Amusing Things At The Grocery Store

I find it amusing that Muscle Milk contains no milk, yet it proudly proclaims to be genuine muscle milk. 

Corn for Fuel Ethanol…Really?

The goals of ethanol can be thought of like this:

1.) Reduce the price of gasoline marginally

2.) Reduce automobile pollution

3.) Sell more corn

Sounds great, right? Wait for it, wait for it…not so fast.

There are lots of problems with using corn ethanol for fuel.

Ethanol is less fuel efficient.

In 2007, Consumer Reports ran a comparison between pure gasoline and E85 (85% ethanol). Here’s an excerpt:

When running on E85 there was no significant change in acceleration. Fuel economy, however, dropped across the board. In highway driving, gas mileage decreased from 21 to 15 mpg; in city driving, it dropped from 9 to 7 mpg. You could expect a similar decrease in gas mileage in any current FFV.

Ethanol isn’t as much better for the environment as you’d think.

In 2007, Edmunds ran a very interesting comparison between pure gasoline and E85 (85% ethanol). Here’s an excerpt:

By relating our observed fuel economy to CO2 emission figures found in the EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide we determined that our gasoline round trip produced 706.5 pounds of carbon dioxide. On E85, the CO2 emissions came to 703.1 pounds. The difference came out in E85’s favor, but only by a scant 0.5 percent. Call it a tie. This is certainly not the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions we had been led to expect.

Burning E10 (10% ethanol and 90% gasoline mixture that is becoming so ubiquitous) can reduce some smog…but is a small reduction in emissions like this even worth going this way? It’s like we think the only way to the energy future is by baby steps so we don’t rock the capitalist cradle.

Ethanol costs the motorist more in the long run.

Again, from the Edmunds article:

A motorist, filling up and comparing the prices of regular gas and E85, might see the price advantage of E85 (in our case 33 cents or 9.7 percent less) as a bargain. However, since fuel economy is significantly reduced, the net effect is that a person choosing to run their flex-fuel vehicle on E85 on a trip like ours will spend 22.8 percent more to drive the same distance. For us, the E85 trip was about $30 more expensive — about 22.9 cents per mile on E85 versus 18.7 cents per mile with gasoline.

Connecting the food supply to fuel supply could be disastrous.

Do we really want to use prime farmland to grow corn so we can put it in our fuel tanks? Prime farmland should be for growing food. Everyone needs food and using a combustion engine is a luxury. We’ve seen that connecting food and fuel can result in global food price scares and those least able to afford food in our world are affected the most. I’ll leave it at that, but really think to yourself about why connecting the food supply and the fuel supply could be disastrous.

Is ethanol an energy-negative premise?

I’m not going to dive in to the specifics or the math because frankly I don’t have the time. However, consider the enormous petroleum inputs that the modern “conventional” way of growing corn uses. Do we really think we’re gaining an energy advantage by growing corn with oil to make ethanol which will replace gasoline made from oil?

A 2007 National Geographic article showed that for every 1 unit of current energy used to make ethanol we get 1.3 units back. That’s not much of an improvement. A team of UC Berkeley researchers showed corn ethanol’s energy balance and greenhouse gas production is “marginally better” than gasoline. Is this really the next great hope?

Ethanol can’t replace gasoline.

If the U.S. converted ALL of the corn and soybeans it grows into biofuels….we’d still only produce about 12% of gasoline needs and 6% of diesel needs. WOW. This just drives the point home that corn ethanol and other biofuels are a waste of time. The furthest endpoint of ethanol production using corn is a paltry 12% of gasoline needs. And there’s no way that all of our corn crop would ever be used for ethanol production.

My Take

If we as people are truly interested in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and polluted air in our country and the world, we need to think far beyond biofuels. Oil pumped out of the ground was the first and last great biofuel. It’s run its course and we know that abundant cheap gasoline was a one shot deal. We’re nearing the very end of that deal. Oil is too polluting and it’s going to run out soon.

Ethanol from corn isn’t the answer. At most the U.S. could cover only 12% of gasoline engine needs even if we converted every last corn field to an ethanol corn field. That number alone is reason to turn from corn ethanol toward something that can really take America to the next generation of energy. The only way current corn farmers can get the yields on corn grown for ethanol to make the whole enterprise worthwhile is to spray pesticides, herbicides and petroleum-based fertilizers on the fields. And then think of all the combustion engines it takes to harvest the corn and transport it to the local ethanol plant and then all the way to your local fuel station. With crude real world testing, Edmunds and Consumer Reports have already shown that E85 vehicles are less fuel-efficient and cost more to drive the same distance. And the CO2 emissions difference is petty. And where are the E100 vehicles, is ethanol destined to always need part gasoline? So far I’ve only heard of a Formula 1 racing car that uses 100% ethanol and some specialized vehicles in Brazil. You’d need an entire new generation of vehicles that could actually use 100% pure ethanol. How is that sustainable? I’m really struggling to see how ethanol is a major improvement?

A lot of people are getting excited about cellulosic ethanol or algae-based ethanol. But ethanol does not confer much of an environmental advantage and any other benefit is only marginal. Why can’t we as a people see this and move on toward electric vehicles (powered by renewable energy) or hydrogen fuel cells or the crown jewel…running on pure hydrogen which is the most abundant element in the universe and would be truly zero emission. Why are we so hung up on advanced biofuels? Why are we more concerned about market restraints than we are about real-world restraints that can exert far more influence than economic theory. Why can’t we have another Manhattan Project that puts a real dent in the global energy problem? Good question.

Bottom line: The marginal benefit of using corn for ethanol is not worth it.

Corn For Livestock Feed

I’m not going to be able to cover every aspect or potential counter argument in this post. And I’m going to be concentrating on corn that is fed to cattle because that’s the poster child for “corn-fed”. Let’s just get that out-of-the-way. But I’m going to try really hard to cover the important things!

The 13.1 billion bushel 2009 U.S. maize crop was, according to the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates Report by the USDA, used mostly for Livestock Feed. 

5,525 million bu. were used for livestock feed which amounts to 42% of the maize crop. 

From PBS Frontline:

“Before the second World War, all American beef was “grass-finished,” meaning that cattle ate pasture grass for the duration of their lives. Today, the vast majority of cattle spend anywhere from 60-120 days in feedlots being fattened with grain before being slaughtered. Unless the consumer deliberately chooses grass-finished or “free-range” meat, the beef bought at the grocery store will be of the corn-finished variety.”

Why the change?

Several reasons, among them:

1. Cattle reach slaughter weight faster when corn finished.

2. Better fat marbling which supposedly tastes better

3. You can raise more corn-fed cattle on less land (i.e. feedlot) than letting them be pasture finished (i.e. that takes more land).

This is all to say that corn-fed cattle are cheaper for the consumer and more profitable for the producer. Who can argue with that you might say? Isn’t that the goal of modern animal agriculture? Cheaper prices at the checkout and more profits for the producer…everyone wins, right?

Not so fast.

Just some  of the problems with feeding corn to cattle:

1. Corn-fed beef just isn’t as healthy as grass-fed beef. Grass-fed beef has more Omega-3 fatty acids (the good ones), more Vitamin E, more beta-carotene, less saturated fat and calories and more conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs). CLAs are known for anti-cancer and cardiovascular benefits. Meat products from grass-fed animals can produce 300-500% more CLA than those of cattle fed the usual diet of 50% hay and silage, and 50% grain.

2. Corn has a little environmental problem. From an Environmental Working Group (EWG) article: “A new study released today by the US Geological Survey shows that efforts to reduce nitrate levels in the Mississippi River Basin are having little impact. Nitrates come mostly from the over-application of chemical fertilizers on crops in the Corn Belt, fouling streams and rivers and eventually helping to swell the annual Gulf of Mexico “Dead Zone.” The “Dead Zone” is roughly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, around 3,300 square miles. The corn industry lobby tried to deflect claims that corn production is responsible for the “Dead Zone”…but EWG has pointed out how it’s nothing more than a cop-out. Read this fascinating response.

3. Currently, corn-based beef production is an unsustainable enterprise. We use oil for every aspect of production. Oil for fertilizer to grow the corn. Oil to transport the corn to the feedlots. Oil to transport the cattle from the pasture to the feedlots. Oil to transport the cattle to the slaughterhouse. Oil to transport the meat to your local grocery store. Oil, oil, oil! Guess what, an oil-based system is not sustainable! It’s going to run out and before it does the price will skyrocket given limited availability to the point that oil-based systems of production will be a laughingstock.

4. Subsidies. The government doles out billions every year in subsidies to corn growers. This means that corn-production and subsequently any industry that relies on cheap corn is built on a house of cards. Take away the subsidies and the business model fails. The house falls down. EWG has calculated that corn subsidies from 1995-2010 totaled 77.1 BILLION DOLLARS! Why are we subsidizing an unsustainable industry that produces meat that is less healthy for people? Corn is produced for less than the real cost to grow it. What other industry enjoys such a luxury? If I wanted to start a small organic vegetable farm you can bet I wouldn’t be getting any subsidies to help me out.

5. There’s nothing “natural” about the conventional corn-finished feedlot way raising cattle. You see a lot of meat packages in the grocery store that say “all-natural” but all that means is that it meets the USDA definition of “natural” which is “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.” What’s “natural” about feeding cows harvested corn? What’s natural about using lots of fertilizer and chemicals to grow that corn? What’s natural about using millions of gallons of oil to support the whole system? What’s natural about making a product which is less healthy than what the real natural grass-based system would give us?

6. Confinement on the feedlots. Like Bernie Mac’s character’s domino game in Ocean’s 13, “Nuff Said.”

Here’s a picture of what a typical feedlot looks like:

Here’s how I see things…

Cattle have evolved to eat and digest grass which has grown free of man-made input thanks to the energy of the sun. So, why do we spend hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars on artificial fertilizers, chemicals and everything else it takes to grow lots and lots of corn that we feed to animals? Why do we use so much oil to make food for cattle when all the food they would ever need grows naturally without any other input than the sun and a little rain from above. Interestingly enough, cattle can graze standing corn. After all, corn is a type of grass. This can be used to take some of the stress off the pasture. But this is a far cry from growing corn and harvesting it so that it can be the exclusive feed of cattle in the feedlots.

A lot of people will counter that if we switch to grass-based systems, if we do everything you’re talking about then you have to choose which people in the world will starve to death as a result. I’d like to counter that line of reasoning with two points. First, we don’t have a global food shortage problem, we have a global food distribution problem. Second, people are already starving to death and I’m not aware of any goodwill programs from major animal agriculture companies that are trying to address that problem. We sure could make better use of grains by giving them to poor people than by feeding them to cattle so we Americans can have cheap meat for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack every day.

Yes, at least initially, pastured meat products will cost more. I think that, along with any kind of change, scares people. It scares them into thinking, “What if meat costs more and I have to eat less of it?” People like meat, duh. But we Americans probably eat way too much of it. It’s no longer a special part of a meal. It is the meal.

I’m reminded of a quote from Agent Smith in The Matrix: “I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.

While I don’t think machines (i.e. the ones that took over in The Matrix) are the answer to our uniquely human problem. I do think it’s necessary to ponder that perhaps we’re over-consuming meat. We’ve taken the amount of meat that nature will provide for us with natural systems and twisted in to factory farming to give us more. We do whatever it takes to get more for less. Shouldn’t we be thinking that less can be more? I think so.

And it all boils down to…

Why do we spend billions of dollars countering a grass-based system that God has given us and try to replace it with an unnatural oil and corn based feedlot factory farm system? Like I’ve said before, I’m not an absolutist. So, if people just can’t part with “corn-fed” taste then I would be fine with the product as a specialty “every-once-in-a-while” treat that would cost more. And only if it wasn’t part of a factory farming feedlot system. If farmer John wants to raise a few corn-fed cows beside the majority of pastured cows that would be OK with me.

Using a pasture grass-based production system is about what’s right, not what’s status quo for a multi-billion dollar industry that sees a lot of money ending up in the hands of shareholders and CEOs and delivering us ever-increasing amounts of meat for less money. When all you consider is “How do we make this cheaper?” things start taking a back seat to that all-consuming goal of “cheapness.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a food system to be based on what’s cheapest. I’d like it to be based on what’s right.

Additional Note: I’ve been concentrating on beef cattle livestock feed. If I covered every aspect of corn used for livestock feed I’d write a novel. But, I thought you should know that a large portion of corn does go to hog production, dairy cow production and chicken production. Virtually all of these systems are also factory farm “bigger, better, cheaper” systems that are heavily oil-dependent, use animal-confinement and there is nothing “natural” about these systems. These animal products can also be part of a bigger grass-based system. Perhaps no one does grass-based better than Joel Salatin. He explains it in under 3 minutes in this must-watch video

Why Do We Grow So Much Corn?

Courtesy of anankkml /

Field of Dreams…Field of Corn. Field of Corn Dreams. Children of the Corn? What?

Sometimes that’s how I feel when I ponder: Why do we grow so much corn? If you’ve ever driven in the midwest or more specifically Iowa then you must have noticed that corn is a big deal. This post is just a brief introduction. I’m planning on, over the next few weeks, writing more in depth about why we grow so much corn. I’ll focus on the individual categories of use and explore why corn is seemingly so important in our modern agriculture and diet. And why corn being king might not be in our collective best interest. Please check back for new posts!

In 2010, farmers planted (for all purposes) an estimated 89.7 million acres of corn. That amounts to about 332 million metric tons of corn. So what is it all for?

The breakdown of usage of the 13.1 billion bushel 2009 U.S. maize crop was as follows, according to the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates Report by the USDA.

5,525 million bu. – Livestock feed (42%)

4,500 million bu. – Ethanol production (34%)

1,950 million bu. – Exports (14%)

1,340 million bu. – Human Consumption (Production of starch, corn oil, sweeteners (HFCS, etc.), grits, corn flour, corn meal, beverage alcohol (10%)

We’re feeding most of our corn harvest to animals as feed. One might be wondering at this point why we would feed corn to a grazing animal like a cow. Good question. This is an interesting question that will certainly require a more in depth analysis.

Remember that guy Michael Pollan or the guys from King Corn? One message you can get from them is that a lot of the food we eat comes from corn. From’s FAQ section:

Actually, thousands of products in a typical supermarket contain corn. For many years, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) has conducted surveys by sending researchers into a typical supermarket to read all the labels and tally all the products containing corn ingredients. The last CRA study found corn ingredients in almost 4,000 products – and that doesn’t count all the meat, dairy, and poultry products that depend on corn for livestock feed or the many paper products that don’t have ingredient labels but do contain corn.”

We’re also filling up our gas tanks with a lot of ethanol made from corn. Sure, it makes your gas 10 cents cheaper per gallon…but is it all good and no bad?

We’re also exporting quite a bit of our corn harvest. Why are we doing that and who is buying our corn? Right now, I couldn’t tell you, but I’ll be looking in to this.

One last thing.

I think this is an interesting question: where do we harvest the most corn in the U.S.? Here’s a map from the USDA.

This map shows that the majority of corn is harvested in the Midwest. Duh. I find it interesting that entire states are listed under “not estimated” which means their corn harvest amounts to a hill of beans.

Keep checking back for new posts!

Thoughts on “American Meat”

I was really impressed with American Meat. The documentary was more ambitious than I would have guessed. It was fair and not myopic. Graham Meriwether (the director, cinematographer and producer) anticipated his critics and really gives us a complete (as much as can be in one documentary) picture of the current problem with our food system.

Some points that really stood out:

1. “Food connects us all” — I agree 100% and that’s why I believe wholeheartedly that “food activism” or whatever you want to call it is absolutely necessary because food is such an important part of every day of our lives. I remember learning in grade school that there were some basics to life: food, shelter and clothing. Food is top 3! Now obviously there are other aspects of life that are absolutely necessary as well, but food certainly connects us all in meaningful ways. When you think back on your life it’s a good bet some of the best family times involved food.

2. “We’re so removed from our food…” — The vast majority of Americans get their food at a restaurant or a grocery store. The reality is the grocery store is several if not several dozen steps removed from the actual place where your food came from. Do you know how the chicken that ended up in your saran wrapped package from the grocery store was killed? Would you be willing to find out? I’m not saying that killing a chicken is inherently wrong or immoral. Far from it. However, it’s important to realize that chickens are thought of as “protein units” in an industrial system that values bigger, better cheaper over all else. The chicken slaughterhouse is a unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Imagine an unending conveyor belt of chicken carcasses whizzing by all day long. Imagine you’re a worker on that line and you have worry every day if today is going to be the day you slice off your finger or have to be sidelined from work because of a repetitive stress injury. Virtually no one thinks about this when they buy chicken at the supermarket or order chicken strips at the restaurant. Read more about poultry production here. We literally have no idea where our food came from in most cases. The box or package doesn’t show the whole story.

3. Cost is a major problem — I’ve seen this scenario a dozen times: You nearly run out of breath telling someone the whole truth about factory farming and they respond “but no one can afford what you’re talking about, millions would be unable to afford that kind of food system.” This is one of the biggest issues in transitioning from a factory farming system to a sustainable farming system. I’d like to make three brief points: 1) We’re unfairly subsidizing the factory farming system so that the true costs are not reflected in the end product. Also, read this piece by Marion Nestle. 2) We should really be concerned about how a lot of people don’t make what would be considered a “living wage”. We should be concerned not just about making food affordable but making people able to afford food. 3) Factory farming is an unsustainable system and we literally have no choice but to convert to sustainable farming in the near future or we’ll really be in trouble. What I’m trying to say is factory farming is essentially connected to a barrel of oil. If we’re concerned about getting America “off of foreign oil” and thinking next-generation with our vehicles (electric, fuel cell, etc.) then we should really be thinking next-generation sustainable farming.

4. “Know your farmer and just completely opt out of the system” — quote by the hilariously spot on Joel Salatin. He’s a “character” is what my Grandma might say. Joel asks “if you could get paid a nice wage for working with your hands doing something that was healing would you give up your globalist agenda Dilbert cubicle job? A lot of people would.” I think that’s a beautiful statement. Have you ever gone outside and worked with your hands and had that sense of satisfaction of a job well done. I know you know the feeling. It’s a great one. Joel is basically saying you could make a living out of that feeling and do a world of good at the same time. The need is there and now we need the warm bodies. I was inspired by the number of new farmers chronicled in the documentary. I was especially impressed with one middle-aged man who gave up his 100K a year salaried job to be a delivery man for a farm (I believe it was Polyface farms, Joel Salatin’s farm) and how much better his life has been as a result.

4. We’re going to need more farmers — I think that’s good news. American Meat basically tells us to follow the advice of Ghandi himself and “be the change you wish to see in the world.” If we transition to sustainable farming we will need more farmers. It’s as simple as that. Today’s “get big or go home” farming manifesto doesn’t need a lot (relatively speaking) of labor on the farm. When you take petroleum out of the equation you must replace that with the physical labor of people on the farm. Over the past several decades we’ve seen a decay of small town America and the small sustainable family farm is nearly extinct. The average age of a farmer today is 57. We need young people to aspire to be farmers. We need to show young people that something exciting is happening out on the farm and they should be a part of it.

Assignment: Watch the trailer for American Meat below. Then visit the website and look for a screening near you. If there’s no screening near you, request a screening.

Exciting News!

My wife and I have the chance to see a screening of the documentary “American Meat” this Wednesday in Iowa City, IA. I’m super excited and I promise to write about the documentary as soon as I’m able! For now, you can go watch the trailer on their website and get a glimpse of the issues that will be discussed in the documentary. Check back soon!