Children of the Corn Syrup
In America, we are taught from an early age not to talk about the things that most concern us. It is too dangerous. We might upset someone. We call this tendency modesty, but other cultures see it as caginess or avoidance. We are friendly but not open, the Europeans say, fleshy but not Rubenesque. It is this last quality that shows how immodest we really are. The ugly American is now a round American. Almost two-thirds of us are overweight, one fifth are obese, and 2 percent can barely move. How did so many Americans grow so large? After reading Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, a sprawling collection of essays by sustainable-agriculture advocates, and Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, by the journalist Greg Critser, I believe I have an answer. What is responsible for our nation’s expanding girth, and for the environmental destruction that has attended it, is war.
There was a poster that was popular in the early 1990s by the artist Barbara Kruger: In a thick, blunt font, it read, Your Body Is a Battleground. The poster was powerful because it brought home a stunning, perverse truth: that women’s physical selves—not their souls, or their votes, or their money—no, their actual bodies were things that the “pro-life” brigades were willing to fight for, territory they thought they could win.
You don’t hear that kind of rhetoric much anymore, but the metaphor works better than ever. Global agreements (NAFTA, GATT) and actual war (Afghanistan, Iraq) have kicked open the doors of countries that were off-limits, protected by tariffs or ideology or both. The protesters among us often say that these wars, these treaties are entered into with an eye toward oil reserves, or markets, or profits. But those words are too vague. Really, they are entered into for bodies, actual physical bodies to produce and consume a vast array of products made by a small cabal of companies. Without bodies the system wouldn’t work at all. Before bodies can want sneakers or stereos, they need food.
And so that’s where the geopolitical shenanigans start. In the 1960s Henry Kissinger formally initiated a policy of cutting food aid from African countries that sided against the U.S. in votes in the United Nations. Carter and Reagan continued the policy in places like Grenada and Nicaragua, even during famines. When aid is provided to avert starvation, it is often a pretext for expanding the market share of U.S. agribusiness.
“Many countries that were huge food aid recipients in the 1960s and 1970s from the United States are no longer getting food aid and are now importing commercially huge amounts of food from the United States,” US AID administrator Andrew Natsios said in 2002. “And so having these programs ultimately leads to a more prosperous future for these countries because people are healthier. You can’t start to build factories if your people are completely malnourished. They’re just not going to be able to work in the factories.”
Since there are fewer and fewer factories here in the U.S., the strategy for increasing demand for food has been a bit different: corporations have very deliberately sought to make people fatter, so they will eat more.
According to Fatal Harvest essayist Ron Kroese, a journalist turned sustainable-agriculture advocate, it was “the all-out effort required to achieve victory” in World War II that got us into this mess. What started innocently, even virtuously, became twisted in the decades that followed. Prior to the war, farms were kept small because farming was a labor-intensive activity that demanded constant vigilance against pests and weeds. Even if farmers used mechanical equipment for sowing and reaping, as most did, many agricultural tasks were still performed the same way they had been in the days of Pliny the Elder, who plucked the bugs off his plants by hand (as some organic berry farmers do today), and Henry David Thoreau, who in Walden reported being stunned at the amount of time and effort it took to cultivate a few rows of beans. Farmers for the most part they saw themselves as caretakers of their crops and the land beneath them. It was in their interests to be good land stewards because the land was usually their own. It was also alive: More microbes live in a teaspoon of original prairie earth than there are people on the planet, and some “pests” conquer others naturally, as is the case with ladybugs and aphids.
During World War II, all that changed. Five million Americans left farms to work in factories or join the service, and those who remained had to take up the slack. Like all stateside workers, farmers were treated to Rosie-the-Riveter-type image adjustments, courtesy of Uncle Sam and the major defense contractors. Because “wars are fought with food,” farmers were suddenly “soldiers of the soil.” At first the metaphor was just a bit of pep talk. Throughout the war years American farmers managed to boost production by a third, mostly by hard work and overplanting. But little by little, the metaphor became real. “By 1944,” Kroese writes, “articles were appearing in the popular farm press touting the revolutionary inventions developed for the war effort that would soon be coming home to the farm…. Indeed, it is scarcely an exaggeration to state that World War II did not so much end as turn its guns and bombs on the land.”
DDT, the chemical that had saved hundreds of thousands of troops from malarial mosquitoes, was the first to be put into widespread use as an insecticide, and the abundance of cheap surplus military planes allowed farmers to “strafe” their own fields with it. Other war supplies were adapted to farm use as well. The government sold its ordnance factories to private agribusiness firms—gunpowder and nitrate fertilizer share many of the same ingredients—but only on the condition that the plants (both industrial and photosynthetic, to arm and feed troops and refugees) could be commandeered back into military service.
As Kroese writes, we became “a country constantly poised for war,” eager to employ military technology whenever possible. A 1946 Science Digest article suggested using A-bombs to blow up the polar ice caps, in the hopes that doing so would warm up the climate enough to expand the grain-growing region of North America into the Yukon. That idea never came to pass, but decades were spent trying to turn nitrogen-rich, low-level nuclear waste from the weapons program into a fertilizer. (Today many suspect that government-subsidized biotech companies are actually doing secret research into chemical and biological warfare.)
Farmers, in general, slipped easily into their new role as soldiers-cum-businessmen-cum-scientists. There wasn’t much not to like about it. During the Marshall Plan, their incomes shot up considerably. Thanks to the chemicals, yields were up and labor costs were down. And thanks to the G.I. Bill, fewer farmers were coming back to claim their land, enabling those who remained to snap up more acreage. For a few years they must have felt like kings, buzzing their cornstalks with fighter planes, overseeing greater and greater territories, feeding the world.
The feeling didn’t last, of course. It couldn’t. The Marshall Plan created what was essentially a bubble economy for farmers, and it popped. Once Europe and Asia cleared the mines from their fields, they were only too eager to start farming again. At the same time, American farmers began to feel the brutal economics of soldier-of-the-soil agriculture.
The problem was one of diminishing returns. In 1945 no nitrogen fertilizer was used on U.S. corn, and an acre could be expected to yield about 50 bushels. In 1958, 100,000 tons of nitrogen fertilizer were used, and an acre yielded 70 bushels. In 1965, corn farmers used 500,000 tons of nitrogen fertilizer, but the yield rose to only 90 bushels an acre. In seven years a 500 percent increase in fertilizer had produced only 28 percent more corn. To make matters worse, because the extra supply wasn’t even needed, prices tumbled. The former gunpowder factories were thriving as they sold record amounts of crop-dusting ammo, marketed under such names as Lasso, Ambush, and Force, but tens of thousands of small farmers were becoming less and less able to afford it, and were losing their farms as a result.
By 1971 they had, as a group, reached the breaking point, and they looked to Congress for help. What they got was Secretary of Agriculture nominee Earl Butz, whom Greg Critser calls “a true piece of work.” Butz is the villain of both Fatal Harvest and Fat Land, though his origins would seem to suggest that he shouldhave been the hero. He was born in 1909 and brought up on a dairy farm in Noble County, Indiana, the eldest of five kids. He was taught through the eighth grade in a one-room schoolhouse and graduated high school with only six other classmates, “slightly fewer than normal,” according to a recent “reflection” in the Kendallville (Indiana) News-Sun. Earl Butz turned down scholarships to Indiana University and DePauw (Dan Quayle’s alma mater) to run the family farm and pump gas at a station on U.S. 6 in Kendallville. He lasted one summer before applying for a 4-H scholarship to Purdue University.
Butz “developed a reputation for outspokenness,” according to the News-Sun. His pet issue at Purdue, where he would later teach agricultural economics and serve as a dean, was the free market. “Get the government out of the ag business,” Butz liked to say, while he aggressively put the ag business in the government. In the contentious confirmation hearings that attended his appointment as secretary of agriculture under Richard Nixon in November 1971, his opponents—and they were legion—pointed out that throughout much of his career at Purdue, a public university, the Indiana farmboy was courting the private sector as a paid boardmember and stockholder of three agribusiness giants, International Minerals and Chemicals, Stokely-Van Camp, and Ralston Purina.
That Butz would do these companies’ bidding in office was understood, because he had done it before. As assistant secretary of agriculture during the Eisenhower administration, Butz had helped to lock in the growth spiral outlined above by linking government subsidies to yield rather than to acreage. Large farms could turn a profit by buying chemicals in bulk and cutting labor costs to the bone, but small farmers could only cut away so much, and Butz knew it. His advice to them was “Get big or get out.”
Oren Lee Staley, then president of the National Farmers Organization, told the Senate agriculture committee that Butz “is widely known among farmers for his callous lack of concern about their welfare.” The National Farmers Union, which had never before opposed any cabinet nominee, opposed Butz. So did Friends of the Earth, Adlai Stevenson, Ted Kennedy, and Glen Harms of Clarinda, Iowa, who wrote in to say, “I’m tired of being discriminated against as a family farmer please not Butz.” This was all duly noted in the Congressional Record, and Butz was confirmed.
As with the A-bomb, few people understood how harmful Butz’s policies would be. The New York Times called Earl Butz a man “with a dry wit and a small chuckle” who was “fond of introducing Eastern newsmen to ‘real farmers, who can tell it like it is.’” Earl Butz in fact wouldn’t dare introduce Eastern newsmen to real farmers, who were being forced off the land, against their will, by the thousands. Once in office, Butz told farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” convinced that the sheer volume of their crops would lift prices by forcing open new markets. There was a catch: One major new market turned out to be us. If we couldn’t eat more corn, we would drink it.
This is where Greg Critser’s story picks up, of course. It is also where Fatal Harvest’s concern for the family farmer (as opposed to the organic farmer, his latter-day replacement) leaves off. You get the sense that Fatal Harvest’s writers, many of whom are also farmers, feel let down by their forebears. As any farmer worth his corn should have known, you can’t plant fencerow to fencerow year after year without totally depleting the land. Indeed, Butz’s policies led to the worst soil erosion problems seen since the Dust Bowl—two bushels of soil lost for every one bushel of corn produced. Only through massive government intervention in the mid-1980s were such problems addressed. But by then the family farmer had all but disappeared. Corn prices had crept up a bit, but farmers’ chemical costs had continued to grow exponentially, as more and more “inputs” were needed to produce the same yield. “Such a scenario is known as a negative feedback loop,” writes organic farmer Jason McKenney in Fatal Harvest. “A more blunt comparison is substance abuse.”
Today a tiny number of mammoth corporations control vast amounts of acreage. What allows them to withstand the negative feedback loop is that most have become not only addicts but pushers, either owned by or with contractual links to the chemical firms on one hand and the food manufacturers on the other. But even then they would probably not survive without billions of dollars of federal farm subsidies and Pentagon contracts. That is what makes Butz’s “Get the government out of the ag business” comment such a steaming load of fertilizer; only through corporate welfare (and Butz hated welfare, at least the type that discouraged “initiative” among the poor) can U.S. agribusiness sell corn 20 percent below the cost of production and still turn a tidy profit.
That Butz would hoist himself on his own pitchfork in October 1976 was probably cold comfort to the farmers pushed off their land during his tenure. On a campaign flight with the singer Pat Boone and former White House legal counsel John Dean III, Butz was reputedly asked why the Republican Party was unable to attract more African American voters. Dean leaked Butz’s reply to Rolling Stone—no other publication would print it, though anyone familiar with Beltway politics could “have not the tiniest doubt in your mind as to which cabinet officer” uttered it, according to The Washington Post.
Only two years earlier, Gerald Ford had forced Butz to apologize for chastising the Pope for his stand on birth control (“He no playa the game, he no maka the rules,” Butz had said). Greg Critser describes a wooden sculpture Butz had in his Washington, D.C., office. It showed two elephants copulating. “That’s what it was like trying to multiply the farm vote for Nixon!” Butz would say “with an infectious belly laugh.”
What Earl Butz told Boone and Dean on the plane in 1976 was this: “I’ll tell you what the coloreds want—first, a tight pussy; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to shit.”
He resigned two days after this side-splitter was published, and a month after that, Ford lost his bid for reelection.
As Greg Critser makes grotesquely clear, Butz might have faded from the American consciousness that day in 1976 (he would resurface briefly five years later, when he was thrown in jail for tax evasion), but his effect on the American corpus was just beginning to make itself felt and seen, in jiggling bits that could no longer be hidden under miniskirts or squeezed into slim-cut jeans. Hey, something had to be done with all that cheap corn.
The economy understood growth, which meant “adding value” to raw foods and selling them back to the consumer at a profit. Growth also meant cramming more calories into every body, a development that followed the natural logic of the market even as it eroded the natural logic of human equilibrium.
Most of the surplus corn went to pigs and cows, as feed, and then came to us as food—that is, as bacon and hamburgers, which were suddenly cheaper than ever. And—thanks to an industrial process invented by Japanese scientists in 1971—the rest of the excess corn came to us, in turbo-charged form, as high-fructose corn syrup.
High-fructose corn syrup was, to the food industry, a miracle product. Six times sweeter than cane sugar, it could be made at a fraction of the cost and used as a preservative, a sweetener, or both. By the late 1970s it was being pumped into frozen foods to protect them from freezer burn and to “long-shelf-life” products to keep them “fresh-tasting.” The very definition of empty calories, it was added to packaged pastries to make them look as if they were baked in the past decade and to fast-food drumsticks and hamburgers to keep them from shriveling up under heat lamps. In the early 1980s, Coke and Pepsi switched from a fifty-fifty blend of cane and corn sugar to 100 percent high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), lopping 20 percent off their production costs. Critser calls the shift “one of the most important changes to the nation’s food supply.”
HFCS consumption has grown tenfold since Butz’s time. Critser even suggests that this single product could be responsible for the obesity epidemic in America. Technically, the body metabolizes fructose differently than it does other sweeteners. “Unlike its cousin sucrose,” Critser writes, “fructose is selectively ‘shunted’ toward the liver; it does not go through some of the critical intermediary breakdown steps that sucrose does.” (If you don’t drink much soda, try buying a Snapple and a Nantucket Nectar lemonade and monitor closely how you feel after drinking each. The Snapple, which contains HFCS, will pop your head off. The Nantucket Nectar, which doesn’t, won’t.) The liver uses fructose to build triglycerides, which can trigger insulin resistance, which can trigger diabetes, which can trigger obesity.
It’s an interesting concept, just the kind of thing that the medical establishment and the media (including Critser) love to seize upon as a potentially quick fix to a problem that is both a vexing public health concern and a major personal neurosis. In the late 1980s the businessman Ira Sokolow campaigned against the use of palm oil (a.k.a. “tree lard”) in french-frying and, as Critser reports, “the industry began to change.” But swapping one cheap oil for another didn’t alter the fundamental economics or unhealthiness of fast and processed food. Between 1991 and 2000, the number of obese people in this country doubled.
Corn syrup alone cannot be to blame, and Critser knows it. He is sheepish, though, about making the argument that supports his own research. Perhaps it is too simple. After recounting the rise and fall of Earl Butz, Critser states, almost as an aside, that the American food supply has grown 15 percent since the 1970s, and that people are consuming an average of 200 calories more every day than they were back then. That’s an average. For every person who’s not eating their extra calories, someone else is going back for seconds.
Build it and they will come. It’s an established fact that making more food available and freeing people from the bonds (and pleasures) of manual labor will lead to obesity. Contrary to Critser’s subtitle, Americans are not the fattest people in the world. That particular superlative, he admits, belongs to “the inhabitants of a few South Sea islands.” In his book they remain nameless, but their experiences are telling. The 12,570 residents of Nauru, for instance, are among the world’s richest and fattest because they followed a trajectory much like the one we are on. Once called Pleasant Island because of its lush vegetation, Nauru today is a twenty-one-square-mile moonscape of limestone pinnacles, the detritus of ninety years of phosphate strip-mining. “Inch for inch, Nauru is the most environmentally ravaged nation on earth,” the New York Times reported in 1995.
As their cumulative wealth rose to an estimated $1 billion, the islanders’ quality of life took a precipitous dive. Fresh fish and vegetables gave way to Spam, canned corned beef, potato chips, and beer. Obesity rose. So did diabetes and high blood pressure. Life expectancy dropped to around 50 for men and 55 for women. The Nauruan government turned its attention to frittering away its excess money on speculative investments. It is familiar territory save for two differences.
First, life expectancy continues to rise in the United States. But that could soon change. According to one study cited in Fat Land, the risk of death increases by 2 percent for every excess pound in people between the ages of 50 and 62. The majority of those who gained weight in the 1990s have yet to reach the low end of that age bracket. What’s more, the only known method of achieving longevity (or at least having a good shot at it) is undernourishment. That is, being thinner than the recommended guidelines. Few Americans “go there.”
The other difference has to do with selection. Americans aren’t yet dependent on the Spam-and-Bud boat for our daily rations. We are instead assaulted with a bewildering variety of products. Many of those are injected with high-fructose corn syrup, certainly, but that isn’t what makes them sinister. It is the simple fact of their abundance, both real and imagined, that quite literally boggles the mind. Because the boxes and bags and cans and cartons come in different colors and sizes, we think we’re being given a choice. But if the packages were all the same color and size, and some were put on sale to get them off the shelf, and shirts and billboards and magazines were all emblazoned with the logo of that one product, and television and radio advertisements were constantly squawking at us to buy that one product, it would not feel like choice. It would feel like force. Which is what it is. The ration boat is bigger, the products brighter, but is a Granny Smith apple strafed with insecticides in South Africa, then shipped 5,000 miles to your grocery store, any more “natural” than canned corned beef? Our essentially helpless, feed-me posture is the same as the Nauruans’, and the outcome will likely be the same.
Or worse. Most Nauruans are now aware of their plight. “When I was a boy, it was so beautiful,” an 84-year-old minister told the Times reporter. “There were trees. It was green everywhere, and we could eat the fresh coconuts and breadfruit. Now I see what has happened here, and I want to cry.” The islanders are considering starting over, en masse, on another atoll. Here, thanks in part to the predations of advertising (Alexis de Tocqueville would say it had something to do with the American “character,” but what does that mean today?), butterball crowds chant “We’re number one!” While my sister once said to me, in the kindest voice imaginable, “If you hate America so much, why don’t you just leave?” few of us, including myself, would seriously consider that route. The insanity of living here is just too compelling.
Witness the attitudes about weight. The media—in this case, I think, mirroring a popular perception—register glee when a female celebrity is packing pounds or struggling with her weight. Oprah and Monica Lewinsky are alternately beloved and ridiculed for their constant dieting, J.Lo’s ass is like the cinnamon bun in Tennessee in which someone saw the Virgin Mary: we stare at it and stare at it, wondering what it means. We are told the butt is large, but it’s not—are we missing something? Renee Zellweger, though a waif in real life, is America’s sweetheart because she can gain twenty pounds to play the British character Bridget Jones—and then lose it! Calista Flockhart is reviled because she is painfully thin and cannot or will not gain twenty pounds to make us feel better.
Then, the flip side. “While few teenage boys can actually finish a 64-ounce Double Gulp,” a teen marketing consultant wrote in USA Today—she is quoted by Critser—they believe “it’s empowering to hold one in your hand.” This sentiment reached its ludicrous extreme with rap star Big Pun (Chris Rios). When Pun started his career in the early 1990s, he weighed 220 pounds. By 1998 he had swelled to 500 pounds. A friend later recalled: “People would tie his shoes for him, or push him around in a wheelchair when he didn’t feel like walking, or buy him clothes and hide what size they were.” Pun would eat $50 worth of McDonald’s in a sitting. In 1999 he proclaimed, “We about a buncha obese playboys.” The next year he died of a massive heart attack. He was 28 years old and weighed 698 pounds.
Unlike Nauru, the United States has a network of institutions that are supposed to keep people somewhat healthy—or at least knowing what healthy means—if not to work in factories, then at least to fit in the chairs at their telemarketing jobs. But as Critser amply demonstrates, they have failed spectacularly.
As the food supply grew, so did experts’ permissiveness. For instance: the number of new candies and snacks jumped from 250 a year in the 1970s to 2,000 a year by the late 1980s—at which point, lo and behold, scientists declared that “it was ‘unnatural’ to eat three times a day.” Newspapers published the report as a God-given truth, and readers lapped it up, because it was exactly what they wanted to believe. Don’t you vaguely remember this? Suddenly everyone was talking about their blood sugar and “grazing” on SnackWells.
In schools, as in the rest of the culture, military prowess gave way to the deification of consumption. In the 1950s and 1960s physical education programs had a chipper postwar glow, especially after Kennedy gave them the thumbs-up. (“Here were the denizens of Camelot, doing jumping jacks in the sun,” Critser writes in a typically purple passage.) There were fitness magazines aimed at boys and girls (Vigor and Vim) and even, weirdly, a theme song about dieting that, according to Critser, “became a national hit.” It was called “Go You Chicken Fat Go!” and it went like this: “Push up / every morning / ten times / not just / now and then / give that chicken fat back to the chickens / and don’t be chicken again.”
Once combat became a lower-class exercise, patriotic workouts were abandoned. Children got steadily fatter through the 1970s and 1980s as budget cuts dictated the dismantling of P.E. programs in every state but Illinois. Then in the 1990s more and more schools signed lucrative “pouring contracts” with soda companies and allowed fast-food outlets to hawk ready-made junk food from carts during lunch hours. Coupled with this has been a media-fueled and often irrational fear of crime: Half of all parents won’t let their kids outside to play, believing their neighborhoods to be unsafe. The result: a steady diet of Pepsi, Nintendo, and bogus advice.
In 1990 the USDA told Americans that “it was okay to gain significant amounts of weight as they got older”—a finding later revealed as patently false. Then, in 1993, the American College of Sports Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control watered down their exercise prescriptions. (“No sweat? No problem!” crowed the Chicago Tribune.) Even that health-class staple, the food pyramid, was subject to dirty dealing: meats, dairy, and starch were dished up in mammoth portions, thanks to the lobbying efforts of agribusinesses. On the rare occasion that authorities published sound recommendations, they were either ignored or drowned out. The soft-drink industry now spends $600 million a year on product promotion, compared to the piddly $1 million the American Cancer Society spends on trumpeting fruits and vegetables.
Critser is rightly critical of these particulars but comes up woefully short on solutions. He has a touching faith in gym teachers and bureaucrats. Public health agencies should take a stronger role in educating people about how to eat and exercise, he says. In fact, the agencies that are most protected from lobbyists and the least able to affect policy—the National Institutes of Health, for instance—have done just that for decades. Critser admits as much. But if something costs money or cuts into corporate profits, well, that’s a different story. Here Critser sort of shields his gaze, hoping for the best, with no evidence that the best will ever come to pass. After all, if the government really cared about public health, it would provide national health insurance. But in the richest country in the world, that is deemed too expensive, a nonissue.
Worse is Critser’s suggestion that scientists should invent a better weight-loss pill. And surely they will. Liposuction and gastroplasty, once upper-class luxuries, are working their way into the mainstream as people demonstrate less and less control over what goes into their bodies. But it is still too expensive. It would be better to create a pill that allows people to eat (read: buy) everything in sight and not to have to suffer the unfortunate side effects of heart disease and cellulite. Critser’s final suggestion—plain, old-fashioned self-control—is perfectly sensible. Yet in the madhouse he describes, is insufficient. Sure, in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. The question is, what is the cure for blindness?
Unlike other issues to which liberals busily apply themselves, food politics conspire to be both overwhelming and invisible. They are overwhelming in the sense that food is at the heart of war and “free trade,” two of the most destructive and seemingly unstoppable forces in the world today. George W. Bush’s agriculture secretary, Ann Veneman, like Earl Butz, is safely nestled in the pocket of agribusiness, with professional ties to Monsanto, Cargill, Nestle, Kraft, and Archer Daniels Midland. Also like Butz, she helped craft a farm bill that provided huge incentives—in Veneman’s case, up to $180 billion in subsidies over six years, 67 percent more than Clinton allotted—to the ten largest producers of grain. (This is in addition to military expenditures for pesticides and other chemicals that help the same companies, outlays that fall under the $400 billion-a-year defense budget.)
But whereas Butz had to fight to get foreign countries to lower their tariffs and allow American products, that work has already been done for Veneman. NAFTA and GATT, along with austerity programs instituted by the International Monetary Fund, have eroded others countries’ ability to refuse American products, especially when they are so damn cheap. Farmers in places like Mexico and Africa have no choice but to move to cities and work in sweatshops. What progress! The Iraq war provided another sales opportunity. Oxfam squawked in April when the Bush team appointed a former senior executive of Cargill, Dan Amstutz, to lead in the agricultural reconstruction of Iraq. Not that the move was unprecedented. Cargill, the largest grain producer in the world (and still a private company), already had its hooks into international policy; the company’s chairman and CEO, Warren Staley, oversees the president’s export council.
Yet such appointments, while significant, are hard to get worked up over because they are a done deal, uncontestable. Moreover, the farm bill is incomprehensible. News of the agricultural world comes to us in the occasional newspaper image of a picket sign, bristling among others at a demonstration, emblazoned “This Organic Farmer Opposes the WTO.” We read of tractors crashing into McDonald’s in France, blocking roads. Otherwise this world is all but invisible. As the authors of Fatal Harvest point out, the endless, geometric rows of grain we see from the interstate in the Midwest or from above, by plane, look pretty neat. That they are sustained by intense pesticide and insecticide bombardment; that the land beneath them is nothing but chemical dust; that the nitrogen runoff from those selfsame fields is creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico; that farmers have alarmingly high rates of cancer (leading many to wonder, what’s the food doing to us?); that pickers don’t enjoy the rudimentary labor rights of even the most menial industrial worker (overtime pay, health insurance, one day off a week, the right to form unions)—none of these trifling details enter the picture, because most of us can’t see them, and no one is drawing our attention to them.
Just as the U.N. has finally recognized that it is not OK to buy and sell “conflict diamonds”—that is, gems that are the product of a nation in which one may chop off another person’s hands with impunity—there should be some awareness in our culture that most of what we eat could accurately be called “conflict food.” That is Fatal Harvest’s aim, and I think it would do much to solve the obesity epidemic. As the food industry long ago realized, it is hard to make people fat with a diet of fresh, unadulterated fruits and vegetables. And once the delights of such foods are rediscovered, it is a dangerous slide toward the organic versions, which taste better and cheat the chemical companies and food-processing giants out of their rightful profits.
Naturally steps have been taken to stop this kind of lunacy, or at least gain from it. Agribusinesses have infiltrated health-food stores by snapping up some of the most profitable brands of packaged or processed organic food. Coca-Cola now owns Odwalla and Fresh Samantha. Kraft (Philip Morris) owns Balance Bar and Boca Burger. General Mills owns Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen. Nestle owns PowerBar. None of these parent companies supports Fatal Harvest’s plea that arms should be used “to hug with,” and in fact profit mightily from the very subsidies that crush smaller producers. Farther up the food chain, the stores themselves, Wild Oats and Bread & Circus, follow the same pattern, underpricing smaller, independently owned outlets or buying them outright. And the consumers of even the most righteous food can be an unsavory spectacle. Outside the high-end stores are parking lots bumper to bumper with SUVs; within, bony soccer moms who are likely allergic to wheat and milk charge $200 worth of groceries to their AmEx gold cards. Low-end stores have their own species of miscreant: hemp-clad health nuts holding up stethoscopes to cantaloupes, as if to detect a heartbeat.
Still, far-left groups who scorn eating organic as a bourgeois affectation—“lifestyle politics,” not sufficiently revolutionary—miss the mark. And truly bourgeois writers, like Critser, who believe that for all its failures, American society still means well, are similarly deluded. It should be possible to hold up the two realities side by side: the macroeconomic policies that are driving the planet in the ground, and that often revolve around food, and the individual decisions we have to make every day. Fatal Harvest makes clear that organic farmers and devoted consumers are making a difference. Many organic producers are trying to overcome the class issues that lead the poorest consumers (and even many middle-class ones) to buy the cheapest product available, regardless of where or how it is made. Farmers are trying to cut out the middleperson by setting up stalls at farmers’ markets or making up low-price boxes of seasonal produce. Community action groups and well-heeled gardeners like Alice Waters are creating inner-city gardens. They struggle with vandalism, underfunding, and pollution, but they recognize that teaching kids to take care of the natural world can help them grow up to be thoughtful people.
Even without all the advantages of government support, the organics market is growing phenomenally, at a rate of about 20 percent a year (compared to 5 percent for conventional food). With that kind of muscle, they’ve been able to derail the food industry’s near-constant attempts to water down organic standards. So there is hope. Our bodies might be battlegrounds, but some people, in some corners of the world, are figuring out how to win. For decades we have been fed. Now we are figuring out how to eat.