Soil Is a Finite Resource – Once It’s Gone, It’s Gone for Good

Iowa's rivers are filling with silt from farm fields. Photo: Joe Hennager

Iowa's rivers are filling with silt from farm fields. Photo: Joe Hennager

On a recent drive through rural Iowa, Joe and I stopped to talk with an elderly farmer. The first thing he said to us was how concerned he is about Iowa’s topsoil. It’s blowing off the fields and into the waterways. He plants row crops and uses some terracing to hold the soil, but still, it blows away. And he’s concerned.

As we drove a little farther, we stopped at a bridge. We walked out and looked at the river. Most of it was silt in the middle, with a little bit of water flowing around the edges. This was a dramatic representation of the farmer’s concerns. The soil in Iowa — and other states — is leaving the fields at an alarming rate.

Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) asked Angie Tagtow, a registered dietitian who serves as a Food and Society Policy Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy out of Minneapolis, to speak to the issue of soil quality in farmland. Tagtow previously served 10 years at the Iowa Department of Public Health. This is Part Two of a two-part interview. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

TAGTOW: Having a registered dietitian talk about environmental resources and natural resources conservation is a little bit of an anomaly — I am often drawn to the work of Sir Albert Howard, Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry and Fred Kirschenmann. But the justification is there, because if you don’t have a healthy environment, you’re not going to be able to produce healthy food.

For me, the connection to soil started on our property more than 15 years ago. We live north of Elkhart, Iowa, and when we bought the property, we didn’t have the means of taking care of it. So we continued to cash-rent it to the farmer who sold it to us. Over the years, we noticed that we had a tremendous amount of erosion. We had flooding. We were witnessing a lot of destruction that we were not prepared to observe.

There was another thing that was quite disturbing — and this was anecdotal, not evidence based, but it supports a lot of the evidence out there. We have dogs that we take for a walk every evening around the perimeter of our land. We were cash-renting our land in 1999, and I happened to be on vacation one day in July or August when the Co-op came by and sprayed the soybeans. I didn’t think about it at the time, because it was part of our landscape; we see these folks almost every day on the road or in the field.

The Tagtows planted their field in tall-grass prairie. Photo: Angie Tagtow

The Tagtows planted their field in tall-grass prairie. Photo: Angie Tagtow

We took our ritual walk that evening, and within 24 hours, both dogs were sick. We noticed it was a perennial problem; both dogs would throw up at certain times of the year. But it didn’t really connect with me until after I was home that day and watched them spray the field. We decided, that because we did not know what chemicals were being put on the land, with the massive erosion, and the fact that our vegetable gardens near the house wouldn’t grow well, that we really needed to make a change. So in 2001, we planted our field in native tall-grass prairie.

Since then, we have seen a tremendous growth in the biodiversity of not only plant life, but insects and small animals. We even have worms. We didn’t have worms before, but we didn’t know that at the time, because everything was sanitized. So we’ve really been able to nourish the land again and restore it to the way it was. And we’re devoted to assuring that the biodiversity and the soil and water health continue. You see, biodiversity is the quintessential measure of overall health.

Folks don’t realize that we continue to lose a whole lot of soil every year. The Iowa Daily Erosion Project actually measures the amount of soil lost in Iowa. Just in 2008 alone — now, mind you, we had the floods in June of 2008 — about two-thirds of the counties had pockets that lost between 24 and 56 tons of soil per acre. And that’s just in 12 months.

What we often don’t think about is that once the soil is gone, it’s gone. It’s a finite resource. The question that I ask people is, What is your landscape going to look like in 50 or 100 years? Because when the soil is gone, we’re not going to have farms. Right now, 86 percent of Iowa’s landscape is in row crop production. 86 percent.

BPGL: We’ll be a dust bowl.

TAGTOW: If we have two to three years of drought, we’re going to be in dire straits. The connection between soil and biodiversity and healthy food has been near and dear to my heart, because I’ve experienced first hand the destruction of what conventional, industrial agricultural production in Iowa is all about.

Changing Policy to Conserve the Soil

BPGL: I can imagine someone reading this and saying, “Fine. You can afford to put your land into prairie grass, but I need to produce with my land.” What recommendation do you make to farmers who need to have their land in production but want to do better than they’re doing now?

Current farm policies support mono-cropping. Photo: Joe Hennager

Current farm policies support mono-cropping. Photo: Joe Hennager

TAGTOW: It comes back to incentives to farmers out of federal agriculture policy. Even though US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan have only been in office for a little over half a year, we’re already seeing significant changes in farm policies. Some new conservation stewardship programs are being launched this year — and they’re finally being funded. Farmers can look to these policies as an opportunity for increasing their land conservation and stewardship.

There needs to be greater incentive to farmers to do some things that conserve the soil, that clean the water and clean the air on their land, that decrease reliance on fossil fuels. Right now, our policies do not provide incentives to farmers to do that — in fact the current farm policies support large-scale, mono-cropping systems. The incentives for growing as much corn and soybeans as possible are greater than incentives for conserving the land, at this point.

BPGL: What kind of policy would you like to see regarding protection of the waterways from the chemicals that farmers apply — if they insist on applying chemicals?

TAGTOW: One thing we may see in the near future is that it’s almost becoming cost-prohibitive to apply farm chemicals unless you’re a very, very large corporate farm. So the cost of inputs may be the incentive for not applying them, which could possibly improve our water resources here in Iowa. But once again, we’re looking at conservation measures within policies that need to be changed. Can farmers be paid to increase their buffer strips around low-lying areas, around prairie pot holes, and around streams and rivers and lakes, or to grow cover crops?

Another part of this discussion is the application of manure from large-scale livestock facilities and the concentration of antibiotics, hormones or other toxins in that manure. However, I also want to note that the issues surrounding Iowa’s water quality is not solely linked to industrial farms. We need to closely examine waste-water discharge policies pertaining to homes, communities and businesses. There are opportunities for strengthening requirements and enforcements of waste-water discharge.

Increasing Biodiversity

BPGL: We pretty much have a monoculture here in Iowa, with either corn or soybeans being grown year after year after year. What are your thoughts on the lack of biodiversity in this state (and perhaps in other states, with other crops)?

TAGTOW: We need to establish incentives for diversifying crops. It goes back to the conservation measure again. Right now we have such a fragile system in the fact that we’ve got 86 percent of Iowa’s landscape enrolled in agriculture — which is about 30 million acres. And knowing that the majority of that land is in two crops multiplies Iowa’s vulnerability and fragility. If one of those crops fails, for whatever reason, it puts the whole state in an economic bind.

In Iowa, it's getting increasingly difficult to find a crop other than soybeans or corn. Photo: Joe Hennager

In Iowa, it's getting increasingly difficult to find a crop other than soybeans or corn. Photo: Joe Hennager

From a biodiversity standpoint, this is where I connect it back to the health, not only environmental health, but being able to produce a food supply that promotes the health of Iowans as well. Back in the 1920s to 1930s, Iowa actually produced about 34 different crops — most of which actually stayed in Iowa and fed Iowans. Half of those crops at the time were fruits and vegetables. And we know that fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are the foods that promote good health.

Since then, because of farm policy, because we have treated growing food as an economic driver versus growing food to support the food and health needs of Iowans, we have decreased the number of food crops that are actually grown in Iowa to about 11. And that is determined based on [crops produced by] at least one percent of the farms. If you look at that list of 11, based on the last US farm census, none of those are fruits and vegetables. We lost our fruits and vegetables on a significant scale back in the 1940s and 50s. We really haven’t grown a significant amount of fruits and vegetables in 50 or 60 years.

We need to put policies in place that offer incentives and supports to new or transitioning farmers to grow what the USDA likes to call “specialty crops” — fruits and vegetables. This is another way of both increasing the biodiversity of the foods that are grown here in Iowa, which is going to create better balance within the ecosystem, and providing increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables to Iowans that we haven’t had in the past. We’ve got a lot of farmers’ markets out there, which is great, but it’s pretty small in comparison to the amount of land that’s already dedicated to feeding livestock or producing ethanol.

BPGL: It seems an almost impossible challenge when farmers have so much money invested in their CAFOs or their equipment for farming corn and soybeans. How do you get farmers to change? Obviously, there need to be economic incentives, as you described, but is it doable?

TAGTOW: I think it is, but it’s going to take a long time. What is exciting is the creativity and ingenuity farmers do have in making conservation practices work. Unfortunately, I think something pretty significant needs to happen in order to create a 45-degree turn in the direction that we’re going. However, there are some great programs that are being launched, not only through USDA but also through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. They’re small, but they do represent change in a very positive direction to improve the health of Iowa.

There are also programs being offered by nonprofit organizations, such as Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Land Stewardship Project out of Minneapolis. There are many, many other nonprofit farming organizations offering these services and supports to farmers on being able to transition to more biodiverse crops, or to increase the amount of land dedicated to conservation, or to transition to organic farm practices. So that is a very positive sign, though it is small in comparison to the conglomerates we see out on our fields.

Who Will Own the Land?

BPGL: I keep hearing that it’s almost impossible for the family farm to stay alive. Once the older farmers retire or die, and their kids have the opportunity to take over, so often they either don’t want to or they can’t afford to; they have to sell off the property. Do you see any changes in policy that would help preserve the small family farm?

What will happen to the family farms as the older farmers retire? Photo: Joe Hennager

What will happen to the family farms as the older farmers retire? Photo: Joe Hennager

TAGTOW: Again, there is some advocacy work being done by certain groups on these issues, but the scary reality is, because of the average age of the farmer owners here in Iowa, we are going to see some of the largest land transfers in the next 20 to 25 years. And because of land prices, it’s not going to be family members who can afford to keep that land. There is a concern that land in Iowa will no longer be owned by individuals and families, but more land will be owned by corporations or even by other countries, because other countries are land-grabbing as well. For example, China and India are going to have some of the largest anticipated growth in population in the next 40 years, and they need to secure land to grow their own food.

BPGL: Is it likely then, if China and India grab up a lot of land in Iowa, that the food produced here will be shipped there and won’t support the people here in Iowa?

TAGTOW: Yes, but it is not much different than what’s happening now. With a lot of the farming that happens here, the products get exported out of Iowa. We don’t really garner the true economic benefit of what we grow here. Other companies that are outside of the state get the economic gain from our land.

We know that we’re going to have some of the largest land transfers here in Iowa. Somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of the land owned in Iowa is owned by women. It’s starting to happen in Wisconsin — and a little bit in Iowa through Women, Food, and Agriculture Network — women are getting together. They’re collaborating on some of their decisions. They’re getting educated as to what their options are for transferring that land in the near future. Again, it’s happening on such a small scale. There isn’t any large, concerted effort into assuring that the land in Iowa is still here to benefit Iowans.

BPGL: And if there’s no soil left, it will be a moot question, anyway.


Eaters Don’t Know What’s in Our Food

BPGL: Another issue that many people are concerned about is genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. What is your opinion about the use of GMO seeds and the health effects of the foods grown from them?

The best way to know what's in your food is to grow it yourself. Photo: Courtesy Angie Tagtow

The best way to know what's in your food is to grow it yourself. Photo: Courtesy Angie Tagtow

TAGTOW: The fact that here in Iowa we have so much of our land dedicated to two crops, of which a very large percentage are genetically modified, does deeply concern me. Agribusiness has moved these crops so swiftly onto land and into the backyards of farmers that we haven’t had a chance to ask those critical questions about what it means — now or for the future. The mono-cropping culture that exists here has led to environmental degradation — with all crops, whether they’re GMO or not.

From a health side, there is emerging evidence linking the potential ill health effects of genetically modified food both in animals and in humans. I am definitely an advocate of labeling GMO food. I don’t think it’s going to happen in the near future, but again it comes back to the transparency issue. Eaters don’t know what’s in their food — and frankly, biotechnology is a complex issue.

I also take the position that humans weren’t biologically designed to consume a great amount of genetically modified foods. And now we’ve flooded the food supply with high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oil, two main ingredients derived from GMO crops that are in a lot of processed, packaged foods — and do not contribute to a healthy diet. As a result of having very cheap raw materials, there are more and more ingredients that are derived from GMO corn and soybeans. I am one to question the appropriateness of flooding a human (and animal) food supply with crops that were not designed to promote health, but instead are designed to resist herbicides and pesticides.

It all comes back to what I said earlier: Healthy soil grows healthy foods, and healthy food nourishes healthy people, and we know that healthy people form healthy communities. That’s my way of connecting the health of our environment to the health of our food supply to the health of our communities.

Two Minutes with the President

BPGL: What would you say if you had two minutes with President Obama?

TAGTOW: The first thing that I would say is that the future health of this country is greatly dependent upon the health of children of today, and if we don’t change the way we feed children, the society within the United States is going to decline dramatically. I’d share the quote from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves.” My first recommendation to the President is that we need to assure that all kids are fed fresh foods that promote health, and the best way of doing that is to connect schools with farms that grow fresh fruits and vegetables.

Part 1: Healthy Soil -> Healthy Food -> Healthy People -> Healthy Communities

Part 2: Soil Is a Finite Resource – Once It’s Gone, It’s Gone for Good (Top of Page)

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Part 1: Healthy Soil -> Healthy Food -> Healthy People -> Healthy Communities

Part 2: Soil Is a Finite Resource – Once It’s Gone, It’s Gone for Good

(Top of Page)

All Abuzz about Habitat: A Practical Farmers of Iowa Field Day and Potluck


A PFI field day at One Step at a Time Gardens. Photo courtesy: Practical Farmers of Iowa

A PFI field day at One Step at a Time Gardens. Photo courtesy: Practical Farmers of Iowa

Blue Planet Green Living recently became aware of Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), a progressive farming group that promotes sustainable agriculture. As you well know, the simple issue here is farming responsibly, knowing the short- and long-term effects of what you grow. Farms in Iowa not only feed the planet, but also are causing a great deal of damage to it. Iowa’s soil, air, and water are at stake.

We’ll be posting notices of several of this group’s upcoming events that are open to the public, so you can attend and meet the farmers who are trying to help. If you live in  the Midwest — or even in the U.S., this affects you in many ways. We hope you care enough to listen, read, and learn. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

Join Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) and One Step at a Time Gardens on Saturday, July 25, from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. to explore the many benefits diversity on the landscape offers to the sustainable farm. At 6:00 p.m., PFI will hold the first of its summer potlucks. Bring a dish to share and your own tableware, and enjoy music from the local band The Shifting Gears during dinner. Beverages will be provided.

During the field day, tour One Step at a Time Gardens and hear presentations from local conservation offices. PFI staff member Sarah Carlson will discuss current and emerging opportunities with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) of the 2008 farm bill.

One Step at a Time Gardens operates a 6+-acre community supported farm (CSA) on their 130 acres near Kanahwa, Iowa, raising high-quality vegetables for farm members and direct sale through farmers markets and regional wholesale. A pastured poultry operation is incorporated into the crop rotation, producing 900+ chickens each summer. Nestled in the rolling glacial moraine hills near East Twin Lake, more than 31 acres are in windbreak and the EPA‘s Wetland Restoration Programs (WRP).

Directions: From Belmond, go north 5 miles on Hwy. 69. Turn west (left) at B63 at Goodell and travel 3 miles. Turn north (right) on R56 at the top of the hill; go 1 mile. Turn west (left) at the first gravel onto 120th St. Go 1.25 miles; turn north (right) into the driveway. East Twin Lake will be on the south (left).

This field day is free, and everybody is welcome.

Experience a sustainable farm at One Step at a Time Gardens in Kanawha, Iowa. Photo courtesy: Practical Farmers of Iowa

Experience a sustainable farm at One Step at a Time Gardens in Kanawha, Iowa. Photo: Courtesy Practical Farmers of Iowa

This field day is sponsored by Ceres Foundation, Iowa Network for Community Agriculture, and Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.

Sustaining sponsors for Practical Farmers of Iowa field days are the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University Extension, American Natural Soy, the Wallace Chair for Sustainable Agriculture, Albert Lea Seed House, Seed Savers Exchange, and the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES). Major sponsors are the Center for Energy and Environmental Education, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, ATTRA National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, Organic Valley and Organic Prairie Family of Farms CROPP Cooperative, Iowa Forage and Grassland Council, and King Corn.

Practical Farmers of Iowa includes a diverse group of farmers and nonfarmers. Corn, soybeans, beef cattle, and hay are the top enterprises for PFI farmers, although many have a variety of other operations, including fruits and vegetables. PFI’s programming stresses farmer-to-farmer networking through research and demonstration, field days, conferences, and more. For more information, call 515-232-5661 or visit

Courtesy of Practical Farmers of Iowa

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Community Supported Agriculture – A Win-Win for Farmer and Shareholder

Comments Off on Community Supported Agriculture – A Win-Win for Farmer and Shareholder

As a CSA shareholder, you get a variety of local produce throughout the growing season. Photo: Fotolia

As a CSA shareholder, you get a variety of local produce throughout the growing season. Photo: ©Barbara Helgeson

If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, as we are here in Iowa, you’re coasting through spring on the way to summer. Either you’ve planted a garden, you’re getting ready to plant — or you aren’t intending to plant at all. This post is for the third group, those of you who either don’t want to, or don’t have the space to, plant a garden of your own.

There’s another option: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). A CSA is a mutually beneficial arrangement between a farmer (or farm collective) and members. Members become shareholders in the CSA farm by pledging a certain amount of money for regular deliveries of a season’s worth of vegetables, fruits, and/or meat. The farmer sets the price and the amount of produce/meat to be delivered, how often, and how long in the season.

The advantage to the farmer is a guaranteed income and working capital for planting, tending, and harvesting. For the shareholder, the benefit is a steady supply of fresh food from a trusted supplier. But it’s important to note that shareholders not only share the benefits, they share the risks. The downside comes if the harvest is poor because of weather conditions or pests. But that’s what happens to us as consumers, anyway, since frosts and pestilence in Florida, drought in California, or high gas prices result in elevated food prices far away. And the upside for the farmer is that a failed crop won’t mean bankruptcy. It’s a win-win, even when one side temporarily loses a little bit.

Many CSAs provide shareholders an opportunity to visit a working farm and connect with the land.

Many CSAs provide shareholders an opportunity to visit a working farm and connect with the land.

I like the way the shared risk is described on the Local Harvest website: “Many times, the idea of shared risk is part of what creates a sense of community among members, and between members and the farmers. If a hailstorm takes out all the peppers, everyone is disappointed together, and together cheer on the winter squash and broccoli.”

Another delightful advantage of the CSA program is the availability of heirloom varieties that you just can’t find in your supermarket. This depends on the farmer, of course, as each will have their favorite varieties to grow and sell. You can also contract with an organic farmer and get guaranteed pesticide/herbicide-free produce for yourself and your family.

Some CSAs invite shareholders to visit their farms and find out firsthand where their food is grown. This can result in a delightful family outing and a bonding of sorts with the land your food is grown on and, perhaps, the farmer who grows it. For those who want sustainably and humanely raised meat, a visit will give you proof that you won’t be eating animals raised in the frequently horrible conditions of a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO).

Although some CSAs have already begun delivering their harvests, many have not. And even those that have started their deliveries may have more shares to sell. To check on local CSA options, contact your county extension agent, google for a CSA in your locale, or enter your zip code into the search field on the Local Harvest website. While the latter isn’t all-encompassing, it can point you to any CSAs they know about.

If you are a CSA farmer with shares to sell, I invite you to let our readers know by posting a comment. And, if you have participated in a CSA as a farmer or a shareholder, please tell us about your experience.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Book Review – The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

If you could interview your food, what would it say? As a journalist Michael Pollan attempts to give a voice to what we eat: That is to say, he explains what food really is, where it comes from, and what it can do for us. The Omnivore’s Dilemma expounds on fast food, big organic food, local food, and foraged food, identifying the resources, causes, and effects of each one.

Devoted to the scientific, while valuing the personal significance of food, Pollan reveals not only the corn behind our food, the government behind the corn, the corporation behind the government, but also investigates the possibilities for eating that can bring us back to earth, and everything in between. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is our fascinating predicament; written for those who care about what they eat, it presents us with an array of menus, encourages us to eat, and to eat in good conscience.

It begins with corn. Not corn on the cob, but corn in a box, or corn in a Happy Meal bag. Corn has apparently invaded our supermarket, culture, and bodies. As Pollan puts it, “How this peculiar grass, native to Central America and unknown to the Old World before 1492, came to colonize so much of our land and bodies is one of the plant world’s greatest success stories. I say the plant world’s success story because it is no longer clear that corn’s triumph is such a boon to the rest of the world, and because we should give credit where credit is due. Corn is the hero of its own story, and though we humans played a crucial supporting role in its rise to world domination, it would be wrong to suggest that we have been calling the shots…there is every reason to believe that corn has succeeded in domesticating us.”

There are a few people who benefit from the 10 billion bushels of corn produced annually in America. They are the owners of corporations that genetically engineer the corn, and who process the corn. The farmer earns only four cents on the dollar for what his corn is eventually turned into. The industrialization of our food depends on the enormous production of corn at extremely cheap market prices. Taxpayers support corn from their pockets, and pay for it with their health.

The easiest way to explain corn’s role is financially. Starting in 1972, during Nixon’s rule, secretary of agriculture Earl Butz addressed the rising cost of food by simplifying the agricultural system. Rather than encouraging farmers, government subsidies went instead to corn, paying money per bushel of corn produced rather than the size and diversity of a farm. Since then, the production of corn has skyrocketed, and the cost has plummeted. Farms have become corporate endeavors, rather than family occupations; the government has become strongly influenced by corn corporations; and the health of the population has flared into an obesity epidemic.

Today it costs $2.50 to grow a bushel of corn. The market pays $1.45 for that bushel. “The market” is primarily Cargill and ADM, that, combined, buy one third of the 10 billion bushels. The government pays the rest, though it is barely enough to sustain a farmer. Many, if not most, are in debt, and some take on second jobs. The farmers cannot be said to really benefit from the flood of subsidies — $5 billion a year for corn. Rather, it is Cargill, the biggest corporation in the world, that reaps enormous profits from the massive yearly surplus. A typical Iowa corn farmer sees only four cents on the dollar for corn sold in the supermarket.

To understand how farmers  — “the most productive humans who have ever lived” — who each raise enough food to feed 129 people, can be going broke, one has to look at what happens to corn before it enters the field, and after it leaves. Corn is especially inviting for genetic modification because of its simple reproduction patterns. Corn hybrids can be drought resistant and insect resistant, and, of course, are modified for optimum yield per acre. Natural variation is eliminated, so one cornfield contains thousands of identical plants that grow straight up to the sky. This is called monoculture, and it is effective because the soil is fertilized and sprayed annually. Although this industrial seed corn is expensive, it produces an incredible amount of corn. This is not always a boon to the farmer, however, because the more corn that is raised, the lower the selling cost.

Still, why does the farmer only get 4% of the retail value? The answer is that the buyers of corn are specialists in processing corn into an incredible range of products. The technological and industrial costs soak up a lot of the price of a $2.29 frozen dinner of corn-fed pigs and mashed potatoes (made with corn). Six billion of the ten billion bushels of corn are invested in animal rearing. Pollan visits a steer confinement, and actually purchases a cow, so he can be more connected with his study. He finds the cattle are practically all sick from the diet of corn, which they are incapable of digesting (the cow’s stomach is designed for grass). Since corn is cheap, animals that eat corn produce cheap meat.

In the end, including fertilizer, transportation, and milling, it takes an enormous amount of oil to reach a final product. As a kind of demonstration, Pollan took his family to McDonald’s. It took 1.3 gallons of oil to produce the 4,510 calories his family consumed. If the corn had been unprocessed, there would have been enough grain to fill and overflow from the trunk of his car (his calculations and estimate). You might say, “B t there’s no corn on the McDonald’s menu.” Not exactly, but scientists in food labs have discovered ways to make cheap corn into various types of “food.” The soda is 100% corn syrup. The milk shake is 78% corn. Chicken nuggets, 56%. The cheeseburger (remember the corn-fed animals), 52% corn.

This quick-and-easy meal has a hidden cost, and it is not the free meal that Pollan is looking for. In his search for a menu that gives as much back to the earth as it takes, he studies the organic food movement. His evaluation is that organic doesn’t mean what it used to. The federal standardization of the word organic doesn’t mean sustainable. One could think of it as a struggle between what he calls, “Big Organic” and “Small Organic.” Both types of producers are competing for the same market, but the Big Organic farms benefit from more relaxed standards, because they are capable of a greater output (they have more machines, more equipment for packaging, etc.).

“Could a factory farm be organic? Was an organic dairy cow entitled to graze on pasture? Did food additives and synthetic chemicals have a place in processed food? If the answers to these questions seem like no-brainers, then you too are stuck in an outdated pastoral view of organic. Big Organic won all three arguments.” The two key requirements for organic labeling are: no synthetic fertilizer, and no synthetic pesticide. Organic foods are thus more environmentally sound, but really, as the example of a bagged lettuce shows — 57 calories of oil are used in making one calorie of food — “the organic food industry finds itself in a most unexpected, uncomfortable and, yes, unsustainable position: floating on a sinking sea of petroleum.”

Pollan’s research leads to a week-long stay Polyface Farm in Virginia. Here he meets Joel Salatin, a grass farmer, whose farm is an example of local and sustainable food. The cows eat the grass, the chickens eat the worms from the cow manure, they both work to fertilize the ground, and the farm is essentially a self-sustaining meat and egg producing “factory.” The animals become producers on the farm, and seem happy to do it. Pigs are used to compost manure and clear underbrush. Reading about the farm, it seems strange that Joel’s methods aren’t implemented around the country. Government regulation might be the reason for that. “Joel is convinced ‘clean food’ could compete with supermarket food if the government would exempt farmers from the thicket of regulations that prohibit them from processing and selling meat from the farm.”

Joel calls it a “freedom of food,” the right to choose what we eat without federal standards. Indeed, such strict federal regulations wouldn’t be needed if mass-produced meat weren’t so prevalent. Sustainable food is being marginalized. It is clear that local food is threatened by government regulations. Beginning with the corn policy, that subsidizes per bushel, driving the production of corn up, the cost down, and farmer into debt, and ending with requirements like a processing plant must provide a restroom for federal inspectors (something small producers can’t reasonably afford).

Before he pursues his most ambitious meal (the foraged dinner), Pollan reflects the ethics of commonplace food. He most notably questions the eating of animal products, particularly those produced by conventional means, those the USDA supports through its policies. “This is another example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism — the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society.” He becomes a vegetarian, contemplates his place on the food chain, and emails Peter Singer.

In the same way he concludes that corn has out-evolved humans, to benefit from us, he applies evolution to the modern predicament. If humans can, and are, inclined to eat meat, it is not unethical to do so, as long as the animals do not suffer when raised. This means Joel Salatin’s meat is acceptable, since he witnessed “animals” who were happy “being animals,” but supermarket cuts are not. Hunting, since the only meeting of animal and Pollan is as brief as it takes the animal to die from a bullet, is also an ethical way of obtaining meat; as he puts it “isn’t it anthropocentric of us to assume that our moral system offers an adequate guide for what should happen in nature?”

His journeys hunting mushrooms and hunting pig in California are more of a personal narrative than scientific or journalistic research. Since he is inexperienced in foraging/hunting for his own food, the narrative is a decent how-to guide, as well as a report on what the experience is like. The experience is long, stressful, and a testament to how a “free meal” is really difficult to come by. He calls it the “Omnivore’s Thanksgiving,” and, with his helpers and family around the table, the experience becomes something that can be physically shared.

The lesson is that by being connected with food, and in valuing stories of where food comes from, we can enjoy our food. He does not stress the need to change what we eat, but only to be conscious of our food. “Without a need for fast food there would be no need for slow food, and the stories we tell at such meals would lose much of their interest.” Pollan understands that wherever we’re headed, our stomachs are coming with us, and that shouldn’t make us lose our appetites.

Elias Simpson

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)