Thursday, March 26, 2009

For the introduction to The Omnivore's Dilemma, check here.

Apparently I'm really bad at summarizing when there are so many interesting facts and information that I want to share about this book. I've decided to break section one up into two parts lest people get overwhelmed by the length of my posts.

Originally, I had divided this section up into five parts: Corn, Cow, Complex Foods, Consumers and Cheeseburgers & Chicken Nuggets. Today I will focus on the first two sections. Here we go....


Pollan starts off by taking us to a farm in Iowa which a couple generations ago was a self-sufficient community consisting of a variety of animals, vegetables and fruit, existing on the energy of the sun and working together to create a harmonious balance. Now the animals have been sent off to live their short lives in factories while the diversity of plants have given way to make room for rows upon rows of densely-growing, hybrid corn. Why? There is a lot of technical information to answer this question, but largely because of government policies both set up to help as well as to exploit the farmers, and lobbied by mega-food corporations.

This new corn, is actually not the sweet corn that we know, but a hybrid corn generated to grown densely, year-after-year, to feed the meat we eat and fill the foods we love. This corn drains the soil of nutrients, particularly nitrogen - which plants, and therefore humans, cannot live without. Formerly, corn would only be grown on a field 2 out of 5 years, rotated with legumes which replenish the soil. (Soil can only be replenished with nitrogen by two natural means: through a process involving the bacteria on the roots of legumes and when lightening strikes causing a chemical reaction with the nitrogen in the air allowing it to rain into the soil.) Thanks to modern technology derived from World War I's poisonous gas inventions, we now have synthesized nitrogen in generous amounts to spread over fields and feed the ravenous corn. Farmers use copious amounts of this fertilizer "just in case". It runs off into streams, rivers and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico, spreading large amounts of pollution along the way.

I haven't even touched the information about how the corn farmers are all in debt and surviving by government subsidies despite massive corn output year after year.

So what happens to all this corn after it is harvested? It heads out all over the US and overseas, but the majority of it is sent to feedlots to fatten up animals for the slaughter.

About two generations ago, it took 4-5 years to breed a cow to slaughter weight. Now cows are going from 80 lbs to 1,100 lbs in 14-16 months. While cows are always born on a range as we like to imagine, they only get a few months of grazing and eating as comes natural to them before they are weaned and shipped off to massive feedlots. There, they are fed what does not come natural to them - corn. And not just corn... Added to the corn are protein supplements, vitamins, synthetic estrogen, roughage (alfalfa hay and silage) and beef tallow - blood products and fat brought back from the slaughter house to "beef up" the cows. How disgusting is that!!? (They used to feed them meat and other bits of cow until they discovered this to cause Mad Cow's Disease.) To keep these cows healthy on this extremely unnatural diet, they also pump them full of antibiotics. Because the life span of a cow is so short, they don't really know what would happen to them if they just let them continue on this diet. Most likely they would die from bloating (not enough roughage) or the liver diseases that many of them already have.

One interesting note that Pollan pointed out is the amount of petroleum it takes to get a cow through this fast-track process. Thirty-five gallons of oil for one cow! The production and transportation of our food goods alone uses almost one-fifth of our total petroleum consumption.

I'll stop here and let you digest all that information. Stay tuned for Part 1b where we will find this corn showing up at our dinner tables in all sorts of disguises.

Comments (2)

On September 22, 2010 at 11:00 PM , Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, but I believe the fertilizer was derived from the leftovers of World War II, not I (see page 41)

On November 29, 2010 at 2:57 PM , Anonymous said...

Hey this is excellent thank you for sharing! We have to read this book for senior seminar. I am excited about reading this book now!