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Of Plants and People

In my mid to late 20’s I experimented with a relatively strict vegetarian diet and I felt great. Later I abandoned my vegetarian experiment and started to eat more like I had when I was living at home with my parents except that I continued to eat more rice and beans and much less meat than I had before my vegetarian days, big mistake. Dr Fhurman, in his book “Eat to Live” recommends a diet consisting plant foods in the following percentages of total calorie intake,

  • Vegetables 30 – 70%
  • Fruits 20 – 50%
  • Beans/legumes 10 – 30%
  • Whole grains, raw nuts and seeds 5 – 20%
  • Fish, fat free dairy twice per week or less
  • Poultry, eggs, oils once weekly or less,
  • Beef, sweets, cheese/milk, processed food, hydrogenated oil, rarely.

He claims that this diet will eliminate the risks of developing chronic diseases, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, that plague people living in the developed world. His basic point is that non processed plant foods, particularly vegetables are high in nutrient content, and fiber, and low in calories, while the processed food diet we typically eat is the opposite, high calorie, low nutrient, low fiber. Hunger is controlled by a combination of physiological signals that monitor intake of calories, nutrients, and fiber. The diet of processed food we eat in industrialized societies result in people having to eat more high calorie foods in an attempt to get the nutrient and fiber needed to signal we have eaten enough. Eating foods that have high levels of nutrients and fiber but are low in calories satisfies hunger on far fewer calories than the diet most of us eat. Getting more nutrients and fiber from fewer calories makes you as healthy as you can be; the opposite makes you sicker than you should be. He presents convincing research and clinical experience from his medical practice to back up these claims. He cites example’s of individual patients with these conditions who have been successfully treated by eating this diet and no longer need the slew of medications they have had to take to lower their cholesterol, decrease their blood pressure, or keep their blood sugar within a normal range. Did I forget to mention, these folks also loose a lot of weight, 20 or more pounds in the first six weeks. Apparently, eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, not just avoiding animal fat, is important for the maintenance of human health. I am going to give this diet a try, primarily for my health, but also because I am in the process of liberating myself from domination of my thinking and behavior by the culture of modern capitalist consumption economics, so why not start from the ground and work my way up. Here is where we can begin to see a very intimate and immediate relationship between our economic and political system and our individual lives on the level of personal health. The personal costs of eating the American diet for each one of us is that we will shorten our lives with chronic diseases. Economists call these kinds of costs economic externalities because they are not accounted for in the pricing of the transactions in the market, in this case food and medical services. Applying this level of economic abstraction to myself is a ridiculous because my health is not external to me; it is only external to the companies who are profiting due to the degradation of my health. My cost is a real one, as is the price we all pay when we eat the diet that best serves the needs of the agribusiness industry but not our own bodies. In microcosm that is what is wrong with capitalism, the illusion of profit created by non-incorporation of external costs.

  • More than 90 million Americans live with chronic illnesses.
  • Chronic diseases account for 70% of all deaths in the United States.
  • The medical care costs of people with chronic diseases account for more than 75% of the nation’s $1.4 trillion medical care costs.
  • The direct and indirect costs of diabetes are nearly $132 billion a year.
  • In 2001, approximately $300 billion was spent on all cardiovascular diseases. Over $129 in lost productivity was due to cardiovascular disease.
  • Nearly $68 billion is spent on dental services each year.

In eating what nourishes “the economy”, we support an interlocking food production and medical care delivery system that feeds off of the collective degradation of our health. Treating chronic diseases cost 1.4 trillion dollars per year, disease directly caused and preventable by a healthy diet, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and obesity, form the bulk of those diseases. If we could save ½ of the cost of medical services through investment in education and production of healthy food we would save 700 billion dollars per year. Agricultural subsidies for the raw materials out of which the American diet is constructed add more cost to the primary cost of medical treatment. James Tillotson, professor of food policy and international business at Tufts University, in  “The fat of the land; do agricultural subsidies foster poor health” says

“By 2000 these fixed payments had reached $22 billion, about three times the pre-reform level of 1996, according to the 2002 report Landowners’ Riches: The Distribution of Agricultural Subsidies by Ohio State University agricultural economist Barry K. Goodwin and colleagues. The 2002 Farm Bill abandoned this attempt to eliminate subsidies and reduce farm payments. Instead, says Landowners’ Riches, it is scheduled to distribute about $190 billion by 2012, an increase of about $72 billion when compared to the programs it replaced.This support may indeed drive down the price of commodities such as corn, wheat, and soybeans. To Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, that’s one of the reasons the relationship between agricultural subsidies and obesity is clear. Because prices of these staples are low, so are those of HFCS, hydrogenated fats, and corn-fed meats. And the cheapest way to make foods taste good, she says, is to add sugars and fat.”

We are paying the food industry to create a food system via subsidy that harms our health individually and collectively. Clearly the value of a human life is relative, the individual and the corporate valuation are perceived through different filters. Add the cost of subsidies $190 billion to the cost of treating preventable chronic diseases, about ¾ of the $1.4 trillion spent on treating chronic illness; we are spending over $1 trillion + making our society ill and then treating the illness. Large agricultural landholders, corporate food companies, medical insurance companies, drug companies, hospitals, and doctors, benefit and we pay them with our health. To get a better idea of the relative size of this cost the entire defense budget, including the funding of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is approximately $ 800 billion. It is no accident that our national approach to security spending skews toward the military side of our spending at 83% of our total spending, compared to the 6% we spend on international affairs which is focused primarily on prevention of conflict. This pattern is the same as spending in the food and health care system and it reflects the needs of the capitalist industrial economy to promote disease and then spend to cure it because it is the most profitable approach for large corporations. Derrick Jensen in “End Game 1″, John Perkins in “Confessions of an Economic Hit man”, and Naomi Klein in “Shock Doctrine”, all examine the predatory nature of capitalism form different points of view and focus on it’s harmful effects on the environment, developing countries, and developed countries. When we look at our diet we see the effect of industrial capitalism in the cells of our bodies and the health of our population. I am withdrawing my life from their food chain as fast as I can, they will no longer profit at the expense of my health, I am NOT a host of economic externalities, I am NOT a consumer, I am a human being possessed of my own self assigned value. We learn what to eat by imitating those around us who are either hunting and gathering the food available in their local environment or engaging in agriculture and growing the food we learn to eat and share. Katharine Milton, Department of Anthropology, University of California Says

“Humans do not instinctively know what to eat. Rather, foodways are learned primarily through exposure to the eating habits of others. In the past, human societies ate traditional diets which represented hundreds of years of experimentation with locally available dietary resources. Today, such traditional diets are largely a thing of the past, particularly in highly technological nations such as the United States. Here most people live in urban areas totally removed from the sources of food production and largely out of touch with most or perhaps all aspects of their past dietary heritage.

Industrialization has disconnected us from agriculture and turned us all into hunter gatherers who use the tool of money earned from the industrial economy to dig, cut, trap, hunt and prepare our food. In this way the corporate entity has become a replacement object for both agriculture and land where plants grow naturally and can be collected to eat. No matter how you slice it, despite the illusion that we depend on “the economy” for our survival, all life depends on plants. The ecological and biological sciences lay this out clearly when they map and quantify the food source dependencies of our living natural world. First we have the producers, they are the plants, which take the energy of sunlight and create the organic compounds for their existence by combining that energy with water and nutrients from the soil. Next on the pyramid of life are the primary consumers, animals that eat plants. These primary consumers become food for the secondary consumers, the small carnivores. Finally, the tertiary consumers eat the small carnivores at the top of the pyramid of life. All of the energy for this activity comes from plants, contract the base of plants and you contract the size of the consuming populations that directly or indirectly live on them. Human beings are omnivores who have evolved to eat from all of the parts of the pyramid of life but we are most well adapted to eating a wide variety of plants with only a smattering of animal foods. Recent clarification of early human hunting and gathering activity punctures the myth that we survived primarily on the hunting of big game, a key myth supporting a diet high in animal fat and protein. James O’Connell and  Kristen Hawkes, Department of Anthropology, University of Utah say

“Despite its widespread acceptance, there are good reasons to be skeptical about the underlying assumption. Most important is the observation that big game hunting is actually a poor way to support a family. Among the Tanzanian Hadza, for example, men armed with bows and poisoned arrows operating in a game-rich habitat acquire large animal prey only about once every thirty hunter-days, not nearly often enough to feed their children effectively. They could do better as provisioners by taking small game or plant foods, yet choose not to, which suggests that big game hunting serves some other purpose unrelated to offspring survivorship (Hawkes et al. 1991).”

Here we see evidence pointing toward the inefficiency of big game hunting in bringing in nutrition to the tribe and the inference that part of the hunt fills a social role other than providing nutrition. My guess is that when we split from our non-human primate ancestors and developed a pair male female pair bonding social structure that the hunt became a way for the males of the society to compete for rank and cooperate amongst themselves while using some of the same capabilities that would have been used in fighting each other for alpha male status if we retained the pre-human primate social structure. How is this possible? Someone else must be providing the food while the men are out on their hunting, bonding, and ranking excursion. Once again Hawkes and O’Connell say

“Provisioning of this sort has at least two important implications: 1) it allows the Hadza to operate in times and places where they otherwise could not if, as among other primates, weaned offspring were responsible for feeding themselves; 2) it lets another adult assist in the process allowing mother to turn her attention to the next pregnancy that much sooner. Quantitative data on time allocation, foraging returns, and changes in children’s nutritional status indicate that, among the Hadza, that other adult is typically grandmother. Senior Hadza women forage long hours every day, enjoy high returns for effort, and provision their grandchildren effectively, especially when their daughters are nursing new infants (Hawkes et al. 1989, 1997). Their support is crucial to both daughters’ fecundity and grandchildren’s survivorship, with important implications for grandmothers’ own fitness.

It is the elder women who feed and grow the community and children participate in their own food provision after they are weaned. I see our culture and economic system eating its young, like Cronos, in the service of alpha male competition amplified by the power of the industrial revolution. Corporate life is the male tribal group; the drive to take down big game and ascend to number one rank is the hunt. From the food perspective this has turned us into a sick nation which scarcely remembers that we depend on plants and grandma for our sustenance. The viability of plants depend on water, soil, sunlight, and temperature to grow. The food chain and our the ability of the earth to maintain an atmosphere that supports life as we know it, because plants capture co2 and create o2, depend on plants. IPCC, in their 4th report on climate change, regarding the impact of climate change on water summarize their findings,

“Climate change will constrain North America’s over-allocated water resources, increasing competition among agricultural, municipal, industrial and ecological uses (very high confidence). Rising temperatures will diminish snowpack and increase evaporation, affecting seasonal availability of water. Higher demand from economic development, agriculture and population growth will further limit surface and groundwater availability.

Climate change constraining water supply will invariably affect the growth and health plants and humans negatively and there is more bad news regarding depletion of fertile soil which is primarily related to human patterns of use and population growth. John Jeavons, in “How to Grow More Vegetables” details how to grow food crops per square foot and with less water than conventional agriculture and do it sustainably. His Grow Biointensive system is based on a conceptual shift from growing crops to growing soil. Jevons,

“Building a truly sustainable agriculture is an essential part of building sustainable communities. In order to accomplish this, we need to shift our agricultural perspective. W need to stop growing crops and start growing soil!”

According to Jevons modern agriculture is depleting the soil.

“…at some point during the years 2014 to 2021, there probably will not be enough land to produce all the nutrition needed for most of the world’s population using current standard agricultural practices. These practices currently require about 7,000 to 63,000 square feet of farmable land per person, and most people will have access to only 9,000 square feet of arable soil as early as 2014. Further, most of the current practices are growing only food in the areas indicated, yielding insignificant amounts of organic matter to produce the soil-nurturing humus needed to ensure the development of healthy soil.”

We are in real trouble wen you start to imagine a world where population is growing, peak oil is hitting, climate change is decreasing water supply and increasing temperature, and we are using agricultural techniques that deplete soil when we should be working hard to replenish it. In market economic theory supply and demand determine price and both supply and demand tend toward equilibrium where price adjusts in response to the needs of both producer and the consumer. Theoretically this market mechanism works to supply the right amount of the product in the production and consumption context of that market without governmental planning. This system has worked fine to ramp up industrial production and enrich the producer side of the supply demand dynamic, but the consumer has only benefited up to the threshold where more stuffdoesn’t produce more happiness, and the real producers, plants, have gotten used and abused. What if a conceptual shift like eating a diet of high nutrient low calorie food, as opposed to one composed of high calorie low nutrition foods, or growing soil as opposed to growing plants were applied to managing the force unleashed by the industrial revolution? What if the purpose of our economy were to include supporting the producers, plants, and growing human happiness, as opposed to substituting industrial production for nature and growing human material consumption. If we conceive of industrial producers as consumers relative to plants, and part of a human social system that serves a human purpose, what role should the now redefined producers of industrial capitalism fulfill? I will address that question in Of Plants and People 2, Revenge of the Plants.

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