Trying to cultivate a healthy and environmentally friendly diet in the age of the industrial agricultural complex
The Omnivore's Dilemma – a book written by Micheal Pollan, an American author, journalist, activist, and professor of journalism at UC Berkeley – could be split into two sections.
The first section is dedicated to an exposé of modern agriculture where the reader is taken on a tour through the vast industrial agricultural complex. But be warned, this tour is by no means a pleasant trip on an open-top bus. It's a neck-jerking roller coaster ride through a House of Horrors where we get to glimpse the disturbing process by which contemporary agribusiness really produces our food.
The second part chronicles the author’s experiences of trying to replicate the hunter gatherer lifestyle. Pollen challenges himself to produce a meal free from food produced, caught and slaughtered by anyone other than himself.
The focus of this scattering of thoughts is on the first section: modern agriculture and how it’s shaping our diet – for the worse.
King of the Crop
Few people understand the culinary power and immense versatility of corn – or zea mays. Corn is the single most ubiquitous food stuff across the western hemisphere.
Amazingly corn has been chemically and molecularly deconstructed so that it can be used in a staggering number of consumable items – roughly ten thousand which includes ‘nonfood items as well as everything from toothpaste and cosmetics to disposable diapers, trash bags, cleaners, charcoal briquettes, matches, and batteries, right down to the shine on the cover of magazines,’ (pp19).
‘The intricacies of this process are worth following, since they go some distance toward explaining how corn could have conquered our diet and, in turn, more of the earth’s surface than virtually any other domesticated species,’ (pp20).
But corn’s merit and worth does not solely reside in its versatile and culinary application. It is also extremely responsive to genetic engineering and it is one of the hardiest crops known to man. Which explains why it covers ‘more of the earth’s surface than any other domesticated species.’
However, corn - the king of the crops - has its dark side.
Synthetic Environments Engender Ecological dis-Equilibrium
The prolific use of this species of plant has come at a great cost to human health and, more importantly, environmental health. Monocultures – a single crop that could quilt thousands of acres of farmland – have long been known to be detrimental to the natural ecology.
One will struggle to find a diversity of species amongst miles upon miles of corn crops – which, in defiance of Rachel Carson’s warnings, are still being doused in dangerous chemicals.
The globalization of agriculture systems over recent decades is likely to have been one of the most important causes of overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
(Naomi Klein 2016)
The tremendous rise in the popularity of corn ‘is responsible for pushing out not only other plants but the animals and finally people to,’ (pp38). Nothing can live amongst the arid, chemical saturated deserts that are genetically engineered corn crops. Apparently in some parts of America, aptly named the ‘corn belt’, there are fewer species than can be found in the Sahara Desert. Other than the farmers that tend to the immense oceans of corn nothing else stirs.
‘The landscape that corn has made in the American Middle West is unmistakable: It forms the second great American lawn, unfurling through the summer like an absurdly deep-pile carpet of green across the vast lands drained by the Mississippi River. Corn the plant has colonised some 125,000 square miles of the American continent,’ (pp65).
But why the corn fetish? Well it transpires that corn is not only a staple of Homo sapiens’ diet. It is also the primary calorific fuel powering the immense machine that is animal agribusiness.
It may come as a surprise to the naive person who still believes that farm animals are fed a natural diet of grass – like those images you use to see plastered over cartons of milk or the plastic wrapping of a joint of beef – but in truth the majority of the world’s livestock are fattened on a diet of corn, corn and . . . more corn.
This initially might not sound like a problem; after all, corn is a species of grass. However, cows, the primary corn consumer, are not, shall we say, 'biologically equipped' to digest this gastronomical usurper.
Yes, cows are herbivores and corn is a plant. But ‘cows (like sheep, bison, and other ruminant) have evolved the special ability to convert grass – which single-stomached creatures like us can’t digest – into high quality protein,’ (pp70).
The rumen, a medicine ball-sized sack bursting with bacteria, enables cows to breakdown and digest grass. But it can’t do this with corn. Consequently, the contemporary cow diet is making them, as well as the animals that consume them (Us!), sick.
A concentrated diet of corn can lead to ‘fermentation in the rumen’ which ‘produces copious amounts of gas’. This causes the rumen to inflate ‘like a balloon until it presses against the animal’s lungs. Unless action is taken promptly to relieve the pressure (usually by forcing a hose down the animal’s esophagus), the animal suffocates,’ (pp77/78).
Because this costs the farmer copious amounts in medical bills – never mind the suffering animal – corn-tolerant cows are in the process of being genetically engineered; or, I should say more accurately, selected.
So far I have only discussed surface level issues – low hanging fruit. But now it's time to face the harsh reality and wider implications of these unethical agricultural practices.
This unnatural relationship, of feeding cows corn, has given rise to the dreaded ‘feedlot’. Feedlots are vast open expanses populated by many millions of cows. Dotted arbitrarily around the feedlot, like watchtowers in which rifle-wielding sentries stand vigil, ready to shoot dead any cows brave enough to try and escape, will be spotted shiny towering structures constructed from corrugated steel containing CORN!
These are CAFOS. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations ‘have produced more than their share of environmental and health problems: polluted water and air, toxic waste, novel and deadly pathogens’ to name a few (pp67).
Let me piece this confusing agricultural picture together for you. Here's how it all works:
The farmer breeds and raises a head of cattle. When the heard has reached a specific state of maturation the farmer transports them to the vast feedlot deserts where the CAFOS wait to fatten them up. The farmer then leaves his cows at the feedlot to which he'll pay a monthly boarding price per head – which works out to about $2 per cow per day of boarding. After a number of months gorging incessantly on corn the cow is quickly fattened to slaughter weight, taken to the slaughter house and zzzzzAp!
Whereas in traditional times the farmer would raise and tend to his own cattle and then do his own dirty work, this is no longer the case. These anachronistic agricultural practices have been replaced by the more efficient yet infinitely more harmful modern method of the feedlot CAFO.
One of the most serious outcomes of the feedlot (and the industrialisation and commoditisation of animal protein) is the concerning rise in a pernicious negative externality far worse than, if you can believe it, toxic waste and polluted air.
I can’t recall precisely the exact source but just recently a national news station has warned of the next great threat to humanity. According to this report antibiotic resistant bacteria will be the leading cause of premature mortality.
‘Drug resistant bugs could kill ten million people a year by 2050 – more than currently die from cancer.’
And the cost of this new super killer to our epidemiological infrastructure? Best estimates have arrived at a boot-quacking bill of a hundred trillion dollars – every year! To put that figure into context, the entire global economic and financial output doesn’t exceed 65 trillion.
What’s even more concerning is that some researchers have argued that antibiotic resistant bacteria could be thriving in our environment now and that the death toll when they begin to manifest will be much higher.
Agricultural Petri Dish
Because billions upon billions of cows (sheep/pigs/chickens/turkeys/in short: any animal on the menu) are packed into unnatural environments such as the feedlot, standing ankle deep in their own faeces, bacteria proliferation is profuse.
To keep bacteria at bay animals are literally pumped full of antibiotics in a perverse attempt to prevent the spread of viral infections which can decimate whole herds.
Each year we kill sixty billion chickens, one billion sheep, and three hundred million cows globally, in circumstances that are often barbaric.
‘Most of the antibiotics sold in America today,’ Pollen tells us, ‘end up in animal feed, a practice that, it is now generally acknowledged (except in agriculture), is leading directly to the evolution of new antibiotic-resistant superbugs,’ (pp78). (Ironically I write this in the midst of the Coronavirus epidemic – caused, so say the scientists, by unsanitary animal slaughter practices.)
When one remembers that Pollen wrote those lines over 12 years ago and that the practice of force-feeding animals antibiotics is still prevalent through the agricultural industry (worldwide), it’s hard not to feel a stirring sense of unease about what biological disaster awaits around the next bend.
What Can Be Done?
It’s all so agonisingly simple – in theory.
What I have in brief described above, the destruction to the natural ecology, the unimaginable abuses visited on other sentient creatures and the incomprehensible suffering that will surely follow in the wake of the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria, that hellish nightmare is quite simply a consequence of an industry trying to cater to our collective dietary habits.
What we eat is killing the world and ourselves.
By transitioning to a plant based diet – Yes! by purging your diet of animal protein – much of what has been described above will cease. The slaughtering of more than 330,000,000,000 animals each year will stop. Monoculture deserts, by necessity, will be replaced by a rich variety of different crops – which have been shown to be environmentally sustainable and beneficial. And as for the super killers, well that may not come to pass.
Of course this article is little more than an informal overview of one person's interpretation of an expansive piece of literature. To gain a full and deep insight into The Omnivore's Dilemma, and how the contemporary industrial complex is shaping your diet, buy a copy and read it yourself. Believe me when I say, it's well worth the effort.
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'Beautifully written and shocking investigation of what slips into the swelling American stomach ... entertaining and eloquent' (Daily Telegraph)
'This is one of the most thought-provoking books I've read in a while ... After you read this book there will be things you don't want to eat, ever again ... An honest, brilliant, troubling book. I recommend it to anyone' (Evening Standard)
'Convivial, creative and deeply disturbing, though he does offer hope ... it has certainly changed the way I think about food' (Audrey Niffenegger, Guardian)
'On our we-need-to-know-this reading list ... a patient investigation of his nation's calorie industries' (Mail on Sunday)
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Adam Priest is a former Royal Marines Commando, professional personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.
Harford. T. (2017) Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy. Abacus. UK
Jones. G (2018) [Quote taken from the] Philosophy Now article entitled: Moral Blind Spots.
Klein. N (2014). This Changes Everything. Penguin. United States.
Pollan. M (2011) The Omnivore's Dilemma. Bloomsbury. United States.