Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Wicked Good Eggs

I read The Omnivore's Dilemma and strongly recommend it. Even if you don't agree with Pollen's opinions on food culture (I do, but that's just my opinion, not something I would argue about) I believe the book is a good for its treatment of farm economics, something that city slickers like myself might not be aware of.

The factor that I think is now so relevant (with both high food and high oil prices) is the chain of subsidies and non-renewable inputs that goes into our food.
  • It starts with oil, something we can't make more of, and something we don't really have (to the scale that we require) in the US. I'll blog about oil some other time, but for now let's just say that starting the chain with oil gets us off on the wrong foot.
  • The oil is used to make fertilizers...basically you couldn't grow corn to the quantity we do without adding a lot of fertilizer, and that process requires energy, which in the US means fossil fuels. (I suppose that we could move some of our energy dependence to nuclear power - I am for this, and not just because I could then blog that the beginning link in a bag of Dorritos is Uranium!)
  • The farmers grow a pretty huge amount of corn - the Government pays them to do so, allowing them to spend more on production costs than the corn is worth.
  • That makes corn so cheap that we go feed it to cows who aren't even supposed to be eating corn (and get really sick from it).*
  • This ends with a Quizznos add telling us that for $5 we should get more meat!
  • Actually, it ends with us all getting really fat.
When I look back at the entire chain of events, it strikes me as completely absurd, and more importantly really inefficient! A lot of expenditure for something (in this case fast food) that isn't even that great. I'd like my taxes back, I can live without fast food, thank you.*

But it turns out that Polyface Farms, which is featured in Pollen's book, delivers to the DC metro area via buying clubs. So Lori and I signed up.

Now I do have to admit that while signing up makes my liberal conscience feel good, the amount of food we ordered is a drop in the bucket of our total callorie consumption - we're going to have to find sustainable sources for a wide range of other types of food.

But the point of this blog post is not that Polyface is sustainable, with almost no outside non-renewable inputs. It is that their eggs are magical.

Lori and I try to buy the freshest eggs we can, but Polyface eggs are in a different dimension. I found this out last night when making meringues and zabaglione; the meringues whipped in perhaps half the time normal eggs would and became so thick as to lower the RPM of the mixer. The initial beating of the yolks takes significantly more effort than with your regular store-bought yolks-break-by-looking-at-them variety.

Forget sustainability and the planet, I would like all my food to be farmed the Polyface way because the quality is unreal!

* There is now a fork in the road - we could go down a different path and use our cheap subsidized corn to make fuel...sort of like the fuel we used to make the fertilizer to grow the corn. I've read that the output-input energy ratio for Ethanol is 1.2 (that is, it's a slight win, prodcuing 20% more energy than it took to make) but 1.2 is still totally lame.


sheryl k said...

Hi Ben and Lori - just read Pollen's next book, "In Defense of Food" which I would HIGHLY recommend. Totally changed my thinking about food which for the first time in years has nothing to do with calories or fat or WW points, etc. I keep meaning to look up his speaking schedule to see when he's next in Boston.

alpilotx said...

Hi Ben,

Now I also read this Blog - well X-Plane is really not everything I'm interested in - and your views are striking me. Although, here in Europe we still get some good food (as you already pointed out yourself in another post), but nevertheless we are facing the same issues you do in the US (well, industrialized agriculture is nothing new here too). The most important attribute of food in the supermarkets seems to be the price for most of the consumers ... and we have really junk food scandals every now or then (the people cry ... but forget about it the next day they go shopping).

And yes, the comes all the problems with sustainability which makes me to scratch my head too:
- there is the Oil issue
- the fertilizer problem
- problem with mono cultures
- mono cultures need a lot of pesticides
- pesticides are poisoning the water/ground water.
- rapid top soil degradation/depletion
- oh and the need for water in agriculture is a growing problem in many parts of the world.

So all in all, it seems to me, that all tis so called "green revolution" (as it was often called in industrialized agriculture) might rather turn into a big mayhem for many on this planet. Sometimes I wonder, if capitalism (as it is the reason for most of the "optimizations" in agriculture) is the best "steering mechanism" when it comes to the basic needs of human beings.

Andras / alpilotx

alpilotx said...

Hi Ben,

I'm just watching this film "The World According to Monsanto" and thought it fits your thoughts/concerns about our food more than "well" (even if this post is now a bit older). Watching this film makes one shudder about how big capitals deal with what we eat (to make it short: they are only interested in revenues, and for that they do everything):

Andras, alpilotx

Benjamin Supnik said...

Hi Andras,

thanks for the link - the movie is not available via NetFlix (or other normal channels) but I found it on BitTorrent. :-)

The US food production chain is pretty frightening, and horribly opaque - I cannot fault Europe for saying "we're not eating that".

For me what is frustrating is the total lack of pragmatism...we could have a debate about how much engineering should go into food or how much market forces should be allowed to shape food production.

But it wouldn't matter. The US food production system is a result of gross distortions in a market economy - CAFOs and grain-fed meat wouldn't make nearly as much sense if my tax dollars weren't paying to make grain dirt-cheap; the lack of accounting for environmental cleanup similarly makes a whole pile of disgusting farm practices profitable.

Economists would call these things 'externalities' argument is: whether or not, in the long term, US agriculture can be industrialized or not, removing the externalities would be a good start. It's one thing to have farmers wasting tons of energy and creating unnecessary pollution - it's another to PAY them to do so!

I'm not sure what the perception of the US is in Europe, but I would say that "free market gone crazy" is not quite accurate..."large companies stealing from the taxpayers" might be more accurate.