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The real price of today's cheap food

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The floors and the peppers both glimmer with a waxy sheen. Long, symmetrical aisles are stocked with rows of brilliantly coloured packages, all vying for our attention with bold claims of healthfulness. The dairy products sport images of idyllic pastures where cows still munch grass and chickens roam free beneath a clear sky. And in the meat department, neatly butchered steaks lie peacefully on beds of Styrofoam, any traces of unpleasantness surrounding their life and death conveniently forgotten. Welcome to the modern supermarket, where all traces of our food's origins have been neatly concealed, leaving only barcodes, clever marketing and blissful ignorance of the dirty work that is involved in providing us with dinner.

The evolution of eating has taken us off the farm and into the supermarket, a place where the realities of food production are easily forgotten. We generally take nature's bounty for granted and rarely pause to consider what it takes to provide us with such an astronomical amount of food. Where does it come from, how is it grown and what impacts are modern agricultural practices having on our planet? In fact, the way our food is produced has changed exponentially in the last century and one could argue that perhaps the biggest change was wrought in Germany in the early 20 th century, just prior to World War I.

 

The Dubious History of Synthetic Nitrogen

Once upon a time in the early twentieth century, the amount of food farmers could produce was limited to the amount that they could replace the nitrogen in the soil. This was achieved in an archaic and highly inefficient manner. Farmers planted a variety of crops that were rotated annually in order that the soil's nutrients were not overly depleted. Fields were left dormant for entire growing seasons beneath blankets of green manure, specific crops that replace the important nutrient rather than consume it. Such farmers also raised livestock in order that their manure could be used as fertilizer. Weeds were still pulled manually.

These were the farms of yesteryear, what today we might call 'organic.' Little waste was produced and entire operations could be powered by man, beast and the boundless energy of the sun.

Meanwhile, in the early 1900s, German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch were working on a discovery that would change the face of agriculture and, subsequently, the world. The two scientists discovered that by using high heat and pressure they were able to manufacture a synthetic form of nitrogen fertilizer that plants were able to absorb. They had, in fact, discovered a way to cheat nature. Now farmers were able to disregard their old fashioned, labour-intensive techniques. The Haber-Bosch Process used to produce synthetic nitrogen fertilizer had planted the seeds for the vast mono-cultures, or single crop farms that dominate our agricultural landscape today.

The commercial production of synthetic nitrogen began in 1913. It is an energy intensive process that is thought to account for about one per cent of the world's annual energy consumption. Its discovery led to huge increases in crop yields, which in turn allowed the human population of the planet to increase from 1.6 billion in the early twentieth century to about six billion today. Haber and Bosch are credited with facilitating this astronomical increase, and without synthetic nitrogen feeding our crops, 500 million tons of the stuff per year, to be precise, it is thought that we would be unable to produce enough food to sustain ourselves. But all this abundant and readily available food comes at a cost: Mother Nature does not like to be cheated.

For example, vast dead zones in our oceans have been attributed to nutrient pollution, or fertilizer runoff from our factory farms. Excess nutrients find their way into our waterways which in turn lead them to the sea. Once there, they cause microscopic algae called phytoplankton to grow which feed a certain bacteria that can reproduce very quickly. The bacteria consume all the oxygen in the water, creating a dead zone in which the abundance of plant life chokes out all other life forms and no fish or marine mammals can survive.

By way of comparison, mixed practice farming - that is farms that raise a multitude of crops and livestock - make productive use of waste products by using them to cultivate a healthy soil and at the end of the day they create very little pollution.

Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch both received Nobel Prizes for their work in discovering how to produce synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, something that is considered by many to be one of the most important inventions of the 20 th century. Indeed, it is thought that billions of people would not exist without it. But Haber's paradoxical biography has a dark twist: A patriotic German Jew, his scientific works also helped Germany to prolong World War I and during the Holocaust he was a key figure in developing Zyklon B poison gas. Here was a man whose life's work brought about the lives and deaths of literally millions of people.

 

The Sweet Success of Corn

Returning from the mid nineteenth century to today's modern supermarket, we are faced with a mind boggling array of products that bombard us with health claims. All we humans really need to get by is a green grocer, a dairy, perhaps a butcher and a large sack of grain. (Although a bag of sugar and a few coffee beans wouldn't go amiss!)

Pre-packaged convenience foods are becoming what forms the backbone of the typical North American meal. Pre-cooked roasts complete with gravy and ready for the microwave compete with frozen pizzas and casseroles. Soda pop and sports drinks, sauces and dressings, cereals and crackers, cookies and ice cream... All these cleverly marketed products of food science vie for our attention with claims of "trans fat free" or "low carb" or whatever the current health trend may be. What are they made of and where do they come from? What are all those obscure ingredients listed on the back and how in the world do we produce them so cheaply?

To a large extent, the answer to all of these questions lies in a field of genetically modified corn. Corn is what sweetens our beverages, thickens our sauces, fattens our beef and prolongs the shelf life of countless food products. Corn has, in fact, largely taken over the role that once belonged solely to cane sugar. Sports drinks and ice cream, bread and yogurt, pancake syrup and fruit spreads, are all sweetened with glucose-fructose, a derivative of the corn plant. Labeled in the U.S. as high fructose corn syrup, this is a sweetener with a distinctly bad reputation when it comes to our health. Yet no one seems to have noticed that it has quietly infiltrated our food supply, taking over a role that once belonged to cane sugar.

Glucose-fructose is produced by milling corn to produce corn starch and then processing the starch to make glucose, or corn syrup. An enzyme is then added to the resulting product that converts the glucose into fructose, another form of sugar. While sucrose, or table sugar, is equal parts glucose and fructose bound together, the sweetener labeled as glucose-fructose has a higher ratio of fructose.

So what? Sounds harmless, right? Well, all those unbound fructose molecules head straight to the liver to be metabolized where they are immediately converted into fat that heads straight for the bloodstream. This may be relatively harmless in small doses, but the trouble is glucose-fructose has insinuated its way into almost every processed food that we eat. And on the whole, we eat a lot! This stuff is a highly processed product of food science that has only been around since the 1970s. Our bodies don't really know how to process it. In fact, a study conducted at Princeton University showed that rats who were fed glucose-fructose along with their regular diets had more circulating triglycerides, or fats, in their blood than those fed plain old table sugar. Could this perhaps be one of the reasons that we North Americans are getting rather large?

 

Cows and Corn

So we have figured out how to render the very versatile corn plant into a variety of sweeteners, thickeners, emulsifiers and preservatives. But the plant's role in providing us with dinner does not end here. Consider the cow. The cow may very well be North America's favourite thing to eat. We have, after all, literally thousands of fast food outlets throughout the continent all selling basically the same burger. And all these places are not wanting for customers. But how in the world do we produce enough meat to supply all these places, not to mention stock our grocery stores as well as provide enough product for all our restaurants? And how do we do it so cheaply?

The answer, once again, is corn. Once upon a time cattle grazed on grass, a food that they are designed by nature to digest. Their manure was composted into high quality fertilizer that was, in turn, used to nourish crops. There was no need to truck in food or truck out waste. Everything was, in some form, returned to the earth and very little waste was produced.

Again, these are the farms of yesteryear. Always striving for improvement, we humans have devised a better system of producing beef.

The economic boom following World War II saw a huge increase in the demand for beef. We needed more! The system had to be streamlined; cows fattened faster to meet this rising demand. And so the animals were taken off the pasture and transported to feedlots or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) where vast quantities of very cheap corn are trucked in to feed the masses. Crowded and filthy, CAFOs are where our beef is raised. Ankle deep in their own manure, cattle have no access to pasture or freedom to roam as a cow might. They are merely numbers, cogs in the great wheel of beef production, like products being produced in a very efficient factory.

The new system works! Cows raised on pasture take three to five years to reach slaughter weight. That same weight can be achieved today in as little as 15 months! That means a whole lot more beef for the buck. Turns out, corn makes cows fat quickly.

Unfortunately, it also makes them sick, as their unique digestive systems are not designed to digest the stuff. But antibiotics in their feed takes care of that along with any other diseases that might transpire due to their rather unsanitary living conditions.

In the United States, it is estimated that all the CAFOs combined produce about

100,000 metric tonnes of manure per minute, creating a serious disposal issue. The manure is too laden with antibiotics and hormones to use as fertilizer, so what we are left with is pure waste product, product that on a mixed practice farm would be put to good use. What to do with it all? The simplest solution seems to be to create vast and often poorly contained 'waste lagoons.' In other words, just forget about it and deal with it later. Some might leak out and find its way into our rivers and watersheds but right now that is just the risk and price of doing business. As long as the great wheels of beef production keep turning and pushing out a very cheap product, no one seems to mind too much.

 

America's Role

Why corn, you may find yourself asking - why has corn implicated itself into so many different aspects of our modern food system? The answer is simply cost. The American government heavily subsidizes corn farmers, the result being that growers can sell their product for much cheaper than it costs them to produce. Not to mention the fact that so many farms that once grew a variety of crops now find it more lucrative to simply produce corn.

We here in Canada do not subsidize our corn farmers but, as we know what our neighbours to the south do certainly affects us here in the Great White North.

Government subsidies combined with tariffs imposed on imported cane sugar ensure that corn is the cheapest sweetener out there. Head to Mexico and you will find that their soda pop is still sweetened with plain old sugar, while here in Canada and the U.S. it is now sweetened with glucose-fructose. These very same subsidies have also succeeded in putting countless Mexican corn farmers out of business, as they cannot compete with the cheap stuff coming out of the US.

So the subsidy keeps our food cheap. But does it not seem a bit like a subsidy on ill health? After all, what it cheapens are things like soda pop, fast food hamburgers and all sorts of processed foods. While the cost of these products is kept artificially low, the price of fresh, healthy food climbs with every economic bump. Should it not be cheaper to cook for yourself than buy a meal at McDonalds? Should a hamburger be cheaper than a head of broccoli?

 

The Solution

If all this strikes you as rather a dismal state of affairs, take heart! Today's conscious consumer has options if he or she opts to seek them out. Although we may not realize it, eating in the 21 st century can be a political act in which each and every one of our purchases is a vote for which system of food production we choose to support. While buying meat at the supermarket is a vote for factory produced, corn fed beef, seeking out a local butcher who sources his meat from smaller, more local farms may be a vote for smaller scale production which is less straining on the environment. It is a purchase that says that you care about how your beef was raised, how far it had to travel to get to you and what impact you are having on the earth by simply eating your dinner!

Buying your produce at a local farmer's market is a vote for local, usually organic, mixed practice farming that is much less taxing on the environment than these giant mono-cultures of highly fertilized, imported vegetables that you find at the supermarket. These days, many farmers will offer harvest boxes full of hardy crops that will keep you stocked up with local produce through the winter. Keep in mind, though, that eating locally usually means eating seasonally. Winter is a time for squash and root crops, not fresh salads and strawberries.

It is easy to turn a blind eye to the realities of the unpleasantness surrounding our food production. After all, to most of us, it's just dinner , and we all have to eat. Seeking healthier, more environmentally friendly options when it comes to our food choices takes time and often costs a little more. But anyone who has ever attempted to grow their own vegetables or raise their own chickens can appreciate the work and cost involved and may no longer scoff at the idea of paying upwards of four dollars for a dozen eggs! Just about every product we buy comes in a wide range of qualities; some are built to last and others are just cheap knock-offs priced accordingly. Food is no different. But in the case of food, you often cannot actually see the difference. But the difference is huge, in terms of our health as well as the environment. Many of us claim we cannot afford a few extra dollars a month to pay for food that was produced in a healthy, sustainable manner, but in the last decade, most of us have found the extra cash to pay for cell phones, computers and internet access. I suppose it's just a matter of where your priorities lie.

 

 

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