Author Topic: Food and Gunk  (Read 11580 times)

random axe

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Re: Food and Gunk
« Reply #15 on: May 05, 2010, 02:45:12 PM »
This thread's way shorter, but the book's good and worth reading.  It does definitely pick up some more steam after he gets to the Salatin farm, as vox said.  I want to hear more about how the farm actually operates.  It sounds amazing but also sounds like it must provide full-time labor for at least half a dozen people.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I'm curious about the details.


Just the other day, the NY Times, among other places, ran an article about how Roundup Ready weeds are now encroaching furiously on Roundup Ready crops -- soybeans, cotton, and corn.  The articles all sort of distort the evolutionary process at hand, but that's not really the point, anyway.

One thing that really struck me:  The biggest problem, allegedly, is pigweed, which is to say palmer amaranth.  It's a weed, in that it grows where it's not wanted.  It tolerates all kinds of soils and a huge range of moisture levels, including pretty severe drought, and different amounts of sunlight.  It'll grow in the open and it'll grow in partial shade.  It'll grow more than three inches per day in decent growing conditions, up to a height of more than seven feet.  It'll out-compete even genetically modified, monoculture, ultra-pampered corn.

What a pain in the ass!  Except that (A) it's a native plant, (B) the leaves and fruit/seeds are perfectly edible, and it produces a lot per plant, (C) as a grain, it's extremely high in protein and other goodies, (D) the stalks can be used for making paper, alcohol, and etc, and (E) you can spray weedkillers on it without harming it and without having to pay Monsanto extra money for the privilege.  But you don't need much weedkiller with it, anyway, because it out-competes weeds so well. 

OK, there isn't much of a current market for it.  Some amaranth products are already sold, but not so many, and it would take some time for agribusiness to gear up to process it instead of corn, but you can make most of the same processed gunk out of it, from sweeteners to thickeners to ethanol.  I'm not sure if it can be processed to safely use as silage; I'm told livestock won't eat the leaves and can't easily eat the stalks.  But that stuff is just a matter of industry adjustment.  I don't think people honestly care what their Coco Puffs are made out of if they taste the same.  And this is just talking about pigweed that hasn't been bred or modified as a crop.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.  Of course, until or unless Monsanto and Bayer and etc do modify pigweed (which they'd probably go back to calling amaranth) so that they can license their own brand, this will never happen.  But if ever there were a species of weed begging to become a crop, this might be it.  It's already taking over fields on its own, for crying out loud.

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Re: Food and Gunk
« Reply #16 on: May 05, 2010, 02:52:45 PM »
:galm: One of the few things that annoyed me about Anathem was the blithe assumption that it would be possible to genetically engineer perfect food crops that required little to no maintenance and could support hundreds of people on a few acres year round. Stephenson knows better. Oh well, it was a required plot device, like the longevity treatment in {Red,Green,Blue} Mars.
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Re: Food and Gunk
« Reply #17 on: May 05, 2010, 03:35:24 PM »
Any crop advanced enough to grow that prodigiously without human intervention would still likely either need automated intervention OR would be so rapacious that you'd have to keep a damned close eye on it.  It would probably also live in a vat or lagoon, not on dry land, and it wouldn't be too appetizing in its natural form.

Niven had giant mats of littoral algae genetically engineered as foodstuff in Bordered in Black, and I think that's plausible, but it's certainly not gourmet, and the entire planet's ecosystem (such as it was) had been created to support the stuff.  George R R Martin described various semi-plausible super-duper-crops in Tuf Voyaging, but they weren't super-duper-enticing . . . and the most prodigious ones also contained organic contraceptives.  :lol:

No, if you want to maximize nutritional production per stere from an organic source (ie, no nanotechnological wishwash) like that, you have to go pretty industrial.  There's only so much sunlight, rain, air, and dirt and only so much surface area.  You need something like labyrinthine vats cooled by a flow of enriched water, possibly under high pressure, supporting microorganisms that detach automatically from the culture surface when they're 'ripe' -- to be carried away by the coolant, which is filtered in the first stage of processing.  If you can make the culture surface emit light ideal for photosynthesis, then that's OK, but you're better off with something engineered to use heat to drive anabolism, probably with something engineered from deep-rock archaea, although I don't think (?) any thermosynthetic species are currently known.  They're probably down there, though.

It's not about individual metabolic efficiency but volume.  You're going to need huge refineries, possibly mostly underground or underwater, using nuclear power to drive huge culture tanks to produce an indefinitely recyclable nutritional slurry that gets processed into food items.  Then you probably have to save the waste and loop it back into the system.

Or you can do the entire thing industrially, without organisms.  Plants are marvelous at the nitrogen cycle, but if you have enough people to feed, you need something that can run the cycle at much higher energy levels than ambient sunlight and without wasting a lot of energy building cellulose and transporting water and fighting gravity.  Protein is a little more complicated but doable with near-future technology.  Soylent everything, yo.  But you need a lot of power, and it'll probably come from fission or fusion.  OR the population could drop like a rock.  We'll see.

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Re: Food and Gunk
« Reply #18 on: May 05, 2010, 04:32:09 PM »
Pigweed is eeeeevil.

And just because something is technically edible doesn't mean anyone actually wants to eat it. Have you ever had amaranth? It tastes like CRAP.
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Re: Food and Gunk
« Reply #19 on: May 05, 2010, 07:28:06 PM »
Well, I'm not sure I'd like tiosinte, either.  And pigweed's only evil if you don't want it.  If it's a dollar a plant and it grows like mad by itself . . . .

I'm sure some university is looking into the matter already, but I'd like to see how it's going.

I've seen amaranth snack foods but not eaten them.  I can't remember if I've eaten anything made with the grain, which obviously isn't a recommendation.  I always hear it described favorably, but I only hear it described by enthusiasts, so that doesn't prove anything.  The leaves allegedly taste like spinach, and I like spinach.  :shrug:

I wouldn't mind working in a food lab, trying to make the stuff palatable and marketable.  I think it's worth a shot.

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Re: Food and Gunk
« Reply #20 on: May 05, 2010, 07:35:36 PM »
Of course, I should note that the palmer pigweed isn't the same as the amaranth that's commonly sold as food in the US now, so whether or not it tastes good is potentially a very separate issue.

The googles suggest that commonly available amaranth varies in odor and flavor, especially if it's toasted or not before being milled.  Apparently it lacks gluten and can only be used (by itself) for flat breads, which is OK . . . not fabulous, but I usually prefer wheat to corn for flour anyway.  If you cook it like rice, it tends to be very gummy, which isn't my preference, god knows.

It also allegedly has an odor and aftertaste that only some people can detect.  Hrm.  With my sense of taste, I'm almost certainly a detector, as it were, but I'm curious enough now to try to find some so I can try it out.

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Re: Food and Gunk
« Reply #21 on: May 06, 2010, 04:49:43 PM »
Mmph.  OK, a major pet peeve of mine comes up on p 150 of the edition I have, where Pollan is talking about the origins of organic farming:

Quote
A charge often leveled against organic agriculture is that it is more philosophy than science.  There's some truth to this indictment, if that is what it is, though why organic farmers should feel defensive about it is itself a mystery, a relic, perhaps, of our fetishism of science as the only credible tool which which to approach nature.


OK, there's a problem here with the thinking going on, and although it may seem nitpicky I personally think it actually illustrates a major problem with our culture, although I think Pollan is reflecting it as much as he is personally perpetrating it.  But he moves on without thinking enough about what he himself has just said.

First, is organic agriculture more a philosophy than a science?  If so, how so, and what's the difference, and how much does it matter?  He makes a rhetorical jab at the notion that this is a bad thing, but he doesn't actually resolve it.  I have a feeling he'll get around to it, in some degree, at some point, but the indictment here is really an indictment of science, which is a big deal that shouldn't be tossed off so lightly.

Second of all, there's a severe misapprehension of "science" here.  By definition, science almost certainly is our best tool.  Science is the process of finding out what works and what works best.  If you find and establish a better process, you are doing science, although it might be very unrigorous.  Equating the use of science with science itself is not cool.  If you hate science because you hate agribusiness, then by the exact same logic you should also hate plants, people, and the Earth and sun. 

To be fair, Pollan does make hints at the problem being "oversimplifications" and easy answers, but he still fails to draw a distinction between industry and science, which is not a minor oversight.  Ironically, he goes on to say, on the next page:

Quote
In Howard's agronomy, science is mostly a tool for describing what works and explaining why it does.

Which, yes, that's what science is.  The reality is that organic agriculture is philosophically different from typical industrial agriculture, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.  Both use science, and both misuse science, especially -- in either case -- when their guiding philosophies get out of control.  The sins of industrial agriculture are rather greater, no argument from me, but I couldn't say how much of that is primarily a problem of scale

I think the bottom line is that there's wise agriculture and there's foolish.  Pollan makes a lot of good points about the evils of corporate organic agriculture, but, really, the problem once again is that corporations look out for themselves, not for the consumer or the environment or the long term.  There are lots of organic farms out that that, with the best of intentions but not the best of science, use entirely natural pesticides that are awfully toxic.  But they're mostly small farms, and the damage they can do is limited as a result.

I mean, I doubt many non-corporatized family farms fifty or more years ago ever had waste lagoons the size of lakes.

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Re: Food and Gunk
« Reply #22 on: May 06, 2010, 11:05:45 PM »
Oooh . . . I really do mostly agree with Pollan, but he keeps saying little things that drive me crazy.  Writing about big organic farms, he says:

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Instead of toxic pesticides, insects are controlled by spraying-approved organic agents (most of them derived from plants) such as rotenone, pyrethrum, and nicotine sulfate

Being derived from plants doesn't make these chemicals necessarily somehow better for the environment or consumers.  In fact, just procuring and processing these pesticides might be worse than synthesizing them.  I don't know.  But rotenone and pyrethrins are incredibly toxic.  Rotenone is so toxic to insects, amphibians, and fish that they use it when they want to sterilize a large body of water, and a couple of recent studies have shown that eating tiny traces of it on a regular basis can produce Parkinson-like neurological damage in lab animals.  Pyrethrins are toxic enough that you're supposed to wear a gas mask if you sprinkle them on your garden at home.  Either of them is destructive to soil ecology.

He also mentions that organic farms tend to till their fields more frequently to destroy weeds -- and he does say that this damages the soil, but he didn't mention that it also hugely increases soil erosion.  It's part of how we got the Dust Bowl.  And the wisdom of fertilizing crops with chicken manure depends heavily on the diets and health of those chickens.  You gotta watch out for that.  If those chickens were pumped full of horror at an industrial farm, that manure might not be a better idea than synthetic ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

He's not saying this kind of farming is awesome; he says he's not sure if it's better or not.  I'm not sure either.  He just really got me with that "Instead of toxic pesticides" bit.  If they dump enough of just about anything onto those fields to kill off all the weeds and bugs, it's going to be too much of whatever that is to be a good idea.  One of the reasons everyone's so cranky about the Roundup-resistant weeds is that glysophate, the actual herbicide in Roundup, is about the most-effective yet all-around safest herbicide ever discovered.  Roundup itself is less environmentally friendly because of the other ingredients in it, but glysophate itself is more benign than rotenone or pyrethrins. 

Unless you're a jackass factory farm that sprays fifty zillion gallons of the stuff per acre year after year.  The wrong use of any tool is purely stupid, let's face it.

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Re: Food and Gunk
« Reply #23 on: May 07, 2010, 11:45:50 PM »
The stuff in Omnivore's Dilemma about Earthbound Farm is pretty surprising.  They're actually WAY better in their practices than I would have believed.  I'm impressed.

I'm not knocking Pollan, here, just thinking about stuff he says, like this bit about a ready-to-eat mixed-greens salad sold in a supermarket:

Quote
A one-pound box of prewashed lettuce contains 80 calories of food energy.  According to Cornell ecologist David Pimentel, growing, chilling, washing, packaging, and transporting that box of organic salad to a plate on the East Coast takes more than 4,600 calories of fossil fuel energy, or 57 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food.  (These figures would be about 4 percent higher if the salad were grown conventionally.)

Well, OK.  But I want to think about this a bit.

First, a green salad like this isn't eaten for its calories, and isn't healthful because of its calories, so it's not valued because of them, either.  (For many consumers, its value lies in its lack of calories.)  So while the ratio is interesting, it doesn't necessarily mean too much, not anymore than that one pound of lard would have well over 12,000 calories.  That obviously doesn't make lard better than lettuce, or a better use of fossil fuel to produce.

Second, you've got to wonder how much fossil fuel energy would be used if that same salad were produced on the East Coast instead, and thus not transported as far.  What if the consumer grew it in the backyard?  Is it possible to grow that lettuce and not use any fossil fuel energy?  I think it probably is, if the rain and sun cooperate and your soil is good and the bugs aren't bad and you eat it pretty much the same day you pick it. 

Local food might very well be more energy efficient, but maybe we should also wonder if the system in question could be significantly more efficient.  And -- if reducing fossil fuel usage is the goal -- if we should be eating pre-packaged pre-prepared pre-washed salads.  I'm not saying we shouldn't; maybe buying separate kinds of lettuce is about equally energy-costly.  I don't know.

Third, he said Earthbound Farm uses biodiesel for its tractors.  I don't know if the ecologist took this into account.  I also don't know if it's significant, all in all.

Fourth, OK . . . at first I assumed that when Pollan talks about food, he's using food calories (kilocalories) but when he talks about fossil fuel he's using real calories, because those are the common usages.  But if that's the case, it means that one gallon of gas (at 31 million calories) could produce over 6700 pounds of salad.  Well, that seems REALLY efficient, frankly.  I tend to doubt it, but if that's the case, then I can't really worry about that end of things too much. 

OK, so maybe he means kilocalories in both cases, in which case it takes a gallon of gas to produce 6.7 pounds of salad.  If so, that should account for about 45 cents of the price of a one-pound bag of salad.  How many servings of salad is that?  Traditional catering references suggest that one serving of a green salad is 1 to 1.5 ounces.  That seems like a pretty damn small salad to me, and the googles suggest that one cup of shredded lettuce is anywhere from 4-9 ounces.  I don't think too many Americans are eating 1 oz salads.  I'd guess, in an average salad, more like 3 oz of greens.  I think there are two or three of those in a typical supermarket bag of pre-washed mixed greens, although it's been forever since I bought pre-mixed salad.

So I'm not too sure what to think in terms of how much fossil fuel goes into a single serving, but it looks to me like a gallon of gasoline should produce about 36 servings of lettuce.  (That's 6.7 lb of lettuces per gallon, times sixteen ounces per pound, divided by 3 oz per serving, if my math is good.)  That doesn't seem too horrible, really.  Certainly it's a better efficiency than you get with steak, anyway.

Oil has a much higher energy density than food does, which is one of the reasons why we don't use engines that burn lettuce.  So the ratio of fossil fuel used to food produced, overall, isn't as important as the relative efficiency of different methods of producing that food.  The four percent difference for semi-industrial-organic vs full-on industrial is significant, given the volumes of agriculture we're dealing with, but I'm still curious how much the local thing helps.  I know recent studies have suggested that local sourcing isn't as efficient as people would like to believe, partly because of issues of scale, but still.

Meijer advertises that they get at least half their produce from local farms.  They don't really qualify this, so I don't know what 'half' means (by weight, volume, price, types?) or how 'local' local is.  It sounds nice, though.  Of course, I mostly live on grain products and some dairy, myself, so their produce section mostly doesn't affect me directly.  If I ate a lot of meat, there's a really terrific local butcher that has great prices on all kinds of meat products, almost entirely from local family farmers and hunters. 

This area is still as much farmland as anything else, and there are still a lot of small farms without full industrialization.  They do grow a lot of corporate stuff in Michigan, though, from the inescapable corn and soy beans to potatoes, temperate fruit (berries, apples, peaches), sugar beets, and syrup big and small.

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Re: Food and Gunk
« Reply #24 on: May 07, 2010, 11:46:13 PM »
:hmm:

OK, that was longer than even I expected.

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Re: Food and Gunk
« Reply #25 on: May 10, 2010, 02:28:29 PM »
I grow lettuce each fall/winter in my garden.  In the post bolting phase I usually get Earthbound farms stuff from Costco.  But since it's mostly grown in the Monterrey area, the transport is a non-issue.
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Re: Food and Gunk
« Reply #26 on: May 10, 2010, 06:50:10 PM »
Lettuce from CA wouldn't bother me too much, as far as that goes.  Support the highway system, and vice versa.  Fruit from South America, etc, makes me wonder about carbon costs, etc.

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Re: Food and Gunk
« Reply #27 on: May 13, 2010, 06:22:55 PM »
Around p 200 in my Penguin trade paperback edition -- the second half of sub-chapter 2 "Monday Evening" in Part II "Grass", where he's touring the Salatin farm -- Pollan gives a really good summary of the industrial macrofarm, the corn industry, and how we got there (which is to say: what went wrong).  It's only about three pages long and should probably get reprinted as a New York Times column once a year.

The book's gotten really good, it really has, but Pollan's perspective is still sometimes a little confused, which I think is the result of perfectly understandable enthusiasm, but I wonder if by now he's rethought it slightly.  The Salatin farm very much is a product of agricultural science, and of reductionism, and has a very industrial method to it.  It's not the underlying intellectual philosophy that sets it apart from huge disastrous industrial farms but the sense of proportion and (much as I usually hate the term) the holistic conception of it.

The question is one of going too far.  I mean, OK, you can say:  We have too many sick kids.  You've identified a problem.  There are many ways you can approach dealing with it.  If you find yourself killing off sick kids, odds are good that you've gone too far down the wrong path.  Industry sticks with whatever makes money, though.  (That's what corporations are intended to do, after all.)  When you find yourself growing more corn because there's already too much corn on the market and it's killing the profit margin, you should realize you've gone too far.  When you're pinching the tails off of pigs because overcrowding and psychological trauma makes them all bite each others' tails, you should realize you've gone too far.

Salatin says his system doesn't scale up because of its interdependence -- he can't add more chickens without also adding more cows, more pasture, more pigs, and so on.  But the 'holon' stacked system that's the basis of his method is extremely prime for industrialization and expansion.  The method would be to increase specialization without disturbing the overall system, so that you had interdependent teams each running their own holon:  one team running Eggmobiles, one team managing cattle and moving them from pasture to pasture, and so on.

You'd need to duplicate the farm after it reached a certain size, whatever the optimum size happens to be (probably pretty small, by agribusiness standards, but there's no reason why that's a bad thing), and you'd need a very good top manager to keep all the teams working together properly.  But it should be perfectly possible.  Still, there's no reason why you couldn't just have many similar farms that are independently run . . . except that this system requires expert management, so you'd have to have a lot of highly trained farmers.  Even in the old days, farming was like anything else, and half the farmers out there were in the bottom 50% for a reason.


I'm also interested to see if the book goes on to cover pre-modern stacked agriculture.  Pollan did mention fish being added to rice paddies, in passing, but there's a lot more to it.  A lot of pre-industrial agriculture was stacked, after all, in most cultures, and it still is in many places, especially in the Third World.  The same land that Salatin is farming now was very likely cultivated with a Three Sisters polyculture method by the natives for centuries before Europeans arrived, after all.  A lot of 'primitive' agriculture is mixed-use and very low-maintenance.  Sometimes productivity per square foot is low by modern standards, but when population density isn't a problem, you don't have to produce so much food per acre, either.

I'm also curious to see if Pollan compares Salatin's operation to any semi-modern farms run by the Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, etc.  I realize you can only cover so much in one book, though.

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Re: Food and Gunk
« Reply #28 on: May 13, 2010, 07:51:10 PM »
I'm also interested to see if the book goes on to cover pre-modern stacked agriculture.  Pollan did mention fish being added to rice paddies, in passing, but there's a lot more to it.  A lot of pre-industrial agriculture was stacked, after all, in most cultures, and it still is in many places, especially in the Third World.  The same land that Salatin is farming now was very likely cultivated with a Three Sisters polyculture method by the natives for centuries before Europeans arrived, after all.  A lot of 'primitive' agriculture is mixed-use and very low-maintenance.  Sometimes productivity per square foot is low by modern standards, but when population density isn't a problem, you don't have to produce so much food per acre, either.

I'm also curious to see if Pollan compares Salatin's operation to any semi-modern farms run by the Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, etc.  I realize you can only cover so much in one book, though.

What you are looking for is outside the scope of the book. He is examining 4 different "food chains": 1) most complex and industrialized 2) Industrialized Organic 3) Independent farmer Organic 4) Self Foraged.

After Salatin all you have left is Self Foraged. And really, it isn't like I am giving anything away, I believe that this format is detailed either in the introduction or the dust jacket.
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Re: Food and Gunk
« Reply #29 on: May 13, 2010, 08:18:57 PM »
Yeah, and fair enough.  Like I said, you can only do so much in one book.

Foraging is a perfectly good strategy for small populations.  In fact, most hunter-gatherer cultures have more leisure time than agricultural or industrial cultures.  We've just got way too many people, especially since we don't make very good use of the resources they represent.