Burning Our Food

by John Shields

Imagine that you have just sat down in a comfy chair to read this month’s Our Common Table installment on our collective effort to wean ourselves off industrially processed foods but: Houston we have a problem! At my publisher’s request, we are reprinting portions of a column I penned just about a year ago on the then emerging bio/fuels-ethanol craze.

Of course nobody wants to hear any stuff about how “I told you so…”—but, in the last several weeks, food riots have broken out around the globe. Even some large discount markets here in  the USA are informally rationing food staple items. The president of the World Bank said last week that if world leaders do not act immediately (like now) possible mass starvation is dead ahead.

We are not talking decades or years here, we are talking months. The reasons are many and are all interconnected but the biggest component in this food crisis is the scheme of trying to replace fossil fuel with crops. It might sound good in theory, but it really is mass insanity.

If we the people don’t get busy right now—writing our politicians, demonstrating in front of ethanol factories – or staging sit-ins on fields of genetically modified “Franken-corn” waiting to be turned into fuel, well, the mass insanity might just well turn into mass starvation.

-John Shields, April 2008

In a culture obsessed with consuming -not only trinkets, clothing, or the latest technological gadgets, but with ever increasing amounts of food (as evidenced by our collective expanding waist size) we’re also obsessive about burning those extra calories. Witness the plethora of diet books, diet gurus, weight loss pills, and millions of dollars spent on health and fitness centers. Well, I am here to inform you that human ingenuity has once again prevailed. Our best minds have come up with the Ultimate Diet Plan: bio-fuels, most notably ethanol and bio-diesel.

The energy created by the conversion of food to fuel can run our cars, trucks and busses. Great idea huh? Just look around and it’s obviously getting more and more difficult for us Americans to feel secure about getting a goodly supply of the ever-dwindling reserves of oil. Consequently, with less oil available, and the price of the remaining oil (Natural gas too!) continuously increasing, we become aware that in order to drive our massive fleet of automobiles we need a new energy resource that will make us less dependent on all these unstable oil producing countries. So, we enter the new world of bio-fuels. Here in Maryland bio-diesel facilities are already being built on the eastern shore.

Now, I certainly don’t diminish the importance of developing alternative sources of non-fossil fuel energy—we’ve got to do that for sure! But corn is a food staple. It feeds people, and it’s also the primary feed for most of our livestock, which in turn means that most of our meat, poultry, dairy, and even farmed fish, comes from corn. Corn is one of the primary staple crops feeding this country, and the world. A number of researchers have shown that even if every single acre of arable land in the United States was planted with nothing but corn, we would not even come close to providing the current energy needs of the country.

Nonetheless, we have seen ethanol heralded in the mainstream media (and by certain politicians and corporate entities) as the “Savior” of the farms of America. Let’s get one fact indelibly clear: Turning corn into bio-fuel turns our heartland into “edible” oil fields! Oil and other fossil fuels are expensive, and as ethanol begins to compete with fossil fuel, the cost of corn will greatly increase, as well as everything associated with it. This may seem like a win-win for our farmers, but in fact it will only be a win for the large energy corporations and large agricultural corporations, and quite often they are one and the same.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, as our food becomes  motor fuel. Another loser in the corn-for-energy scheme is the health of our soil. The crops being grown for ethanol production are genetically modified varieties, specifically designed to be grown with vast amounts of chemical fertilizer, made from natural gas by the way. The dirt (It cannot even be called soil!), long-depleted by intensive mono-cropping, becomes little more than a sponge to hold the chemical fertilizer.

Right now the rainforest (the “lungs” of the planet) is being bulldozed to plant industrially mono-cropped sugarcane so that the First World (us) can have cheap fuel to drive our cars.

We all say we want to save the planet and “Go Green,” but do we really want to change our behavior? I fear not.

But just wait. Fueling our cars with food just may be the ticket to change, whether we chose it or not. As we squander our food supply to meet our demands for fuel to burn, there will be less and less calories available for our bodies. Eventually massive starvation could well ensue and—Voila! We’ve got the ultimate, and possibly the final, Diet Plan.

If my grandmother, Gertie—God rest her soul—saw me pouring a precious food product into my gas tank, she’d smack me up alongside of my head and ask me: “Have you lost your mind?”

Well, have we?

(Reprinted from baltimore eats, May, 2007)

 

 

John Shields is the author of Chesapeake Bay Cooking and Coastal Cooking with John Shields. His PBS television program, "Coastal Cooking with John Shields," airs nationwide.


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