This is a story about steak and bacon, cancer and ethanol, and expectations.
Meat-eaters (most of America, except for the health-conscious Obamas and obsessively thin, rich women) got another body blow when the World Health Organization warned this week that processed meats (our adored bacon and hot dogs) cause cancer and that red meat (our beloved steak) probably does.
This is not new, but when your newspaper and TV are screaming, “Your food is poisoning you,” you notice. It’s not just another “Partisan divide in Washington blocks progress” headline.
Nonetheless, there are other factors at play here.
According to globalmeatnews.com (who knew?), America’s red meat consumption is declining. Health consciousness (the American Red Cross has been casting aspersions on red and processed meats for years) and rising prices are two major reasons.
But at the same time, there’s worry in high places that the growing demand for red meat in huge parts of the world, notably by the newly affluent among China’s 1.35 billion people, will cause a lot of trouble. Beef cattle use a lot of land and emit a lot of carbon dioxide, which destroys the ozone, thus changing climates. Cattle eat a lot of feed, which takes up a lot of acreage. And that takes away food from people just trying to avoid starvation.
When there are more than 7 billion people to feed, the idea of everybody getting steak and potatoes is not feasible. To many, the idea of Americans eating their fill of steak, hot dogs, pot roast and bacon seems unfair. Let alone inhumane animal treatment.
Thus, 22 scientists at WHO examined more than 800 scientific studies about meat and cancer. They concluded cooked red meat — including hamburger, pork chops, lamb, etc., and processed meats — cause cancer of the stomach, colon, prostate and possibly other organs just as smoking, alcohol, diesel-engine exhaust and asbestos do.
The comfort food in the report is that meat does not cause the same magnitude of cancer as the other carcinogens do. Eating meat may be risky; wallowing in asbestos is stupid.
WHO obviously is hoping humans cut down their meat consumption until a future when everybody consumes pills or globules that will constitute dinner.
But in the United States something else is at play. A recent coast-to-coast car trip across the U.S. convinced me there is a lot of corn here. There is so much corn that the government subsidizes farmers when prices are low because of too much corn and when prices are high because of weather-damaged crops.
And that brings us to ethanol, the introduction of corn into gasoline. The ethanol lobby is ferociously strong in America because it has convinced people that using excess corn will eventually get us off foreign oil imports. Ethanol in gasoline and diesel fuel for 270 million U.S. motor vehicles is mandated in the Renewable Fuel Standard Congress passed with levels set each year by the Environmental Protection Agency. Renewable fuels reduce emissions that contribute to climate change. Everybody’s happy, right?
Of course not. This is America.
Unfortunately, making ethanol uses a lot of energy and bushels of corn that could feed hungry people. (Getting it to them, of course, is the problem.) Ranchers (who want cheap feed), the huge oil and gas lobby, fast food providers (diversion of corn to gasoline raises hamburger prices), boat people (ethanol can damage some vessels.) and other assorted folks are trying to scuttle the RFS.
The Obama administration has weakened the standard, to the dismay of big corn, which argues this is a gift to big oil. The EPA suggests that ethanol now constitutes 10 percent of gasoline and most vehicles can’t handle much more, except the 10 million cars built for 85 percent ethanol. Stay tuned.
▪ We live in a country where powerful, often unseen interests shape our food supply.
▪ The cost of meat is going up.
▪ Moderation in everything. If you eat a lot of red meat and bacon, friends will notice and you will feel guilty.
But you knew that.