Industrial agriculture – what’s the real cost of cheap food?


Most of us are eating a huge amount of corn (and soy) and are not aware of it. What is that doing to our health, and the health of our planet?

I’ve been reading a great book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan, who looks at food from a rather unique perspective – that of the food itself. So instead of looking at corn as a commodity, he wonders how corn has managed to propagate its seed so well, becoming the most successful plant on the face of the earth. Considering the rather large obstacles that corn must overcome to reproduce, its success is astonishing. He notes that the corn kernels (the seeds) are all contained in a thick husk, and should the cob fall to the ground those seeds would have to make their way through the husk to the soil in order to germinate, and even if they did manage to accomplish that task, considering all the seeds are bunched together, there would be a huge overcrowding problem which would further diminish the chance of success. Corn’s domination over other plants has been due to its amazing versatility at a low cost, filling the bill for food globalization perfectly. We are now planting it in vast quantities in order to put it into pretty much all processed, packaged foods as well as factory-farmed meat, poultry, eggs and dairy on the market.

Most of the corn in our food is not the same corn that we enjoy by the cob in the autumn – it is an industrial, genetically modified corn, grown for its super cheap calories , grown for its oil (sold for cooking, salad dressings and for hydrogenation into transfat margarines and shortenings), its sweetness (high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin, maltose), its meal, flour and starch, which is further processed into stabilizers, emulsifiers (mono-, di-and triglycerides, lecithin, xanthan gum) thickeners, gels and viscosity control agents for food, as well as adhesives, coatings, and plastics for industry, not to mention ethanol for fuel. Most of the corn grown by far is fed to animals like cows and chickens, in order to fatten them up quickly for market.

Why were animals forced off the grazing fields to be packed together like sardines in the barns of factory farms? Grazing animals take a lot of space, and also it takes more time to convert the sun’s energy that is stored in grass into the meat of a grazing animal than it does to convert petroleum-based energy from chemical fertilizers into corn, and then into meat by feeding the animals that corn. So, in the eyes of industrial agriculture, petroleum-based / corn-based farming makes a lot of economic sense. And the processed food companies like Cargill and General Mills love it, because corn is a cheap filler, preservative, and sweetener which can easily be disguised to replace more expensive or more perishable ingredients, increasing their bottom line. So for example, fruit juices become fruit drinks made of corn, strawberry shakes are not made from strawberries but from corn, and chicken becomes chicken nuggets (hard to determine how much of that chicken nugget is actually chicken).

So, according to Pollan, if you were to read the ingredients in a fast-food meal at McDonalds to determine how much of the food was derived from corn, depending on what you order, from the french fries at about 23%, to a cheeseburger at 56% (including the corn fed to the beef in the patty), to a salad dressing at 65%, to a milk shake at 78%, to a soft drink at 100%, that is a lot of corn we are eating. And a lot of fossil fuel was used to make that fast-food meal, considering not only the chemical fertilizers to grow the corn, but also all the trucking involved from farm to grain elevator to processing plant to food plant to fast-food outlet.

Here's the thing. Even though to the industrial agriculture / food processing industries, using corn and oil as the basis for making cheap food products is very profitable, there is a huge hidden cost to all this cheap food. First of all, at the most basic level, we have switched from a style of farming that uses the sun to create food energy to one that uses petroleum (chemical fertilizers) to create food energy, which is not sustainable. Industrial agriculture depletes soils, rather than maintaining them or improving them. Chemical fertilizers don't provide complete nutrition to the plant, resulting in plants that contain less nutrition for the animals that eat them. Huge fields of one kind of crop reduces the diversity of plant life, which not only harms the food chain, but also creates economic risk, as all the eggs are in one basket should that crop fail. And all monoculture crops need to be trucked for processing, AND ALSO trucked to supermarkets and fast food restaurants, further utilizing petroleum energy.

Feeding corn to ruminant animals who's bodies are designed to eat grass makes cows very sick. The rumen, the organ that ferments grass, can't handle corn, which causes gas to become entrapped in the slimy build up, bloating the rumen which causes it to press upon the lungs of the animal. The animal must be intubated to prevent suffocation. Also, corn causes the rumen, which normally has a neutral pH, to become acidic, resulting in a heartburn type of condition, and over time the acid can wear a hole in the rumen allowing bacteria into the blood stream, causing liver problems and eventually death. E-coli levels are very high in corn-fed cattle. So, the cows are given drugs to combat these conditions. And all of this could be avoided if the cows were allowed to eat their natural diet – grass. Scientists have even shown that if the cows are fed hay for the last two weeks prior to slaughter, e-coli counts would drop dramatically, but the industrial farmers won't even do that because of the perceived extra cost.

Industrial agriculture also creates a huge pollution problem. Chemical fertilizers sprayed on crops, as well as manure waste from factory farms leach into streams and rivers, sickening and/or killing off marine life. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, industrial agriculture is the biggest polluter of rivers in the States.

And at the top of the food chain we find us. And we are unwittingly eating huge amounts of processed GMO corn (and soy) in packaged food, factory-farmed meat, dairy, poultry, and eggs from animals sickened and drugged because of the corn they are eating (remember – when you see "grain fed" beef at the supermarket, that is NOT a good thing!) If the food we eat is inherently unhealthy is it a surprise we are getting sicker and sicker? It is predicted that today's children will not live as long as their parents. More and more of us are overweight and suffering from type 2 diabetes and heart disease at younger and younger ages due to so much starch, sugar and omega 6 fats (found in corn and soy) in our diet and in the diet of the animals we eat, and the lack of nutrition found in packaged and factory-farmed food. So, ask yourself. Is the cheap food provided by the industrial agricultural system really that cheap, when you consider the environmental and health costs as well? How much are you paying out in drugs each month to treat health conditions largely caused by consuming industrial food?

There is a much better way … We'll get into that soon.

Do read Michael Pollan's fantastic book – it is well worth it. If you want to search for other posts by title or by topic, go to

Related tips
Conventional vs. Organic vs Pasture-fed meats, poultry, eggs and dairy
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Processed food is taking over our supermarkets
Food brands that contain genetically modified ingredients
Essential fats: Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio
Food, our raw material

Pollan, Michael The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals Penguin Press, New York, 2006.

Gonzalez F. et al.Grain feeding and
the Dissemination of Acid-Resistant Escherichia coli from Cattle
Science Washington, Sept. 11, 1998, Vol. 281, Iss. 5383: p. 1666-69. (A study that shows the difference in e-coli levels between grass and grain fed cattle.)

Copyright 2008 Vreni Gurd

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  1. Nancy Chanda said,

    November 16, 2008 @ 5:59 pm

    Hi Vreni,
    I enjoy your newsletter. I read the Omnivore’s Dilemma some time ago and realized that I had bought into the myth that we couldn’t feed the world using organic methods. I have recommended the book to any farmers that I meet as we travel around the US.

  2. Vreni said,

    November 16, 2008 @ 9:06 pm

    Hi Nancy,

    Thanks so much for spreading the word! We need more people like you …

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