The ubiquitous vegetable is wreaking havoc on everything from public health to foreign policy, argues writer Michael Pollan
The Christian Science Monitor reports:
Food may well be one of the biggest stories of the new century.
Witness the extensive news coverage of mad cow disease and E.coli contamination, and the controversies over growth hormones and genetic engineering. Modern-day Upton Sinclairs like Eric Schlossinger have given us exposés on the beef and fast-food industries. And the organic revolution has reached adulthood, with its coming out party on the cover of Newsweek last month.
So important has the food story become that the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, recently invited scientists, farmers, and government officials to talk to journalists about industrial food production, food-borne pathogens, and other issues in food writing.
Among those panelists was Michael Pollan – well-known for his groundbreaking books that explore the relationship between humans and nature. In "The Botany of Desire," Mr. Pollan looks at his garden in Connecticut and sees scheming arugula and plotting asparagus. We humans might think we control our agriculture and engineer our environment, but Pollan argues that plants use us as much as we use them. He follows the trail of the apple and the tulip to show how they cleverly manipulated American frontiersmen and Dutch merchants to extend their domain.
One plant has gone too far, however, according to the author. Pollan accuses corn of wreaking havoc on everything from public health to foreign policy.
Corn's place in the US economy is secure, judging by Congress's approval this spring of an unprecedented $190 billion farm-subsidy package. One of its largest beneficiaries was corn growers.
In an interview, Pollan talked about why he says that this brazen vegetable is calling the shots.
What exactly led you to corn?
When you see that a plant has taken over – like grasses and lawns, and like corn – it has somehow manipulated us. We're doing its evolutionary job, spreading it around, because it's made itself attractive to us. Corn is like this second great American lawn – I mean miles and miles of it, all through the Midwest, and even where I live in Connecticut. This plant is so successful. And the productivity of corn is astonishing. The reason is that it responds very well to fertilizer. We've gotten the yield per acre from 20 bushels a hundred years ago to 160 now.
Why is the productivity of corn a problem?
We're producing way too much corn. So, we make corn sweeteners. High-fructose corn sweeteners are everywhere. They've completely replaced sugar in sodas and soft drinks. They make sweet things cheaper. We also give it to animals. Corn explains everything about the cattle industry. It explains why we have to give [cattle] antibiotics, because corn doesn't agree with their digestive system. It explains why we have this E.coli 0157 problem, because the corn acidifies their digestive system in such a way that these bacteria can survive.
And we subsidize this overproduction. We structure the subsidies to make corn very, very cheap, which encourages farmers to plant more and more to make the same amount of money. The argument is that it helps us compete internationally. The great beneficiaries are the processors that are using corn domestically. We're subsidizing obesity. We're subsidizing the food-safety problems associated with feedlot beef. It's an absolutely irrational system. The people who worry about public health don't have any control over agricultural subsidies. The USDA is not thinking about public health. The USDA is thinking about getting rid of corn. And, helping [businesses] to be able to make their products more cheaply – whether it's beef or high-fructose corn syrup. Agribusiness gives an immense amount of funding to Congress.
What about corn growers?
To pull out of that system for them is very hard. It depends on where they live. They should be diversifying and growing other things, niche crops, and getting away from commodities. It's very hard to compete with agricultural commodities. Somebody [at the Berkeley conference] said that 40 percent of farm income is represented by subsidies. Say the farmer could make more money doing strawberries. There's no subsidy for that. So he's taking an enormous risk, and he's giving up for all time his corn subsidy.
What about economies of scale? We've been able to feed more people, democratize meat.
I don't know if democratizing beef is a good thing. The industry can always make the popular arguments, because they certainly make things cheaper. But is it really cheap? Think of the taxpayer, who's actually subsidizing every one of those burgers. All that corn requires an immense amount of fossil fuel. Corn requires more fertilizers and pesticides than other crops. It takes the equivalent of half a gallon of gasoline to grow every bushel of corn. [Almost] everything we do to protect our oil supply ... is a cost of that burger.
And then there are the health costs. It's not really good for us. Corn-fed beef has much more saturated fat. So, yeah, it's cheap, if you only look at the price tag.
You talked about how you were encouraged by the idea of engineering corn so it could be a perennial.
I have no problem with interfering with nature. We live in places where we can only live by changing the environment. This is the human condition, and I don't think that's bad. It's working with nature. It's taking the prairie and figuring out a way to get food out of [it] without having to plow, without having to break the sod. If you could make corn and wheat and rice perennials rather than annuals, you would just come and mow it, and get your food that way, instead of having to tear it up every year. That could help end world hunger.
Many people read your book and think of ... Thoreau.
Like him, I'm interested in looking at my relationship with the natural world, and doing it in my backyard rather than wandering around in Yosemite or the Amazon. And he used his everyday experiences to explore his connections to the much larger world. However, I see us as having much more participation in the natural world. I don't have as much of a sense of opposition between nature and culture. At this point, I think we have more to learn by looking at the working landscape: farms and gardens. I think we have said all we can say about the 8 percent of this country that's untouched. It's still very important. However, there is this other 92 percent. We need models of how to take care of that.
You talk about ending our love affair with the lawn.
I call it in my first book a totalitarian landscape. You have wilderness on one side and the lawn on the other end. I don't think you choose between them. You work on that middle answer. Even though we think we are subjugating those lawns, we're probably doing exactly what they want us to do. Because, if you're a lawn, what do you want? You want some creature to come along every week and mow you so the trees won't come back. So, in fact we're dupes of our lawns.
Do you have any corn in your garden?
Not this year. I have a big raccoon problem. As soon as the corn gets ripe, they come in and steal it. So I guess corn isn't winning in every way. But it may be in the corn's interest to have a raccoon eat it, because they're so wasteful. They leave more seed around.
There's corn in that?
• Of 10,000 items in a typical grocery store, at least 2,500 use corn in some form during production or processing.
• Your bacon and egg breakfast, glass of milk at lunch, or hamburger for supper were all produced with US corn.
• Besides food for human and livestock consumption, corn is used in paint, paper products, cosmetics, tires, fuel, plastics, textiles, explosives, and wallboard – among other things.
• In the US, corn leads all other crops in value and volume of production – more than double that of any other crop.
• Corn is America's chief crop export, with total bushels exported exceeding total bushels used domestically for food, seed, and industrial purposes.
Sources: www.campsilos.org; www.public.iastate.edu; www.ontariocorn.org
Thursday, October 31, 2002
The ubiquitous vegetable is wreaking havoc on everything from public health to foreign policy, argues writer Michael Pollan
Thursday, October 10, 2002
Transcript of Hillary Clinton's comments before voting yes to authorize Bush to use military force against Iraq:
Mrs. CLINTON. Mr. President, I thank the Senator from West Virginia for his courtesy. By far beyond that, I thank him for his leadership and his eloquence and his passion and commitment to this body and to our Constitution. I join with the remarks by both the Senators from Michigan and Maryland, expressing our appreciation for the way in which he has waged this battle on behalf of his convictions. It is a lesson to us all.
Today, Mr. President, we are asked whether to give the President of the United States authority to use force in Iraq should diplomatic efforts fail to dismantle Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons and his nuclear program.
I am honored to represent nearly 19 million New Yorkers, a thoughtful democracy of voices and opinions who make themselves heard on the great issues of our day, especially this one. Many have contacted my office about this resolution, both in support of and in opposition to it. I am grateful to all who have expressed an opinion.
I also greatly respect the differing opinions within this body. The debate they engender will aid our search for a wise, effective policy. Therefore, on no account should dissent be discouraged or disparaged. It is central to our freedom and to our progress, for on more than one occasion history has proven our great dissenters to be right.
I believe the facts that have brought us to this fateful vote are not in doubt. Saddam Hussein is a tyrant who has tortured and killed his own people, even his own family members, to maintain his iron grip on power. He used chemical weapons on Iraqi Kurds and on Iranians, killing over 20,000 people.
Unfortunately, during the 1980s, while he engaged in such horrific activity, he enjoyed the support of the American Government because he had oil and was seen as a counterweight to the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran.
In 1991, Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait, losing the support of the United States. The first President Bush assembled a global coalition, including many Arab States, and threw Saddam out after 43 days of bombing and hundreds of hours of ground operations. The United States led the coalition, then withdrew, leaving the Kurds and the Shiites, who had risen against Saddam Hussein at our urging, to Saddam's revenge.
As a condition for ending the conflict, the United Nations imposed a number of requirements on Iraq , among them disarmament of all weapons of mass destruction, stocks used to make such weapons, and laboratories necessary to do the work. Saddam Hussein agreed and an inspection system was set up to ensure compliance. Though he repeatedly lied, delayed, and obstructed the inspectors' work, the inspectors found and destroyed far more weapons of mass destruction capability than were destroyed in the gulf war, including thousands of chemical weapons, large volumes of chemical and biological stocks, a number of missiles and warheads, a major lab equipped to produce anthrax and other bioweapons, as well as substantial nuclear facilities.
In 1998, Saddam Hussein pressured the United Nations to lift the sanctions by threatening to stop all cooperation with the inspectors. In an attempt to resolve the situation, the U.N., unwisely in my view, agreed to put limits on inspections of designated sovereign sites, including the so-called Presidential palaces--which in reality were huge compounds, well suited to hold weapons labs, stocks, and records which Saddam Hussein was required by U.N. resolution to turn over.
When Saddam blocked the inspection process, the inspectors
left. As a result, President Clinton, with the British and others, ordered an intensive 4-day air assault, Operation Desert Fox, on known and suspected weapons of mass destruction sites and other military targets.
In 1998, the United States also changed its underlying policy toward Iraq from containment to regime change and began to examine options to effect such a change, including support for Iraqi opposition leaders within the country and abroad. In the 4 years since the inspectors, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al-Qaida members, though there is apparently no evidence of his involvement in the terrible events of September 11, 2001.
It is clear, however, that if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capability to wage biological and chemical warfare and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons. Should he succeed in that endeavor, he could alter the political and security landscape of the Middle East which, as we know all too well, affects American security.
This much is undisputed. The open questions are: What should we do about it? How, when, and with whom?
Some people favor attacking Saddam Hussein now, with any allies we can muster, in the belief that one more round of weapons inspections would not produce the required disarmament and that deposing Saddam would be a positive good for the Iraqi people and would create the possibility of a secular, democratic state in the Middle East, one which could, perhaps, move the entire region toward democratic reform.
This view has appeal to some because it would assure disarmament; because it would right old wrongs after our abandonment of the Shiites and Kurds in 1991 and our support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s when he was using chemical weapons and terrorizing his people; and because it could give the Iraqi people a chance to build a future in freedom.
However, this course is fraught with danger.
We and our NATO allies did not depose Mr. Milosevic, who was responsible for more than a quarter of million people being killed in the 1990s. Instead, by stopping his aggression in Bosnia and Kosovo, and keeping the tough sanctions, we created the conditions in which his own people threw him out and led to his being in the dock and being tried for war crimes as we speak.
If we were to attack Iraq now, alone or with few allies, it would set a precedent that could come back to haunt us. In recent days, Russia has talked of an invasion of Georgia to attack Chechen rebels. India has mentioned the possibility of a preemptive strike on Pakistan. What if China should perceive a threat from Taiwan?
So, for all its appeal, a unilateral attack, while it cannot be ruled out, is not a good option.
Others argue that we should work through the United Nations and should only resort to force if and when the United Nations Security Council approves it. This too has great appeal for different reasons. The United Nations deserves our support. Whenever possible we should work through it and strengthen it, for it enables the world to share the risks and burdens of global security and when it acts, it confers a legitimacy that increases the likelihood of long-term success. The United Nations can lead the world into a new era of global cooperation. And the United States should support that goal.
But there are problems with this approach as well. The United Nations is an organization that is still growing and maturing. It often lacks the cohesion to enforce its own mandates. And when Security Council members use the veto on occasion for reasons of narrow national interest, it cannot act. In Kosovo, the Russians did not approve the NATO military action because of political, ethnic, and religious ties to the Serbs.
The United States, therefore, could not obtain a Security Council resolution in favor of the action necessary to stop the dislocation and ethnic cleansing of more than a million Kosovar Albanians. However, most of the world was with us because there was a genuine emergency with thousands dead and a million more driven from their homes. As soon as the American-led conflict was over, Russia joined the peacekeeping effort that is still underway.
In the case of Iraq , recent comments indicate that one or two Security Council members might never approve forces against Saddam Hussein until he has actually used chemical, biological, or God forbid, nuclear weapons.
So, the question is how do we do our best to both diffuse the threat Saddam Hussein poses to his people, the region, including Israel, and the United States, and at the same time, work to maximize our international support and strengthen the United Nations.
While there is no perfect approach to this thorny dilemma, and while people of good faith and high intelligence can reach diametrically opposing conclusions, I believe the best course is to go to the United Nations for a strong resolution that scraps the 1998 restrictions on inspections and calls for complete, unlimited inspections, with cooperation expected and demanded from Iraq .
I know the administration wants more, including an explicit authorization to use force, but we may not be able to secure that now, perhaps even later. If we get a clear requirement for unfettered inspections, I believe the authority to use force to enforce that mandate is inherent in the original 1991 United Nations resolutions, as President Clinton recognized when he launched Operation Desert Fox in 1998.
If we get the resolution the President seeks, and Saddam complies, disarmament can proceed and the threat can be eliminated. Regime change will, of course, take longer but we must still work for it, nurturing all reasonable forces of opposition.
If we get the resolution and Saddam does not comply, we can attack him with far more support and legitimacy than we would have otherwise.
If we try and fail to get a resolution that simply calls for Saddam's compliance with unlimited inspections, those who oppose even that will be in an indefensible position. And, we will still have more support and legitimacy than if we insist now on a resolution that includes authorizing military action and other requirements giving other nations superficially legitimate reasons to oppose Security Council action. They will say, we never wanted a resolution at all and that we only support the U.N. when it does exactly want we want.
I believe international support and legitimacy are crucial. After shots are fired and bombs are dropped, not all consequences are predictable. While the military outcome is not in doubt, should we put troops on the ground, there is still the matter of Saddam Hussein's biological and chemical weapons. Today he has maximum incentive not to use them or give them away. If he did either, the world would demand his immediate removal. Once the battle is joined, with the outcome certain, he will have maximum incentive to use weapons of mass destruction and give what he can't use to terrorists who can torment us with them long after he is gone. We cannot be paralyzed by this possibility, but we would be foolish to ignore it. According to recent reports, the CIA agrees with this analysis. A world united in sharing the risk at least would make this occurrence less likely and more bearable and would be far more likely to share the considerable burden of rebuilding a secure and peaceful post-Saddam Iraq .
President Bush's speech in Cincinnati and the changes in policy that have come forth from the administration since they first began broaching this issue some weeks ago have made my vote easier.
Even though the resolution before the Senate is not as strong as I would like in requiring the diplomatic route first and placing highest priority on a simple, clear requirement for unlimited inspections, I take the President at his word that he will try hard to pass a United Nations resolution and seek to avoid war, if possible.
Because bipartisan support for this resolution makes success in the United Nations more likely and war less likely, and because a good faith effort by the United States, even if it fails, will bring more allies and legitimacy to our cause, I have concluded, after careful and serious consideration, that a vote for the resolution best serves the security of our Nation. If we were to defeat this resolution or pass it with only a few Democrats, I am concerned that those who want to pretend this problem will go way with delay will oppose any United Nations resolution calling for unrestricted inspections.
This is a difficult vote. This is probably the hardest decision I have ever had to make. Any vote that may lead to war should be hard, but I cast it with conviction. Perhaps my decision is influenced by my 8 years of experience on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue in the White House watching my husband deal with serious challenges to our Nation. I want this President, or any future President, to be in the strongest possible position to lead our country in the United Nations or in war. Secondly, I want to ensure that Saddam Hussein makes no mistake about our national unity and support for the President's efforts to wage America's war against terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. Thirdly, I want the men and women in our Armed Forces to know that if they should be called upon to act against Iraq our country will stand resolutely behind them.
My vote is not, however, a vote for any new doctrine of preemption or for unilateralism or for the arrogance of American power or purpose, all of which carry grave dangers for our Nation, the rule of international law, and the peace and security of people throughout the world.
Over 11 years have passed since the UN called on Saddam Hussein to rid himself of weapons of mass destruction as a condition of returning to the world community.
Time and time again, he has frustrated and denied these conditions. This matter cannot be left hanging forever with consequences we would all live to regret. War can yet be avoided, but our responsibility to global security and the integrity of United Nations resolutions protecting it cannot.
I urge the President to spare no effort to secure a clear, unambiguous demand by the United Nations for unlimited inspections.
Finally, on another personal note, I come to this decision from the perspective of a Senator from New York who has seen all too closely the consequences of last year's terrible attacks on our Nation. In balancing the risks of action versus inaction, I think New Yorkers, who have gone through the fires of hell, may be more attuned to the risk of not acting. I know I am.
So it is with conviction that I support this resolution as being in the best interests of our Nation. A vote for it is not a vote to rush to war; it is a vote that puts awesome responsibility in the hands of our President. And we say to him: Use these powers wisely and as a last resort. And it is a vote that says clearly to Saddam Hussein: This is your last chance; disarm or be disarmed.