Supersize me organically
Esteemed writer Michael Pollan tells how overproduction of commodity crops has led to overconsumption and obesity, and he challenges the wisdom of “organic high-fructose corn syrup” and the machinations that would create such products.

A speech by Michael Pollan

Editor’s note: September 1, 2005, The following keynote address--following the food chain: The high cost of cheap food--was given at the 2005 25th anniversary Ecofarm conference in Asilomar, California. The second and final installment of an edited transcription is reprinted here with the author’s generous permission. Click here for Part I.

The other side of the paradox is, so then how could this same thing cause obesity? And I believe very strongly that our overproduction of cheap grain in general and corn in [particular] has a lot to do with the fact that three-fifths of Americans are now overweight, and that many demographers believe that this is the first generation in America whose life span may be shorter than their parents. And the reason for that is obesity, essentially; all the health problems related to obesity and specifically diabetes.

So how do I explain that? Well, the obesity crisis is complicated in one way, but it’s very simple in another way. Basically, if you go back to the ’70s, we’re eating 200 more calories a day per American on average. That’ll do it. If you don’t get that much more exercise, you’re going to get a lot fatter. Where do those calories come from? Well, where do all calories come from, except for seafood? They come from the farm. So you’ve got to go back and look at the farm, and what you find on the farm is that we are producing, since the mid to late ’70s, 500 extra calories of food a day per American. That’s a hell of a lot of additional food. And we’re managing to pack away 200 of them, which is pretty heroic on our part—40 percent. I don’t know exactly what’s happening to the rest of it, but a lot of the rest of it is being dumped overseas, or wasted, or burned in our cars. And that’s really how we’re trying to get rid of it now, as ethanol.

So overproduction, sooner or later, leads to overconsumption, it’s very, very simple; and we’ve been there before. The last giant public health crisis like this in American happened in the 1820s. There was a binge of alcoholism—drinking in America in the 1810s and ’20s—and what happened, there’s a wonderful book about it called The Alcoholic Republic, and in fact somebody here turned me onto. The greatest drinking binge in history—we were drinking up to five gallons of hard liquor a person per year. Now to give you an idea, the average now is under one, okay? That’s a lot. How did this happen? Well, I hate to blame corn again, but you had this tremendous overproduction of corn. As the settlers got over the Appalachians, they went into all this new wonderful virgin land, they started planting corn, they had very big crops, there weren’t enough eaters around to eat it. And it didn’t pay economically to ship it either by boat or over the mountains, so what did they do? They turned it into a value-added commodity that would be durable and portable. And in those days there were two such commodities. You could do it with pigs and make hams, but even better you could ferment it, you could distill it, and make alcohol. And that became the cheap, the portable, durable, value-added commodity that you did with the overproduction, and they flooded the market in the East with alcohol, and you could buy a pint of corn liquor for two pence. And so… people drank like crazy. And it was…a tremendous problem.

So now what do we do with the overproduction? Well, our chief value-added, portable commodity is corn sweetener. That’s the big one—high fructose corn syrup. But also corn-fed meat, corn-fed chicken, even corn-fed salmon. They’re teaching salmon how to eat corn now, because there’s so much cheap corn. Yeah.

And that is the logic of processing, okay? It’s a powerful industrial logic. You take your cheap commodity, and you add value to it. And what we also found with corn, it’s this big fat starch packet that you can break down and reassemble. You can break it down into any kind of basic starch/carbon molecule you want and you can make sweeteners, and you can make…if you look at a chicken nugget’s list of ingredients, there are like 37 ingredients, and something like 30 of them are actually made from corn, directly or indirectly. So it’s an incredibly powerful thing. You can use this industrial system to break it down and then build it back up together into all these kinds of food products.

The building blocks of the Fast Food Nation are kernels of corn. That entire meal at McDonald’s is all corn. Now the cheapness of corn allows you…the same as happened with the alcohol…you needed to get this consumed and so you put it into this commodity. Now how do you get people to eat a lot of it? Well, that took the ingenuity of American marketing. And I’ll just give you one example, and that is super-sizing. When I was a kid, Coke came in these [holds up classic Coca Cola bottle]…8-ounce containers. This 20-ounce container [hold up modern Coca Cola bottle] is now the standard size for soda. The idea that you can sell soda that way was an invention, and it has a history, and you can find the individual responsible. There’s a man named David Wallerstein, who actually invented the idea of super-sizing. And this is his contribution to American history. He was managing a chain of movie theaters in Texas and his job—all movie theaters make their money on the popcorn and the soda—his job was to kind of goose the sales of popcorn and soda. And he tried…everything you could think of. He tried 2-for-1 sales, he tried matinee specials, and he simply couldn’t get people to buy more than one popcorn and one soda. And then he hit on this idea: They really wanted more, but they felt like pigs coming back for seconds. So he just expanded the portion size, and people were willing to eat a lot more if you put a lot more in front of them. …There’s a genetic reason for this we now understand, it’s called the “thrifty gene.”

But basically the more food you put in [front of] people the more they will eat. We are not good judges of our appetite. In fact, people who have no memories, you know they work with these patients who’ve absolutely lost their short-term memories, and if you feed them lunch, take them away, tell them it’s lunchtime, they’ll eat lunch again. And all of us have had that experience at a buffet table. But, in general, if you put more food in front of us we will eat 30 percent more than we would otherwise. So portion is very important, and David Wallerstein, who then got a job at McDonald’s, was the guy who figured all this out. When he got to McDonald’s…it was still the days of the tiny little bag of French fries and the little sodas, and he went to [company founder] Ray Kroc one day and he said, “You know you could sell a lot more of this if you’d make bigger portions,” and Ray Krok said, “If people want seconds, they’ll come back for seconds. They’ll buy another bag of them.” And he says, “No, they don’t want to do that.” And Krok didn’t believe him, so he set up this video surveillance in a McDonald’s in Chicago and he got tape of people with their little bags of French fries, and they’re digging down for the little bits of burnt French fry and salt, and he said, “See they want more.” And that’s when McDonald’s moved to these huge portions of soda. So that’s how they got us to eat the 200 extra calories.

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Now before you go out and sue McDonald’s or Kraft for the size of your waistline, consider the though that this overproduction of cheap corn is government policy. It’s done in the name of our government with our taxpayer dollars. This is heavily subsidized. We write a check for every bushel of industrial corn produced in this country to the tune of $4 billion a year; $19 billion for all direct payments to farmers. But before you blame subsidies for all these problems—and they do deserve part of the blame—keep in mind that agricultural overproduction is an ancient problem. It predates subsidies. All of you or many of you are familiar with the phenomenon, when the price of the commodity you’re growing falls, in any other business the smart thing to do would be to curtail production until demand raises prices. Farmers don’t do that because they’re too many of them and they’re all operating individually. What farmers do is expand production so they have the same amount of cash flow every year. So this is a disastrous and self-fulfilling phenomenon.

We use to have government support for farmers that took corn off the market. And that kept prices high. And these were loans instead of direct payments. And I don’t have time to explain the system, but it worked pretty well up until the 1970s, when, during the Nixon administration…there was hyperinflation of food prices for a lot of reasons having to do with the grain deal to Russia, and the cost of energy, and suddenly the price of a hamburger, the price of steak, butter, went sky high, and people were in the street protesting in 1973, the high price of food. Nixon puts Earl Butz to work driving down the price of food, and he does this by several things: trying to get farmers to plant fence row to fence row and also to change the subsidy system, so instead of taking food off the market to keep prices high and loaning farmers money so they could keep their corn off the market, he just cut ’em a check, which encouraged them to produce more and more and more. And lo and behold, it worked. The obesity crisis dates to that policy. So, the rules of this game are set by the government and there could be other rules that would create a very different kind of game. So this has resulted, since these changes in the ’70s, in an increase in the American corn harvest from 4 billion to 10 billion bushels a year. So that’s not all technology. That’s farmers acting to stay even by planting more, and that’s agricultural policy. And we’re struggling heroically to get rid of all that corn.

Now I don’t have time to go into all the places I’ve followed it, but one of the places I’ve followed it, and perhaps the most obscene and absurd creation of this system is the American feedlot. And those of you, I don’t know if you’ve read my piece on my steer, #534, but if you follow the corn to a feedlot, you really see what’s wrong with this whole system because cows did not evolve to eat corn, but we feed them corn because it’s so cheap, we need to get rid of it, it makes them grow quickly, but it has all these other unintended affects. And I stood in a feedlot with this steer I bought, #534, at the Pokey Feeders Feedlot in Garden City, Kansas, and I stood ankle deep in his manure, or that of his colleagues, the hundred that were in this field, and there they were lowering their huge heads down into this feed bunk, eating this mixture of corn and urea and tallow from other cows, and hormones and antibiotics, and they were miserable animals in every way. They were depressed, they had indigestion, but they were growing.

And I thought about that food chain, and you can follow that food chain all the way back to the farm and to grow that beef, that beef that’s in that hamburger, you know what’s going on in Iowa, you are overfertilizing those farms, and the nitrogen from those farms is going down into the Raccoon River and it’s the reason that women in des Moines, there are blue baby alerts, where you can’t give tap water to your babies in the spring when the runoff is [at its worst]. And it goes down the Mississippi and it ends up in the Gulf of Mexico and is creating this dead zone the size of the state of New Jersey. That’s one place it’s going, but you can go even further. You can go all the way to the Persian Gulf and connect that corn to that feedlot because to grow all that corn we use fossil fuel, right? Chemical fertilizer. Chemical pesticides. Almost a fifth of our imports of fossil fuels go to agriculture, industrial agriculture, but not only industrial agriculture. So that’s what I mean by the high cost of cheap food: these are costs, too, that dead zone, that war, these are costs of maintaining that system. And you can follow the corn in the other direction, because it’s making the animals sick. So you’ve got to give the animals antibiotics, so the antibiotics don’t work when my son has an ear infection. So that’s another cost of cheap food.

And you can follow it to the food poisoning that Eric Schlosser so brilliantly documented in Fast Food Nation (Perennial, 2002). What he didn’t say though is why that industrial beef is so much more likely to have E. coli in it, E. coli, 157H7. Well, because the corn has acidified the rumen of those animals and made it a good environment for a toxin that then can infect us. Grass-fed livestock, the pH in the rumen is different so any microbes in there get shocked and killed by our acidic guts. So there’s another cost of cheap food.

And there are many others. I mean, the hormones that are in the water, the…atrizine that’s affecting the animals, I mean it just goes on and on.

So this is what I mean by the high cost of cheap food. We’re charging an enormous cost to the environment, to our health care system, to the military budget, and to our standing in the developed world.

And that should be the motto of our food system, I think Wendell Berry said it, what did he say, “cheap at any price.” And that’s what we have.

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…This is the cautionary tale part. Now it’s very easy for those of us who practice or support alternative agriculture to pat ourselves on the back, to think that the corn economy is only a problem of the industrial food system. But in fact the seductive powers of corn are now, I think, a problem in [organic] production as well. It’s true that organic corn does not pollute the Gulf of Mexico, does not burn as much fossil fuel—although in its transportation it certainly does—but the temptation of grain, its convenience, its energy density, and industrial logic are leading us down a path to organic feedlots, to milk such as this store-brand milk [holds up container] that’s…produced by cows in Colorado, I believe, who are subsisting on a diet of grain. It’s leading us toward highly processed food made from the same breakdown products of corn and soybeans. A highly processed, high-added fat-and-sugar fast food based on corn and soy that happens to be organic, you just have to ask yourself is this what you got into this for? I don’t know about you, but I don’t regard the advent of organic high-fructose corn syrup—which by the way has been quietly approved by the NOP—I don’t regard that as significant progress. And the problem of course is coming together in beef production and milk production, where…I think we’re facing a real conflict about whether grass is an important part of a cow’s entitlement.

You know, we talk about sustainability, but as sustainable as an organic field of grain is, it’s nowhere near as sustainable as a well-managed pasture, organic or not. No erosion, no fertilizer, it actually builds soil when managed properly and produces food that’s much healthier for us and more humane than the food produced in an animal factory whether or not that animal factory calls itself organic. So I think that these are some of the issues that we need to start attacking. I think the whole issue of grass and animals is something that the organic rules really missed, because this is one area where you can make a very strong case that there’s a difference in the food quality, a scientific case. So beware the temptations of commodity corn, that sort of product, which is to say beware the temptations of succumbing to the industrial logic.

So how do we change the system? …I think if we think ahead 25 years our dreams should be more than making all that corn belt organic corn belt. Our dream should be turning that into perennial polyculture, into pasture, because 70 percent of it already is going to feed ruminants. Why not put the ruminants back on it? Nothing would do more for the animals’ health, for our health, and for the health of the land. So how do we get there?...There are two ways. We have to really pay attention to the Farm Bill. And so many people don’t realize the stake they have in it. If it were called the Food Bill, I think we would all pay a lot more attention to it, but most people in the cities assume it’s a parochial concern of farm state’s senators and congressmen and it’s not. These are the rules of the game that we’re all playing in whether we’re industrial farmers or organic farmers, whether we’re eating industrial or not. So we really have to get in there and fight.

And the other thing is to, you know, be good consumers. I’ve always hated that word; I’ve always hated identifying myself as a consumer. It sounds like you’re kind of using up the world. But I was in Terra Madre and Carlo Petrini offered a wonderful redefinition of consumer; he called a consumer a co-creator, and I think it’s a very sweet and accurate idea. And the organic movement saw that, how a consumer could be a co-creator, so we have to create a larger and larger army of co-creators to help us.

I want to thank you very much and just tell you keep up the good work.