How we can transform the global food system by changing what's on our dinner plates.The implausible truth: Over one billion people in the world are hungry and over one billion are overweight. Far from complete opposites, hunger and obesity are in fact different manifestations of the same problem: It's increasingly difficult to find and eat nutritious food. By examining the global industrial food system using the deceptively simple template of a classic American dinner, We the Eaters not only outlines the root causes for this bizarre and troubling dichotomy, but also provides a blueprint of actionable solutions—solutions that could start with changing out just a single item on your plate.
From your burger to your soda, Gustafson unpacks how even the hyper-local can cause worldwide ripples. For instance: American agricultural policy promoting corn and soybeans in beef farming means we feed more to cows than to hungry people. This is compounded by the environmental cost of factory livestock farming, rising obesity rates, and the false economics of unhealthily high meat consumption. The answer? Eat a hamburger; just make it a smaller, sustainably raised, grass-fed one.
Gustafson—a young entrepreneur, foreign policy expert, and food policy advocate—delivers a wake-up call that will inspire even the most passive listener to take action. We can love our food and our country while being better stewards of our system and our health. We the Eaters is nothing short of a manifesto: If we change dinner, we can change the world.
About the Author
Ellen Gustafson is a sustainable food systems activist and social entrepreneur. She is the cofounder of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank and lectures around the world on global food issues. The cofounder of FEED Projects and the FEED Foundation, which have provided more than 60 million school meals to children in need, Gustafson has also worked at the U.N. World Food Program, ABC News, and the Council on Foreign Relations.
Read an Excerpt
The Husk, the Cob, and a Kernel of Truth
The Heart of the Global Problem with Corn
FOR MANY EATERS, the iconic American hamburger takes center stage--or center plate--at a backyard summer barbecue. Since Americans eat upward of 40 billion hamburgers a year--that's almost 130 hamburgers per person, or about 2.5 a week--it is evident that the burger takes a star turn on our plates during the rest of year as well.1 What we the eaters have to figure out is how to build a better burger, as part of a better meal, as a means to better health and a better world, so we can still have our burgers-- albeit in a slightly altered but greatly improved form.
But we can't talk about how to create a better burger, or discuss how to improve the quality of meat, until we understand corn and the huge role it plays in food production. And the reason is that what we call corn--Zea mays, which descended from the wild native plant found in Mexico, Guatemala, and Nicaragua called teosinte--has evolved into one of the world's most highly cultivated grains. In fact, corn is a significant building block of the vast majority of our food--one that is a critical component of those 40 billion burgers Americans eat each year.
The centrality of corn as an agricultural staple is no better demonstrated than by the fact that its name, Zea mays, is derived from the Arawak Indian word mahiz, which means "that which sustains life." The Arawaks weren't the only people to recognize the value in maize cultivation, either. An early account of European settlers observing the maize plant in the New World was published in George Sale's 1763 book, An Universal History:
The ear is a span long, composed of eight or more rows of grain, according to the quality of the soil, and about thirty grains in each row; so that each ear at a medium produces about two hundred and forty grains, which is an astonishing increase. It is of various colours, red, white, yellow, black, green, & [sic] and the diversity frequently appears not only in the same field, but in the very same ear of corn; though white and yellow be the most common.
If we cut from the 1700s to today, when 812 million metric tons of corn are harvested around the world and corn is increasingly villainized as a significant agricultural and health problem, we the eaters are forced to wonder how we got from there to here.
As agriculturally significant as the corn plant is, it is by no means a singularly perfect food. Just as with the matoke, a diet of only (or mostly) corn, or any other individual food for that matter, would leave us deficient in important amino acids and micronutrients.2 Even still, in many ways corn is truly an agricultural masterpiece. It is relatively easy to grow, prolific, versatile, and has the potential to yield more calories per hectare than any other grain--roughly 5 tons (up to 10 tons in favorable conditions), which far surpasses the 3-ton yield typical of rice and wheat.
Corn, especially in its early forms, was also a nutritional treasure trove-- rich in fiber, carbohydrates, B vitamins, and naturally occurring, biologically significant antioxidants called phytonutrients. For the Iroquois Indians, and many other small farmers, corn would likely be planted side by side with its two "sisters," squash and beans.3 The prickly squash vines would help keep predators away from the young corn plant, and its large leaves and thick, low-growing foliage served to tamp down weeds. The nitrogen-fixing roots of the bean plants replaced the nitrogen in the soil that was depleted by the corn; the corn plants in turn provided a natural support for the beanstalks to climb. After the harvest, when the corn, squash, and beans were eaten in tandem, they provided a nutrient-rich and nutrient-complimentary meal. And as is the case with many other grains, if there are compromised growing conditions resulting in a poor harvest, all is not lost. Today the entire corn plant can be harvested for silage4 and used for animal feed, or to produce biofuel. And that is only the beginning of the myriad uses we have developed for Zea mays.
FARMER VERSUS FACTORY
To really understand corn, we need to imagine two scenes. The first is of farmers planting dried kernels saved from the previous harvest. It is an image of people with few tools to turn over the soil other than their own hands or perhaps a primitive hoe and trowel. The dried seeds are tucked into long rows, or small mounds of rich, tilled soil, and will yield a harvest of ears with multicolored kernels, from white and yellow to blue, red, purple, and black. Add to that tableau the hope held by these farmers that the real promise of these seeds--these kernels of corn--was that they would be able to provide enough food to feed themselves and their families and, just possibly, enough of a crop to trade or sell. This is an image with many faces: from the indigenous North Americans and New World Pilgrims of the past, to the malnourished farmers in Ruhiira or many other places in the developing world today.
The second scene comes from the heart of America's Midwest. Picture a farmer from the Corn Belt of western Iowa. It's the land of large- production farms, where farmers plant thousands of acres of corn with massive machines, and where mile after mile of the rippling cornfields have the power to take your breath away with their sheer size and uniformity. A hundred years of US agricultural policies have favored large factories over small farmers. We have witnessed the fall from a peak of 7 million US farms in 1935 to roughly 2.2 million today. And when you drive through the Corn Belt, it is impossible not to be struck by the promise embedded in all that fertile land and those vast expanses of grain. It is a portrait that encapsulates the magnificence of America as an agricultural giant like no other, and one that attests to the fact that we have evolved a system of agriculture that gives us the ability to produce so much food.
Yet these two images, of two very different farmers planting corn under vastly different conditions, contrast more than just scale. They represent deep changes in farming and food production both here in America and around the world. And these two very different pictures are very interconnected.
What went wrong with corn, the grain known by early farmers as "that which sustains life," isn't something wrong with corn itself. It is what happened to agriculture along the way from those first farmers to the farmers of today.
This leads us to another set of scenes worth setting. I've climbed to the tops of central grain bins heaped full of corn in the Midwest--and have driven from New Jersey to California "Instagramming" massive cornfields in every state along the way--and marveled at the large-production farms and the towns and met the people who live and farm there. And I've stood, thousands of miles away, on top of enormous mounds of stockpiled food aid: sacks of US corn-soy blend stacked to the rafters in grain storage warehouses in Rwanda and other developing countries in Africa. What struck me, and struck me hard, was that even though these two views were separated by continents and oceans and decades of agricultural advancement, from both of these divergent vantage points the view was essentially the same.
In both the American Midwest and in developing countries supported by aid, I witnessed a population of very unhealthy people against a backdrop of lots and lots of corn.
Although 87 percent of America's 2.2 million farms are owned by individuals or families, it doesn't mean they are all small. Just 8.5 percent of the farms today account for 63 percent of all agricultural output. That means that in the Corn Belt, the farms are often thousands of acres in size. Seeds are planted and irrigated, pests and diseases managed, and crops harvested by massive pieces of equipment such as computer- and satellite- guided tractors and combines, cultivators, and threshers. This is high-tech farming that most growers who have tilled land with a hoe or trowel in his or her own backyard, or driven a small utility tractor up a field on a small family farm, would not recognize. These are factory farms engaged in large-scale industrialized farming, where corn seeds are genetically engineered, patent protected, and royalty bearing. Where yields per acre for corn have been pushed from 54.7 bushels in 1960 to 161.9 in 2009.5 This is the land of the mono-crop--where the wisdom reaped by the Iroquois tradition of planting corn, beans, and squash together to nourish both the soil and the people has long since been replaced by synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. While companion planting, crop rotation, and grazing animals would make sense for the health of the plants, the animals, the soil, the overall environment, and ultimately the quality of the food, farmers can, with less effort, push yields higher and keep costs down in the short term by growing a single crop and using chemical fertilizers to compensate for the depleted soil, and herbicides and insecticides to manage disease and insects.
Meanwhile, nitrogen runoff from these fertilizers has flowed from the Heartland, down the Mississippi River, and severely polluted the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, creating what is referred to as a massive "dead zone" in the Gulf. This is just one of a plethora of environmental casualties resulting from the push to increase yields. It is viewed as a consequence that simply must be managed in the delta region, while it is rarely viewed as a consequence of what we put on our dinner tables.
Today corn is a nearly $65 billion commodity that is traded on the futures market and controlled by complicated legislation like the farm bill, with its tax subsidies, price manipulation, tariffs, acreage retirement, surplus management, and crop insurance. Moreover, the corn we grow today in much of this country isn't the sweet corn we the eaters shuck for our barbecues. It is a completely different crop called yellow dent corn, or field corn--one that can't be eaten unprocessed and is used primarily for animal feed, processed grain and cereals, cooking oil, corn starch, and to produce sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup, as well as industrial products- -from ethanol for fuel to plastics, explosives, and paint. Much of the corn from the Corn Belt has come to resemble a factory widget, an industrial product that forgot long ago just about everything it knew about being a food that people eat as part of a healthy diet. Essentially, corn has become an asset class managed by gray suits, instead of a foodstuff grown by overalls.
Corn, like sugar, wheat, and soy, is more an agricultural commodity or economic good than it is a food.
Here is one final visual.
The farmers in the first scene--from the indigenous people of North and Central America to the European colonists, to any of the early farmers who planted corn as it spread around the world in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, to the new farmers from hungry regions of the world today--were, or are, thin. Really thin. Indeed, small, subsistence corn farmers are often hungry.
The farmers from the second scene, the farmers of the Corn Belt of today, are generally not thin at all. In Iowa, the iconic corn state where 92 percent of all land is in agriculture and 17 percent of the state's workforce is connected to agriculture, a full 67 percent of people are overweight, of whom 30 percent are obese--a number that is predicted to hit 54 percent by 2030. Sitting in a local diner a few years ago in Iowa, in the heart of the Corn Belt, the land of those industrialized factory farms, I watched as local farmers arrived, one after another, for lunch. (It was a lunch that would include no local food whatsoever; since industrial farms grow large quantities of corn, soybeans, and wheat for processing, there is virtually no food that people could eat as it comes off the farms.) And almost every last one of those farmers was obese. Way too many were morbidly so.
Now consider that 90 percent of the food eaten in the farm state of Iowa is imported from out of state. This is not unique to Iowa: 80 percent of Illinois's acreage is farmland, yet only 4 percent of what is consumed there is also grown there. Illinois has 76,000 farms and 950 food- manufacturing companies, and virtually no local food. If we throw away all the complicated conversations about what went wrong with corn and consider just a single image, and a single metric--that the very people who are growing our food and feeding us are fat and sick--it should be enough to stop us in our tracks. The profession that built this country, a profession that once required physical toil and a tough, strapping physique, one that produced whole food pulled from the earth and eaten as it came out of the ground or off the stalk, has evolved in such a way that even many of our farmers are not healthy. And that should be our defining image, because the farmers in the Corn Belt are effectively living in a food desert, where they are eating the same food that we are.
The difference is that the farmers in the first scene--the Iroquois, other Native Americans, and some farmers in the developing world today--ate corn in its natural state. The extent of their processing might have involved £ding the dry kernels into grain. In fact, the ancient Aztecs, and even traditional Central American corn farmers today, soaked corn kernels in a solution of water mixed with crushed limestone, seashells, or wood ash to soften the outer hull of the kernels so they could be more easily ground into flour. This process of nixtamalization increases the availability of nutrients such as calcium and niacin in corn and makes the corn meal a better food.6
Herein lies the crux of the problem with corn.
Today the vast majority of the corn (along with wheat and soy) we eat in America is processed into a lesser, nutrient-depleted food. Not a better one.
The irony is that because of misguided motives, this lesser "food" is actually considered a superior agricultural product.
So what exactly can the current state of our Corn Belt farms and farmers teach those new farmers in Uganda, with their handful of corn kernels and all that hope? And what can the past 30 years of corn agriculture teach us about how to eat? The answers are embedded in these three questions: How exactly did the corn we eat get so sweet? Why, and how, did corn get so industrial and cheap? And once it was rendered sweet, industrial, and cheap, what did we do with it?
Table of Contents
1 Husk, the Cob, and a Kernel of Truth: Heart of the Global Problem with Corn 1
2 Here's the Beef: The 99-cent Burger Is the Most Expensive Hamburger in the World 31
3 Ruminations on Dairy: People's Milk 55
4 Global Waves of Grain: BMI, Borlaug's Wheat, and Burger Bum 79
5 Tubers and Fruits: French Pries, the Ketchup, and the Orphaned World of Real Vegetables 103
6 Sugar We Drink: How Sweet It Isn't 127
7 The Sweet We Eat: All Day and Really Real Fruit Flavors 155
8 Reset the Table and Really Change Dinner: Beyond the Corn, the Meat, the Dairy, the Wheat, and the Sugar Is That Single Healthful Meal Thai Changes Everything 179
Conclusion: Action Steps: 30 Food Shifts to Better Health and a better World 188
Source Notes 214
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have just finished reading We the Eaters: If We Change Dinner, We Can Change the World. It may well be one of the most important books I have ever read, and I urge you to read it. I am going to email as many of my elected officials as I can to insist that they read it. Here are a few quotes from her book: "When I pulled up a map of the major hot spots of long-standing food insecurity and hunger around the world . . .I was staggered not by how many of these regions struggled with long-term violence -- and, increasingly, terrorism -- but by how rarely we connect that violence back to hunger. . ." " . . the 40 million tons of food wasted in the US every year would be enough to feed the nearly 1 billion around the world who are hungry . . ." "Chocolate can be a fair trade, environmentally friendly, antioxidant rich treat in the form of a piece of high-quality, ethically sourced, 100 percent dark chocolate. Or chocolate can be an HFCS- and palm oil-infused, environmentally degrading piece of processed candy made from cocoa beans harvested by child slaves. We the Eaters . . actually get to choose which we buy and eat . . " I intend to take Ellen Gustafson's recommendations to heart, reading food labels even more carefully than I do now, refusing to buy foods with HFCS (high fructose corn syrup, and it is bad for many more reasons than added calories for us) and letting the manufacturers know why I am not buying them.