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Niki Collins-Queen

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Are our food choices politically charged?
by Niki Collins-Queen   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Saturday, December 15, 2007
Posted: Wednesday, December 12, 2007

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Barbara Kingsolver describes in "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” how she and her family tried to reduce the miles-per-gallon quotient of their diets in a gasohol world. But they had a drinking problem. A choice between robbing Mexico’s water or guzzling Saudi Arabia’s gas.

Barbara Kingsolver's book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” begins with a move from Tucson, Arizona to Virginia. She said she and her family wanted to live in a place where they could grow food, where rain falls, crops grow, and they’re less dependant on food moved in from far away. Where there’s less of a chemically induced illusion of top soil that creates an artificial summer.

She says Tucson’s drinking, washing, and goldfish-bowl filling water is pumped from a nonrenewable fossil aquifer that is dropping fast and from water that crosses the desert via a three-hundred-mile-long open canal from the Colorado River.

She says, “If it crosses your mind that water running through hundreds of miles of open ditch in a desert will evaporate and end up full of concentrated salts and muck, then let me tell you, that kind of negative thinking will never get you elected to public office in the state of Arizona. When the giant new tap turned on, developers drew up plans to roll pink stucco subdivisions across the desert in all directions. The rest of us were supposed to rejoice as the new flow rushed into our pipes, even as the city warned us this water was kind of special. They said it was okay to drink, but don’t put in in an aquarium because it would kill your fish.”

Kingsolver belonged to a little community of homesteaders who tried to reduce the miles-per-gallon quotient of their diets in a gasohol world. But the farmers and their community had a drinking problem: a choice between robbing Mexico’s water or guzzling Saudi Arabia’s gas.

She asks, “Is the story of bread from tilled ground to the table less relevant than the history of the thirteen colonies? Is the ignorance of our food sources causing an overdependence on petroleum and an epidemic of diet related diseases? Kingsolver says knowing the natural history of our food would help us detect whether those in “our market are wholesome kids from a nearby farm or vagrants who idled their precious youth in a boxcar.”

She says beginning just after World War II our munitions plants retooled the ammonium nitrate surpluses into chemical fertilizers instead of explosives. The explosion of yields corn and soybean also became high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils and thousands of other starch or oil based chemicals. Cattle and chickens were brought in off the pasture into intensely crowded and mechanized concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) where corn (not a cow’s natural diet) could be turned into animal flesh. These products became processed soft drinks, burgers and cheap foods.

Owing to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetic modification and the conversion of naturally based farming to highly mechanized production 70 percent of Midwestern agricultural land shifted into single corn or soybean farms.

U.S. farmers now produce 3,900 calories per citizen per day; twice what we need. As commodity farmers produced extra calories the food industry figured out how to get them into our bodies. This is the well-oiled machine of Capitalism.

Kingsolver says most of the calories consumed are hardly recognized as corn, soybeans or vegetables: high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), lecithin, citric acid, malt dextrin, sorbitol and xanthan gum are all manufactured from corn. Corn and soybeans also become “added fats” or animal flesh.

“If every product containing corn and soybeans were removed from your grocery store, it would look like a hardware store. Even the packaging material contains cornstarch. With so many extra calories to deliver the packages and meals got bigger and so did the American waistline.”

U.S. consumption of “added fats” has increased by one-third since 1975 and our HFCS is up by 1000 percent.

Kingsolver says other well-fed countries have had better luck controlling caloric excess through culture and custom. Strong food cultures keep the quality and quantity of foods consumed relatively consistent.

America is a nation with an eating disorder. Our children will be this country’s first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Our government advises us to eat more fruits and vegetables while doling out subsidies to commodity crops destined to become soda pop and cheap burgers.

The majority of Americans do understand that our food choices are politically charged, affecting small farmers, international oil cartels and global climate change.

Even though 800 million people are chronically underfed because food is unavailable in their country the world’s farms currently produce enough food to make every person on the globe fat.

Industrial farming methods promote soil erosion, salinazation, desertification and loss of soil fertility. Field trials show that organic practices can produce commodity crop yields comparable to industrial farms as animal manure fertilizer improve soil fertility and the moisture-holding capacity over seasons with cumulative benefits.

World food trade policies favor developed countries at the expense of developing countries as distributors, processors and shippers reap more benefits.

Patented genetically modified crop seeds are fast replacing heirloom and hybrid seeds. Heirloom are natural seeds that are open-pollinated. Hybrids rely on the sex organs of the plant to get pollen but are a forced cross between dissimilar varieties. The first crop may offer special vigor but the next generation is unpredictable. Most seeds must be purchased again from the company that creates them. Hybrid seeds have dominated our catalogs and our croplands since the 1920s.

Genetically modified (GM) seeds involve direct manipulation of genes in the laboratory. Freed from the limits of natural sex, the gene engineer may combine animal or bacterial genes spliced into the chromosomes of the plants. Because the seeds are patented a “terminator gene” is included in the seed to commit genetic suicide after one generation. The farmer therefore has to buy new GM seeds each time he plants a crop.

Heirloom seeds are of little interest to capitalism if they can’t be patented or owned.

Most people can readily tell the difference between a watery mass-market tomato and one grown with heirloom seeds. Sadly most heirloom seeds are being lost.

Modern U.S. consumers now taste less than 1 percent of the vegetable varieties that were grown here a century ago. The same holds true in other countries who use industrial scale agriculture. In Peru, the original home of potatoes, Andean farmers once grew some four thousand potato varieties, each with its own name, flavor and use. Now only a dozen potato varieties remain. Indigenous crops elsewhere in the world have followed the same path. Just 10 years ago farmers in India grew sesame, linseed and mustard oil crops. When GM soy took over the market in 1998 the small mills that processed these oils were ordered to close. A million villages lost their mills and ten million farmers lost their living.

According to Indian crop ecologist Vandana Shiva three-quarters of our food came from 80,000 plant species now we are down to just eight species. We are loosing our diversity of food crops as fast as the rain forests.

Since the elimination of the 1970 Plant Variety Protection Act most plants are now patented.

Since crop control moved from farmers to agribusiness six companies; Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont, Mitsui, Avetis and Dow now control 98 percent of the world’s seed sales.

Corn, soy, cotton and canola are the most genetically modified. The modifications include putting a bacterial gene into the plant that kills caterpillars and altering the crop’s physiology to withstand the herbicide Roundup. The crop stays alive when the chemicals are sprayed.

Monsanto considers growers that have seeds from one year to the next as significant competitors and allocates $10 million a year to investigate and prosecute GM seed savers.

In 2005 Monsanto created American Seeds Inc. a licensing channel that allows them to marry their technology with local and regional seed companies.

Garden seed inventories show that we had 5,000 nonhybrid vegetables in catalogs in 1981 and only 600 in 1998.

Jack Harlan, a geneticist and author of “Crops and Man” said the line between abundance and disaster is becomes thinner and thinner as we lose the genetic diversity of heirloom seeds.

Genetic variability is important as plant diseases can attack their host plants in slightly new ways in different seasons, conditions and climate. Genetically engineering cannot predict or address such broad spectrum challenges.

History shows, like the Irish potato famine, that it is unwise to depend on just a few varieties of crops. The U.S. now depends on only a few corn and soybean strains for the majority of the calories for human and animal consumption. Kingsolver says, “Our addiction to just two crops has made us the fattest people who’ve ever lived, dining just a few pathogens away from famine.”

We have become an overfed and undernourished society thanks to our profit-driven, mechanized food industry that has narrowed down our variety and overproduced corn and soybeans. We consume corn in the 54.8 gallons of soft drinks, per person, a year while the vegetables lack nutrition and flavor.

When we buy food from developing countries it is not the farmer that grew the produce that benefits but the international company’s CEO, the processors, brokers, shippers, supermarkets and oil companies.

Developed nations promote overproduction of commodity crops that are sold on the international market at well below market price, undermining the fragile economies of the developing world. It ends up driving small farmers into urban areas for jobs, decreasing the agriculture output of the country, and forcing the population to purchase those same commodities from abroad. Farmers who stay are likely to end up as laborers on plantations owned my multinationals.

For example, when we buy a soy product from Brazil we’re supporting an international company that has burned countless acres of Amazon rain forest to grow soy for export, destroying indigenous populations. Global trade deals allow corporations to shop for food from countries with poor environmental, safety, and labor conditions. This pits farmers in one country against another in a downward spiral.

Food transport is part of the profitable equation; America exports 1.1 million tons of potatoes and imports 1.4 million tons.

If we really want to help ourselves and the farmers let the potatoes stay home. For more information go to

Kingsolver says a better solution in America is to eat local foods.

Fortunately international networks are forming to allow farmers and gardeners to exchange and save each other’s heirloom seeds.

The Seed Savers’ Exchange in Decorah, Iowa founded by Diane and Kent Whealy has grown into a network of 8,000 members who grow, save and exchange more than 11,000 varieties of seeds from their gardens.

Slow Food International, the world’s largest save-the-endangered-foods organization, founded in Italy in 1986 has 83,000 members from all over the world. Native Seeds/SEARCH is a similar network focused on Native American crops.

A quarter of American households now buy locally produced foods at their farmers markets and try to eat home-cooked meals from whole, in-season ingredients.

Concentrating on local foods is a strategy that will keep grocery money in the neighborhood, where it is recycled into our own school system and local businesses.

Kingsolver says eating out of season food from overseas cannot only be measured in money, it is a debt that will be paid by our children in the currency of extinctions, economic unraveling and global climate change. Our conspicuous consumption of limited resources has yet to be accepted as a spiritual error.

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Books by
Niki Collins-Queen

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