The Oil We Eat

Richard Manning
Harper's Magazine,

0017789X, Feb2004, Vol. 308, Issue 1845

 

Following the food chain back to Iraq

 

The secret of great wealth with no obvious source is some forgotten crime,

forgotten because it was done neatly.

 

--Balzac

 

The journalist's rule says: follow the money. This rule, however, is not

really axiomatic but derivative, in that money, as even our vice president

will tell you, is really a way of tracking energy. We'll follow the

energy.

 

We learn as children that there is no free lunch, that you don't get

something from nothing, that what goes up must come down, and so on. The

scientific version of these verities is only slightly more complex. As

James Prescott Joule discovered in the nineteenth century, there is only

so much energy. You can change it from motion to heat, from heat to light,

but there will never be more of it and there will never be less of it. The

conservation of energy is not an option, it is a fact. This is the first

law of thermodynamics.

 

Special as we humans are, we get no exemptions from the rules. All animals

eat plants or eat animals that eat plants. This is the food chain, and

pulling it is the unique ability of plants to turn sunlight into stored

energy in the form of carbohydrates, the basic fuel of all animals.

Solar-powered photosynthesis is the only way to make this fuel. There is

no alternative to plant energy, just as there is no alternative to oxygen.

The results of taking away our plant energy may not be as sudden as

cutting off oxygen, but they are as sure.

 

Scientists have a name for the total amount of plant mass created by Earth

in a given year, the total budget for life. They call it the planet's

"primary productivity." There have been two efforts to figure out how that

productivity is spent, one by a group at Stanford University, the other an

independent accounting by the biologist Stuart Pimm. Both conclude that we

humans, a single species among millions, consume about 40 percent of

Earth's primary productivity, 40 percent of all there is. This simple

number may explain why the current extinction rate is 1,000 times that

which existed before human domination of the planet. We 6 billion have

simply stolen the food, the rich among us a lot more than others.

 

Energy cannot be created or canceled, but it can be concentrated. This is

the larger and profoundly explanatory context of a national-security memo

George Kennan wrote in 1948 as the head of a State Department planning

committee, ostensibly about Asian policy but really about how the United

States was to deal with its newfound role as the dominant force on Earth.

"We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth but only 6.3 percent of

its population," Kennan wrote. "In this situation, we cannot fail to be

the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is

to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this

position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.

To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and

day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on

our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we

can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction."

 

"The day is not far off," Kennan concluded, "when we are going to have to

deal in straight power concepts."

 

If you follow the energy, eventually you will end up in a field somewhere.

Humans engage in a dizzying array of artifice and industry. Nonetheless,

more than two thirds of humanity's cut of primary productivity results

from agriculture, two thirds of which in turn consists of three plants:

rice, wheat, and corn. In the 10,000 years since humans domesticated these

grains, their status has remained undiminished, most likely because they

are able to store solar energy in uniquely dense, transportable bundles of

carbohydrates. They are to the plant world what a barrel of refined oil is

to the hydrocarbon world. Indeed, aside from hydrocarbons they are the

most concentrated form of true wealth--sun energy--to be found on the

planet.

 

As Kennan recognized, however, the maintenance of such a concentration of

wealth often requires violent action. Agriculture is a recent human

experiment. For most of human history, we lived by gathering or killing a

broad variety of nature's offerings. Why humans might have traded this

approach for the complexities of agriculture is an interesting and

long-debated question, especially because the skeletal evidence clearly

indicates that early farmers were more poorly nourished, more

disease-ridden and deformed, than their hunter-gatherer contemporaries.

Farming did not improve most lives. The evidence that best points to the

answer, I think, lies in the difference between early agricultural

villages and their pre-agricultural counterparts--the presence not just of

grain but of granaries and, more tellingly, of just a few houses

significantly larger and more ornate than all the others attached to those

granaries. Agriculture was not so much about food as it was about the

accumulation of wealth. It benefited some humans, and those people have

been in charge ever since.

 

Domestication was also a radical change in the distribution of wealth

within the plant world. Plants can spend their solar income in several

ways. The dominant and prudent strategy is to allocate most of it to

building roots, stem, bark--a conservative portfolio of investments that

allows the plant to better gather energy and survive the downturn years.

Further, by living in diverse stands (a given chunk of native prairie

contains maybe 200 species of plants), these perennials provide services

for one another, such as retaining water, protecting one another from

wind, and fixing free nitrogen from the air to use as fertilizer.

Diversity allows a system to "sponsor its own fertility," to use visionary

agronomist Wes Jackson's phrase. This is the plant world's norm.

 

There is a very narrow group of annuals, however, that grow in patches of

a single species and store almost all of their income as seed, a tight

bundle of carbohydrates easily exploited by seed eaters such as ourselves.

Under normal circumstances, this eggs-in-one-basket strategy is a dumb

idea for a plant. But not during catastrophes such as floods, fires, and

volcanic eruptions. Such catastrophes strip established plant communities

and create opportunities for wind-scattered entrepreneurial seed bearers.

It is no accident that no matter where agriculture sprouted on the globe,

it always happened near rivers. You might assume, as many have, that this

is because the plants needed the water or nutrients. Mostly this is not

true. They needed the power of flooding, which scoured landscapes and

stripped out competitors. Nor is it an accident, I think, that agriculture

arose independently and simultaneously around the globe just as the last

ice age ended, a time of enormous upheaval when glacial melt let loose

sea-size lakes to create tidal waves of erosion. It was a time of

catastrophe.

 

Corn, rice, and wheat are especially adapted to catastrophe. It is their

niche. In the natural scheme of things, a catastrophe would create a blank

slate, bare soil, that was good for them. Then, under normal

circumstances, succession would quickly close that niche. The annuals

would colonize. Their roots would stabilize the soil, accumulate organic

matter, provide cover. Eventually the catastrophic niche would close.

Farming is the process of ripping that niche open again and again. It is

an annual artificial catastrophe, and it requires the equivalent of three

or four tons of TNT per acre for a modern American farm. Iowa's fields

require the energy of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs every year.

 

Iowa is almost all fields now. Little prairie remains, and if you can find

what Iowans call a "postage stamp" remnant of some, it most likely will

abut a cornfield. This allows an observation. Walk from the prairie to the

field, and you probably will step down about six feet, as if the land had

been stolen from beneath you. Settlers' accounts of the prairie conquest

mention a sound, a series of pops, like pistol shots, the sound of stout

grass roots breaking before a moldboard plow. A robbery was in progress.

 

When we say the soil is rich, it is not a metaphor. It is as rich in

energy as an oil well. A prairie converts that energy to flowers and roots

and stems, which in turn pass back into the ground as dead organic matter.

The layers of topsoil build up into a rich repository of energy, a bank. A

farm field appropriates that energy, puts it into seeds we can eat. Much

of the energy moves from the earth to the rings of fat around our necks

and waists. And much of the energy is simply wasted, a trail of dollars

billowing from the burglar's satchel.

 

I've already mentioned that we humans take 40 percent of the globe's

primary productivity every year. You might have assumed we and our

livestock eat our way through that volume, but this is not the case. Part

of that total--almost a third of it--is the potential plant mass lost when

forests are cleared for farming or when tropical rain forests are cut for

grazing or when plows destroy the deep mat of prairie roots that held the

whole business together, triggering erosion. The Dust Bowl was no accident

of nature. A functioning grassland prairie produces more biomass each year

than does even the most technologically advanced wheat field. The problem

is, it's mostly a form of grass and grass roots that humans can't eat. So

we replace the prairie with our own preferred grass, wheat. Never mind

that we feed most of our grain to livestock, and that livestock is

perfectly content to eat native grass. And never mind that there likely

were more bison produced naturally on the Great Plains before farming than

all of beef farming raises in the same area today. Our ancestors found it

preferable to pluck the energy from the ground and when it ran out move

on.

 

Today we do the same, only now when the vault is empty we fill it again

with new energy in the form of oil-rich fertilizers. Oil is annual primary

productivity stored as hydrocarbons, a trust fund of sorts, built up over

many thousands of years. On average, it takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy

to restore a year's worth of lost fertility to an acre of eroded land--in

1997 we burned through more than 400 years' worth of ancient fossilized

productivity, most of it from someplace else. Even as the earth beneath

Iowa shrinks, it is being globalized.

 

Six thousand years before sodbusters broke up Iowa, their Caucasian blood

ancestors broke up the Hungarian plain, an area just northwest of the

Caucasus Mountains. Archaeologists call this tribe the LBK, short for

linearbandkeramik, the German word that describes the distinctive pottery

remnants that mark their occupation of Europe. Anthropologists call them

the wheat-beef people, a name that better connects those ancients along

the Danube to my fellow Montanans on the Upper Missouri River. These

proto-Europeans had a full set of domesticated plants and animals, but

wheat and beef dominated. All the domesticates came from an area along

what is now the Iraq-Syria-Turkey border at the edges of the Zagros

Mountains. This is the center of domestication for the Western world's

main crops and live stock, ground zero of catastrophic agriculture.

 

Two other types of catastrophic agriculture evolved at roughly the same

time, one centered on rice in what is now China and India and one centered

on corn and potatoes in Central and South America. Rice, though, is

tropical and its expansion depends on water, so it developed only in

floodplains, estuaries, and swamps. Corn agriculture was every bit as

voracious as wheat; the Aztecs could be as brutal and imperialistic as

Romans or Brits, but the corn cultures collapsed with the onslaught of

Spanish conquest. Corn itself simply joined the wheat-beef people's

coalition. Wheat was the empire builder; its bare botanical facts dictated

the motion and violence that we know as imperialism.

 

The wheat-beef people swept across the western European plains in less

than 300 years, a conquest some archaeologists refer to as a "blitzkrieg."

A different race of humans, the Cro-Magnons--hunter-gatherers, not

farmers--lived on those plains at the time. Their cave art at places such

as Lascaux testifies to their sophistication and profound connection to

wildlife. They probably did most of their hunting and gathering in uplands

and river bottoms, places the wheat farmers didn't need, suggesting the

possibility of coexistence. That's not what happened, however. Both

genetic and linguistic evidence say that the farmers killed the hunters.

The Basque people are probably the lone remnant descendants of

Cro-Magnons, the only trace.

 

Hunter-gatherer archaeological sites of the period contain spear points

that originally belonged to the farmers, and we can guess they weren't

trade goods. One group of anthropologists concludes, "The evidence from

the western extension of the LBK leaves little room for any other

conclusion but that LBK-Mesolithic interactions were at best chilly and at

worst hostile." The world's surviving Blackfeet, Assiniboine Sioux, Inca,

and Maori probably have the best idea of the nature of these interactions.

 

Wheat is temperate and prefers plowed-up grasslands. The globe has a

limited stock of temperate grasslands, just as it has a limited stock of

all other biomes. On average, about 10 percent of all other biomes remain

in something like their native state today. Only 1 percent of temperate

grasslands remains undestroyed. Wheat takes what it needs.

 

The supply of temperate grasslands lies in what are today the United

States, Canada, the South American pampas, New Zealand, Australia, South

Africa, Europe, and the Asiatic extension of the European plain into the

sub-Siberian steppes. This area largely describes the First World, the

developed world. Temperate grasslands make up not only the habitat of

wheat and beef but also the globe's islands of Caucasians, of European

surnames and languages. In 2000 the countries of the temperate grasslands,

the neo-Europes, accounted for about 80 percent of all wheat exports in

the world, and about 86 percent of all com. That is to say, the

neo-Europes drive the world's agriculture. The dominance does not stop

with grain. These countries, plus the mothership--Europe accounted for

three fourths of all agricultural exports of all crops in the world in

1999.

 

Plato wrote of his country's farmlands:

 

What now remains of the formerly rich land is like the skeleton of a sick

man. ...Formerly, many of the mountains were arable, The plains that were

full of rich soil are now marshes. Hills that were once covered with

forests and produced abundant pasture now produce only food for bees. Once

the land was enriched by yearly rains, which were not lost, as they are

now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea. The soil was deep, it

absorbed and kept the water in loamy soil, and the water that soaked into

the hills fed springs and running streams everywhere. Now the abandoned

shrines at spots where formerly there were springs attest that our

description of the land is true.

 

Plato's lament is rooted in wheat agriculture, which depleted his

country's soil and subsequently caused the series of declines that pushed

centers of civilization to Rome, Turkey, and western Europe. By the fifth

century, though, wheat's strategy of depleting and moving on ran up

against the Atlantic Ocean. Fenced-in wheat agriculture is like rice

agriculture. It balances its equations with famine. In the millennium

between 500 and 1500, Britain suffered a major "corrective" famine about

every ten years; there were seventy-five in France during the same period.

The incidence, however, dropped sharply when colonization brought an

influx of new food to Europe.

 

The new lands had an even greater effect on the colonists themselves.

Thomas Jefferson, after enduring a lecture on the rustic nature by his

hosts at a dinner party in Paris, pointed out that all of the Americans

present were a good head taller than all of the French. Indeed, colonists

in all of the neo-Europes enjoyed greater stature and longevity, as well

as a lower infant-mortality rate--all indicators of the better nutrition

afforded by the onetime spend down of the accumulated capital of virgin

soil.

 

The precolonial famines of Europe raised the question: What would happen

when the planet's supply of arable land ran out? We have a clear answer.

In about 1960 expansion hit its limits and the supply of unfarmed, arable

lands came to an end. There was nothing left to plow. What happened was

grain yields tripled.

 

The accepted term for this strange turn of events is the green revolution,

though it would be more properly labeled the amber revolution, because it

applied exclusively to grain--wheat, rice, and corn. Plant breeders

tinkered with the architecture of these three grains so that they could be

hypercharged with irrigation water and chemical fertilizers, especially

nitrogen. This innovation meshed nicely with the increased "efficiency" of

the industrialized factory-farm system. With the possible exception of the

domestication of wheat, the green revolution is the worst thing that has

ever happened to the planet.

 

For openers, it disrupted long-standing patterns of rural life worldwide,

moving a lot of no-longer-needed people off the land and into the world's

most severe poverty. The experience in population control in the

developing world is by now clear: It is not that people make more people

so much as it is that they make more poor people. In the forty-year period

beginning about 1960, the world's population doubled, adding virtually the

entire increase of 3 billion to the world's poorest classes, the most

fecund classes. The way in which the green revolution raised that grain

contributed hugely to the population boom, and it is the weight of the

population that leaves humanity in its present untenable position.

 

Discussion of these, the most poor, however, is largely irrelevant to the

American situation. We say we have poor people here, but almost no one in

this country lives on less than one dollar a day, the global benchmark for

poverty. It marks off a class of about 1.3 billion people, the hard core

of the larger group of 2 billion chronically malnourished people--that is,

one third of humanity. We may forget about them, as most Americans do.

 

More relevant here are the methods of the green revolution, which added

orders of magnitude to the devastation. By mining the iron for tractors,

drilling the new oil to fuel them and to make nitrogen fertilizers, and by

taking the water that rain and rivers had meant for other lands, farming

had extended its boundaries, its dominion, to lands that were not

farmable. At the same time, it extended its boundaries across time,

tapping fossil energy, stripping past assets.

 

The common assumption these days is that we muster our weapons to secure

oil, not food. There's a little joke in this. Ever since we ran out of

arable land, food is oil. Every single calorie we eat is backed by at

least a calorie of oil, more like ten. In 1940 the average farm in the

United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of

fossil energy it used. By 1974 (the last year in which anyone looked

closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:1. And this understates the

problem, because at the same time that there is more oil in our food there

is less oil in our oil. A couple of generations ago we spent a lot less

energy drilling, pumping, and distributing than we do now. In the 1940s we

got about 100 barrels of oil back for every barrel of oil we spent getting

it. Today each barrel invested in the process returns only ten, a

calculation that no doubt fails to include the fuel burned by the Hummers

and Blackhawks we use to maintain access to the oil in Iraq.

 

David Pimentel, an expert on food and energy at Cornell University, has

estimated that if all of the world ate the way the United States eats,

humanity would exhaust all known global fossil-fuel reserves in just over

seven years. Pimentel has his detractors. Some have accused him of being

off on other calculations by as much as 30 percent. Fine. Make it ten

years.

 

Fertilizer makes a pretty fine bomb right off the shelf, a chemistry

lesson Timothy McVeigh taught at Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal

Building in 1995--not a small matter, in that the green revolution has

made nitrogen fertilizers ubiquitous in some of the more violent and

desperate corners of the world. Still, there is more to contemplate in

nitrogen's less sensational chemistry.

 

The chemophobia of modem times excludes fear of the simple elements of

chemistry's periodic table. We circulate petitions, hold hearings, launch

websites, and buy and sell legislators in regard to polysyllabic organic

compounds--polychlorinated biphenyls, polyvinyls, DDT, 2-4d, that sort of

thing--not simple carbon or nitrogen. Not that agriculture's use of the

more ornate chemistry is benign--an infant born in a rural,

wheat-producing county in the United States has about twice the chance of

suffering birth defects as one born in a rural place that doesn't produce

wheat, an effect researchers blame on chlorophenoxy herbicides. Focusing

on pesticide pollution, though, misses the worst of the pollutants. Forget

the polysyllabic organics. It is nitrogen-the wellspring of fertility

relied upon by every Eden-obsessed backyard gardener and suburban

groundskeeper--that we should fear most.

 

Those who model our planet as an organism do so on the basis that the

earth appears to breathe--it thrives by converting a short list of basic

elements from one compound into the next, just as our own bodies cycle

oxygen into carbon dioxide and plants cycle carbon dioxide into oxygen. In

fact, two of the planet's most fundamental humors are oxygen and carbon

dioxide. Another is nitrogen.

 

Nitrogen can be released from its "fixed" state as a solid in the soil by

natural processes that allow it to circulate freely in the atmosphere.

This also can be done artificially. Indeed, humans now contribute more

nitrogen to the nitrogen cycle than the planet itself does. That is,

humans have doubled the amount of nitrogen in play.

 

This has led to an imbalance. It is easier to create nitrogen fertilizer

than it is to apply it evenly to fields. When farmers dump nitrogen on a

crop, much is wasted. It runs into the water and soil, where it either

reacts chemically with its surroundings to form new compounds or flows off

to fertilize something else, somewhere else.

 

That chemical reaction, called acidification, is noxious and contributes

significantly to acid rain. One of the compounds produced by acidification

is nitrous oxide, which aggravates the greenhouse effect. Green growing

things normally offset global warming by sucking up carbon dioxide, but

nitrogen on farm fields plus methane from decomposing vegetation make

every farmed acre, like every acre of Los Angeles freeway, a net

contributor to global warming. Fertilization is equally worrisome.

Rainfall and irrigation water inevitably washes the nitrogen from fields

to creeks and streams, which flows into rivers, which floods into the

ocean. This explains why the Mississippi River, which drains the nation's

Corn Belt, is an environmental catastrophe. The nitrogen fertilizes

artificially large blooms of algae that in growing suck all the oxygen

from the water, a condition biologists call anoxia, which means

"oxygen-depleted." Here there's no need to calculate long-term effects,

because life in such places has no long term: everything dies immediately.

The Mississippi River's heavily fertilized effluvia has created a dead

zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey.

 

America's biggest crop, grain corn, is completely unpalatable. It is raw

material for an industry that manufactures food substitutes. Likewise, you

can't eat unprocessed wheat. You certainly can't eat hay. You can eat

unprocessed soybeans, but mostly we don't. These four crops cover 82

percent of American cropland. Agriculture in this country is not about

food; it's about commodities that require the outlay of still more energy

to become food.

 

About two thirds of U.S. grain corn is labeled "processed," meaning it is

milled and otherwise refined for food or industrial uses. More than 45

percent of that becomes sugar, especially high-fructose corn sweeteners,

the keystone ingredient in three quarters of all processed foods,

especially soft drinks, the food of America's poor and working classes. It

is not a coincidence that the American pandemic of obesity tracks rather

nicely with the fivefold increase in corn-syrup production since Archer

Daniels Midland developed a high-fructose version of the stuff in the

early seventies. Nor is it a coincidence that the plague selects the poor,

who eat the most processed food.

 

It began with the industrialization of Victorian England. The empire was

then flush with sugar from plantations in the colonies. Meantime the

cities were flush with factory workers. There was no good way to feed

them. And thus was born the afternoon tea break, the tea consisting

primarily of warm water and sugar. If the workers were well off, they

could also afford bread with heavily sugared jam--sugar-powered

industrialization. There was a 500 percent increase in per capita sugar

consumption in Britain between 1860 and 1890, around the time when the

life expectancy of a male factory worker was seventeen years. By the end

of the century the average Brit was getting about one sixth of his total

nutrition from sugar, exactly the same percentage Americans get

today--double what nutritionists recommend.

 

There is another energy matter to consider here, though. The grinding,

milling, wetting, drying, and baking of a breakfast cereal requires about

four calories of energy for every calorie of food energy it produces. A

two-pound bag of breakfast cereal burns the energy of a half-gallon of

gasoline in its making. All together the food-processing industry in the

United States uses about ten calories of fossil-fuel energy for every

calorie of food energy it produces.

 

That number does not include the fuel used in transporting the food from

the factory to a store near you, or the fuel used by millions of people

driving to thousands of super discount stores on the edge of town, where

the land is cheap. It appears, however, that the corn cycle is about to

come full circle. If a bipartisan coalition of farm-state lawmakers has

their way--and it appears they will--we will soon buy gasoline containing

twice as much fuel alcohol as it does now. Fuel alcohol already ranks

second as a use for processed corn in the United States, just behind corn

sweeteners. According to one set of calculations, we spend more calories

of fossil-fuel energy making ethanol than we gain from it. The Department

of Agriculture says the ratio is closer to a gallon and a quart of ethanol

for every gallon of fossil fuel we invest. The USDA calls this a bargain,

because gasohol is a "clean fuel." This claim to cleanness is in dispute

at the tailpipe level, and it certainly ignores the dead zone in the Gulf

of Mexico, pesticide pollution, and the haze of global gases gathering

over every farm field. Nor does this claim cover clean conscience; some

still might be unsettled knowing that our SUVs' demands for fuel compete

with the poor's demand for grain.

 

Green eaters, especially vegetarians, advocate eating low on the food

chain, a simple matter of energy flow. Eating a carrot gives the diner all

that carrot's energy, but feeding carrots to a chicken, then eating the

chicken, reduces the energy by a factor of ten. The chicken wastes some

energy, stores some as feathers, bones, and other inedibles, and uses most

of it just to live long enough to be eaten. As a rough rule of thumb, that

factor of ten applies to each level up the food chain, which is why some

fish, such as tuna, can be a horror in all of this. Tuna is a secondary

predator, meaning it not only doesn't eat plants but eats other fish that

themselves eat other fish, adding a zero to the multiplier each notch up,

easily a hundred times, more like a thousand times less efficient than

eating a plant.

 

This is fine as far as it goes, but the vegetarian's case can break down

on some details. On the moral issues, vegetarians claim their habits are

kinder to animals, though it is difficult to see how wiping out 99 percent

of wildlife's habitat, as farming has done in Iowa, is a kindness. In

rural Michigan, for example, the potato farmers have a peculiar tactic for

dealing with the predations of whitetail deer. They gut-shoot them with

small-bore rifles, in hopes the deer will limp off to the woods and die

where they won't stink up the potato fields.

 

Animal rights aside, vegetarians can lose the edge in the energy argument

by eating processed food, with its ten calories of fossil energy for every

calorie of food energy produced. The question, then, is: Does eating

processed food such as soy burger or soy milk cancel the energy benefits

of vegetarianism, which is to say, can I eat my lamb chops in peace?

Maybe. If I've done my due diligence, I will have found out that the

particular lamb I am eating was both local and grass-fed, two factors that

of course greatly reduce the embedded energy in a meal. I know of ranches

here in Montana, for instance, where sheep eat native grass under closely

controlled circumstances--no farming, no plows, no corn, no nitrogen.

Assets have not been stripped. I can't eat the grass directly. This can go

on. There are little niches like this in the system. Each person's

individual charge is to find such niches.

 

Chances are, though, any meat eater will come out on the short end of this

argument, especially in the United States. Take the case of beef. Cattle

are grazers, so in theory could live like the grass-fed lamb. Some cattle

cultures--those of South America and Mexico, for example--have perfected

wonderful cuisines based on grass-fed beef. This is not our habit in the

United States, and it is simply a matter of habit. Eighty percent of the

grain the United States produces goes to livestock. Seventy-eight percent

of all of our beef comes from feed lots, where the cattle eat grain,

mostly corn and wheat. So do most of our hogs and chickens. The cattle

spend their adult lives packed shoulder to shoulder in a space not much

bigger than their bodies, up to their knees in shit, being stuffed with

grain and a constant stream of antibiotics to prevent the disease this

sort of confinement invariably engenders. The manure is rich in nitrogen

and once provided a farm's fertilizer. The feedlots, however, are now far

removed from farm fields, so it is simply not "efficient" to haul it to

cornfields. It is waste. It exhales methane, a global-warming gas. It

pollutes streams. It takes thirty-five calories of fossil fuel to make a

calorie of beef this way; sixty-eight to make one calorie of pork.

 

Still, these livestock do something we can't. They convert grain's

carbohydrates to high-quality protein. All well and good, except that per

capita protein production in the United States is about double what an

average adult needs per day. Excess cannot be stored as protein in the

human body but is simply converted to fat. This is the end result of a factory-farm system that appears as a living, continental-scale monument

to Rube Goldberg, a black-mass remake of the loaves-and-fishes miracle.

Prairie's productivity is lost for grain, grain's productivity is lost in

livestock, livestock's protein is lost to human fat--all federally

subsidized for about $15 billion a year, two thirds of which goes directly

to only two crops, corn and wheat.

 

This explains why the energy expert David Pimentel is so worried that the

rest of the world will adopt America's methods. He should be, because the

rest of the world is. Mexico now feeds 45 percent of its grain to

livestock, up from 5 percent in 1960. Egypt went from 3 percent to 31

percent in the same period, and China, with a sixth of the world's

population, has gone from 8 percent to 26 percent. All of these places

have poor people who could use the grain, but they can't afford it.

 

I live among elk and have learned to respect them. One moonlit night

during the dead of last winter, I looked out my bedroom window to see

about twenty of them grazing a plot of grass the size of a living room.

Just that small patch among acres of other species of native prairie

grass. Why that species and only that species of grass that night in the

worst of winter when the threat to their survival was the greatest? What

magic nutrient did this species alone contain? What does a wild animal

know that we don't? I think we need this knowledge.

 

Food is politics. That being the case, I voted twice in 2002. The day

after Election Day, in a truly dismal mood, I climbed the mountain behind

my house and found a small herd of elk grazing native grasses in the

morning sunlight. My respect for these creatures over the years has become

great enough that on that morning I did not hesitate but went straight to

my job, which was to rack a shell and drop one cow elk, my household's

annual protein supply. I voted with my weapon of choice--an act not all

that uncommon in this world, largely, I think, as a result of the way we

grow food. I can see why it is catching on. Such a vote has a certain

satisfying heft and finality about it. My particular bit of violence,

though, is more satisfying, I think, than the rest of the globe's ordinary

political mayhem. I used a rifle to opt out of an insane system. I killed,

but then so did you when you bought that package of burger, even when you

bought that package of tofu burger. I killed, then the rest of those elk

went on, as did the grasses, the birds, the trees, the coyotes, mountain

lions, and bugs, the fundamental productivity of an intact natural system,

all of it went on.

 

~~~~~~~~

 

By Richard Manning

 

 

Richard Manning is the author of Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has

Hijacked Civilization, to be published this month by North Point Press.

 

 

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