-care system also requires subsidies.

In addition, fossil fuels are subsidized to make the fertilizers, pesticides and the machines used to grow the crops.  These fuels then provide energy for transportation, processing, refrigeration and cooking before we even drive our car to the station to buy a $1.99 Papa Burger.

Buckwheat and Chemical Nitrogen
So how did this happen? One paradigm shift can change everything. The expanding adoption of chemical fertilizer, made possible by the availability of natural gas in the early 20th century, was one factor that changed the basic American diet.

Buckwheat was a much more common crop a century or so ago, used as a flour and as whole "grain."  Buckwheat is actually not a grain. It is unrelated to wheat and is therefore gluten free. Related to rhubarb, it's a quick-growing broadleaf plant much loved by pollinating insects.  It is an effective and very beautiful summer cover crop used to discourage weeds on bare soil.  It can be sown any time there's at least 30 days before frost.  The insects you see enjoying its flowers are amazing.

People eat a lot less buckwheat these days.  Outside of kasha from Central and Eastern Europe, Soba noodles from Japan, and buckwheat pancakes, it is not a common food.  For years my wife Suzanne has added buckwheat flour to her whole grain spelt pancake and waffle batter.  The rich nutty taste is appreciated by all. (See recipe below.)

So, what changed?

According to Wikipedia, "The cultivation of buckwheat grain declined sharply in the 20th century with the adoption of nitrogen fertilizer that increased the productivity of other staples."  Wheat and corn are the main "other staples" that respond better to synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.

You might ask whether nitrogen fertilizer, made with an energy-intensive process, is a good reason to change our diets; to eat less buckwheat and more corn and wheat? Note 2. Too much nitrogen is now a very serious problem for the soil, water and air.

We might also ask if cheap fossil fuels, an atmosphere to burn them into and taxpayer subsidies for certain commodities are good reasons to radically change our diets in lots of other ways, too.

Food and energy, gas and burgers, corn and soybeans
Food is our body's energy source. It takes the energy equivalent of just a tenth of a gallon of gasoline, about a soda can full, to power a human being for 24 hours. It takes almost that much energy to make a soda can! Note 3.

The energy that fuels us ultimately comes from solar energy captured by plants. Note 4.  It can come directly from a wide variety of plants or it may be passed through animals (at a great loss of energy) before we eat it.

Interesting Food Details
Of course, the buns and the breading are not only primarily made from highly processed and refined wheat, they also include high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil - the trifecta of subsidized crops.  These crops are all doused with herbicides.  The corn and soy are sprayed with Roundup® because they are genetically engineered to resist that herbicide.  And Roundup® is used at increasing rates as weeds become resistant to it.  Roundup® is also increasingly applied to crops such as wheat just before harvest, for "dry down" and weed control. It is astounding that at the root of our food system lurks a chemical which kills all green plants and chelates elements to upset soil and human microbiomes.

And, it gets worse. The FDA and USDA just approved a new breed of GM crops and the two active ingredients those crops resist.  Enlist Duo® by Dow chemical combines glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup®) with 2,4-D (one of the key ingredients in Agent Orange, used as a chemical weapon so disastrously for our soldiers, the Vietnamese people and their land).  It will be applied widely to corn, soy and cotton plants engineered to resist this killing combination.

Corporations, commodity groups and federal and state governments are trying to export this unhealthy way of eating. When they say we need much more of this kind of agriculture to feed the world, this is the food they envision.

Most Americans (and many others across the globe) eat the way we do now because, for a very brief time, just a century or two in the 100,000 years of human history, fossil fuels were very inexpensive to extract and we were ignorant of the effects of using these fuels on the planet's habitability.

With complete accounting, we'd see that this food system is very expensive and very damaging.  As health, climate and energy become much bigger and more expensive issues in our lives, perhaps we need to rethink our food system, use any subsidies to protect what is valuable and create sane agriculture, energy use and health care policies.

Enjoy the pancake recipe below:

Suzanne's Buckwheat Pancakes

Serves 4-5

Dry ingredients
1 1/2 cups buckwheat flour
1 1/2 cups spelt flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt

Wet ingredients
3 tsp. maple syrup
2 eggs
1/4 cup canola oil
3 cups yogurt
water, milk or unsweetened almond milk to thin batter if necessary

1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 or more cups blueberries (fresh or frozen)

1)    Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl, sifting in the powder, soda and salt.
2)    If you are using frozen blueberries, coat them with several tablespoons of the dry mixture in another bowl and set aside.  This helps absorb liquid as they thaw and cook.
3)    Whisk eggs in another medium-sized bowl.  Add maple syrup, oil (and vanilla) to yogurt and then whisk into the eggs.
4)    Make a well in the flour mixture and pour in liquid mixture. Stir gently.  Before all is incorporated, add blueberries and stir just until no blobs of flour show. Do not over mix.
      (This batter will be more elastic than you're used to. It's not a problem.)
5)    Add milk, almond milk or water if batter is too thick.

Cook pancakes on a very hot greased griddle.  Flip only once when the bubbles appear.
Serve with butter and maple syrup, if desired.

Vegan version:  Omit eggs and dairy. Substitute flax mixture for eggs and use almond milk or water for liquid.  Omit baking soda and use 3 tsp. of  baking powder.                

1. The University of Illinois projects a loss of over $200 per acre on corn this year, based on crop revenue of just under $800.  Only the land costs more than the fertilizer.
2. There might be some connection to the rise in problems with gluten: a changing diet, a narrowing genetic base for the wheat, which is mostly highly processed.  Then there's the Roundup® question.
3.Although I knew that aluminum cans were energy intensive, I was astounded that it takes the electric energy equivalent of more than half a soda can full of gasoline just to create the can from aluminum ore.  (That's enough energy to power a human over 12 hours.) Fortunately, recycling reduces that somewhat. Think about that the next time you see a wall of 12 packs of soda or beer cans in the store and the cans on the side of the road. Without cheap electricity, we wouldn't be drinking out of aluminum cans.
4. There is an increasing interest in and use of indoor growing technology.  It is all gee whiz, just plug into electricity for lights and pumps and produce food in the city. But wait.  Do we want to run our bodies on electrical energy from splitting atoms, burning fossil fuels or even garbage instead of solar energy? There are some very serious Second Law of Thermodynamics problems with this solution.  It may make economic sense for a crop such as medical marijuana, but lettuce and basil from electricity? Really?

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