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The Agribusiness Diet

Since World War II, corporate food producers have systematically violated the american food supply forprofit—and they’d rather you not know the unhealthy details

By Mike Miliard

Since Squanto taught the Pilgrims to plant maize, no food has been more emblematic of the evolution of American eating habits than corn. That’s been true from the sepia-tinged golden age of the Midwestern breadbasket to the present day, where those yellow kernels are lab-engineered and recombinated into a dizzying array of futuristic foodstuffs.

In Mark Kurlansky’s new anthology, The Food of a Younger Land (Riverhead)—which compiles reportage and recipes from “America Eats,” an unfinished venture of the Depression-era WPA Federal Writers’ Project—we visit Pop Corn Days in North Loup, Neb. There, fairgoers munch from “bushels of popped fluffiness” while watching the procession of the Pop Corn Queen, “heralded by buglers with green capes over their uniforms . . . regal in her robes of lustrous gold satin.” We also learn how, across the Midwest, corn was “cultivated for uses in ‘johnny-cake,’ corn mush, ‘big hominy,’ ash-cake, corn whisky, corn pone, or the small loaves called ‘corn dodgers.’ ”

Nowadays, though, as we’re shown in Robert Kenner’s new documentary Food, Inc., we consume corn via high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, diglycerides, xanthan gum, ascorbic acid, calcium stearate, citrus cloud emulsion, saccharin, sucrose, sorbital, ethyl acetate, ethyl lactate, cellulose, xylital, alpha tocopherol, gluten, polydextrose, inositol, and Fibersol-2. Gives the term “corn-fed” a whole new meaning, eh?

“The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than the previous 10,000,” notes Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, at the outset of Food, Inc. And not for the better.

The food we eat today is making us fat. It’s making us sick. And the vast, government- subsidized system of agribusiness and mechanized corporate food production is inefficient and unsustainable, slowly ruining our environment, our economy, and our culture.

There are few better ways to remind ourselves of what has transpired in just a few decades than to experience Kurlansky’s book and Kenner’s movie side by side.

The former, as its subtitle puts it, is a “portrait of American food before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food,” when what we ate “was seasonal, regional, and traditional.”

The latter may as well be subtitled “What the national highway system, chain restaurants, frozen food, corporate meatpacking, omni-vailable factory-farmed produce, laboratory-engineered flavors, genetically modified crop seeds, artificial growth hormones, and cloned animals mean for the future of the American diet, landscape, and society.”

The mass industrialization of food that began mid-20th century promised abundance and cost efficiency. By some measures, it would seem to have delivered on that promise. Witness the galaxy of processed, packaged snacks on brightly lit display in your supermarket—the average of which, we’re told, holds 47,000 different items—where a two-liter bottle of cola costs a buck while a half-gallon of milk costs $2.49.

But Kenner’s film is an appetite-killing primer on the myriad hidden costs that make the true prices much, much higher.

Kurlansky—who previously explored the often-surprising significance of particular foodstuffs in such books as Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and Salt: A World History—learned a lesson while researching that latter book, which traces sodium chloride’s role in the rise and fall of economies and empires.

“It’s very difficult to grasp the notion of value,” he says. “Things we think are valuable and are worth fighting and struggling over could very well be not worth anything. It’s pretty arbitrary. That’s an important lesson, I think.”

Lately we seem finally to be learning that lesson when it comes to our food: realizing that, in the long run, so-called value meals offer precisely the opposite.

Let’s not pretend that all those hearty, healthy, homegrown meals in bucolic pre-WWII America were delightful and delicious. The writers compiled in The Food of a Younger Land set out to survey the provinces and pockets of ethnic influence across the lower 48, and sometimes returned having queasily sampled such regional delicacies as Scandinavian lutefisk (a slimy, smelly concoction of codfish cured in lye) in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and “prairie oysters” in Oklahoma (the harvesting of which is described in one tour-de-force of dramatic narrative).

Luckily, in this 10th year of the 21st century, “I don’t think many people are eating beaver tail,” says Kurlansky. “And I hope people aren’t eating wildcat and cougar.”

The old days had other drawbacks, too: Eating local didn’t always mean eating fresh. “They were very reliant on canned and preserved food,” says Kurlansky of our forebears. “In most of America, there’s not a lot of food produced between November and April.”

Not to mention that it’s unlikely someone from, say, Maine—whose clambakes, game suppers, and hot-buttered rum are all described in the book—would ever get to taste “A Los Angeles Sandwich Called a Taco” (as the title of one chapter describes it).

So clearly, on one level, foodies should be thankful for air travel and interstate highways. “On my book tour,” says Kurlansky, who lives in New York City, “a journalist in Seattle said, ‘You’re coming at just the right time, because the Copper River Salmon is coming in!’ I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I know the Copper River Salmon is coming in because my local fish store carries it.”

Yet for all the gastronomic convenience of refrigerated transportation, reading Kurlansky’s book, one can’t help feeling sentimental for a past many of us never experienced, a simpler time when regions had their own dishes and libations: the California grunion fry, Kentucky Burgoo, Oregon Blue Ruin.

“Before World War II, people were much more rooted to the place they lived in, and that was reflected in the food,” says Kurlansky. “Not only because the food was locally produced, but the recipes were local, the traditions were local. People had their own approach that varied literally from county to county, sometimes from town to town.”

Now, as has been said ad nauseum, 50 states filled with chain stores and strip malls have ensured that everything looks and tastes the same. “It would be nice to travel around America and have the food change everywhere you went,” says Kurlansky. “I just got through doing a book tour, a different town every day. I just struggle to find something local everywhere I go.”

It’s no accident that the biggest predictor of obesity is income level. According to Robert Kenner’s new documentary, Food, Inc., the government is effectively subsidizing “bad calories.”

The mass industrialization of food production that happened so quickly in the middle of last century promised more choice at cheaper prices—a better way to feed the world. But agribusiness, factory farms, and other forms of corporate food manufacturing didn’t quite deliver on that promise.

“It was accepted that there was going to be a decline in food quality,” says Kurlansky. “In exchange, it was supposed to end world hunger, and food was supposed to be produced more efficiently. Well, it hasn’t made a dent in world hunger, and it’s completely inefficient: It wastes energy, it pollutes, it’s harmful to the landscape, it destroys cultures. It turns out not to be an advantageous way to produce food in any way.”

This is put on vivid display in Kenner’s disturbingly dystopian film, a whirlwind tour through the genetic laboratories, industrialized charnel houses, and chemical-sprayed crop fields filled with illegal immigrants that have come to characterize modern American food production.

Kenner says he didn’t intend Food, Inc. to be a piece of muckraking—even though, in one scene showing an overcrowded cattle pen in which the animals wallow knee-deep in their own feces, it almost literally is.

“I’m not Michael Moore looking to prove a point,” he says. “Really, I had hoped simply to do an exploration of how we eat. I was thinking I could talk to all the food producers, be they organic farmers or agribusiness. I knew they might not let me into their plants, but I thought they would talk.”

They didn’t. In fact, many corporations went so far as to threaten the ranchers and farmers with retribution if they talked. Thanks in part to those zipped lips, the film took six years to make.

“I realized these guys do not want you thinking about it,” says Kenner. “They don’t want you to crack this veil, to think about this food. They want [to perpetuate] the myth of the farm with the white picket fence and the red barn.”

But it’s not like that anymore: “In reality, this food has been fundamentally transformed.”

One of Food, Inc.’s most viscerally disturbing scenes is a peek inside a chicken house. The farmer featured, Maryland-based Perdue grower Carole Morison, was the only one, out of dozens asked, to allow cameras, thanks to widespread fears of corporate reprisals. “It’s just gotten to the point where it’s not right what’s going on,” she sighs. “I’ve just made up my mind, I’m gonna say what I have to say.”

The coop is overcrowded, the floor a vast carpet of weakly squawking chickens, overbred to grow twice the size in half the time, too heavy to even stand. Here and there, birds lay dying, collapsed under their own weight. Morison scoops them up and tosses them with dull thuds into a pile. “This isn’t farming,” she says. “This is just mass production.”

“Somehow that scene reverberates a lot for people, but it’s not just the chicken,” says Kenner. “It’s as much the tomato, or the lettuce. Everything has been transformed. The tomato”—ripened in a warehouse with ethylene gas—“has no taste and no nutrition. But it looks red!”

Kenner describes attending a hearing in Sacramento about the labeling of cloned meat. The debate was not whether cloned meat was good or not. It was about whether you had to tell the consumer he or she was buying cloned meat.

“Wait a second,” says Kenner. “I thought if you had something you think is good, you let them know and they can choose? Isn’t that what the free market is? Not letting us have this information goes beyond food—it’s very un-American.”

One of Food, Inc.’s most frustrating scenes follows a family of four to the produce section of the supermarket. Says the mother: “Sometimes you look at a vegetable and say, ‘OK, well, we can get two hamburgers for the same amount of price.’ ”

As Pollan points out in the film, that’s no accident. “Bad calories” are cheaper because “those are the ones we’re heavily subsidizing” via farm policies that favor crops like corn and soy. It’s no accident either that the biggest predictor of obesity is income level. Or that diabetes is an epidemic.

“You’re not seeing the real price tag when you go to the supermarket,” says Kenner, who points out that an uninsured person with diabetes “could be paying $1,000 a month for medicine. Is that ‘cheaper’ food? You can’t have health-care [reform] in this country without changing the food system.”

But how, exactly? The population of America in 1959 was about 180 million. Today, it’s just under 310 million. It’s inarguable that feeding that many people requires more than just a sun-dappled patchwork of rolling green fields, like the one on the cover of The Food of a Younger Land.

Clearly, corporations will have to continue to play huge roles in food production. But if there’s no going back to the simple agrarian existence depicted in Kurlansky’s book, that doesn’t mean there can’t be serious reform.

It won’t be easy. Food, Inc. shows how agencies like the USDA and FDA—under both Democratic and Republican administrations—are oftentimes rife with alumni of the very corporations they’re supposed to regulate.

Meanwhile, it introduces us to Barbara Kowalcyk, whose toddler, Kevin, died in agony after contracting E. coli from tainted meat. And we’re told that the FDA’s food-safety inspections dropped precipitously in the past three decades.

“With all the scientific advancement, the irony is that food hasn’t gotten safer,” says Kenner. “There’s always been food-borne illness, but we’re probably more vulnerable to it now than we’ve ever been.” (Lest we forget, the genetic ancestor of H1N1 swine flu was bred and spread on a factory farm.)

Kenner sees parallels between agribusiness and another industry that was forced to change its ways. The tobacco companies, too, “had incredible wealth,” he argues. “Incredible power. Totally connected to government. And they put out misleading information about the health effects of their product. But we beat tobacco.”

Beyond ceasing subsidies for unhealthy foods, the goal could be to increase subsidies for locally grown produce, say, and grass-grazed meat. Sadly—not least for the members of the “Michael Pollan for Secretary of Agriculture” Facebook group—that seems unlikely, at least in the near term. After all, new AgSec Tom Vilsack comes from Iowa (“the Tall Corn State”), and his appointment won cheers from the Corn Refiners Association and jeers from the Organic Consumers Association.

But sooner or later, we’ll need to better subsidize our small, sustainable farms. “For small-scale farmers to earn a living, they have to charge a lot for their food,” says Kurlansky. “That’s how all this bad food happened.”

“We have to figure out how to support small farmers,” agrees Kenner. “And ultimately, we really need to figure out how to support local so we can create communities that we want.”

There’s no going back to the happy, wholesome harvests that get the mouth watering in The Food of a Younger Land. Corporations and big-time agribusiness are here to stay. But they can feed us better, in a healthier and more sustainable way. We, as voters and consumers, are the ones empowered to make sure that they do.

In the meantime, it’s clear that like “the financial crisis, this system can’t continue,” says Kenner. “At some point, it comes due. But we’re going to hopefully find alternatives really quickly. I think there’s a real hunger for this.”

Mike Miliard is a staff writer at the Boston Phoenix, where this article first appeared.

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