James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

November 28, 2009

Food Stamps Usage

Filed under: Feeding the world,food — Tags: — James @ 10:57 pm

Today 1 in 8 Americans and 1 in 4 children is on food stamps. We have some of the most productive agriculture in the world, which translates into some of the lowest food prices. Any change that decreases our productivity is going to have to include some way to protect those who already don’t have enough to eat.

At the same time the status quo isn’t acceptable. Food stamps are a great program (for fighting hunger but it’s also one of the two most effective ways of stimulating the economy along with increasing unemployment benefits), but families often still run out of money before the end of the month. I propose three key areas to work on:

  • Increase funding for the food stamps program to make more eligible and give them enough money to make it through the month
  • Increase agricultural productivity, this will bring down prices somewhat domestically, and also help fight hunger around the world
  • Get government funding to train people in how to cook simple meals (things with lots of rice, dried beans, and pasta) and even buy hot plates and a few pots and pans for those most in need. The cost of homemade rice and bean burritos is a lot less frozen food and potato chips. Some people still won’t have time to put together their own meals, but for some, such training and equipment could make a HUGE difference.

I got thinking about this after seeing this cool/frightening graphic from the nytimes about the huge increase in food stamp usage in this country.


  1. it really amazes me how many people in the U.S. live far below the standards that are described by the media and politicians. If they actually voted (or voted on concrete issues instead of philosophy), it would be a very different country.

    Comment by Matt — November 29, 2009 @ 5:53 am

  2. Have you had a chance to read “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” by Thomas Frank? It’s way outside the subjects I normally discuss here but it sounds like it’s talking about exactly the same point that you’re making.

    The other point, which I’m not sure he touches on in his book, is that so many Americans, myself included, believe deep down that someday we’re going to make it big. Overall I’d say I’d much rather live in a country like ours than one where no one dreamed of succeeding beyond the levels of their parents. However, one effect is that policies that help only a few of the very rich at the expense of the rest of the country can still be very popular. For example, revoking an estate tax that only effects people who die with more than 3.5 million dollars to their name can gather popular support because so many of us wish, hope, or even believe, that someday we will be that rich even though statistically most of us never will.

    Comment by James — November 29, 2009 @ 10:26 am

  3. What you are talking about is the “pre-rich” illusion many people allow themselves to operate under. Its crap, especially now. We have been socialized in this country to be “pre-rich” and support those who are the “haves” because we might be them one day.

    We are also socialized to very strongly and reflexively support the infinite growth model – thats also obviously crap!

    Comment by nika — November 29, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

  4. Great! Pre-rich definitely captures the attitude I was trying to describe without requiring a paragraph of explanation.

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with striving to be better off than the generations which came before us, but taking it as a GIVEN that someday we’ll be rich and successful is probably (at least in part) to blame for problems from the politicians we vote for to the the astronomical sums many Americans put on their credit cards (assuming at some level that we’ll pay it all off once we get the big promotion or start our own business).

    Comment by James — November 29, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

  5. We have highly “productive” industrial farms pumping out truly enormous quantities of corn and soybean biomass.

    Problem is, these are simply feedstocks for non-nutritive byproducts and foods of commerce which do little to feed Americans in any real way (makes them fat, sure, but that is actually a by product of estrogen poisoning from our exposure to phytoestrogens and other artificial estrogen moieties up and down the industrial Ag system from fertilizers to pesticides to the additives sprayed on fruits and veggies to preserve and then mature them to a huge number of other applications of estrogen mimics in our industrial foods)

    Truth is tho that if we converted one of these long overfarmed industrial farms to production of human-focused foods (anything not going into a bioreactor to molecularize it) such as tomatoes or eggplants or carrots, etc, the crops would be useless due to the profound soil depletion that industrial ag practices have wrought on our heartland soils.

    We have been the frogs sitting in the tepid water, blindfolded and earmuffed, but the temperature is rising.

    We are reaping what we have sown. Will farmers have the training and the awareness and the simple resiliency (lack of monsterous debt) to begin restoring their soils? Its a huge thing to ask, farm subsidies and political games by corrupt TV announcers and pols at every level work hard to confuse people.

    Comment by nika — November 29, 2009 @ 7:42 am

  6. Nika, corn and soybeans can and do feed people directly. You’re right, a lot of their total production today ends up in processed foods (and even more goes into feeding animals for meat production) but I don’t think that’s because of anything intrinsically bad or wrong about the crops. Corn (and potatoes) supported civilizations across the western hemisphere for thousands of years. The history of the soybean stretched back at least five thousands years in China.

    While I understand people’s anger with our current food system, blaming specific crops for it isn’t the best way to go. Grains (primarily rice, corn, and wheat) and pulses (from kidney beans to chickpeas to lentils although I guess the soybean is usually considered an oilseed rather than a pulse) are the foundation on which human civilization has been built and if we end up denying them in favor of vegetables alone, we’re going to be in even more trouble food-wise than we are today.

    Comment by James — November 29, 2009 @ 10:53 am

  7. Oh! LOL I wasnt being crop-ist.

    Corn as it is designed and deployed now in the US is not the same being it was as it was cultivated by the first peoples on this continent. Eating dent corn isnt the best use of this feed stock if we think in terms of human food.

    I am all for corn, love it. Corn is an amazing plant and it has a lot to teach us. I was commenting more on the entire system, which uses corn and soy as cogs in its machine.

    Soybeans are being used incorrectly by us. We eat it in a way that doesnt knock out its bad qualities (such as phytoestrogens and phytic acid and also we eat it GMO). Asian cultures ferment soy before they eat it – we use it as a means for massive soy protein isolates, soy milk, animal food, that would be problematic even if it wasnt GMO.

    I am much more soil centric. I am mostly offended by the way industrial ag uses tech to kill and deplete soil into a growth medium without paying the consequences (nutrient-depleted foods are innocuous looking, we consumers have NO clue our food is vacuous and utterly lacking in nutrition).

    They get the profit, the environment and our bodies pay the price. I cant see how that will change either! Sorry, hard to pull optimism out of the hat on this one.

    Comment by nika — November 29, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

  8. Well as long as you’re not a crop-ist I guess we’re going to be ok. 😉

    We definitely need to be doing more to take care of our soil, but I think there’s some evidence we’re taking steps in the right direction. No-till farming is one, in that it reduces run-off and is starting to let more organic matter build back up in the soil. Another I’m really excited about is the idea of breeding for plants with higher lignin content in their roots. (Potentially we could do this without even using genetic engineering, but instead taking advantage the incredible genetic diversity already found in crops like corn.) Since lignin takes longer to break down in the soil, farmers might be able to sell carbon credits for plants breeds of crops certified to carry these traits, and as an added benefit the increased soil organic matter would make their soil healthier and more productive.

    I’m going to have to read more about soybeans. I’m really more of a corn guy, and while obviously I have very different views about genetic engineering, I don’t know enough about phytoestrogens and phytic acid to have an informed opinion yet.

    Comment by James — November 29, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

  9. I thought the studies showed there was no real nutrition advantage in organic food:


    “Looking at all of the studies published in the last 50 years, we have concluded that there’s no good evidence that consumption of organic food is beneficial to health based on the nutrient content.”

    Comment by Mary — November 29, 2009 @ 9:02 pm

  10. Mary,

    Dig into who was behind that paper.

    Industrial Organic is as depleted as convention Industrial Ag. They push the soils to such a degree that the ecosystems in the soil are not functional (need intact bacterial and mycological communities to facilitate proper nutrient and mineral flow into crops – this doesnt happen with industrial practices, further, soils dont have these things to give because its all been removed and not replaced during previous seasons).

    Industrial Organic has one advantage over conventional – it (supposedly) is not bathed constantly in toxic waste. Thats a major advantage.

    Crops grown in living soil in a small farm setting that grows organically is your best bet AFTER you growing your own organic food. In terms of grains, small farm organic grains are available at a premium but profoundly worth it.

    Did you know that you would have to eat 8 modern oranges to equal 1 orange from 50 years ago (wrt Vit C) – the soils are that depleted.

    We truly are at Peak Soil (have been for some time)

    Comment by nika — November 30, 2009 @ 6:09 am

  11. I hadn’t heard that about vitamin C content in oranges (would be interested to hear more).

    But it’s not all bad news on the vitamin front. Since the 1970s the average vitamin A content of carrots in the US has increased 80%, the result of publicly funded plant breeders developing varieties with more beta carotene.

    Comment by James — November 30, 2009 @ 7:51 am

  12. Plants don’t take up Vitamin C from the soil, they synthesize it from glucose. Of course soil is a factor in overall vitamin content – if a plant is nutrient stressed it will change how it diverts its resources, grow more slowly, etc.

    That vitamin content has decreased by nearly a factor of ten suggests other factors are playing a role there too, perhaps that new varieties have been selected for over the last 50 years for size or shape over vitamin content. If a fruit is retaining more water, it will be larger but the nutrients will be diluted. The main point I got out of the FSA study was that once you corrected for water content (compared dry weights of products instead of fresh weights), the nutrient content between organic and conventional became less significant (apologies if I’m thinking of the wrong study here!)

    Also to consider, changes in farm practices. Earlier harvesting and further and further transporting of produce is almost certainly playing a role too.

    Comment by Amy — November 30, 2009 @ 11:24 am

  13. Feel free to provide sources to back up your claims. But I’m looking at an orange label here: http://www.nutritiondata.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/1969/2 It says there is 139% of the Vitamin C you need in one cup of orange sections. Why would I need 8x that? You just pee it out.

    Comment by Mary — November 30, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

  14. Mary,

    I dont understand how one can justify acceptance of obviously impaired plant function due to poor agricultural practices based on your capacity to use a certain amount of vitamin C at any moment.

    I would rather eat one healthy luscious and nutritious orange than 8 diluted poor ones. Maybe its just me.. ?

    You are also free to do searches too .. google, pubmed, USDA are all your friend.

    See this link http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/AFSIC_pubs/srb0003.htm for -> 216 <- relevant references.

    Mayer, A-M. 1997. Historical changes in the mineral content of fruits and vegetables: a cause for concern?. p. 69-77 In W. Lockeretz, (ed). Agriculture Production and Nutrition: Proc. Sept 1997. Tufts University.

    If you are into nutrition, you will know that Tufts is a premier nutritional educational institution.

    Comparison of the Total Phenolic and Ascorbic Acid Content of Freeze-Dried
    and Air-Dried Marionberry, Strawberry, and Corn Grown Using Conventional, Organic,
    and Sustainable Agricultural Practices, Danny K. Asami, Yun-Jeong Hong, Diane M. Barrett, and Alyson E. Mitchell, Department of Food Science and Technology, University of California- Davis, March 3, 2003, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 51 (5), 1237 -1241.

    There are certainly more, this is not an exhaustive list.

    Comment by nika — December 1, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

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