Stopping at Whole Foods was part of the plan. The closest Whole Foods was still Wild Oats. Whole Foods swallowed up Wild Oats months ago but left the brand in place at the store adjacent to the university. As the establishment "organic" grocery, it wouldn't hurt to present as an "alternative" near the university. Two days later we needed to restock. This time we searched out a Whole Foods store in the Boulder suburbs. Much larger. Much better. Many more choices we'd never make. This should last us all the way to Obama's speech Thursday night. We were here for the Convention but we couldn't fight the throngs at the Pepsi Center. We picked up Floor Passes for Monday night, Michelle's speech. She was perfect. If we went back we would be there all day and half the night. If our state convention was any guide, the food choices would be hot dogs, corn dogs, and barbecue. The only vegetable choices would be fried in lard or bagged with salt. We gave up beef years ago, then fowl and finally pork. We hung in with fish for a while, then just shellfish. A friend with connections in the Sheriff's office told us about the bodies recovered from the Gulf. Now we avoid anything outside the plant and fungal kingdoms. No, that's not right, we still eat dairy products. Eggs are on their way out, cheese will be tough, ice cream tougher. But we'll get there. Why? That's a long story. It starts with five thousand words I put together in the Fall eight years ago. I read an article about prions and mad cow disease. Fascinating little things prions, they're proteins, a subset of life that carries neither DNA or RNA. Not a virus but not like anything else, they are the causative factor in all forms of spongiform encephalopathy - called Crutchfield-Jacob disease when it occurs spontaneously, Scrapie when it occurs in sheep and Mad Cow in cattle and people. Encephalopathy because it involves the brain and spongiform because it causes the brain to take on the consistency of a sponge. Proteins are the body's version of Origami, how they fold determines their function. Prions fold in such a diabolically inappropriate variation of the "normal" fold that any protein with which they come in contact change their nature and become prions. When Mad Cow began to surface with some regularity in England in the eighties we heard it incubated in people for as long as two to three decades. That would apply to the hamburger we ate before we saw the Beatles at the Houston Coliseum. Hmm. The US Health authorities, same ones that thought AIDS was a disease of gay people until little Ryan died, went to great lengths to assure everyone we had no reason to be concerned about USDA beef. I knew a meat inspector once. She drank an ice tea tumbler of scotch on her way to work at six every morning. The nasty little creature that sprang from John Hurt's chest in The Alien could stop and chat and she wouldn't notice. How could they possibly know these twisted little proteins weren't in the food supply thirty years ago? They didn't even know they existed back then. I told anyone who asked that giving up meat wasn't a moral choice but a health one. At first that was true. It changed over time. And that is a really long story. It starts ten thousand years ago in three river valleys, the Nile, Indus and Tigris-Euphrates. These fertile crescents simultaneously presented a cornucopia of breakfast cereals within easy reach of the heretofore traveling band of humanoids.
Humanity had spent its first hundred thousand years hunting and gathering over and around a series of Ice Ages. At the close of the Pleistocene epoch, ten millennia ago, a long-term warming set in and the ice retreated to more or less where it was fifty years ago.
Since the 1950's, Fuji and Kilimanjaro lost their snow caps, the frozen tundra upon which those comfortable with ice built their homes is defrosting for the first time in 100,000 years while chunks of ice the size of Delaware are breaking off Antarctica and Greenland. A water route over the north pole will soon open as that ice melts. Last night at dinner a co-worker informed those at his end of the table that Al Gore was crazy and humans had nothing to do with global warming. Looking for a response from me what I should have said was, "I understand why you might think that since our government has sided with the four crackpot scientists on Exxon's payroll and against the twenty three thousand scientists who think we are contributing to the problem. The truth is, although we appear to be entering a warmer climatic epoch, we have exacerbated the problem rather dramatically by pumping our paper thin envelope of atmosphere full of particulate matter that is preventing naturally generated warmth from dissipating through the atmosphere and into space." Instead, all I could muster was, "at this point in my life I have chosen not to engage in conversation those who appear completely insane."
Humanity assumed its present incarnation during what paleontologists call the Holocene epoch, the long-term warming mentioned above. The Holocene followed the Pleistocene and may now be drawing to a close. The Holocene appears to be a climactic abnormality marked by its lack of extreme variations in the weather. We are likely moving out of that era and back into a more "normal" or wildly fluctuating climate typical of the planet's larger historical record. Drill out a mile or so of ice core from the deepest ice in Antarctica and you can "read" the weather going back a hundred thousand years or more. As the Pleistocene Epoch (a more typical period marked by multiple advances and retreats of global glaciers) ended and land in the middle latitudes stayed warm for a few centuries, our ancestors suddenly found themselves walking in fields of Wheat Chex, Grape Nuts and Captain Crunch. The precursors of todayÕs barley and wheat presented themselves to our ancestors in abundance. Through some inadvertent trial and error, our great-great grandparents learned that the seeds of these ubiquitous grasses gave rise to more grasses, especially near the flood plains of the rivers where they first appeared. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors gathered themselves about these new fields of wheat and barley and waited for new seeds to ripen on the stalk. Eventually they figured out that by mashing and boiling most of the seeds and sticking the rest into the ground, they could eat today and tomorrow without having to wander about so.
Up until then, we had been wandering in the virtual garden, gathering the bounty that lay around us (the gatherer in hunter/gatherer) or stomping some sleepy marmoset to death (the early hunter in the hunter/gatherer didn't yet have the benefit of the black Chinese powder that could launch a piece of metal at fifteen hundred miles an hour toward the intersection of the two thin red lines on the precision-ground German-made telescopic sight - now that's hunting). After our time in "the Garden," we were condemned to toil in the soil by the sweat of our brow (see the first book of the Talmud or if you're a fan of the plagiarist "Priestly author" who borrowed the story and combined it with another creation myth, see Genesis). For the first time we had more food than we could eat and leisure time was born. This extra time we devoted to figuring out ways to protect and apportion the extra food. Since we didn't have to spend all day tripping over apples and stomping sleepy marmosets, we took up hobbies like cave painting, electing leaders and killing each other. Elections weren't the elaborate rituals we see today (Robert had yet to write his Rules) but we still needed someone to open, close and guard the granary.
Part Two: We Get Warmed Up - Leaving Magic Behind, We Invite The Industrial Revolution to Dinner, and Capitalism No Longer Requires a Product To Sell or a Service To Offer
Our new granaries opened and closed for thousands of years as the civilizations forged around the first food surpluses grew, reached their peak, and faded. From Stone Age to Bronze to Iron, Sumerians to Egyptians, Aztecs to Mayans, Zimbabweans to Bantus, Persians to Romans, Ming to Qing, clans became tribes, alliances formed, empires erected, peoples conquered, and entropy swallowed each in turn.
Emerging from the Monkish morass created by the collapse of the Wal-Mart of civilizations, Rome, the western world entered the Renaissance. Forgotten sciences were rediscovered, we remembered how to cast bronze, we painted ceilings, and generally frolicked for a couple of centuries. The Age of Reason followed Thomas Paine's heresy (did you know the Give Me Liberty guy spent a couple of years in a Paris prison when he came down on the wrong side of the Terror?) that maybe Jonah didn't actually live inside a whale for three days. A new confidence that the world was knowable, events could be predicted, laws and not magic governed the spheres, even the apple we used to gather behaved according to a principle we could grasp. Science ruled the day as discovery after discovery took us to dizzying heights of accomplishment and glory.
We learned all we needed to do to understand causality was identify the different elements involved in a phenomenon, take a guess as to what moved behind the curtain and then test the guess. Reducing complex phenomenon to the elements comprising it would eventually have a darker side but just then it served to bring us into the processes around us. What mystified us in the thirteenth century could now be influenced if not ultimately controlled in the nineteenth. Add more of this part, subtract less of that and the fire could be made to burn hotter, the air made to cool, even the lowly bean could be bent to the will of a Moravian monk. As is so often the case with genius, the significance of Mendel's genetic manipulations would go unappreciated in his lifetime Appreciated at the time or not, we were no longer at the mercy of whatever sprang from the seed we planted. By selecting particular seeds with greater edible volume we could maximize the volume of edible plant. Maximizing yield has been the mantra of food production ever since.
The father of organic chemistry and a contemporary of Mendel, Justus Liebig, debunked the conventional wisdom that plants derived their nourishment from a mysterious mix of matter called humus (Liebig used the new scientific method to reduce humus to what he thought were its essential elements, nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) and laid the groundwork for the Haber-Bosch method of binding nitrogen to soil using the now ubiquitous nitrogen fertilizer (using either ammonia or nitrate in combination with phosphorous and potassium or potash applied as liquid or solid). Previously we waited on cover foliage to trap nitrogen during its life span and then release it into the soil as it decayed. We could now bind a virtually unlimited volume of nitrogen to the soil, boosting food production so dramatically that some two billion of the five billion people alive today likely wouldn't be if it weren't for Fritz Haber's contribution. Before he used Liebig's discoveries to develop his crop steroid, he personally directed another of his creations into the trenches of the French in 1915 at the Second Battle of Ypres. His controlled release of chlorine gas killed five thousand French soldiers in ten minutes and sent the rest fleeing, temporarily blinded and coughing horribly. Another of his contributions, Zyklon B, gained infamy in the Nazi death camps. Nobel prize winner Haber's final contribution, binding nitrogen to the soil through the application of NPK fertilizers, may dwarf the trenches of France and the camps of Germany in terms of its ultimate toll on life. We entered the twentieth century growing food at volumes never imagined.
Across the Atlantic, Henry Ford struggled to find a way to reduce the cost of his new Model T. By positioning his workers at fixed spots on the assembly room floor instead of having them carry their tools to the next car and limiting their assignments to narrowly focused repetitive functions, Ford was able to dramatically increase productivity and cut operating costs. The assembly line was Ford's nitrogen binder. For Henry, it was engineering and not organic chemistry that was the steroid responsible for his very own version of yield maximization. Reducing assembly time eightfold, the price of the Model T fell far enough that it became accessible to virtually anyone with a job. The automobile would soon dot and dominate the landscape. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and it was being fed by nitrogen fertilizer enhanced crops and racing forward on gasoline powered carriages.
The low cost engine that powered Sam Walton's Wal-Mart to its position as the world's retailer was born in the German laboratory of Justus Liebig (identify each discrete contributory element) and tuned to perfection on Henry Ford's assembly floor (maximize efficiency by eliminating unnecessary movement). The Walton school teaches that as one approaches the theoretical limit in cost reductions for each element in the supply chain while wasted time and effort are virtually eliminated, a barrier to competitive entry as effective an any monopoly will arise and guarantee your domination of the market.
Ford and GM once worked behind such a barrier. As American labor costs rose during the twentieth century though, American automobile manufacturers began to struggle to hold market share. Japanese and Korean automobile manufacturers were trained in the Liebig-Ford model and employed it to introduce low cost alternatives to the now bloated Detroit cost structure. Dominance had blinded the automakers to the Liebig-Ford model of identifying each contributing element and tuning each to its maximum efficiency. Slow to respond to the threat posed from outside their comfortable market niche, their lions share of the market has become a tabby. Desperately trying to distinguish their models from the more efficient competition, Detroit looked to style and marketing dollars to salvage their dwindling markets. The Ford Mustang, the Chevrolet Corvette and finally the tax advantaged SUV and Hummer were life savers that prolonged the inevitable. The car, with narrow exception, was fast becoming a commodity, distinguished by a handful of essential properties like fuel efficiency and crash test ratings. A market once dominated by image and even sex appeal was becoming utilitarian. The winners in this economic battle would be the heirs of the Liebig-Ford's model. Cost and efficiency were the only weapons that would matter.
When the end product is a commodity, like crude oil or hogs or corn, cost and efficiency meld into a single factor - price. Flavor, nutritional value, production modes, even product appearance (beyond gross standards), go the way of the Cadillac fin and Lincoln leg room.
The commoditization of huge swaths of our food supply forever changed the rules for the producer. When price and not quality becomes the driving factor, efficiencies of scale must be realized. Price is set without regard for the underlying costs or benefits of a particular method of production. How you produce becomes irrelevant, humane, inhumane, union, non-union, sustainable, toxic, non-toxic all become as meaningless as color and taste when price is the only factor.
All product becomes rationalized as one. Small scale producers must compete with mega operations and economies of scale and low cost imperatives. Variance from the standard is buried under an avalanche of pork bellies or North Sea crude or number two corn. The beneficiaries are the Ford's of the food world -Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Cargill. Lost are the family farms, choice, and geographic proximity to the food we eat. As Detroit falls to Japan and Korea, as the local hardware ship is abandoned in favor of Wal-Mart's lower price and nearly infinite selection, the local green grocer is closed by the retail giant down the road, and the local farmer is closed by the fifty thousand acre farms of Cargill, ADM and the like.
It is so logical. It makes no sense for the ten acre farm on the outskirts of the city to attempt to compete with the agribusiness giants, any more than it makes sense for my cousins to chop down the trees on their property, attempt to mill the wood and set up shop on the corner selling 2x4's. They'll need $25 per piece to cover their costs. With economies of scale (and a few tax advantages thrown in for good measure) a Boise Cascade needs only $12 per unit to recover their investment in their tree. Now my cousin's have no transportation costs to speak of as they're selling at their point of production. Boise's forests may be hundreds of miles from the market but with a fleet of trucks and cheap fuel, they can get their boards to the market down the road from my cousins for $8 a board. Boise is still $5 under my cousins cost. Whose board would you buy?
Were fuel costs to double, though, Boise's transport costs jump to $16 a board. Boise's overall price jumps to $28. My cousins are back in business. Unfortunately, though, they sold their saws and tools when they couldn't compete at $25 so Boise still wins, and the board that used to cost $25 now costs $28. My cousins are now selling firewood at the flea market. Instead of finished boards they've been reduced to doing what they can with the resources now available to them. But lo, and behold, Boise Cascade's forests in the Pacific northwest are overrun with bark beetles. Through no fault of Boise's, the winters are no longer cold enough to kill the bark beetle larvae and not even the $28 2x4 is available. Where will the lumber come from?
Now substitute pork or corn for lumber. What was a hardship, a temporary shortage of milled boards, becomes life threatening, a temporary shortage of food. Seen this year's bread riots in Egypt or women making mud pies to feed their children in Haiti?
Pork and corn are commodities as well as foodstuffs in the same way oil is both a commodity as well as an energy source. Commodities are traded the same way stock is traded. In the same way that the stock exchange began little more than a century ago as a vehicle for raising capital for a proposed or ongoing business and has in the very recent past evolved into an impenetrable network of futures, credit default swaps and derivatives, apparently unconnected to the businesses they once represented, the commodities markets began as a service for facilitating trade between buyers and sellers of real materials. The too have recently become tangled webs of futures, limit orders, puts, calls.
Disconnecting the financial markets (stock or commodities) from the underlying businesses or products upon which they were once dependent has resulted in ever more arcane and obscure methodologies for making money from money. Real products are no longer required. Fortunes are made and lost in paper transactions. The same paper transactions that now drive corporate boards and CEO's to look first to the price of the stock and not their companies product, or research and development section, or even the employee base.
Take the recent wild swings in the price of oil, for example. A large portion of the dramatic increase in oil prices in the past year is attributed to speculation in the commodities market on the future price of oil. No oil was actually bought or sold, only paper promises to buy oil at some future date at some future price. Geopolitical concerns drove this speculative bubble as war raged in the heart of the world?s oil reserves. Fears of "peak oil" contributed to panic buying and selling. At the moment oil prices have lost half their recently inflated value. Where the price will be tomorrow is left, literally, to the speculators. During this speculative bubble (no real change in production capacity or consumption occurred at any time during the "event") the price of gasoline effectively doubled. The airline industry teetered on the verge of collapse, transport dependent businesses laid off workers, city bus services were scaled back, petroleum based products prices skyrocketed.
Now substitute pork or worse, corn, for oil in this scenario.
But the supply of corn and other commoditized grains aren't subject to the same pressures as crude oil.
Or are they?
Part Three: Now We're Cooking - Malthus Was Wrong, Right?, Corn as Commodity, Wallace and Butz Get Rich, Comparative Disadvantage
As Fritz Haber's nitrogen fertilizer worked its way into the soil, the amount of food rising from an acre of land grew dramatically. As the Industrial Revolution drew more and more people to the cities to feed the assembly lines and turn the screws of the machines, prosperity swelled. With the promise of a bright future reflected in the roiling factories and oil wells and our newfound ability to produce more food than ever before, population soared. More food and more work meant the limits on population growth imposed by an agrarian economic model vanished virtually overnight.
Almost a century before the revolutions in industry and food production set us on an explosive growth population curve, The Reverend T.R. Malthus published a five hundred page tome positing that humanity was doomed to an endless cycle of population growth and ensuing catastrophe. In good times, population would expand until it outstripped man's ability to support it, he wrote. The number of humans would have to come down, and not gently. The Malthusian dilemma, as it would soon be known, theorized that human population increases exponentially (1,2,4,8,16, 32, 64) while our ability to support that population increases arithmetically (1,2,3,4,5,6). In this parenthetical example, by the sixth iteration, 64 people will depend on resources capable of supporting 6.
The introduction of Haber's fertilizer changed the resource progression from arithmetic to exponential. A new paradigm, formed by our ingenuity in the lab and our capacity to master the tools of the industrial age, was formed.
This new paradigm is not without its limitations, however. One such limit was embedded in Liebig's original assessment of the elements controlling plant growth. The identification of those elements (chiefly nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium) and the demonstrated impact on plant growth was indisputable. Isolate these elements, apply them to soil, and voila - eight foot golden corn. The underlying assumption that only these elements (and another dozen minor ones) are essential appears to be off the mark.
After several generations of increased yield from the application of nitrogen enriched fertilizer to the soil, yields have begun falling. The fertilizer, while tonic to the plant, is toxic to the soil. Soil is not just dirt. Soil that is only dirt blows away as farms throughout the midwest demonstrated in the 1930's. A heretofore undiscovered factor in plant growth, soil organic matter - decaying plant life, earthworms, a multiplicity of microorganisms - is essential to the soil's ability to retain moisture and hold critical but less obvious nutrients. Soil organic matter and nitrogen fertilizer, it now seems, are not compatible in the long term.
Before we knew any of this, though, the economic model of operational efficiency and low cost drove our food industry into ever more focused channels of production. Corn was never the obvious choice as the dominant foodstuff. It can't survive in its current form without our intervention. Unlike rice and wheat, it requires mechanized support to harvest in volume. It was helped along its way by a couple of American Secretaries of Agriculture with direct financial interest in corn?s central role.
The New Deal's Secretary of Agriculture, Henry A. Wallace, was uniquely positioned to put corn in the drivers seat. Part owner of one of the leading hybrid (genetically manipulated albeit crudely) seed company of the time, Wallace used his pulpit as Agriculture Secretary to maximize corns role and his profits. His hybrid seed company offered farmers the opportunity to grow nearly identical corn plants year after year. With this uniformity of height, corn stalks shared the available sun instead of overshadowing and stunting smaller stalks, and or far reaching importance, the uniform height of the stalks meant the new harvesters produced in Michigan's tractor plants could harvest far greater volumes with less labor tan ever before. Variances from this particular type of corn (yellow dent) could not be grown or marketed as efficiently. Codifying a single brand of corn certainly helped Wallace's hybrid seed company, it was his brand.
The commoditization of corn through government standards (Wallace's standards) specifying size, shape, and color (taste isn't a factor), coupled with Wallace's new hybrid seeds, crushed a cornucopia of various types and flavors of corn into a universal, indistinguishable product. Farmer Brown's corn was now, by government dictate, no different than farmer Smith's. Quality became a minimal threshold once crossed, no longer relevant. All corn was mixed and blended together and branded "Number 2." To qualify as number 2, corn had to meet certain moisture minimums and exhibit no more than five percent insect damage. The price of your corn was determined by a group of financial wizards in Chicago, the Chicago Board of Trade. Fluctuations in price, a sale price of a dollar a bushel for corn that cost the farmer two dollars a bushel to bring to market could mean financial ruin, were resolved by the Agriculture Department's price guarantees to corn farmers. All the elements were now in place, science had guaranteed high yields through chemical fertilizers, production costs were controlled through a heretofore unknown level of plant uniformity (Wallace's hybrid seed), government support insured financial security for the farmer, all the farmer had to do was plant, harvest, and dump his now indistinguishable product into the local grain elevator, or the ground around it as elevators began to overflow with this new cash crop.
Contemporaneously, American agri-business was sinking its teeth more firmly into the production and marketing of foodstuffs. Family farms, seriously challenged by the Depression of the 1930's, began a steady march to oblivion through consolidation. Nearly seven million functioning family farms dotted the American landscape in the 1930's. More than five million have since abandoned farming. The farms are still producing but the name on the mailbox reads Archer Daniels Midland or Cargill.
Corn, a once marginally viable foodstock, became a staple on the order of rice and wheat, two of the original cereals "discovered" by fledgling homo sapiens dozing in the fertile crescents. The next great leap forward was driven by the inflation of the 1970's. Earl Butz, Agriculture Secretary forty years later under Richard Nixon, was officially instructed to maximize American corn production. Reeling from inflation and fresh off wage and price controls, Nixon sought a long term solution to inflation in a ready supply of cheap food. Corn was ready, willing and able. Multiple uses for the commoditized Number 2 corn had been introduced in the form of cornstarch, corn oil, and corn liquor. The now ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a sucrose (sugar) substitute, would soon replace everything but corn itself in the American diet. Like his predecessor Henry Wallace, Butz was intimately tied to the industry he was charged with overseeing. A member of Ralston-Purina's board of directors at the time of his appointment, he dismissed conflict of interest questions, retaining his seat on the board as he drove agribusiness to ever greater heights of control and profitability. Encouraging American farmers to produce as much corn as they could muster, he engineered a 1972 sale of grain to Russia, then in the midst of devastating crop failures. Surprised by the Russian purchase of virtually the entire American corn harvest, he further exhorted corn farmers to plant "fence row to fence row" and "get big or get out." Plant they did and get out they did, or were forced out by the deep pockets of the corporate giants with whom they now competed, leaving an ever smaller handful of mega corporations in control of America's food production.
Agribusiness, with a massive surplus of cheaply produced commoditized corn began force feeding its product to cattle, chickens, salmon, and us. Corn-fed beef became the beef of choice. As corn is a caloric dense foodstuff (high in fats and sugars which the body easily converts to energy - up to a point) corn-fed beef meant beef with a higher fat content, recast as "marbling." Coincidentally, the migration from grasses to corn in the cattle diet altered the evolutionary balance between pathogenic e-coli (bad and potentially deadly) and non-pathogenic e-coli (good and helpful). In the grass fed gut, the good e-coli kept the bad e-coli in check. Corn raises the acidic levels in the cattle gut such that the bad e-coli take over and periodically find their way into the human food chain.
The mega corporations directing food production, in the best traditions of capitalism, were ever on the lookout for new markets. From cereals, to animal feed, HFCS, and even trash bags, the average grocery store carries more than four thousand products containing corn. As the world became America's marketplace and we introduced hungry nations to the benefits of reengineered wheat and calorie dense corn, native, less efficient grains were abandoned. An abandonment made nearly painless with generous underwriting of the costs of fertilizer so essential in many less hospitable corn climes. This was the Green Revolution that held promise, at the time, of virtually eliminating hunger in the world.
When OPEC embargoed oil in the 1970's at the direction of Harvard educated Saudi Oil Minister Sheikh Yamini driving prices up four fold, western banks became the repository for OPEC's newfound billions. Generous lending by newly flush first world banks to third world nations to, in part, underwrite their Green Revolution (their very own sub-prime markets) created a third world financially dependent on western banks and food dependent on western technologies. When debt laden third world nations began to default on billions in loans, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund stepped in and introduced another signal economic theory, comparative advantage. If your nation had been growing commodities that could be produced more cheaply elsewhere, market imperatives dictated the abandonment of your Green Revolution crop and forced concentration on those salable materials you could produce cheaply. Macadamia nuts, for instance, or tennis shoes.
Seeing the world and all its environs as one great marketplace, comparative advantage makes a compelling argument. Choosing (as much as any debtor nation can choose) to abandon even a marginal capacity to feed themselves in favor of a favorable balance of trade (two container loads of tennis shoes for fifty bushels of corn and a reduction in your billion dollar debt by sixty thousand dollars) many third world nations are entirely dependent on the market and the largesse of the haves for their welfare. Provided the market functions in steady state, and first world nations can continue their largesse, everyone should come out alright. Should the marketplace suffer shocks - political, climatic, or resource driven, all may not be so right for the macadamia or tennis shoe producers and their populations.
Part Four: Dishing It Up - Make Room At the Table, Sharpen the Carving Knife
Ten thousand years of surplus, cities and civilization, and for every one of those years one hundred thousand of us go to bed hungry. We tamed the wild grasses, fixed the soil so our magic beans would shoot up tall and straight, grew so much corn we had to invent new ways to consume it, and we've yet to figure out how to feed all of us. By the time your children have children, we'll have three billion more of us to feed and by the time those children are your age they'll be five billion more. Twenty people, mostly children, died from hunger while you read the last paragraph. In sixty years that number will be forty. A billion people will go to bed hungry tonight. In sixty years, two billion will face chronic hunger.
In twenty years, fifteen million people a year will die because they can't feed themselves. In sixty years thirty million a year will succumb. That's more than four holocausts a year, every year. If nothing changes. If you see the grain elevator as half-full, you will likely look to the next scientific breakthrough to lead us away from the edge. If it's half-empty, you may see a reduction in arable land, less available fresh water, higher fuel costs, even the depletion of the soil itself as changes that will drive hundreds of millions more into hunger, malnutrition and early death.
The problems we have today feeding five billion people make feeding ten billion by 2070 a profoundly challenging prospect. Less visibly dramatic that drought or soil depletion and far more threatening are the dietary modifications occurring with the more than two billion citizens of China and India.
As the standard of living of the billions living in India and China rises, so does their inclination to abandon their traditional diet high in carbohydrate (cereals) for the richer meat based diet upon which the West has long been accustomed. Consumption of beef in China and pork and fowl in India is rising precipitously. The challenge presented by two thirds of the planet's population migrating from rice and wheat to beef, chicken and pork is unimaginably huge. The numbers look like this, to bring a pound of wheat to market 400 gallons of water are used. A pound of pork requires six times as much water, a pound of beef fifty times. Four hundred gallons of water for wheat and twenty thousand gallons for the equivalent amount of beef.
A modest shift in Chinese eating habits will place catastrophic demands of the planet's fresh water supply. American per capita beef consumption approaches sixty pounds per year. Should Chinese consumption move from its current level of seven to twenty pounds (it tripled between 1985 and 1995 before the current Chinese economic expansion was even fully underway), the additional fresh water required is two hundred sixty trillion gallons a year. If the Mississippi were transferred in its entirety to China and allowed to flow for five years, it would just be enough to meet the additional demand on water. Did I say unimaginable? And that's a modest increase in Chinese beef consumption - at their current levels of population.
Conventional wisdom posits our next wars will be fought not over gold or oil, but fresh water.
Agricultural science speaks of two sources of fresh water, from rain (green water) and from underground (blue water). Our current fresh water consumption is depleting aquifers that were formed twenty million years ago. These are closed aquifers, once depleted they are gone forever. Aquifers replenished through rain or underground springs are being depleted faster than they can be refreshed. The Ogallala aquifer, which stretches from Canada to Mexico through the most fertile land on the planet is being drawn down at a rate of three trillion gallons a year more than it is being replenished. The water table in India is dropping at twenty feet a year. In China, the amount of water pumped from underground exceeds the rate at which it is being replaced by eleven trillion gallons a year. The water table in China has dropped an astonishing three hundred feet in some prime agricultural areas. Water is being so furiously pumped from the ground in China that fifty major population centers are threatened by subsidence. Fifteen years ago some 45,000 square kilometers of arable and habitable Chinese land was effected. Five years ago, 90,000 square kilometers were falling. River basin, tidal and coastal flooding are effecting areas once immune. These are all blue water sources - from underground. Green water is that which is available from rain. Global warming (not climate change as is the current fashion of nomenclature) will mean less rain and greater rates of evaporation for the diminished rains that do fall.
This is the situation at current population levels and current trends in food consumption. The demand for food will double in the next seventy years from a purely arithmetic perspective but emerging populations in China, Brazil, and even India are already abandoning the relatively low water use foods of rice and wheat for chicken, pork and beef. This will mean a geometric increase in fresh water requirements (from four hundred gallons per pound of wheat to twenty thousand gallons per pound of beef), and soaring demand for animal feed from corn.
The soil cannot support current demands, let alone a massive increase in need. Liebig's fertilizer revolution appears to be based on some flawed assumptions. The demystified humus of the nineteenth century contains some essential ingredients not revealed in Liebig's laboratory. Certainly the fertilizer spurs plant growth as essential elements are concentrated and fed to the growing plant. Not all essential elements are present in the NPK fertilizer and, worse, NPK destroys organic materials essential to the soils long term health and stability. Yields once plentiful have begun to fall. As more fertilizer is added to aid the flagging soil, more of the organic material required to hold moisture and with it, some less prevalent but essential minerals is lost.
The scenario our grandchildren will face holds, at the very minimum, a need for twice the foodstuffs currently available from a soil moving toward depletion irrigated by an ever diminishing supply of water.
Setting aside the moral imperative presented by the prospect of two billion people chronically underfed and fifteen million dead from starvation and malnutrition each yearby 2070, let's take a mercifully brief look at the manner in which we bring animals to the table for dinner.
The Clean Water Act (1972) calls out Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO's) for attention. The effluent from these facilities threatens surface and ground water sources. In the same way the Nuclear Regulatory Agency queried nuclear plant builders when developing regulations to insure the safe application of nuclear power, the Congress consulted industry sources when drafting regulations to insure the giant pools of pig, chicken, and beef wastes stayed clear of our drinking water. Oh, that's easy, Congress was told, just dig a huge pit and line it with plastic. The utility companies told Congress radioactive wastes from their plants could be poured into steel drums and dropped into the ocean. Ten thousand years from now it will no longer be radioactive. So steel drums will last ten thousand years at the bottom of the ocean? Well, sure, we'll line them with plastic. Last month, Congress was told if the Treasury Secretary could get his hands on seven hundred billion dollars the impending financial collapse could be avoided. I'll give it to banks and financial institutions and that will make them feel better about loaning money. This week the movement of money at the top of our house of stock certificates was more restricted than ever. Seems maybe the financial institutions haven't been entirely forthright about the severity of their money problems. They're holding onto the cash Hank gave them because they're frightened about what may happen next. Me too. But I digress.
CAFO's are where most pigs, chickens, and cows are born, raised and die. So we can eat them. Their circumstances are what one might expect. The little piglets are crammed into spaces so small (land is expensive) that they get stressed. Piglets under stress tend want to revert to a happier time like when they were feeding off mom. Mom's long gone now but the tail of the little piglet in front of them looks invitingly familiar. They have teeth now so they tend to scratch and cut the tail in their attempt to relieve the stress. And that would be OK because the nerve endings at the end of the piglet's tail are few. But living in their own filth as they do, little cuts and scratches can quickly become infected. The CAFO operators solved that problem by snipping the tails at birth. That way, when the nervous little piglet attempts to suckle the little nub that's left, the nub's owner squeals and runs away. Their are enough nerve endings at the base to make any attempts at suckling painful. Problem solved.
The runaway success of chicken nuggets in the early eighties exponentially increased the demand for chicken breasts. Breeding for oversize breasts and constant feeding solved that problem. The one in five little chicken legs that break from the enormous increase in body volume aren't really a problem, though, because by the time the legs break, the chicks are ready for processing. Processing. Clamped by their legs (or what remains after they break) they pass through along a blade that slits their throat without killing them so their hearts will continue to beat and empty their bodies of blood. The ones that aren't then successfully decapitated have their heads pulled from their bodies by workers watching the two hundred a minute line of dangling chicken bodies on their way to the scalding machine (not for the squeamish). Scalding helps to remove feathers. If the head rippers miss any the scalder will take care of that. Not all chickens are raised for nuggets. Some give us eggs. I always search for eggs from "free-range" chickens. Free-range means the hens must have access to the great outdoors. In practice, access means a little door at either end of the two hundred foot long hen house. Doors that were closed for the first six weeks of the hens lives. Once the doors are opened, though, it's too late. The hens aren't as clever as first-graders who bolt for the playground when the recess bell rings. The hens stay put. But they could go out if they wanted to so they are labeled "free-range." Sweet.
Cows eat grass, or at least they used to. CAFO's switch them to corn because it makes them grow faster and fatter. Fatter means nice "marbling" in the meat. Marbling is, of course, rivulets of fat. The problem with a diet of corn for an animal that evolved eating grass is that corn makes them sick. Their digestive system is no more prepared for corn than ours is prepared for grass. But is makes them grow fast and fat so CAFO's mix antibiotics into the feed so they'll healthy for the twelve months it will take to get them ready for slaughter. Until then, they eat food that makes them sick and walk around in their waste.
A by-product of the corn diet is the ph balance of the cow's digestive tract becomes similar to ours. The bacteria that thrives in that environment also thrives in ours. Before we started feeding cows corn, the E-coli that made it through to us couldn't survive in our digestive tract. Now that the ph balance is equalized, though, the E-coli that makes it into our system does quite well. Cows are E-coli factories since they live in and are generally covered in their own waste. Rinsing them off before they hit the slaughter house floor and making sure the digestive tract remains intact through the process of carving them up into food helps prevent E-coli from entering our meat. Works well, after all when was the last time you heard about an E-coli outbreak?
This story started with us stopping at the Whole Foods on our way to the convention in Denver. He was nominated and now he is elected. He takes over as the economy is on the brink of collapse, Afghanistan sliding into anarchy as Iraq climbs out, oil is cheap again, and the automobile industry will soon be bankrupt. The Republicans want to take the twenty-five billion allocated for energy efficient auto production and give it to the big three to make payroll. The experts universally agree they haven't a clue where all this is headed. A crisis of confidence, they say. If only we believed everything would be all right, we could get through this.
Meanwhile, the dirt is dying, billionaires are buying water, and ever greater hordes of hungry people are just around the bend.
Most everything in this essay was inspired by one of two books, Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Paul Robert's The End of Food.
Yet again we are relegated to the bar as we failed to plan ahead. This time the air conditioner vents were not three feet above our heads but there were televisions in two directions. "Please don't tell the chef," the waiter said when the oysters fell off my oyster sandwich appetizer. As if I could pick it up and eat it like a sandwich. I would need the bite radius of a Great White. If we're going to have to cut it up to eat it why must we pretend it is a sandwich? The Earl would have been scandalized. It was delectable. The tuna mignot was surrounded by pomegranate seeds, something I haven't seen before, and they were delightful. David Johnson had a pomegranite tree in his back yard and we would pelt each other with the whole pomegranate from behind the walls of our Christmas tree fort. But that was before. Before recycling. Before adulthood. Before nearly everything. The host was a bit snooty for a Studewood storefront eatery but the Houston Heights has always considered itself above the rest of us. They have a boulevard and an annual fair and an iron grip on the neighborhood.
I once had lunch with Miss Stude at a Tex-Mex chain near Main and Braeswood. Great swaths of the near north side were once the Stude ranch. Expecting staff, I was surprised to see a putterer making her way around the three different color 500SL's in the back of the older River Oaks mansion. She was on her way to her weekly lunch at the Tex-Mex and asked me to join her. Was there no one home to go with her? What a shame. I loved it, she was delightful. So was the food at the Great Wall.
I call myself a vegetarian but I eat fish. So what is that, a fishatarian? Or just a hypocrite? I strive for fifth level veganism - only that which does not cast a shadow can be consumed. I quit eating meat a long time ago when I learned enough about Mad Cow to know we knew nothing. The government was saying the same things about AIDS in the late seventies - only gay people, etc. So, meat went, then chicken and turkey. Now only fish, fruits and vegetables. The problem with fish, outside the fact that it casts a shadow and has a nervous system is mercury. I prefer the fish heavy in mercury content. I am so far unaffected, I think. I did the same thing with cigarettes, started smoking when it was absolutely clear it was bad for you. Stopped after a decade.
Off we were to Madras Pavilion, a kosher vegetarian Indian food restaurant. I've been to the buffet a couple of times and can't tell the curry from the bhat. This time we were ordering from the menu and thankfully English subtitles allowed me to order what I wanted. The place was full, as usual, with Indian looking people and a smattering of observant Jews. It was also, as usual, hot as Hell. What is it about vegetarian restaurants that they insist the ambient temperature be in the low eighties? Time before this I had to go sit in the car with the AC running for a few minutes to stop sweating. Everything was quite good and one of my dinner companions pronounced it the best Indian food in Houston. She should know, she's a British ex-pat and we all know the only good British food is from India or France. I liked what I had and have no idea what any of it was. There were some chick peas and some potatoes but the rest was a tasty mystery. What is with the crepes the size of a horn o' plenty? Extending off the plate a good six inches on either side with an ice cream scoop of cold cooked potatoes and spicy peppers, it was a mess. But worth it.
I dubbed it "Artist Opens Restaurant" because thatās what it looked like. The tables were covered in butcher paper and a plastic cup of crayons sat in the middle of each table. The food was good and the staff all looked like they just finished a shift at Whole Foods. Wrinkled clothes, dirty hair, and acne competed with condescension for prevailing characteristic. It shared space with an antique store on 19th street. You entered through a three foot alley and lined up at the counter to order. It was sometimes hard to watch newcomers walk in with no idea what to do. They'd try to look inconspicuous and that never works. Eventually someone, usually a customer, the staff couldnāt be bothered, would clue them in. The last time I was there the owner was busy looking for a new location. That was a couple of years ago and Artist Opens Restaurant has been closed for a long time. I guess she never found anything. Saturday night, after the wedding, we ended up at Shade, the current upscale inhabitant. It has been walled off from the antique store and is wildly popular. In part, I'm sure, because the Heights has so few decent restaurants. Six years after Houston citizens voted to ban cattle from the front yard, the city banned the sale of alcohol in the Heights. Houston was once also dry and the way around it then is the way around it now. Form a private club. As a private club you can serve alcohol to your members. What was once the Rice Hotel did the same thing forty years ago. About thirty years ago I cruised up to the Rice and stopped in front of a huge man reading the paper. There was a slight sway to his stance and as he dropped the paper and eyed me I saw it was the legendary criminal defense attorney Percy Foreman. Pre Johnny Cochran this was the guy you wanted if you were guilty as sin. He could get Idi Amin off a drunk and disorderly. He slid into the back seat, said take me 1 and one-quarter mile west of Voss on Memorial and nodded off. I woke him just shy of Voss and by the time we cleared the light he was telling me what driveway was his. I had more fun with Nicky Hilton but thatās another story.
This was Saturday night and we were both hungry. We called to see if reservations were necessary and the hostess explained she would try to work us in and we could sit in the bar until we ran out of patience and we could order from the bar. We did just that. Both hostesses were gracious and self possessed despite their youth. A rude woman walked in front of us and began telling the taller of the two young women what she needed. She got a big smile and was told she would be helped as soon as she seated "the two people behind you." It was delicious. The larger dining room was packed and the twenty foot ceilings didnāt dampen the noise level much at all. The bar was to the right and faced the street. The ceilings in the bar were closer to ten feet but the AC vents felt like they were suspended just above and to the right of your head. It was cold cold. I ordered the butter lettuce salad and sauted red snapper on Tuscan beans. The salad was magnificent and the snapper would have been better if the edges hadn't become cold minutes after it hit the table. We sat at the window looking onto nineteenth street and got to see some tacky dressers and a limo apparently belonging to Dracula. A group of eight women reconvened in the street after paying for dinner and stood talking for several minutes. One of the group bolted almost immediately but all the rest stayed chatting and laughing. Made we wish I were in that club. As it is I'll settle for the private club that serves hooch in the Heights.
Allen Parkway is a three mile stretch of S curves along Buffalo Bayou, the body of water the Allen Brothers used to paddled up from the Gulf a hundred fifty years ago. The point at which the humidity and mosquitoes overcame their paddling ability is called, creatively, Allen's Landing. It is an imaginary spot at the northern edge of downtown, once home to Love Street Light Circus, Houston's answer to New York's CBGB. Patrons lounged about on giant pillows listening to the Thirteenth Floor Elevators or the Moving Sidewalks (the early incarnation of ZZ Top). Allen Parkway connects the central business district and the old money neighborhood of River Oaks. Allen Parkway allowed the oil bidness honchos to speed from hearth to Humble building in scant minutes, nary a stop light or cross walk to slow them.
There was an oddly placed light just before downtown at Taft street. Taft leads into the heart of what was once Freedmen's Town, the black cultural and professional center of Houston. Long after the affluent black community relocated from the banks of Buffalo Bayou to MacGregor Bayou and the fledgling Medical Center, the only reason one would exit at Taft would be to line up for the best Po'Boy Houston ever saw. Grabbing an "original" with its generous ham, salami, three cheeses and magical dressing and a 2 inch square of cellophane containing either the most moist dolmades or the hottest fresh Jalapeno, a bag of chips, you'd squeeze onto an available wooden barrel at one of four extra long picnic tables. Your seat mate would as likely be a construction worker as a yet to strike it rich Jim Jamail.
This was Antone's, Home of the Po' Boy. When founder Jalal Antone died, his widow Joesphine inherited the original store on Taft and two others. Jalal's will gave the couples daughters the remaining five stores. That's when things turned ugly. Jo was forbidden by the will from expanding while the girls were free to expand. Expand they did, franchising stores as fast as you can say "a little oil money, please." The once happy family disintegrated into lawsuits and acrimony. Jo went bankrupt fighting the will and before long Antone's went down the tubes. The nouveau franchisee/restaraunteers slimmed down the original, added a whole wheat option and stopped wrapping jalapenos and stuffing grape leaves. They dumped the genuine wood barrels and jettisoned the import business to make room for more orange plastic benches a la Taco Bell. The daughters sucked the substance out of a once classic Houston institution and drove it quickly down to the level of a fast food chain. Long gone now, the Taft street location has been host to a running series of upscale restaurants. The latest incarnation is a slick forty odd table establishment called Gravitas. Isn't that what old wizened diplomatic types exude? Gravitas? I called for reservations for two early Friday and was told only five or more. We curved our way down Allen Parkway and quickly seated dead center, surrounded by decent enough looking people. The place was about half full but it was before seven. Concrete floor, high hard ceilings and largely bare walls made it sound full to overflowing. I had to lean way in to be heard and to hear. Menus arrive, and a wine list is laid before us but the whole thing is reproduced in chalk on the south wall. I eschew the special and order Pan Fried Potato Gnocchi with Portobellos and Spinach (they volunteered to hold the E-Coli), Carpaccio of Yellow Fin Tuna with Cucumber Salad and Trout Almondine with Buttered Potatoes and Haricort Verts. I used to love the trout almondine at Luby's, a perfect rectangle exactly three quarters of an inch thick, flaked and formed to very precise specifications. The Gravitas trout almondine was irregular in shape and put me in mind of something we might have caught in the Frio River. As is too often the case, an otherwise delicate and sumptuous piece of fish is overwhelmed by the addition of something meant to enhance. In this case butter. The two filets were perfectly cooked, but the overuse of butter made it too rich to finish. The Gnocchi was lightly browned and served simply with well cooked portobello slices and spinach. No excess butter or cream sauce to swamp this recent addition to the local pasta offerings. The highlight of the meal was the tuna. Carpaccio (or razor thin), mostly pink and lightly seasoned, the Yellow Fin would nearly dissolve if left on the tongue. I wish the loud mouth Aussie at the table across from us had ordered the Carpaccio, he might have had to stop moving his tongue long enough to enjoy the Yellow Fin. No such luck. His long suffering wife spoke not a word the entire dinner. Their friends might have said two words but they surely came from the testosterone side of the family there.
I counted the wait staff on the floor at fourteen, with one woman. She must have been one tough lady to hold her own with thirteen waiters, a chef, two sous chefs, and a manager, all men. The coverage worked out to two or three tables per wait staff. At that I still had to hunt my guy down and ask for a refill of my water glass. When all one orders to drink is water I don't think it's asking too much to expect it to be refilled.
Pricey but worth it, I'll be back.
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