Michael Pollan in Portland, 11-May-2006

Here’s a belated report on Michael Pollan‘s talk on May 11, the final lecture of the 2006 Illahee Series on Oil + Water. Pollan’s talk was based on his new book about food, and in particular focused on the incredible over-use of corn in our food supply these days.

He traced the history back to the end of WWII, when folks wanted to make use of the ammonium nitrate production that had been used for explosives during the war, made from natural gas. The chemical is a good fertilizer, and it was promoted for that use in 1947. Production of corn made a big jump up from about 20 bushels per acre in 1900 to close to 200 bushels now.

Then in the early 1970s there was a price drop in the food markets, and Nixon told his Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, to do something about it. At that point a concerted policy started to subsidize growing corn with price guarantees, and this led to mono-cropping, increasing production of corn beyond the market demand.

So the next step was to find more uses for corn, which led into all the various corn syrups and so forth that permeates industrial food production in the U.S. now. As Pollan put it, these days we are in some ways “corn chips on two legs” as so much of what we eat comes directly or indirectly from corn.

Lots of corn goes to feed animals, such as cows. Of course, cows eat grass naturally, and not corn, so antibiotics are needed to stop disease from eating corn. Pollan said we’ve even turned ruminants into gas guzzlers!

Essentially the least healthy calories in the food supply are the most heavily subsidized, and the price of corn is $1 per bushel less than the cost of production. This leads to problems; obesity, diabetes, air & water pollution, etc.

What to do about it? Pollan said his biggest recommendation was moving toward local food (and this got probably the biggest round of applause of the night). He felt that the ‘organic’ movement is being fast co-opted (look for organic Rice Crispies soon!), but local food does not play so well into the corporate food structures.

See earlier reports from the Illahee 2006 series:  Michael Klare, Maude Barlow, Ken Deffeyes and James Howard Kunstler.

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