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How we got to where we are ...

We live in an industrial agriculture food system that has made us unhealthy and disease ridden.  To understand the evolution of industrial agriculture, we need a little plant chemistry.  Plants get fourteen essential nutrients from the soil to grow.  The three “primary nutrients” are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.  Nitrogen (N) is a building block for growing new stems and leaves, plus it is a necessary part of chlorophyll, which makes the leaves green and helps plants photosynthesize.  Phosphorus (P) is needed for developing flowers, fruits, and root systems.  Potassium (K) keeps roots healthy and also aids in developing flowers and fruits.  Potassium is also associated with the movement of water, nutrients and carbohydrates in plant tissue.  It helps plants tolerate stress, such as drought.  Today, you can purchase N-P-K fertilizers at your local nursery, but how did they come to be?

Nitrogen (N):  Justus Freiherr von Liebig (12 May 1803 – 18 April 1873), a professor at the University of Giessen in Germany, has been described as the "father of the fertilizer industry” for his research on nitrogen and trace minerals as essential plant nutrients.  Another German, Fritz Haber (9 December 1868 – 29 January 1934), invented a process for synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen gasses, the “Haber process.”  Further development of the process by Carl Bosch (27 August 1874 – 26 April 1940) while working for the German Chemical Company BASF led to commercial ammonia production beginning in 1913 in Ludwigshafen, Germany, using the “Haber-Bosch process.”  This invention fostered the large-scale synthesis of fertilizers and explosives.  It is estimated that two thirds of annual global food production uses nitrogen from the Haber-Bosch process.

Soon after the plant was built, World War I began, and the new plant was used to manufacture material for explosives.  Following the war’s end, Germany attempted to keep the Haber-Bosch process a secret.  During negotiations at Versailles, however, Bosch, who was a member of the German negotiating team, offered the French government the technical details they would need to build their own Haber-Bosch plant.  The French began producing ammonia in the early 1920s, followed soon thereafter by the British and Americans.  

Phosphorus (P):  The earliest phosphate fertilizers were made from crushed bones.  Today, phosphorus fertilizers are manufactured from rock phosphate.  Major deposits are found in the US, China, Morocco and Russia.  The US produces about one-third of the world’s rock phosphate; nearly half of the world reserves are in Morocco.

Potassium (K) in agriculture is often loosely referred to as potash.  The term potash comes from an early production technique in which potassium was leached from wood ashes and then concentrated by evaporating the leachate in large iron pots.  Today, potassium is produced in many parts of the world from underground salt deposits - mostly a combination of potassium and sodium (Na) chloride - being the main source.  These deposits were formed as ancient oceans evaporated, leaving behind concentrated salt layers that were subsequently buried by sediment.  Many countries contain such deposits, with the largest being in western Canada.  Over ninety percent of modern global potash production goes into the manufacture of fertilizer.

N-P-K:  While applying these nutrients separately provided good results, the real breakthrough came by combining all three primary nutrients, nitrogen (N), phosphate (P) and potassium (K), in one granule.  The ideal proportions were identified in 1926 and commercial production of this combined fertilizer granule began at the BASF Limburgerhof facility in 1927.

Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and the world, almost every country except the United States, was at war.  Food production plummeted; the heartland of the US was about the only major agricultural area still in full production.  The US attempted to support the allies with agricultural shipments, but many ships were lost to German submarines, U-boats.  When the US entered the war, farmers were exhorted to produce more meat and crops; soldiers needed food to fight.  The government was asking for increased production of milk, eggs, beef and veal, lamb and mutton, corn, oats, barley, rye, hay, soybeans, peanuts for oil, and vegetables.  US farmers responded.   Corn was a basic feed commodity in the building of a greater livestock and poultry industry.  The acreage devoted to hybrid corn more than doubled during the war years; correspondingly the use of fertilizer exploded.

The war ended, the soldiers, sailors and airmen came home, and the “baby boom” followed; more mouths to feed.  At the end of World War II, the US government had ten industrial plants that produced high-explosive nitrate.  The bomb-making plants were converted to fertilizer plants.  Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer replaced natural nutrient recycling; farmers quickly abandoned crop rotation, cover crops (such as cereals and legumes like ryegrass, wheat, sorghum, millet, oats, barley, clover, alfalfa, fava among others) and livestock grazing to replenish the soils.  All farmers had to do now was apply the appropriate amounts of synthetic fertilizer.

Numerous synthetic pesticides and insecticides derived from petroleum had been developed to protect the fighting men in World War II, especially in the jungles of the South Pacific.  These too became part of the farming mantra.

The agriculture demands of World War II also led to the development of more efficient and specialized farming machinery, larger tractors, self-propelled combines, pickers for various crops, and the like.  Farmers could grow more crops with fewer farm workers.  Of course, all of this new machinery required capital investment, which not all farmers could afford.  Production exploded, far outstripping demand.  Crop prices fell, which pushed more farmers out of business.

John H. Davis served as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower administration from 1953 to 1954.  He first used the term “agribusiness” in 1955 while teaching in the Harvard University Graduate School of Business.  Dr. Davis and Ray A. Goldberg published A Concept of Agribusiness (Harvard University Press, January 1, 1957) that defined “agribusiness” as “the sum total of all operations involved in the manufacture and distribution of farm supplies; production operations on the farm; and the storage, processing and distribution of farm commodities and items made from them.”  In essence, the term “agribusiness” comprises the entire production chain from the farm to the consumer.  More foundationally, the term represents the conceptual and practical conversion of a production system into an economic system.  Farmers were encouraged to mechanize and specialize in the name of economic efficiency.

In 1971 Richard Nixon was facing re-election.  While the Vietnam war was the front-page news threatening his popularity at home, just as big an issue with voters was the soaring cost of food.  The inflation rate for groceries reached an all-time high, high enough to generate real political heat.  If Nixon was to survive, he needed food prices to go down, and that required getting a very powerful lobby to support him - the farmers.  Nixon appointed Earl “Rusty” Butz, a Purdue University academic from the farming heartland of Indiana, as his second Secretary of Agriculture.  Butz’s mono-focus job was to drive down the cost of food without alienating the farmers.   Butz, an agriculture expert, had a radical plan that would transform the food we eat, and in doing so, the shape of the human race.

Butz pushed farmers into a new, industrial scale of production, and into farming one crop in particular: corn.  Corn became the food for livestock, particularly cattle, replacing grass.  Manufactured food products based on corn became the engine for the massive surge in the quantities of cheaper food supplied to American supermarkets.  Butz reengineered the American food system, driving down prices and vastly increasing the output of American farmers.  What had long been the dream of agribusiness (cheaper raw materials) and the political establishment (fewer restive farmers) now became official government policy.

Butz is perhaps most famous (or infamous) for his exhortation to farmers, “get big or get out.”  Think monoculture, think more acreage, think more machinery, think more chemicals, think more yield, think about a larger production system.  

Butz also exhorted farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” to eliminate any and all barriers to production and yield; do not worry about soil conservation measures that had been widely instituted after the experience of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.  You can see the consequences driving by any corn field; corn is planted up to the shoulder of the road.

By the mid-70s, there was a surplus of corn.  Butz flew to Japan to investigate a scientific innovation that would change everything: the mass development of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a highly sweet, gloppy syrup, produced from surplus corn, that was also incredibly cheap.  HFCS had been discovered in the 50s, but it was only in the 70s that a process had been found to harness it for mass production.  HFCS was soon pumped into every conceivable food: making everything sweeter, and extending shelf life from days to years.

Butz’s legacy would be to make sure that food prices never again rose to become a factor in presidential elections.  He probably did more than any other single individual to orchestrate the scourge of cheap corn.  Butz’s policies were also a major contributor to the ongoing health epidemic resulting from corn’s infestation of food products.

What constitutes a “healthy diet” has been a topic of controversy for decades.  Calories, fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates, sugars, beef, fruits, vegetables, oils, butter, and, and, and … have all been targets … eat less, eat more; remove from your diet, add to your diet.  

Concerns about chronic diseases linked to diet, heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, led to hearings before the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs chaired by Senator George McGovern of South Dakota (D).  Other committee members included Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts (D), Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota (D), and Robert Dole of Kansas (R).  In January 1977 the committee issued a set of dietary guidelines encouraging Americans to reduce consumption of red meat and dairy products.  Needless to say, a political firestorm erupted led by the red meat and dairy industries, which resulted in the guidelines being “rewritten” in a more politically acceptable form.  The politically-expedient change was subtle in construct but enduring in effect.  The guidelines were no longer to avoid certain foods or eat certain foods, but rather to eat a basket of “nutrients.”  Food was no longer an entirety, but a delivery system for nutrients.  “Food” was the sum of its individual constituent nutrients, not anything unique in and of itself.  “Health,” it was averred, would be achieved by consuming an appropriate basket of individual nutrients.  

Of course, corporate food scientists were johnny-on-the-spot to reconstruct food into the most marketable nutrients.  High-fiber, low-fat, whole-grain, gluten free, and a myriad of other “nutritious” and “healthy” options for you to choose from.  “3 times more calcium than milk and 7 times more vitamin C than a single orange;” “where taste and health meet;” “don’t give up your favorite meal, make it healthier;” “good nutrition is our mission;” “life is a tragedy of nutrition;” “so nutritious it’s suspicious;” “the goodness of nature;” “cereals loaded with nutrition;” “pocket-friendly nutrition;” “we have lots of protein for you;” “the way nature intended;” “delicious and nutritious;” … enough???  You get the idea.  Walk the food product aisles of your favorite market and read the slogans on the front of the packages.  How many of them tout nutrition?  Hint, if there is a health claim on the label, what is inside is probably not good for your health.

Your pets are not left out … “adds luster and sheen to their coat.”

The US Federal government has provided advice on what to eat and drink for over a century.  We now know, based on long-term science, that most of the government advice has been totally or partially incorrect.  One of the secrets to healthy eating is to avoid packaged food products, “Frankenfood,” most of which include corn in countless costumes.  Another is to eat food that comes in Mother Nature’s packaging that has been grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.  Eat organic, eat grass-fed, eat non-GMO; you will get all of the nutrients you need and be healthier.