The Origin of Our Food

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My introduction to this country’s problematic food supply came through the movie Food, Inc. My interest in the subject stemmed from my desperation to turn our family's health around.

The startling information conveyed in Food, Inc. was enough for me to search for grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish and soy-/corn-free chicken. The more I learned, the more determined I became to feed our family with fresh, organic food, free of additives, hormones, and antibiotics. Farmers markets have now become our primary source of food.

Several years ago, author Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible and The Bean Trees) went a step further. She moved her family to a Virginia farm to learn to grow their own food. She chronicles her experience in the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.

It is an easy, fun read. She eloquently makes the case for a return to our agricultural roots, citing the ominous transition to commodity subsidies, which focus on the production of cheap corn and soybeans.

. . . this new industry made piles of corn and soybeans into high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and thousands of other starch- or oil-based chemicals. Cattle and chickens were brought in off the pasture into intensely crowded and mechanized CAFO’s (concentrated animal feeding operations) where corn – which is no part of a cow’s natural diet, by the way – could be turned cheaply and quickly into animal flesh. All these different products, in turn, rolled on down the new industrial food pipeline to be processed into the soft drinks, burgers, and other cheap foods on which our nation largely runs – or sits on its bottom, as the case may be.

This is how 70% of our Midwestern agricultural land shifted gradually into single-crop corn or soybean farms, each of them now, on average, the size of Manhattan. Owing to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetic modification, and a conversion of farming from a naturally based to a highly mechanized production system, U.S. farmers now produce 3,900 calories per U.S. citizen, per day. That is twice what we need, and 700 more calories a day more than they grew in 1980.

. . .

Most of those calories enter our mouths in forms hardly recognizable as corn and soybeans, or even vegetable in origin: high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) owns up to its parentage, but lecithin, citric acid, maltodextrin, sorbitol, and xanthan gum, for example, are also manufactured from corn. So are beef, eggs, and poultry, in a different but no less artificial process. Soybeans also become animal flesh, or else a category of ingredient known as “added fats.” If every product containing corn or soybeans were removed from your grocery store, it would look more like a hardware store. Alarmingly, the lightbulbs might be naked, since many packaging materials also now contain cornstarch.

Kingsolver goes on to talk about the bigger packages and supersizing, citing our weakness for junk food. Food marketers, she says, exploit the weakness without mercy.

Obesity is generally viewed as a failure of personal resolve, with no acknowledgement of the genuine conspiracy in this historical scheme. People actually did sit in strategy meetings discussing ways to get all those surplus calories into people who neither needed nor wished to consume them. Children have been targeted especially; food companies spend over $10 billion a year selling food brands to kids, and it isn’t broccoli they’re pushing. Overweight children are a demographic in many ways similar to minors addicted to cigarettes, with one notable exception: their parents are usually their suppliers. We all subsidize the cheap calories with our tax dollars, the strategists make fortunes, and the overweight consumers get blamed for the violation. It’s the perfect crime.

The good news in all of this is that the tide is turning. Ever so slowly. As people make the connection between health and food, the demand for organic, nutrionally dense food grows.

As Kingsolver says,

From the rural routes to the inner cities, we are staring at our plates and wondering where that’s been. For the first time since our nation’s food was ubiquitously local, the point of origin now matters again to some consumers.

It sure matters to me and, thankfully, to many others.