Omnivore's Dilemma

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an interesting title because having just finished the book, I don’t see any dilemma at all!  Based on the often disturbing realities of the food processing/manufacturing world that are revealed in the book, I will continue to do everything in my power to avoid processed foods and care more than ever about the quality and sustainability of the food that I buy. The passages below are from the book's first and most interesting section.

Commodity Corn:

These days the price of a bushel of corn is about a dollar beneath the true cost of growing it, a boon for everyone but the corn farmer.
 So the plague of cheap corn goes on, impoverishing farmers (both here and in the countries to which we export it), degrading the land, polluting the water, and bleeding the federal treasury, which now spends up to $5 billion a year subsidizing cheap corn. But though those subsidy checks go to the farmer (and represent nearly half of net farm income today), what the Treasury is really subsidizing are the buyers of all that cheap corn. “Agriculture’s always going to be organized by the government; the question is, organized for whose benefit? Now it’s for Cargill.
For corn has been exempted from the usual rules of nature and economics, both of which have rough mechanisms to check any such wild, uncontrolled proliferation. In nature, the population of a species explodes until it exhausts its supply of food; then it crashes. In the market, an oversupply of a commodity depresses prices until either the surplus is consumed or it no longer makes sense to produce any more of it. In corn’s case, humans have labored mightily to free it from either constraint, even if that means going broke growing it, and consuming it just as fast as we possibly can.
THE PLACE where most of those kernels wind up—about three of every five—is on the American factory farm, a place that could not exist without them. Here, hundreds of millions of food animals that once lived on family farms and ranches are gathered together in great commissaries, where they consume as much of the mounting pile of surplus corn as they can digest, turning it into meat. Enlisting the cow in this undertaking has required particularly heroic efforts, since the cow is by nature not a corn eater. But Nature abhors a surplus, and the corn must be consumed. Enter the corn-fed American steer.
The economic logic of gathering so many animals together to feed them cheap corn in CAFOs is hard to argue with; it has made meat, which used to be a special occasion in most American homes, so cheap and abundant that many of us now eat it three times a day. Not so compelling is the biological logic behind this cheap meat. Already in their short history CAFOs have produced more than their share of environmental and health problems: polluted water and air, toxic wastes, novel and deadly pathogens. Raising animals on old-fashioned mixed farms such as the Naylors’ used to make simple biological sense: You can feed them the waste products of your crops, and you can feed their waste products to your crops. In fact, when animals live on farms the very idea of waste ceases to exist; what you have instead is a closed ecological loop—what in retrospect you might call a solution. One of the most striking things that animal feedlots do (to paraphrase Wendell Berry) is to take this elegant solution and neatly divide it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm (which must be remedied with chemical fertilizers) and a pollution problem on the feedlot (which seldom is remedied at all). This biological absurdity, characteristic of all CAFOs, is compounded in the cattle feedyard by a second absurdity. Here animals exquisitely adapted by natural selection to live on grass must be adapted by us—at considerable cost to their health, to the health of the land, and ultimately to the health of their eaters—to live on corn, for no other reason than it offers the cheapest calories around and because the great pile must be consumed. This is why I decided to follow the trail of industrial corn through a single steer rather than, say, a chicken or a pig, which can get by just fine on a diet of grain: The short, unhappy life of a corn-fed feedlot steer represents the ultimate triumph of industrial thinking over the logic of evolution.
Bloat is perhaps the most serious thing that can go wrong with a ruminant on corn. The fermentation in the rumen produces copious amounts of gas, which is normally expelled by belching during rumination. But when the diet contains too much starch and too little roughage, rumination all but stops, and a layer of foamy slime forms in the rumen that can trap the gas. The rumen inflates like a balloon until it presses against the animal’s lungs. Unless action is taken promptly to relieve the pressure (usually by forcing a hose down the animal’s esophagus), the animal suffocates.
Most of the antibiotics sold in America today end up in animal feed, a practice that, it is now generally acknowledged (except in agriculture), is leading directly to the evolution of new antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
So this is what commodity corn can do to a cow: industrialize the miracle of nature that is a ruminant, taking this sunlight- and prairie grass–powered organism and turning it into the last thing we need: another fossil fuel machine. This one, however, is able to suffer.
Since 1985, an American’s annual consumption of High Fructose Corn Syrup has gone from forty-five pounds to sixty-six pounds. You might think that this growth would have been offset by a decline in sugar consumption, since HFCS often replaces sugar, but that didn’t happen: During the same period our consumption of refined sugar actually went up by five pounds. What this means is that we’re eating and drinking all that high-fructose corn syrup on top of the sugars we were already consuming. In fact, since 1985 our consumption of all added sugars—cane, beet, HFCS, glucose, honey, maple syrup, whatever—has climbed from 128 pounds to 158 pounds per person.