Following the food chain back to Iraq


Richard Manning

Harper's Magazine, February 2004


Richard Manning is the author of Against

the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked

Civilization   (North Point Press, 2004)




"The secret of great wealth with no obvious source is some forgotten

crime, forgotten because it was done neatly."



The journalist's rule says: follow the money. This rule, however, is

not really axiomatic but derivative, in that money, as even our vice

president will tell you, is really a way of tracking energy. We'll follow

the energy.


We learn as children that there is no free lunch, that you

don't get something from nothing, that what goes up must come down,

and so on. The scientific version of these verities is only slightly

more complex. As James Prescott Joule discovered in the nineteenth

century, there is only so much energy. You can change it from motion

to heat, from heat to light, but there will never be more of it and

there will never be less of it. The conservation of energy is not an

option, it is a fact. This is the first law of thermodynamics.


Special as we humans are, we get no exemptions from the

rules. All animals eat plants or eat animals that eat plants. This is

the food chain, and pulling it is the unique ability of plants to

turn sunlight into stored energy in the form of carbohydrates, the

basic fuel of all animals. Solar-powered photosynthesis is the only

way to make this fuel. There is no alternative to plant energy, just

as there is no alternative to oxygen. The results of taking away our

plant energy may not be as sudden as cutting off oxygen, but they are

as sure.


Scientists have a name for the total amount of plant mass

created by Earth in a given year, the total budget for life. They

call it the planet's "primary productivity." There have been two

efforts to figure out how that productivity is spent, one by a group

at Stanford University, the other an independent accounting by the

biologist Stuart Pimm. Both conclude that we humans,' a single

species among millions, consume about 40 percent of Earth's primary

productivity, 40 percent of all there is. This simple number may

explain why the current extinction rate is 1,000 times that which

existed before human domination of the planet. We 6 billion have

simply stolen the food, the rich among us a lot more than others.


Energy cannot be created or canceled, but it can be

concentrated. This is the larger and profoundly explanatory context

of a national-security memo George Kennan wrote in 1948 as the head

of a State Department planning committee, ostensibly about Asian

policy but really about how the United States was to deal with its

newfound role as the dominant force on Earth. "We have about 50

percent of the world's wealth but only 6.3 percent of its

population," Kennan wrote. "In this situation, we cannot fait to be

the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period

is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to

maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our

national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all

sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be

concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need

not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism

and world,benefaction."


"The day is not far off, " Kennan concluded, "when we are going to

have to deal in straight power concepts."


if you follow the energy, eventually you will end up in a field

somewhere. Humans engage in a dizzying array of artifice and

industry. Nonetheless, more than two thirds of humanity's cut of

primary productivity results from agriculture, two thirds of which in

turn consists of three plants: rice, wheat, and corn. In the 10,000

years since humans domesticated these grains, their status has

remained undiminished, most likely because they are able to store

solar energy in uniquely dense, transportable bundles of

carbohydrates. They are to the plant world what a barrel of refined

oil is to the hydrocarbon world. Indeed, aside from hydrocarbons they

are the most concentrated form of true wealth-sun energy-to be found

on the planet.


As Kerman recognized, however, the maintenance of such a

concentration of wealth often requires violent action. Agriculture is

a recent human experiment. For most of human history, we lived by

gathering or killing a broad variety of nature's offerings. Why

humans might have traded this approach for the complexities of

agriculture is an interesting and long-debated question, especially

because the skeletal evidence clearly indicates that early farmers

were more poorly nourished, more disease-ridden and deformed, than

their hunter-gatherer contemporaries. Farming did not improve most

lives. The evidence that best points to the answer, I think, lies in

the difference between early agricultural villages and their

pre-agricultural counterparts-the presence not just of grain but of

granaries and, more tellingly, of just a few houses significantly

larger and more ornate than all the others attached to those

granaries. Agriculture was not so much about food as it was about the

accumulation of wealth. It benefited some humans, and those people

have been in charge ever since.


Domestication was also a radical change in the distribution

of wealth within the plant world. Plants can spend their solar income

in several ways. The dominant and prudent strategy is to allocate

most of it to building roots, stem, bark-a conservative portfolio of

investments that allows the plant to better gather energy and survive

the downturn years. Further, by living in diverse stands (a given

chunk of native prairie contains maybe 200 species of plants), these

perennials provide services for one another, such as re, taining

water, protecting one another from wind, and fixing free nitrogen

from the air to use as fertilizer. Diversity allows a system to

"sponsor its own fertility," to use visionary agronomist Wes

Jackson's phrase. This is the plant world's norm.


There is a very narrow group of annuals, however, that grow

in patches of a single species and store almost all of their income

as seed, a tight bundle of carbohydrates easily exploited by seed

eaters such as ourselves. Under normal circumstances, this eggs-

in-one-basket strategy is a dumb idea for a plant. But not during

catastrophes such as floods, fires, and volcanic eruptions. Such

catastrophes strip established plant communities and create

opportunities for wind-scattered entrepreneurial seed bearers. It is

no accident that no matter where agriculture sprouted on the globe,

it always happened near rivers. You might assume, as many have,

that this is because the plants needed the water or nutrients. Mostly

this is not true.  They needed the power of flooding, which scoured

landscapes and stripped out competitors. Nor is it an accident, I

think, that agriculture arose independently and simultaneously

around the globe just as the last ice age ended, a time of enormous

upheaval when glacial melt let loose sea-size lakes to create tidal

waves of erosion. It was a time of catastrophe.


Corn, rice, and wheat are especially adapted to catastrophe.

It is their niche. In the natural scheme of things, a catastrophe

would create a blank slate, bare soil, that was good for them. Then,

under normal circumstances, succession would quickly close that

niche. The annuals would colonize. Their roots would stabilize the

soil, accumulate organic matter, provide cover. Eventually the

catastrophic niche would close. Farming is the process of ripping

that niche open again and again. It is an annual artificial

catastrophe, and it requires the equivalent of three or four tons of

TNT per acre for a modem American farm. Iowa's fields require the

energy of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs every year.


Iowa is almost all fields now. Little prairie remains, and if you can

find what Iowans call a "postage stamp" remnant of some, it most

likely will abut a cornfield. This allows an observation. Walk from

the prairie to the field, and you probably will step down about six

feet, as if the land had been stolen from beneath you. Settlers'

accounts of the prairie conquest mention a sound, a series of pops,

like pistol shots, the sound of stout grass roots breaking before a

moldboard plow. A robbery was in progress.


When we say the soil is rich, it is not a metaphor. It is as

rich in energy as an oil well. A prairie converts that energy to

flowers and roots and stems, which in turn pass back into the ground

as dead organic matter. The layers of topsoil build up into a rich

repository of energy, a bank. A farm field appropriates that energy,

puts it into seeds we can cat. Much of the energy moves from the

earth to the rings of fat around our necks and waists. And much of

the energy is simply wasted, a trail of dollars billowing from the

burglar's satchel.


I've already mentioned that we humans take 40 percent of the

globe's primary productivity every year. You might have assumed we

and our live, stock eat our way through that volume, but this is not

the case. Part of that total—almost a third of it—is the potential

plant mass lost when forests are cleared for farming or when tropical

rain forests are cut for grazing or when plows destroy the deep mat

of prairie roots that held the whole business together, triggering

erosion. The Dust Bowl was no accident of nature. A functioning

grassland prairie produces more biomass each year than does even the

most technologically advanced wheat field. The problem is, it's

mostly a form of grass and grass roots that humans can't cat. So we

replace the prairie with our own preferred grass, wheat. Never mind

that we feed most of our grain to livestock, and that livestock is

perfectly content to eat native grass. And never mind that there

likely were more bison produced naturally on the Great Plains before

farming than all of beef farming raises in the same area today. Our

ancestors found it preferable to pluck the energy from the ground and

when it ran out move on.


Today we do the same, only now when the vault is empty we

fill it again with new energy in the form of oil-rich fertilizers.

Oil is annual primary productivity stored as hydrocarbons, a trust

fund of sorts, built up over many thousands of years. On average, it

takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy to restore a year's worth of lost

fertility to an acre of eroded land-in 1997 we burned through more

than 400 years' worth of ancient fossilized productivity, most of it

from someplace else. Even as the earth beneath Iowa shrinks, it is

being globalized.


Six thousand years before sodbusters broke up Iowa, their Caucasian

blood ancestors broke up the Hungarian plain, an area just northwest

of the Caucasus Mountains. Archaeologists call this tribe the LBK,

short for linearbandkeramik, the German word that describes the

distinctive pottery remnants that mark their occupation of Europe.

Anthropologists call them the wheat-beef people, a name that better

connects those ancients along the Danube to my fellow Montanans on

the Upper Missouri River. These proto-Europeans had a full set of

domesticated plants and animals, but wheat and beef dominated. All

the domesticates came from an area along what is now the


Iraq-Syria-Turkey border at the edges of the Zagros Mountains. This

is the center of domestication for the Western world's main crops and

livestock, ground zero of catastrophic agriculture.


Two other types of catastrophic agriculture evolved at

roughly the same time, one centered on rice in what is now China and

India and one centered on corn and potatoes in Central and South

America. Rice, though, is tropical and its expansion depends on

water, so it developed only in floodplains, estuaries, and swamps.

Corn agriculture was every bit as voracious as wheat; the Aztecs

could be as brutal and imperialistic as Romans or Brits, but the corn

cultures collapsed with the onslaught of Spanish conquest. Corn

itself simply joined the wheat-beef people's coalition. Wheat was the

empire builder; its bare botanical facts dictated the motion and

violence that we know as imperialism.


The wheat-beef people swept across the western European

plains in less than 300 years, a conquest some archaeologists refer

to as a "blitzkrieg." A different race of humans, the

Cro-Magnons—hunter-gatherers, not farmers—lived on those plains at the

time. Their cave art at places such as Lascaux testifies to their

sophistication and profound connection to wildlife. They probably did

most of their hunting and gathering in uplands and river bottoms,

places the wheat farmers didn't need, suggesting the possibility of

coexistence. That's not what happened, however. Both genetic and

linguistic evidence say that the farmers killed the hunters. The

Basque people are probably the lone remnant descendants of

Cro-Magnons, the only trace.


Hunter-gatherer archaeological sites of the period contain

spear points that originally belonged to the farmers, and we can

guess they weren't trade goods. One group of anthropologists

concludes, "The evidence from the western extension of the LBK leaves

little room for any other conclusion but that LBK-Mesolithic

interactions were at best chilly and at worst hostile." The world's

surviving Blackfeet, Assiniboine Sioux, Inca, and Maori probably have

the best idea of the nature of these interactions.


Wheat is temperate and prefers plowed-up grasslands. The

globe has a limited stock of temperate grasslands, just as it has a

limited stock of all other biomes. On average, about 10 percent of

all other biomes remain in something like their native state today.

Only I percent of temperate grasslands remains undestroyed. Wheat

takes what it needs.


The supply of temperate grasslands lies in what are today the

United States, Canada, the South American pampas, New Zealand,

Australia, South Africa, Europe, and the Asiatic extension of the European

plain into the sub-Siberian steppes. This area largely describes the First

World, the developed world. Temperate grasslands make up not only the

habitat of wheat and beef but also the globe's islands of Caucasians,

of European surnames and languages. In 2000 the countries of the

temperate grasslands, the neo-Europes, accounted for about 80 percent

of all wheat exports in the world, and about 86 percent of all corn.

That is to say, the neo-Europes drive the world's agriculture. The

dominance does not stop with grain. These countries, plus the

mothership-Europe-accounted for three fourths of all agricultural

exports of all crops in the world in 1999.


Plato wrote of his country's farmlands:


"What now remains of the formerly rich land is like the skeleton of a

sick man. ... Formerly, many of the mountains were arable. The plains

that were full of rich soil are now marshes. Hills that were once

covered with forests and produced abundant pasture now produce only

food for bees. Once the land was enriched by yearly rains, which were

not lost, as they are now, by flowing from the bare land into the

sea. The soil was deep, it absorbed and kept the water in loamy soil,

and the water that soaked into the hills fed springs and running

streams everywhere. Now the abandoned shrines at spots where formerly

there were springs attest that our description of the land is true."


Plato's lament is rooted in wheat agriculture, which depleted

his country's soil and subsequently caused the series of declines

that pushed centers of civilization to Rome, Turkey, and western

Europe. By the fifth century, though, wheat's strategy of depleting

and moving on ran up against the Atlantic Ocean. Fenced-in wheat

agriculture is like rice agriculture. It balances its equations with

famine. In the millennium between 500 and 1500, Britain suffered a

major "corrective" famine about every ten years; there were

seventy-five in France during the same period. The incidence,

however, dropped sharply when colonization brought an influx of new

food to Europe.


The new lands had an even greater effect on the colonists

themselves. Thomas Jefferson, after enduring a lecture on the rustic

nature by his hosts at a dinner party in Paris, pointed out that all

of the Americans present were a good head taller than all of the

French, Indeed, colonists in all of the neo-Europes enjoyed greater

stature and longevity, as well as a lower infant mortality rate—all 

indicators of the better nutrition afforded by the onetime spend down

of the accumulated capital of virgin soil.


The precolonial famines of Europe raised the question: What

would happen when the planet's supply of arable land ran out? We have

a clear answer. In about 1960 expansion hit its limits and the supply

of unfarmed, arable lands came to an end. There was nothing left to

plow. What happened was grain yields tripled.


The accepted term for this strange turn of events is the

green revolution, though it would be more properly labeled the amber

revolution, because it applied exclusively to grain-wheat, rice, and

corn. Plant breeders tinkered with the architecture of these three

grains so that they could be hypercharged with irrigation water and

chemical fertilizers, especially nitrogen. This innovation meshed

nicely with the increased "efficiency" of the industrialized

factory-farm system. With the possible exception of the domestication

of wheat, the green revolution is the worst thing that has ever

happened to the planet.


For openers, it disrupted long-standing patterns of rural

life worldwide, moving a lot of no-longer-needed people off the land

and into the world's most severe poverty. The experience in

population control in the developing world is by now clear: It is not

that people make more people so much as it is that they make more

poor people. In the forty-year period beginning about 1960, the

world's population doubled, adding virtually the entire increase of 3

billion to the world's poorest classes, the most fecund classes.

The way in which the green revolution raised that grain contributed

hugely to the population boom, and it is the weight of the population

that leaves humanity in its present untenable position.


Discussion of these, the most poor, however, is largely

irrelevant to the American situation. We say we have poor people

here, but almost no one in this country lives on less than one dollar

a day, the global benchmark for poverty. It marks off a class of

about 1.3 billion people, the hard core of the larger group of 2

billion chronically malnourished people-that is, one third of

humanity. We may forget about them, as most Americans do.


More relevant here are the methods of the green revolution,

which added orders of magnitude to the devastation. By mining the

iron for tractors, drilling the new oil to fuel them and to make

nitrogen fertilizers, and by taking the water that rain and rivers

had meant for other lands, farming had extended its boundaries, its

dominion, to lands that were not farmable. At the same time, it

extended its boundaries across time, tapping fossil energy, stripping

past assets.


The common assumption these days is that we muster our

weapons to secure oil, not food. There's a little joke in this. Ever

since we ran out of arable land, food is oil. Every single calorie we

eat is backed by at least a calorie of Oil, more like ten. In 1940

the average farm in the United States produced 2.3 calories of food

energy for every calorie of fossil energy it used. By 1974 (the last

year in which anyone looked closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:

1. And this understates the problem, because at the same time that

there is more oil in our food there is less oil in our oil. A couple

of generations ago we spent a lot less energy drilling, pumping, and

distributing than we do now. In the 1940s we got about 100 barrels of

oil back for every barrel of oil we spent getting it. Today each

barrel invested in the process returns only ten, a calculation that

no doubt fails to include the fuel burned by the Hummers and

Blackhawks we use to maintain access to the oil in Iraq.


David Pimentet, an expert on food and energy at Cornell

University, has estimated that if all of the world ate the way the

United States eats, humanity would exhaust all known global

fossil-fuel reserves in just over seven years. Pimentel has his

detractors. Some have accused him of being off on other calculations

by as much as 30 percent. Fine. Make it ten years.


Fertilizer makes a pretty fine bomb right off the shelf, a

chemistry lesson Timothy McVeigh taught at Oklahoma City's Alfred P.

Murrah Federal Building in 1995-not a small matter, in that the green

revolution has made nitrogen fertilizers ubiquitous in some of the

more violent and desperate comers of the world. Still, there is more

to contemplate in nitrogen's less sensational chemistry.


The chemophobia of modem times excludes fear of the simple

elements of chemistry's periodic table. We circulate petitions, hold

hearings, launch websites, and buy and sell legislators in regard to

polysyllabic organic compounds—polychlorinated biphenyls, polyvinyls,

DDT, 2-4d, that sort of thing—not simple carbon or nitrogen. Not that

agriculture's use of the more ornate chemistry is benign-an infant

born in a rural, wheat-producing county in the United States has

about twice the chance of suffering birth defects as one born in a

rural place that doesn't produce wheat, an effect researchers blame

on chlorophenoxy herbicides. Focusing on pesticide pollution, though,

misses the worst of the pollutants. Forget the polysyllabic organics.

It is nitrogen-the wellspring of fertility relied upon by every

Eden-obsessed backyard gardener and suburban groundskeeper-that we

should fear most.


Those who model our planet as an organism do so on the basis

that the earth appears to breathe-it thrives by converting a short

list of basic elements from one compound into the next, Just as our

own bodies cycle oxygen into carbon dioxide and plants cycle carbon

dioxide into oxygen. In fact, two of the planet's most fundamental

humors are oxygen and carbon dioxide. Another is nitrogen.


Nitrogen can be released from its "fixed" state as a solid in

the soil by natural processes that allow it to circulate freely in

the atmosphere. This also can be done artificially. Indeed, humans

now contribute more nitrogen to the nitrogen cycle than the planet

itself does. That is, humans have doubled the amount of nitrogen in



This has led to an imbalance. It is easier to create nitrogen

fertilizer than it is to apply it evenly to fields. When farmers dump

nitrogen on a crop, much is wasted. It runs into the water and soil,

where it either reacts chemically with its surroundings to form new

compounds or flows off to fertilize something else, somewhere else.


That chemical reaction, called acidification, is noxious and

contributes significantly to acid rain. One of the compounds produced

by acidification is nitrous oxide, which aggravates the greenhouse

effect. Green growing things normally offset global warming by

sucking up carbon dioxide, but nitrogen on farm fields plus methane

from decomposing vegetation make every farmed acre, like every acre

of Los Angeles freeway, a net contributor to global warming.

Fertilization is equally worrisome. Rainfall and irrigation water

inevitably washes the nitrogen from fields to creeks and streams,

which flows into rivers, which floods into the ocean. This explains

why the Mississippi River, which drains the nation's Corn Belt, is an

environmental catastrophe. The nitrogen fertilizes artificially large

blooms of algae that in growing suck all the oxygen from the water, a

condition biologists call anoxia, which means "oxygen-depleted," Here

there's no need to calculate long-term effects, because life in such

places has no long term: everything dies immediately. The Mississippi

River's heavily fertilized effluvia has created a dead zone in the

Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey.


America's biggest crop, grain corn, is completely unpalatable. It is

raw material for an industry that manufactures food substitutes.

Likewise, you can't eat unprocessed wheat. You certainly can't eat

hay. You can eat unprocessed soybeans, but mostly we don't. These

four crops cover 82 percent of American cropland. Agriculture in this

country is not about food; it's about commodities that require the

outlay of still more energy to become food.


Part 2 follows...

... continued from Part I


About two thirds of U.S. grain corn is labelled "processed,"

meaning it is milled and otherwise refined for food or industrial

uses. More than 45 percent of that becomes sugar, especially

high-fructose corn sweeteners, the key, stone ingredient in three

quarters of all processed foods, especially soft drinks, the food of

America's poor and working classes. It is not a coincidence that the

American pandemic of obesity tracks rather nicely with the fivefold

increase in corn-syrup production since Archer Daniels Midland

developed a high-fructose version of the stuff in the early

seventies. Nor is it a coincidence that the plague selects the poor,

who eat the most processed food.


It began with the industrialization of Victorian England. The

empire was then flush with sugar from plantations in the colonies.

Meantime the cities were flush with factory workers. There was no

good way to feed them. And thus was born the afternoon tea break, the

tea consisting primarily of warm water and sugar. If the workers were

well off, they could also afford bread with heavily sugared

jam-sugar-powered industrialization. There was a 500 percent increase

in per capita sugar consumption in Britain between 1860 and 1890,

around the time when the life expectancy of a male factory worker was

seventeen years. By the end of the century the average Brit was

getting about one sixth of his total nutrition from sugar, exactly

the same percentage Americans get today-double what nutritionists



There is another energy matter to consider here, though. The

grinding, milling, wetting, drying, and baking of a breakfast cereal

requires about four calories of energy for every calorie of food

energy it produces. A two-pound bag of breakfast cereal bums the

energy of a half-gallon of gasoline in its making. All together the

food-processing industry in the United States uses about ten calories

of fossil-fuel energy for every calorie of food energy it produces.


That number does not include the fuel used in transporting

the food from the factory to a store near you, or the fuel used by

millions of people driving to thousands of super discount stores on

the edge of town, where the land is cheap. It appears, however, that

the corn cycle is about to come full circle, If a bipartisan

coalition of farm-state lawmakers has their way-and it appears they

will-we will soon buy gasoline containing twice as much fuel alcohol

as it does now. Fuel alcohol already ranks second as a use for

processed corn in the United States, just behind corn sweeteners.

According to one set of calculations, we spend more calories of

fossil-fuel energy making ethanol than we gain from it. The

Department of Agriculture says the ratio is closer to a gallon and a

quart of ethanol for every gallon of fossil fuel we invest. The USDA

calls this a bargain, because gasohol is a "clean fuel." This claim

to cleanness is in dispute at the tailpipe level, and it certainly

ignores the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, pesticide pollution, and

the haze of global gases gathering over every farm field. Nor does

this claim cover clean conscience; some still might be unsettled

knowing that our SUVs' demands for fuel compete with the poor's

demand for grain.


Green eaters, especially vegetarians, advocate eating low on the food

chain, a simple matter of energy flow. Eating a carrot gives the

diner all that carrot's energy, but feeding carrots to a chicken,

then eating the chicken, reduces the energy by a factor of ten. The

chicken wastes some energy, stores some as feathers, bones, and other

inedibles, and uses most of it just to live long enough to be eaten.

As a rough rule of thumb, that factor of ten applies to each level up

the food chain, which is why some fish, such as tuna, can be a horror

in all of this. Tuna is a secondary predator, meaning it not only

doesn't eat plants but eats other fish that themselves eat other

fish, adding a zero to the multiplier each notch up, easily a hundred

times, more like a thousand times less efficient than eating a plant.


This is fine as far as it goes, but the vegetarian's case can

break down on some details. On the moral issues, vegetarians claim

their habits are kinder to animals, though it is difficult to see how

wiping out 99 percent of wildlife's habitat, as farming has done in

Iowa, is a kindness. In rural Michigan, for example, the potato

farmers have a peculiar tactic for dealing with the predations of

whitetail deer. They gut-shoot them with small-bore rifles, in hopes

the deer will limp off to the woods and die where they won't stink up

the potato fields.


Animal rights aside, vegetarians can lose the edge in the

energy argument by eating processed food, with its ten calories of

fossil energy for every calorie of food energy produced. The

question, then, is: Does eating processed food such as soy burger or

soy milk cancel the energy benefits of vegetarianism, which is to

say, can I eat my lamb chops in peace? Maybe. If I've done my due

diligence, I will have found out that the particular lamb I am eating

was both local and grass-fed, two factors that of course greatly

reduce the embedded energy in a meal. I know of ranches here in

Montana, for instance, where sheep eat native grass under closely

controlled circumstances-no farming, no plows, no corn, no nitrogen.

Assets have not been stripped. I can't eat the grass directly. This

can go on. There are little niches like this in the system. Each

person's individual charge is to find such niches.


Chances are, though, any meat eater will come out on the

short end of this argument, especially in the United States. Take the

case of beef Cattle are grazers, so in theory could live like the

grass-fed lamb. Some cattle cultures-those of South America and

Mexico, for example-have perfected wonderful cuisines based on

grass-fed beef. This is not our habit in the Unit, ed States, and it

is simply a matter of habit. Eighty percent of the grain the United

States produces goes to livestock. Seventy-eight percent of all of

our beef comes from feed lots, where the cattle eat grain, mostly

corn and wheat. So do most of our hogs and chickens. The cattle spend

their adult lives packed shoulder to shoulder in a space not much

bigger than their bodies, up to their knees in shit, being stuffed

with grain and a constant stream of antibiotics to prevent the

disease this sort of confinement invariably engenders. The manure is

rich in nitrogen and once provided a farm's fertilizer. The feedlots,

however, are now far removed from farm fields, so it is simply not

efficient" to haul it to cornfields. It is waste. It exhales

methane, a globalwarming gas. It pollutes streams. It takes

thirty-five calories of fossil fuel to make a calorie of beef this

way; sixty-eight to make one calorie of pork.


Still, these livestock do something we can't. They convert

grain's carbohydrates to high-quality protein. All well and good,

except that per capita protein production in the United States is

about double what an average adult needs per day. Excess cannot be

stored as protein in the human body but is simply converted to fat.

This is the end result of a factory-farm system that appears as a

living, continental-scale monument to Rube Goldberg, a blackmass

remake of the loaves- and-fishes miracle. Prairie's productivity is

lost for grain, grain's productivity is lost in livestock,

livestock's protein is lost to human fat-all federally subsidized for

about $15 billion a year, two thirds of which goes directly to only

two crops, corn and wheat.


This explains why the energy expert David Pimentel is so

worried that the rest of the world will adopt America's methods. He

should be, because the rest of the world is. Mexico now feeds 45

percent of its grain to livestock, up from 5 percent in 1960. Egypt

went from 3 percent to 31 percent in the same period, and China, with

a sixth of the world's population, has gone from 8 percent to 26

percent. All of these places have poor people who could use the

grain, but they can't afford it.


I live among elk and have learned to respect them. One

moonlit night during the dead of last winter, I looked out my bedroom

window to see about twenty of them grazing a plot of grass the size

of a living room. Just that small patch among acres of other species

of native prairie grass. Why that species and only that species of

grass that night in the worst of winter when the threat to their

survival was the greatest? What magic nutrient did this species alone

contain? What does a wild animal know that we don't? I think we need

this knowledge.


Food is politics, That being the case, I voted twice in 2002.

The day after Election Day, in a truly dismal mood, I climbed the

mountain behind my house and found a small herd of elk grazing native

grasses in the morning sunlight. My respect for these creatures over

the years has become great enough that on that morning I did not

hesitate but went straight to my job, which was to rack a shell and

drop one cow elk, my household's annual protein supply. I voted with

my weapon of choice-an act not all that uncommon in this world,

largely, I think, as a result of the way we grow food. I can see why

it is catching on. Such a vote has a certain satisfying heft and

finality about it. My particular bit of violence, though, is more

satisfying, I think, than the rest of the globe's ordinary political

mayhem. I used a rifle to opt out of an insane system. I killed, but

then so did you when you bought that package of burger, even when you

bought that package of tofu burger. I killed, then the rest of those

elk went on, as did the grasses, the birds, the trees, the coyotes,

mountain lions, and bugs, the fundamental productivity of an intact

natural system, all of it went on.