Saturday, January 12, 2013

Grass and High Fructose Corn Syrup

I watched the movie "The Hurt Locker" for the first time the other night. Favorite quotation:

"You know what this place (Iraq) needs"


"Grass.  I'm going to sell it and you're going to mow it"


I used to think San Francisco del Congo needed grass. Now I'm wondering what suburbia needs grass for and how much water could be saved and how many chemical fertilizers and herbicides could be left on the shelves if suburbia didn't have the stuff.  If you're going to have grass, you should have ruminants. Period.


The reverse is also true: If you're going to have ruminants, you should have grass. Period.  It surprises me that whether or not to let cows eat grass is even an issue.  It is well known or should be that cows are extremely inefficient at turning corn into protein.  They require 7kg of grain for every 1kg of live weight gain (for pigs its 4:1, chickens 2:1, herbivorous fish less than 2:1).


The only instance in which cows have an advantage is on grass because they and other ruminants are the only animals that can digest it.  Like us, cows need variety in their diet and this variety can be provided by a pasture interplanted with many types of grasses and legumes, which also serve to make the countryside diverse and beautiful.


In the early 1900s the US produced too much corn.  At that time, the only two things you could do with all the extra corn was raise pigs or make whiskey.  Whiskey got so cheap that people were drinking it breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and wouldn't have stopped if not for the Prohibition.  I'm not saying the Prohibition was successful, but it did give the US a wake up call and we realized all that drinking wasn't good for us.

Today, thanks to agroindustrialism, food science and government subsidies, we still produce way too much corn, but their is a lot more we can make with it. You can find extracts of corn in nearly everything these days but one extract over shadows all others. Corn syrup.  According to Michael Pollan, "Today [high-fructose corn syrup] is the most valuable food product refined from corn, accounting for 530 million bushels every year. (A bushel of corn yields thirty-three pounds of fructose.)" For those who don't know, a bushel of corn weights 56 lbs. That means that High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is the product of nearly 60% of US corn production.


The reason is our hunger for the stuff.  For some reason, the human palate craves sweet foods even after it is otherwise full or satisfied (think desert, its at the end of the meal).  We crave sweets probably because the vitamins our body needs can be found in most fruits.  This fact, which was discovered pretty quickly but HFCS manufactures and the soda and candy companies that use it, has become the perfect solution to America's glut of corn.

High Fructose Corn Syrup is America's new whiskey and it's killing us.  I'm no scientist but I'm pretty sure no one questions how Type II diabetes develops, "[it] typically occurs when the body's mechanism for managing glucose simply wears out from overuse" (Pollan).  So with all of the products containing HFCS on the market today, and with our voracious appetite for the stuff, why isn't anyone demanding prohibition of it?

My opinion? I'm glad you asked.  No one wants to prohibit the production of HFCS because we're up to our necks in government regulations already.  And, if you think about it, the government really isn't the problem anyway.  We're dying of diabetes and heart disease because we can't stop eating what is bad for us.  We can't stop eating what is bad for us because we don't know its bad and its so cheap.  The food is so cheap because we produce too much corn.  We produce too much corn because of government subsidies and policies that encourage farmers to keep growing it even at a loss.  Government subsidies don't change because congressmen and congresswomen like keeping their jobs and corporations are more than happy to cover their campaign expenses.  Corporations are more than happy to cover their campaign expenses because they are laughing all the way to the bank about selling us four cents worth of corn in a four dollar box of cereal.  We continue to buy that cereal because we haven't heard the joke yet and because we just can't help eating all that tasty HFCS.

So you see, the problem is circular, but it begins and ends with what we choose to buy and what we choose to eat.  The great news is, if we make better choices our health will improve and our agriculture might get a little less bass ackwards.  If we didn't eat so much corn, maybe force feeding it to cows wouldn't look like such a good idea either.

You know what this place (America) needs? Grass.

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