Monday, November 17, 2008


The recession that is sending us back to farming and growing our own foodstuffs may become a well-disguised benefit. The more I learn about food industry, and what I am eating, the more I realize that we are giving up more than we know for all that convenience.

At one time in my young life, I had home-grown chickens that we kept in the back of our large lot and put on the table for Sunday dinner. As you may have divined, there was a gory part of that process, but we kids learned that our dinner didn't come neatly wrapped in plastic. As far as I can tell, it didn't make me any less sensitive to suffering either. As I am reading this morning, it was not quite so bad for me as what is being fed to me now, through that meat wrapped in the plastic that looks so orderly.

For all the outrage about Chinese melamine, what American consumers and government agencies have studiously failed to scrutinize is how much melamine has pervaded our own food system. In casting stones, we’ve forgotten that our own house has more than its share of exposed glass.

To be sure, in China some food manufacturers deliberately added melamine to products to increase profits. Makers of baby formula, for example, watered down their product, lowering the amount of protein and nutrients, then added melamine, which is cheap and fools tests measuring protein levels.

But melamine is also integral to the material life of any industrialized society. It’s a common ingredient in cleaning products, waterproof plywood, plastic compounds, cement, ink and fire-retardant paint. Chemical plants throughout the United States produce millions of pounds of melamine a year.

Given the pervasiveness of melamine, it’s always possible that trace elements will end up in food. The F.D.A. thus sets the legal limit for melamine in food at 2.5 parts per million. This amount is indeed minuscule, a couple of sand grains in an expanse of desert that pose no real threat to public health. Moreover, the 2.5 p.p.m. figure is calculated for a person weighing 132 pounds — a cautious benchmark given that the average adult weighs 150 to 180 pounds.

But these figures obscure more than they reveal. First, while adults eat about one-fortieth of their weight every day, toddlers consume closer to one-tenth. Although scientists haven’t measured the differential impact of melamine on infants versus adults, it’s likely that this intensified ratio would at least double (if not quadruple) the impact of legal levels of melamine on toddlers.

This doubled exposure might not land a child in the hospital, but it could certainly contribute to the long-term kidney and liver problems that we know are caused by chronic exposure to melamine.

On a more concrete note, melamine not only has widespread industrial applications, but is also used to buttress the foundation of American agriculture.

Fertilizer companies commonly add melamine to their products because it helps control the rate at which nitrogen seeps into soil, thereby allowing the farmer to get more nutrient bang for the fertilizer buck. But the government doesn’t regulate how much melamine is applied to the soil. This melamine accumulates as salt crystals in the ground, tainting the soil through which American food sucks up American nutrients.

A related area of agricultural concern is animal feed. Chinese eggs seized last month in Hong Kong, for instance, contained elevated levels of melamine because of the melamine-laden wheat gluten used in the feed for the chickens that produced the eggs.

To think American consumers are immune to this unscrupulous behavior is to ignore the Byzantine reality of the global gluten trade. Tracking the flow of wheat gluten around the world, much less evaluating its quality, is like trying to contain a drop of dye in a churning whirlpool.

'Whirlpool' reminds me of natural gardening on Okinawa, which involved a cesspool stage.

While my neighbor's lawn leaks green lush areas of her commercial fertilizer onto my own yard, at least I think my little garden is far enough away to be free of contamination. I gathered seed from several of my more successful veggies, and am putting it away to plant in the spring. This practice may be becoming necessity, rather than whimsy, for those of us who really want to keep the poisons out of our system as much as possible.

Kudos to all of you who are growing your own, and making organic gardening/farming part of your lifestyle. Below is a picture from last spring, of the small garden I cultivated then. I see it growing bigger this year.

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Blogger Woody (Tokin Librul/Rogue Scholar/ Helluvafella!) said...

wow, ruta, the frankenfooders REAALLY hate that name.

Not that I care. It is downright weird to put a fish gene into a tomato, where it will thereafter propogate as if it had been there all along...

The defenders of Frankenfoods like to claim that things change naturally all the time. Which is true. But NOT ALL the exemplars of a certain species change in unison, as in the introduction of extraneous genetic material, no matter how ostensibly beneficial such a mutation may be...

I will not purchase G-M foods. I just won't do it...

1:39 PM  

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