The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Processed foods and a grain-based diet

Graph of tons of world food by categoryModern agribusinesses are the clear descendants of an agricultural system that gave rise to ill health, poverty, and wars of conquest.  I'm not going to bore you with a rundown on how modern agribusinesses have created environmental devastation, poverty in developing countries, the demise of the small farmer, and yet more concentration of wealth in the hands of a few --- I assume you've heard it all before.  Instead, I want to talk for a few minutes about the modern diet and processed foods.

Currently, twelve plant species make up 80% of the world's crops by weight --- wheat, corn, rice, barley, sorghum, soybeans, potato, manioc, sweet potato, sugarcane, sugar beet, and banana.  Of those, the big three are vastly dominant, and grains provide over half of the calories for most people in the developing world.  In the United States, corn is king, and its derivatives can be found in nearly every processed food on the supermarket shelves.
Sylvester Graham
The current American obsession with processed food can be traced back to a Presbyterian minister named Sylvester Graham who preached a message in keeping with the traditional Christian belief that mortification of the body can elevate the soul.  Graham advocated vegetarianism, and pushed a particular cracker recipe so hard that it now retains his name.  Later advocates built on Graham's ideas and argued that food is inherently dirty, having been grown in the soil.  Only by processing that food can we turn it into something pure.

Agribusinesses took the idea and ran with it.  The market for food was starting to butt up against its boundaries --- people can only eat so much --- but processing that food turned it into a value-added product that could be sold for more cash.  The businesses marketed processed food as a status symbol and time saver, and the American public lapped up both the advertising and the corn syrup laden sodas.

USDA food pyramidThese agribusinesses quickly discovered that they could grow far more corn and wheat than Americans would willingly eat, so they turned to the government for help.  I grew up believing that the old USDA food pyramid was gospel, but only recently did I realize that the USDA has motives beyond making me healthy.  With agribusinesses giving huge donations to political leaders and those leaders funding the USDA, it's no surprise that the food pyramid was used to tell Americans to eat more of the foods we were growing in surplus --- grains.  During the Depression, our government even handed out two types of food coupons; only after using the one for wheat and other surplus commodities were Americans allowed to use the other and take home fruits and vegetables.

Given this history of our spiritual leaders and government pushing processed foods and grain-based diets, we shouldn't be surprised that America is caught in the throes of an epidemic of obesity, especially among the lower class where people have little choice but to accept the government's handouts.  But the sad truth is that for most of us, eating processed foods is a choice.  Every day, we make a decision about what we want to eat --- will we turn vegetables and fruits from the farmer's market or our garden into the modern incarnation of a hunter-gatherer's diet, or will we pull out that frozen pasta alfredo or stop by McDonalds for a Big Mac?  I believe that we owe it to ourselves to see past the marketing and be aware of what we lose by buying into time-saving processed foods.

Stuck in a cubicle?  Microbusiness Independence shows you the path to freedom.

This post is part of our History of Agriculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I agree with this so much... I'm going to link to your post on my blog. Thanks for another good and thought provoking post. You really do make my day more often than not;).
Comment by Jessica Wed Sep 22 13:26:31 2010
Thanks so much for posting! I usually hear from people saying "No, I disagree" on my less mainstream posts like this, so it's great to hear that it made your day. :-)
Comment by anna Wed Sep 22 17:58:48 2010
Amazing, I can't believe I never considered the possibility of ulterior motives in regards to the food pyramid. I also was raised to follow it as a nutritional gospel. What a disheartening, eye-opening revelation......
Comment by Courtney Frazer Tue Jan 24 16:54:42 2012
I know exactly what you mean --- I was pretty shocked too. Actually, as I read more about the topic, I learned that industry lobbyists are actually included in the process of deciding what the government's dietary recommendations are each year!
Comment by anna Tue Jan 24 17:35:42 2012

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