Got a lot of blackberries? Then check out this recipe for Blackberry Mojito Fruit Leather.

I'm not a huge fan of fruit leathers, but this turned out super good! And, really, you can't go wrong with blackberries, mint and rum.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Omnivore's Dilemma book discussion - Section I

I'm in everythingOkay, book club devotees. Don't forget to finish reading Section I. I'm moving the discussion thread up as a gentle reminder...

Here are the discussion questions for the first section, Industrial - Corn. I've tried to include a question that touched on at least one point in each chapter. And here we go...

1. Before reading the first chapter, did you know how pervasive corn and its byproducts were in the foods we eat?

2. In chapter 2, Michael Pollan claims that modern monoculture corn farming is basically the conversion of fossil fuels into corn, where it takes around 50 gallons of oil per acre of corn. He also states than it takes more than 1 calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of food energy for animal consumption. Do you think that the price of corn and its byproducts should more accurately reflect the true costs of production? Are you willing to pay significantly more to make up for this discrepancy down the line?

3. In chapter 3, we find out that 1/3 of all the corn grown in the U.S. is sold to a select few companies, Cargill being one of the biggest (as well as the biggest privately held corporation in the world). These companies also are the biggest winners regarding government subsidies. Do you feel that this should change, or that the subsidies help out the right people?

4. Chapter 4 exposes the problems with feeding corn to livestock animals that never used to eat it. The benefits are many -- cheap feed, faster growth to market. And, in regards to beef, feeding corn results in a flesh that marbles nicely (as well as in those that eat the beef in turn :). Do the benefits outweigh drawbacks such as increased animal sickness, issues with the feedlot environment (overcrowding, filthy conditions)?

5. In chapter 5, we learn that wet milling of corn for human consumption requires 10 calories of fossil fuel energy burned for every 1 calorie of food produced. The differential is enormous, yet with farm subsidies, the big winners are, again, the manufacturers. For example, it costs approximately 4 cents of commodity corn to product one box of cereal, yet you pay $4 for the processed food. Is this fair? Is it possible that the manufacture of cereal costs that much more than the materials themselves for this sort of margin? Or do you think the consumer is getting fleeced?

6. Chapter 6 states that the farm bills were designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, thereby guaranteeing that the cheapest calories will continue to be the unhealthiest. Based on what you've read in this section, will you do anything to change this (e.g. contact your legislators towards creating an equitable farm bill, avoiding or limiting your consumption of these products, etc.)?

7. Is it a bad thing that we have become a "race of corn eaters", or do you think, in the grand scheme of things, it really matters whether or not we are "corn chips with legs"?


Omnivore's DilemmaYou have the month of May to read this section and post your comments or bring up new discussion questions. So, keep in mind you can post a comment or question on anything you read in Section I. These questions are here to get the discussion rolling...

Also, if I stated anything inaccurately, please feel free to correct me!

17 comments:

Crunchy Chicken said...

I'll make an attempt to add my thoughts, although based on the questions I wrote, you can probably already tell where I'm leaning on a few things. I'll include the original questions in this comment for your reference. You don't need to add them to yours, just use the number if you are responding to a specific discussion question.

1. Before reading the first chapter, did you know how pervasive corn and its byproducts were in the foods we eat?

I knew that High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) was in a lot of processed foods and that it wasn't good for you, but I certainly wasn't aware of how corn has become a foundation for so many food (and non-food) items. So, no, this was all news to me.

2. In chapter 2, Michael Pollan claims that modern monoculture corn farming is basically the conversion of fossil fuels into corn, where it takes around 50 gallons of oil per acre of corn. He also states than it takes more than 1 calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of food energy for animal consumption. Do you think that the price of corn and its byproducts should more accurately reflect the true costs of production? Are you willing to pay significantly more to make up for this discrepancy down the line?

Absolutely not, the true costs of production aren't reflected in the price. It's similar to the cost of gasoline in this country. If you actually had to pay the real costs, I think that you would see a dramatic difference in the amount of corn being grown and, therefore, a reduction of the glut of corn. I am very much willing to pay significantly more to make up for the discrepancy. And, if it means that I could no longer afford those products, well then my purchasing habits would change. Perhaps manufacturers would just be forced to go back to using non-corn based products (such as sugar rather than HFCS, if it ended up being cheaper). And cows could go back to eating grass.

3. In chapter 3, we find out that 1/3 of all the corn grown in the U.S. is sold to a select few companies, Cargill being one of the biggest (as well as the biggest privately held corporation in the world). These companies also are the biggest winners regarding government subsidies. Do you feel that this should change, or that the subsidies help out the right people?

Yes, I think the farm bill needs to be radically changed. It's insane to prop up the market for a product that is so incredibly overproduced that we have to "find" ways to unload it on consumers. The only people it helps out are the corporations getting cheap corn products. Sure, in many cases that price deflation is passed onto the consumer, but do we really need enormous bottles of Coke?

4. Chapter 4 exposes the problems with feeding corn to livestock animals that never used to eat it. The benefits are many -- cheap feed, faster growth to market. And, in regards to beef, feeding corn results in a flesh that marbles nicely (as well as in those that eat the beef in turn :). Do the benefits outweigh drawbacks such as increased animal sickness, issues with the feedlot environment (overcrowding, filthy conditions)?

I, frankly, don't see any of these as actual benefits so, no, the benefits definitely do not outweigh the drawbacks. People should be eating animal products in modest quantities anyway (in my opinion) so the increased cost of raising cattle or other livestock in a healthy, humane and ecological manner is worth it.

5. In chapter 5, we learn that wet milling of corn for human consumption requires 10 calories of fossil fuel energy burned for every 1 calorie of food produced. The differential is enormous, yet with farm subsidies, the big winners are, again, the manufacturers. For example, it costs approximately 4 cents of commodity corn to product one box of cereal, yet you pay $4 for the processed food. Is this fair? Is it possible that the manufacture of cereal costs that much more than the materials themselves for this sort of margin? Or do you think the consumer is getting fleeced?

Methinks the customer is being taken advantage of. Perhaps the cost of manufacturing Cocoa Puffs is really that high, but I think that in this case the manufacturer is taking advantage of subsidies and then not passing on the benefits to the consumer. In some cases, like the example of Coke, the cheaper costs are passed on to the consumer. And that's where you see that the cheapest foods are usually the most unhealthy.

6. Chapter 6 states that the farm bills were designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, thereby guaranteeing that the cheapest calories will continue to be the unhealthiest. Based on what you've read in this section, will you do anything to change this (e.g. contact your legislators towards creating an equitable farm bill, avoiding or limiting your consumption of these products, etc.)?

I'll probably be a lot more aware of what ingredients show up in the processed food we do buy. And, if I get annoyed enough, I'll bother my Senators, but for now I'll just make sure that I buy products without HFCS if possible.

7. Is it a bad thing that we have become a race of corn eaters, or do you think, in the grand scheme of things, it really matters whether or not we are "corn chips with legs"?

I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing that we have become a race of corn eaters. I think the issue is that growing so much corn supplants other agriculture, creates an imbalance in the food system, exposes us to increased disease (from feedlot environments), and generally puts us at risk. If all I ate were corn grown in my backyard, it wouldn't exactly be an issue, it's the results of massive monoculture farming that's the problem.

QT said...

Deanna - I have only read far enough to respond to the first few questions -

1. I would say I knew about 60% of the corn use he discusses. I had to deal with it for my dogs too, as one has a corn allergy. Kind of a problem in the midwest! I had no idea it was used in packaging.

2. This chapter was very shocking to me. The whole system seems to be so backwards. I always wondered why we continued our sugar embargo on Cuba - now I think I know why. With so much invested on harvesting one crop here, we have to create an artificially inflated market for it all! BTW, we have a corn burner in our house - might as well throw a few barrels of oil in there and burn them.

pinenut said...

Hi all,

I'm excited about participating in the book club, but I don't have the book yet. Instead, I'm writing to mention that Barbara Kingsolver has a new book out on a similar topic. It's Animal,Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Yesterday, she was on a radio talk show in D.C. telling about her families efforts to become locavores. You can listen to the archived show at WAMU radio.

RC said...

2. And then the corn is converted again into the petrol substitute, ethanol. So why not just burn the damn gas? The corn planting and fertilizing {petrol} is subsidized and the ethanol is very subsidized {making corn based ethanol is a total fraud, sugar cane is the only viable ethanol} so what is goin on here?

Crunchy Chicken said...

rc - Well, I suppose if we just burned the gas outright, people couldn't get those warm fuzzies about using alternative fuels. But you totally have a point. I'm surprised that Pollan in his book didn't mention that. It's seems like an obvious point to make.

I suspect what going on has a lot to do with corporate and political lobbying. Here in Washington state there is a huge push by the Governor towards promoting biofuels and she gets a lot of positive publicity to her constituents for several reasons: 1. it promotes WA state industry and 2. it pleases (placates) the environmental-leaning Seattlites.

At first glance it looks really promising. And, I'll be the first to admit to being excited about biodiesel. But upon further inspection I think many people are coming to the conclusion that you have to spend more energy to make biofuel energy. Unfortunately, I don't see the politicians backing down based on this though.

Christy said...

It has been almost a year since I read the book so I don't remember all the details, but it did totally change the way my family and I ate. I started supporting local farmers that actually charge what the food cost to grow. I only eat beef that was raised on pasture, no corn fed beef for my family.

I had no idea before reading the book how many products corn was in and I was apalled by it! It seems ridiculous to me that we are basically eating fossil fuels, if it takes so much energy to grow our food, we aren't doing it right. I do think our food should be priced more to reflect the true costs, I also think gas should be priced to reflect the true cost, but the uproar would be huge! The sad part is if food cost what it really cost to produce we would all eat healthier and spend less on medical bills.

I feel bad for the farmers, they are really being taken advantage of because they aren't being paid what it cost them to grow the food. They claim the farm subsidies help the farmers when in reality they help big business. Of course, if you say you are against farm subsidies you are accused of being against farmers.

I think the first part of this book should be required reading for everyone in this country. Most people have no idea of these things!

Caroline said...

I borrowed the book from the library but haven't had a chance to read it yet. I did find out, however, that it is available on iTunes and Audible.com (and, I'm sure, on audio CD) as an unabridged audiobook for those who have more time to listen than read.

Emme said...

I read the book this winter and feel a little fuzzy.... The first thing I realized while reading the book was that while most of our food as a corn relationship, so is the gas we will be using to drive. So, our corn which is in everything will now be used for our cars? That frightens me.

It also encouraged me to purchase from small local farms.

Vanessa said...

Christy, I totally agree -- this should be required reading for everyone who eats (so... everyone). I was totally shocked to see how corn is in everything everything everything, from sweeteners to meat to the wax on our apples to packaging and ethanol etc. It literally is in our hair and our bloodstream and that freaks me right out.

These stories about the farmers and how they're all being forced to leave so that only a few mega-farms with their Monsanto hybrid seeds can control everything depresses me. Is anyone else feeling down with all this 'hell in a handbasket' talk?

And yes, we should be getting charged way more for both gas and corn products and everything, really.

QT said...

Now that I have finished the entire first section of this book, I can say it is pretty depressing. When I tell most people I am reading this, they recoil, and I have to tell them it is not like Fast Food Nation. Actually, in many ways, it is scarier....

3. I don't feel these subsidies help the right people at all. The lobbying system in this country needs to be reformed radically in order for this to change.

4. I have read this portion of the book before as an excerpt in the NYT, I think. I purchase my beef from a local farmer once a year, I had no idea they could squeeze that much weight onto a steer in that short of time. I believe with meat, we should REALLY start paying the true costs of raising it properly.

5-6. I live in 'corn country' and know quite a few farmers who grow corn & soybeans. All of their equipment is so specialized at this point, to switch to a different crop would be incredibly costly. How do we tell someone who currently farms 300 acres of corn that we want them to switch it up? What is the incentive for them now that they have all the equipment to 'play the game' so to speak?

7. I agree with you that it wouldn't matter what the crop was, the monoculture aspect of corn is the most troublesome.

KMH said...

I first read the book last fall. My mother is allergic to corn --both ingested and extral. His list was very helpful as we noticed several things she should avoid, but hadn't been.

I also live where corn and soy are king. The farmers here are struggling. Fuel has skyrocketed, their equipment is only designed for 2 crops, and change scares them.

KMH

P~ said...

CC- I told you I was a slow reader!
well, I have just about finished the section, but in the mean time, I have posted a blog entry with the majority of my answers. I will update it as soon as I have finished the other sections.
BTW, I am really enjoying the read, I am glad you brought it up. Some of it has been really... uncomfortable, to read, but has shed a lot of light on our diets.
P~

P~ said...

I guess this is related.

CC or anyone that sees this, take a look over a A Homesteading Neophytes Blog today, the Organic foods standards are set to be changed. TODAY is the last chance to voice opposition. She has information and a link to a petition.

nappie1 said...

First time commenting...

For some more eye opening news and information about the foods we eat people should check out "Deconstructing Dinner" a podcast put out by some good peeps just to the North of us at Kootenay Co-Op Radio. Yeah, it's Canadian, but as we are all finding out, our foods are just as global as our clothes.
http://www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner/

This podcast has really opened my eyes as to what these big companies are doing to our food supply chain.
I'm so glad it's farmers market time again!!!

Christy said...

I don't remember if he mentions this in the book, but almost all of this corn that is going into everything is genetically modified. About 80% of the food that a typical American eats is genetically modified. This scares me more than anything!

Village Green said...

So glad you are giving attention to this book. I read it a few months back and learned a great deal from it, and devoted a blog post for each section of the book.

Since then, I've read Peter Singer's new one, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, which interesects very nicely with Omnivore's Dilemma. And by the end of this book, I found I could no longer eat dairy or eggs, no matter how the animals were raised. He has a lot to say about the seafood industry and fish farms too. I stopped eating fish and meat over 30 years ago.

Anne-Marie said...

Our book club loved this book! It was lots of food for thought and I know that many of us are actively reading ingredient labels with shock and awe right now.

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