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The Occult Knowledge Of Ancient Alien Theorists

Around to the Queen Nefertiti by Egisto Sani

Akhenaton was a most unusual looking dude. His statue in the Cairo museum of Antiquities shows a long, equine profile; a pair of flaring nostrils; hooded, mesmeric eyes; a mobile, sensuous mouth and, above all, the high dome of a vast cranium sloping back deep into the Pharaonic crown. The sculpture gives a profound impression of immense power and a clear, deep intelligence for which we have only one word: genius.

Statue of Akhenaten by Les Williams

Statue of Akhenaten by Les Williams

Akhenaton was a revolutionary before his time. He allowed his likeness to be realistic, breaking away from the stylized bombast of Ramses the Great, and leading to a flowering of creativity never before seen. The Mona Lisa of this brief twinkling in human history is the bust of his queen, the timeless, iconic Nefertiti, possibly the most beautiful woman of all time. To the ancients, women were chattels, servants, breeding stock. Most ancient potentates kept many wives and a host of concubines, but Akhenaton had just one, his childhood sweetheart whom he trusted in everything, promoting her his co-ruler.

Together they turned their backs on the dark, incestuous gods of Thebes and Tanis with their sinister magicians and their corrupt, power-hungry priesthood. The Pharaoh and his Consort sort only the light they called the Aten, and whose symbol the Solar Disk lights our world, bringing it warmth and life.

To tear their people away from the old hideous cults and the rank superstition on which those abominations thrived they set out north into the desert and were shown the place by the setting sun. There at Amarna they commanded a city to be built and, miraculously, the vast city of Akhetaten sprung into existence. Scientists still do not know how such an immense project with its innumerable temples, palaces and causeways was achieved in such a short time.

Nefertiti Bust by Philip Pikart

Nefertiti Bust by Philip Pikart

Yet the old priests plotted and planned. Robbed of power, they caused chaos in the kingdom, accusing the Pharaoh of abandoning his people. They may well have had him assassinated using a poisoned fig. Their menacing threats forced Nefertiti, now in fear for her life and the lives of her children, to write to Egypt’s mortal enemy, the Hittites, for help, for a husband. This last desperate attempt foundered when the Hittite prince was murdered in the sands of the Sinai, and Nefertiti disappears from history.

There remains on a temple wall, the Hymn to the Aten, composed by Akhenaton, which some five hundred years before the time of Moses and more than a thousand before the first words of the Pentateuch were committed to writing, is the first monotheistic prayer on earth.

 

“Thou gloriously set thyself up on the borders of the sky
Thou from whom every life was born
When Thou shone from the horizon at the east
Thou filled the land with thy beauty
Thou art beautiful, great, sparkling,
Thou travel above the land Thou hast created
Embracing it with thy rays,
Keeping them tightly for your loving son (Akhenaton).
Although Thou are far away, thy rays are on Earth;
Although Thou hast fill men’s eyes, thy prints are not seen.”

 

K'inich Janaab' Pakal

K’inich Janaab’ Pakal

On the other side of the great Atlantic ocean, remote and unknown in Europe for another three thousand years, were great civilizations which also built pyramids and which also worshipped the Sun God. In the Mayan city of Palenque, within the Temple of Inscriptions is the tomb of the god king, K’inich Janaab’ Pakal. He looks uncannily like Akhenaton. Pakal too had those luminous, mesmeric eyes, a puckered sensuous mouth, and a deep domed head. He too ruled in a time of prosperity and artistic accomplishment. His capital of Palenque also simply appeared, this time in the dense tropical Mesoamerican jungle. Most intriguing of all is the heavy lid of his solid sarcophagus which seems to show him at the controls of a spaceship.

Crystal Skull, British Museum

Crystal Skull, British Museum

Further coincidences abound. The crystal ‘Skull of Doom’, found by Anna Mitchell–Hedges in Lubaantun, Belize, in 1923, has the same elongated cranium, and remarkably the mysterious skull is made of rock crystal, and could not have been carved using any known technology. Ancient Alien Theorists believe that there are other more remarkable artifacts waiting to be discovered in the lush vegetation of Meso or South America. We now know that there was a vast civilization centered on the Amazon apparently spanning the entire continent, which is shown by the geographical location and the sidereal alignments of the figures drawn in the high plains of the Nazca desert. Isn’t it strange that when the decorated explorer Colonel Percival Fawcett was closing in on the mysterious city of “Z”, he just disappeared?

Isn’t it odd that many of modern fiction’s extraterrestrials also have high domed cranium and are frequently without hair? The central character in the epic ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ is the austere Deltan Ilia whose empathic nature and enticing pheromones allow man to make a connection with his most powerful creation. Might this not be some kind of buried unconscious root memory of beings from beyond the stars. Many Ancient Alien Theorists think so. Might not Akhenaten and Pakal be visitors from another world? Or perhaps Star Children, the progeny of gods and men?

No. The mummies of Akhenaton (AKA KV55), his father Amenhotep III, his grandfather Thutmose IV  all reside at the Cairo Museum of Antiquities, and the remains of his son Tutankhamen rests in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Thanks to the pioneering work of  Svante Pääbo, who went on to make discoveries concerning Neanderthals and uncovering a hitherto unknown human species, we know they are all have the same human DNA as you or me or Barney McGee.

I could unpick all the false leads, misrepresentation, the number of times I’ve added two plus two to come up with nine but, in our quest to understand the Ancient Alien phenomena, I propose a shortcut. If we have been visited by extraterrestrials they must have come a long way. How long might that be?

So, in human terms what is a long way? From the 18th Century, humans have been traveling faster and farther. There was a time, September 15 1830 actually, when humans, riding behind Stevenson’s Rocket, went from travelling as fast as a galloping horse, to a dizzying 28 mph (45 km/h). Women passengers were warned by eminent medical men that traveling at such speed would do them irreparable harm. All that happened to the ladies, reported the actress Fanny Kemble, was that they enjoyed an exhilarating day, although William Huskisson, the Member of Parliament for Liverpool, managed to fall in front of the steam engine which obligingly made him the first railway fatality. Within twenty years, steam trains where traveling at an astonishing 78 mph (125.6 km/h).

First flight of the Wright Flyer I, December 17, 1903, Orville piloting, Wilbur running at wingtip.

First flight of the Wright Flyer I, December 17, 1903, Orville piloting, Wilbur running at wingtip.

The early 20th century saw another revolution in travel when, on December 17, 1903, Orville Wright briefly was airborne, traveling at a sedate 10.9 km/h (6.8 mph). Within 2 years, a Wright Brothers’ airplane was travelling at 60.2 km/h (37.8 mph). Aircraft have continually become faster and flown higher, the record of 3,529.6 km/h (2,193.2 mph, Mach 2.883) being set by Capt. Eldon W. Joersz and Maj. George T. Morgan on 28 July 1976 in a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.

Travelling by aircraft has become commonplace and for a time there were actually commercial supersonic flights. I reckon that the people who travel the furthest are the crews of commercial airlines. A modern jet aircraft travels at around 500 mph. Air crew can only travel 1000 hours per year by international law. So, say a crew member flies for 30 years, they may do around 15 million miles in a lifetime, a distance which is merely interplanetary.

The furthest object made by humans is Voyager 1 launched way back in 1977. After the spacecraft had taken a true voyage of discovery and many wonderful photos, Carl Sagan prevailed on NASA to turn it around and take a picture of us on our planet: our ‘blue dot”. Voyager 1 is now (Christmas 2014) 19,558,664,450 Km (12,153,190,604 miles) from Earth and has traveled at 62,136 km/h (38,610 mph). Is that anything like a long way? For us: yes, for space: not even worth talking about.

So how about the total distance traveled by Americans, all of them, per year? In 2000 there were 190,650,023 Americans with driving licenses. The average distance one drives is 13,476 miles in a year, which means that America as a whole drives 2.5 trillion miles annually. This is more like it. The unit that astronomers use to measure the distance between stars is the light year, which is just under 10 trillion kilometres (or about 6 trillion miles). Our nearest star is the binary star Alpha Centauri which is 4.37 light years from the Sun, or 25 trillion miles. It would take Voyager 1 75,000 years to get there.

Ilia, from Star Trek: The Movie

Ilia, from Star Trek: The Movie

So how can we explain the destabilizing event at the beginning of the film which introduced the world to Ilia, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The rather ponderous plot opens with a vast, unknown entity which we later are informed is called V’ger, zapping a couple of Klingon K’t’inga-class battle cruisers. Later Ilia is zapped and reconstituted into V’ger’s spokesperson to be eventually sublimated with Decker, a Star Fleet officer who fancies her something rotten. Alas the lovely, talented Persis Khambatta, who played Ilia, died in 1998, just 49 years old.

We eventually learn that at the heart of V’ger is a space probe from the 20th Century called Voyager 6. There was no Voyager 6. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is set in the earth year 2273 when Voyager 1 will have traveled another 360 billion km making it all of 6% of a light year from Earth; not even out of the back door.

The Star Trek Communicator.

The Star Trek Communicator.

That’s the trouble with Science Fiction: the Science part has made Captain Kirk’s Communicator a reality – you can buy a cell phone which looks just like it – but the Fiction bit may not produce any more wondrous communication sets, may be just dodgy plywood ones. Space Fiction gets around the problem of crossing the interstellar space by inventing snappily named ruses to essentially bypass the issue: Star Trek had Warp Drive, Stargate used some kind of worm hole, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy used an Infinite Improbability Drive. It would be possible to explain to Isaac Newton how his principles would allow men to journey to the Moon, based on elements of technology of his time. Current scientific notions of interstellar travel require stuff like negative energy or negative mass, none of which exists now nor do we have a clue how to make any of it. So it is very likely that there is no interstellar drive for us to invent and we will remain on Earth or its environs for the whole of our existence.

So why did a SOASTA survey report that a sizeable proportion of Americans believe that the future will be just like Star Trek? First of all, no one notices negatives. During the first half of the 20th Century, we increased our top speed by a factor of 20 times, but since then not by much more. Secondly we are entranced by Moore’s Law, which promises twice as much for half the price every 18 months. It is, of course, only about the transistor equivalents on a silicon chip. This phenomenal growth has propelled computing into every nook and cranny of human life; but the “law” itself is just about the chip, and not about interstellar travel nor the possibility that it has already been used by extraterrestrials to visit us.

Luckily for the purveyors of UFO mythology, there are more important considerations than mere truth: gullibility and greed. The abundance of TV and now Internet channels means that there is always a shortage of cheap material to fill the schedule. TV channels like Discovery Channel or the History Channel do not exist primarily to inform, they exist to make money, so their executives will accept any subject within a broad remit so long as it is likely to attract sufficient advertising revenue.

Tezcatlipoca, “Smoking Mirror”

Tezcatlipoca, “Smoking Mirror”

Humans are attuned to little globs of information. We have, since the beginning, known that any tiny clue might mean the difference between dinner and being dined on. Such clues are self evident; a certain kind of rustle, a particular shape and color. They are the grist of traditional learning, and grow into ritual, superstition and a fascination with esoteric lore. When he read that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” in John 1:1, it seemed reasonable to John Dee, the Royal Astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, that “the Word” belonged to the language of God and his angels. So Dr Dee, founder of the Rosicrucian Society, devoted a lifetime to learning this language of angels, or maybe the words of the fallen kind, the language of witches. We do not know how Dr. Dee obtained his obsidian mirror, a thin polished disk of a black glass made in a volcano, but it is almost certain that it was taken by Cortez from the great pyramid at the heart of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, temple of blood and still beating human hearts. The Aztec sorcerers called Dr Dee’s scurrying glass Tezcatlipoca, “Smoking Mirror”. When conjoined with the Enochian alphabet Dee the Magus was able to converse with the spirit Madimi” and together they cast a hex on the Spanish Invasion fleet and scattered it to the four winds. Sorry about that, I got a bit carried away.

Likewise, a UFO fabulator starts from the point of Extraterrestrial contact and works backwards. The word “work” here requires a little clarification and connotes finding objects, stories or witnesses, sewing them into simplistic narratives which borrow from current technology and science fiction, and projecting onto ‘the facts’  their unworldly rational. It will undoubtedly help to have sinister government types lurking around, to provide the undoubted reasons for your valuable program content being occult. A good conspiracy theory is a get-of-out-jail-free card for any awkwardness that may crop up.

Erich Anton Paul von Däniken

Erich Anton Paul von Däniken

The hard part will be the pitch, i.e. getting the money, but the key here is persistence; the channel execs need to fill air time and get their bonuses. Once you have the production money you’ll need to keep expenses down so fill the run time with general footage which can be purchased off the shelf and a very few graphics with no more than seven words a piece – remember most of your audience does not read books of any kind and are somewhat out of practice reading-wise – then cobbled the whole lot together with the “talking heads” of your UFO researchers. You don’t need to pay the “experts” much as they will appear to promote their own product. Take the money, allow the tax man to pay off your considerable expense accounts and stow the rest in the Bank of Cyprus. Life is good.

Giorgio Tsoukalos

Giorgio Tsoukalos

Ancient Alien theorists own a debt of gratitude to the founder of their discipline, Eric von Däniken. Dr von Däniken made his discoveries while working as a hotel manager in Davos, Switzerland. Is it a coincidence that every year, the rich and powerful attend a ‘conference’ there in Davos?  Just after he published his ground breaking  Chariots of the Gods?, the Swiss authorities convicted him of fraud and sent him to prison. Despite this set back, Dr von Däniken continued to develop his ideas and wrote a second seminal work, Gods from Outer Space, while in prison and finally cleared his name. He went on to found AASRA ( the Archaeology, Astronautics and SETI Research Association) and also designed and built Mystery Land at InterlakenSwitzerland. Typically, the scientific establishment has lambasted his work describing it as a “cultural Chernobyl“.  At this public education institution visitors can study aspects of the Ancient Alien controversy in a complex of exhibits including the outstanding Nazca pavilion.

Erich von Daniken and Giorgio A. Tsoukalos

Erich von Daniken and Giorgio A. Tsoukalos

Ancient Alien theorists also are indebted to Carlo Rambaldi for his vivid portrayal of alien life in such ground breaking films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Alien, and Frankenstein ’80. It is interesting to note that Rambaldi lived for many years close to Dr. von Däniken in Italy, and that the craniums of Rambaldi’s creations are perfectly smooth.

The Ancient Alien Theorist torch has now been taken up by fellow European Giorgio Tsoukalos who created the award winning Ancient Aliens. Tsoukalos is “the leading Ancient Astronaut expert” and Director and cofounder of von Däniken’s official international research organization, Center for Ancient Astronaut Research (A.A.S.R.A). The far flung travels of this “real-life Indiana  Jones” may explain why Giorgio adopted his highly original hair grooming. It appears to be derived from the styling of the Centaurian Ambassador, Londo Mollari.

Londo Mollari, Centaurian Ambassador

Londo Mollari, Centaurian Ambassador

 

Omnivore’s Dilemma, Part 1: Children Of the Corn

Cow
Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is the Philosopher of Foodies. He starts his book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, with a simple question “What should we have for dinner?”, and comes up with interesting food for thought. He has the temerity to do something that most people do their best to ignore, and something that the food industry, which he charts, dissects and skewers, does its best to encourage. He writes, “Much of our food system depends on our not knowing much about it, beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner”. Ignorance is bliss, you might say.

I think it would be fair to say Pollan’s point of view could be summarized by a quote from the hero of part two and three of the book, Joel Salatin: “Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?” (page: 240)

The plot of the Omnivore’s Dilemma (not a catchy title in my opinion) revolves around preparing four meals.

  • A McMeal which was gobbled up in a moving car. It was adequate. Pollan had his guilty Big Mac and fries. He could persuade his wife to take a salad, and his 11-year-old son had the McNuggets which “taste like what they are, which is nuggets, du-h”. We get introduced to George Naylor, Pioneer Hi-Breed’s 34H31, Earl “Rusty” Butz, and a brockle-face calf called Steer Number 534.
  • A Big Organic meal came care of Whole Foods, and consisted of roast “Rosie” chicken, roast veggies – “yellow potatoes, purple kale, and red winter squash, steamed asparagus, and a spring mix salad”; followed by organic ice cream and organic blackberries.
  • This is contrasted to the locatarian fare which was mainly from Polyface Farm located in rural Swoope, Virginia. The food was roasted corn, roast chicken again, and lemony rocket salad washed down with a peachy Viognier out of VA. The wine was an “unexpectedly fine wine”. Dessert was chocolate soufflé.
  • The stupendous final meal, its ingredients all handmade or plucked and killed by Prof. Pollan justifiably proud of his achievement wrote the dinner up in a Berkeley-style menu.
Pollan's Menu

Pollan’s Menu

Our omnivorous dilemma

Our omnivorous dilemma is AKA “What should we have for dinner?” We humans are omnivores capable of eating a surprisingly wide variety of food. This includes comestibles that some folk swear are delicious, healthy and nutritious, such as Japanese Natto, or Cantonese chicken feet or tripe from Morpeth, but to me are as appetizing as cold sick.

Koala Bear

Koala Bear

What to eat does not trouble animals with a more restricted diet, say a Koala Bear. “The koala doesn’t worry about what to eat: If it looks and smells and tastes like a eucalyptus leaf, it must be dinner.” For most people for most of history the choice of what to eat was limited to what there was, and during famines, what might keep body and soul together for another day. Even in the good times and the good places consumption was guided by custom and etiquette. It is not surprising that the cuisine of the great courtly cultures of the world – China, India, France, Turkey/Greece – features lots of little dishes drawing inspiration from the good wife cooking for her peasant family. For example Crêpe Suzette was invented by Henri Charpentier, He learned its crêpe and fruit elements from his foster mum. The alcohol was added by the Parisian restaurants of the Fin de siècle, the flame by chance, and the appreciation by the then Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII (1841-1910) of England, and guests. Or that was Henri’s story.

By stu_spivack (Preparing the crepes auf flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Crêpe Suzette by stu_spivack

Those times are still the daily reality of most people today, but large and growing proportion of us have moved on to modern life and modern eating. Instead of selecting available foods from a market and cooking them according to family recipes, we have advanced to the food aisles of the supermarket. And they are extraordinary. I wonder what a gifted Renaissance man like Erasmus would have made of the cornucopias we visit every week or so. There are “canyons of breakfast cereals and condiments”, “freezer cases with “home meal replacements” “, “broad expanses of soft drinks and towering cliffs of snacks”. I recall wandering around a Target in Denver being quite overwhelmed by the size of its food section and especially by the size of some of the packages. As most of the packages and brands were new to me, I had a problem deciding what to buy for my meal for one. I’m not alone in this. “Our bewilderment in the supermarket is no accident; the return of the omnivore’s dilemma has deep roots in the modern food industry …”

Supermarket

Supermarket

Pollan maintains that as we modernized we have been cut off from traditions which have been systematically tested over hundreds of years. Now we have a food industry instead. It may be shocking but the executives at Tyson, Walmart, and Whole Foods are mainly interested in running profitable businesses, and their next bonus; they are not necessarily the best folk to ensure our welfare. In theory that welfare is provided by a plethora of laws and agencies. Unfortunately, the science that underpins these laws and guidelines has only had a couple of hundred years to figure how to grow and maintain a human, compared to the thousands afforded to cultures. The Illiad tells us that the young blades at Nestor’s court at Pylos cooked kebabs in the hearth of the king’s throne room Moreover, as Big Tobacco showed us, science can be brought for a price.

Adrift from a distinct food culture, and our concerns multiplied by Madison Avenue and the latest research, we are prey to fads. So a book like the Atkins diet can radically alter eating habits by demonizing pasta and bread and replacing the food pyramid as people’s go-to reference, for a while. Meanwhile we are all getting fatter and dying unnecessarily from so-called diseases of affluence, while we read the labels and wonder “What is “natural grill flavor” or TBHQ or xanthan gum?”

Pollan recognizes this as a cultural problem, and writes: “We show our surprise at this by speaking of something called the “French paradox,” for how could a people who eat such demonstrably toxic substances as foie gras and triple crème cheese actually be slimmer and healthier than we are? Yet I wonder if it doesn’t make more sense to speak in terms of an American paradox—that is, a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of being healthy.”

By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communications Specialist Robert J. Fluegel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communications Specialist Robert J. Fluegel

[It’s interesting that a worldly wise, well read, West Coast professor like Pollan should find the notion of an American Paradox odd. Does he think that paradoxical behavior is something that only other nations do? In America, I see paradox everywhere. It’s the only Western country where any old lunatic may arm himself – they are nearly always men – in order to shoot up a school, movie theatre, whatever. And there’s never a stout NRA member to return fire.]

Pollan’s answers his question by following the clues “that, I found, reach all the way back to fields of corn growing in places like Iowa.”

Why Corn (Maize)?

Pollan writes, “I invariably found myself in the same place: a farm field in the American Corn Belt.”, because “There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn.” including “things like Gatorade and Ring Dings and hamburgers …” and there is a good reason for this. Corn, after its seeds have been lovingly synthesized and protected from all manner of ills, produces more calories per square foot than pretty much any other food crop. This is due to its unique biochemistry, its “C-4 trick” as Pollan calls it.

There is no such plant as “natural” corn. Like nearly all our foods, humans have developed it from an unprepossessing original, in corn’s case a plant called Toesinte. Native Americans capitalized on variant plants in which a genetic mutation had wrapped the seeds in a tough husk. The tough husk prevents the corn from propagating naturally, but what would be a death sentence to a wild plant was a bonanza for humans. From then on, we unnaturally selected those characteristics which pleased us, up to and including “the biological equivalent of a patent”. It so happened that frequently the offspring of two varieties of a plant is bigger and better than either of its parents. In Genetics-speak, that cross strain or hybrid is called the F1. The children of the F1 hybrids, the F2 hybrids, are usually shadows of their parents so the farmer must buy his F1 seed from Monsanto or such. George Naylor, Pollan’s corn farmer, buys his, a brand called Pioneer Hi-Bred’s 34H31.

From somewhere in Idaho

Pollan met George Naylor in the middle of his corn field on a “slate-grey” day. Naylor “is a big man with a moon face and a scraggly grey beard” and was wearing “the farmer’s standard-issue baseball cap, a yellow chamois shirt and overalls – the stripy kind favored by railroad workers”. His Iowan field “has some of the richest soil in the world, a cake of alluvial loam nearly two feet thick” made by the “retreat of the Wisconsin glacier ten thousand years ago”, and is home to tall “prairie grasses – big bluestem, foxtail, needlegrass, and switchgrass”.

Corn Field

Corn Field

It is remarkably productive: an acre of the Naylor farm yields “more than ten thousand pounds of food”. The farm is part of a vast mono-culture of identical plants which runs skyline to skyline, a Manhattan of corn, devoid of people. The population of Green County, where the Naylor farm is, in its heyday was 16,467, now it’s a bit over ten thousand. The local town, Churdan, is a shuttered ghost town, just a café and minimart left, with the “windowless concrete skyscraper” of the grain elevator standing vigil at the far end.

The growth from the modest twenty bushels per acre eked out by the Native Americans and the pioneer farmers, got underway in 1947 when the munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama started to turn its surplus of ammonium nitrate into fertilizers instead of explosive. Hybrid corn just loves lots of nitrate fertilizer. The combination spawned corn farms running on oil. Pollan writes “every bushel of industrial requires the equivalent of … fifty gallons of oil per acre of corn”. “Ecologically this is a fabulously expensive way to produce food …”. The industrialized farm-factory has a side effect: nitrate fertilizer is washed from the fields down into the Raccoon River, which runs through Des Moines. River chemistry converts nitrate into toxic nitrite, which can find its way into tap water for humans. So, in Des Moines, the city has to issue “blue baby alerts”.

Yet despite all this technology and hard work, George Naylor “is all but going broke”. Why this should be “is complicated” and “has something to do with the perverse economics of agriculture …; a little to do with the psychology of farmers; and everything to do with farm policies …”, the last being the life’s work of Earl “Rusty” Butz, AKA “The Sage of Perdue”, Richard Nixon’s second secretary of agriculture. See the picture of Butz with Trickie Dickie, and a young Dick Chaney.

A sale of 30 million tons of grain to the Soviet Union “in the fall of 1972” compounded with “a spell of bad weather in the Farm Belt” forced grocery prices to a record high and an apparent food scarcity. Hunger It is never lost on politicos that the immediate cause of the French Revolution was hunger due to bad harvests, so when in 1973 ominous grumblings  started; “housewives were organizing protests at supermarkets” and newspapers asked “Why a Food Scare in a Land of Plenty?”, there was action.

Richard Nixon, Earl "Rusty" Butz, and Donald Rumsfeld

Richard Nixon, Earl “Rusty” Butz, and Donald Rumsfeld

So, the “Sage of Perdue set to work re-engineering the American food system, driving down prices and vastly increasing the output of American farmers.” “He exhorted farmers to plant their fields ‘fencerow to fencerow’ and advised them to ‘get big or get out’.” With the 1973 farm bill, he rejinked government subsidies from loans designed to keep farmers’ solvent into direct payments intended to increase production. And that farmers did, all too well. Over the years, government has found other things to spend money on, consequently “just about every farm bill since has lowered the target price in order [apparently] to make American grain more competitive on world markets.”  The result is that as of October 2005, corn was bought for $1.45 a bushel and the agriculturists at the University of Idaho reckon that that bushel costs $2.50 to produce, trapping the farmer into attempting to grow still more, ad infinitum.

A monument to this abundance, or a “plague of cheap corn” as George Naylor put it, was the “bright yellow pyramid the size of a circus tent” Pollan saw at the foot of the grain elevator in Farnhamville, Iowa, part of a “bumper crop” “represent[ing] what was left of the millions of bushels of corn that had overflowed the elevators [the previous] … October.” Pollan felt that “something [was] deeply amiss in the sight of so much food lying around on wet ground.”  Ricardo Salvador, a Latino agronomist and Prof. at Iowa State, took a similar line: “To be honest I felt revulsion. In Mexico, even today, you do not let corn lay on the ground; it is considered almost sacrilegious.”

But from the perspective of hardnosed commodity brokers, this hill is only so much “number 2 field corn”. This term was coined by the Chicago Board of Trade as part of a grading system introduced in 1856 to simplify commodity trading. It is almost inedible: you’ll have to soak the corn kernels in water for several hours to get something tasting like “lightly corn-flavored starch.”  But, then again, you’re not supposed to eat it; it flows into factories which turn it into ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup, umpteen other things and meat. Pollan intended to follow this yellow river on its journey to the consumer so he contacted the chief processors of corn, Cargill and ADM, but they declined Pollan on “food security” grounds.

Mommy, what does C.A.F.O. mean?

Pollan left the Manhattan of corn and towering corn elevators which stand like a lone moorland menhirs to visit a cattle metropolis called Poky Feeders. The high plains of western Kansas are crisscrossed by “ramrod roads”, Kansas lay lines to the standing stones of Idaho. He speeds down one until “the empty dun-colored January prairie suddenly turns black and geometric, an urban grid of steel-fenced rectangles as far as the eye can see” which is coupled “an aroma more bus station men’s room than cows in the country”. Welcome to Poky Feeders. He had come to visit his steer, number 534.

By Derekbalsley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cattle Lot By Derekbalsle

534 had started his life in a birthing shed on the Blaire Ranch “a few miles outside Sturgis, South Dakota”. His mother was 9534, that would be the 34th cow born in 1995, and his father via “a fifteen-dollar mail order straw” was “Gar Precision 1680, a bull distinguished by the size and marbling of his offspring’s rib-eye steaks. If this strikes you as rather Brave New Worldish, you’re not alone; only we’ve not yet applied industrialization to human reproduction. His first six months were spent with his mother, on Blair Ranch’s “rolling short-grass prairie” with the option of “nibbling on a salad bar of mostly native grasses: western wheatgrass, little bluestem, buffalo grass, green needlegrass.”

“In October, two weeks before [Pollan] made his acquaintance, steer number 534 was weaned from his mother.” Then “he was rounded up and herded into a “backgrounding” pen with others of his cohort, to spend a couple of months learning to eat corn from a trough. It was in this pen that Pollan chose 534 because he “had a wide stout frame and was brockle-faced- he has three easy-to-spot white blazes.” “Ed Blair, the older of the two brothers, suggested only half in jest that [Pollan] go the whole hog and buy the animal” which “immediately struck [Pollan] as a promising idea.” Shortly after 534 was off to Poky Feeders.

The heart of Poky Feeders is the mill. It processes a million pounds of feed a day, which is corn rolled into flakes which weren’t “half bad; not as crisp as a Kellogg’s flake, but with a cornier flavor”, liquefied fat i.e. beef tallow, and “a sticky brown goop of molasses and urea, plus vitamins and a couple of antibiotics “- Rumensin and Tylosin.”

It all makes inexorable economic sense, even the cannibalism.“ “Fat is fat,” the feedlot manager shrugged when [Pollan] raised an eyebrow.”  Trouble is, apart from the yuck factor, the system is new in evolutionary terms which means things go wrong. The classic example is “Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, first brought to light in merry England where, once upon a time, bits of sheep were fed to cattle. A disease of sheep known as scrapie was passed to the cattle and then to humans. For a while British beef was banned in Europe and , there were fears that it could turn into an epidemic as the human version Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease was essentially untreatable. In a damage control exercise, the British public were treated to the spectacle of the nerdy Minister of Agriculture, John Gummer, feeding his four year old daughter with hamburgers at a Norfolk country fete. The furor has died down, for now, and is not a known problem at Poky Feeders.

The main problem that Poky’s three “hospitals” cope with is Bloat. A diet loaded with starch stalls the fermentation in the animal’s rumen which “inflates like a balloon” and may occlude his esophagus and suffocate him. The cattle can also get “a kind of bovine heartburn” which too can be lethal. This is why the animals are fed antibiotics. “Most of the antibiotics sold in America today end up in animal feed”. As the current stocks of antibiotics are variations of a handful of compounds, it is only a matter of time before they are compromised by antibiotic resistant superbugs. According the staff veterinarian, Dr. Mel Metzin, all this is due to the simple fact that “they’re made to eat forage and we make them eat grain.” so the “cattle rarely live on feedlot diets for more than 150 days”, perhaps “as much as [the animals”] systems can tolerate.” Still Dr. Mel is upbeat: “Hell, if you gave them lots of grass and space, I wouldn’t have a job.”

Pollan found 534 in pen 63 which on first impression was “not a bad piece of real estate, all considered.” Then he figured out the pond which pen 63 overlooked was no pond at all but in CAFO speak “a manure lagoon”. (CAFO is the acronym for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.) Pollan had on “the same carrot-colored sweater” he had worn when they had first met in South Dakota and wondered if 534 would show a “glint of recognition?” Nope, “none whatsoever.” He looked well although his eyes were a little bloodshot, “irritated by feedlot dust” according to Dr. Mel. Indeed, Dr. Mel was impressed: ““That’s a handsome-looking beef you got there.” “[Pollan’s unspoken reply:] Shucks”

Rube Goldberg and Number 2 corn

Around 60% of “the 10 billion bushels of corn harvested each year” is used in CAFOs and the like. The rest – remember humans don’t eat kernels of number 2 field corn – is deconstructed in a wet mill. As ADM and Cargill, who do most of America’s wet milling, had declined to show him their plants in Decatur, Illinois and Iowa City respectively, he made do with a model mill at the Center for Crops Utilization Research at Iowa State University. It is “a Rube Goldberg [Heath Robinson (GB Eng.)] contraption of stainless steel tubes, pipes, valves, vents, drying tables, centrifuges, filters and tanks” which as Larry Johnson, the Center’s director, describes it “is essentially an industrial version of digestion”. Pollan goes into some detail on how the processes work, but suffice to say it is ingenious, cost effective and mainly made from metal. The end product are things like High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) which is “the most valuable product refined from corn”. Then these products are reassembled into food items like Cocoa Pebbles breakfast cereal or Coca Cola, and a surprising range of other products, e.g. Windex, diapers, gypsum drywall, wax paper and fresh vegetables!

First Booze Then Fries

Unsurprisingly, the result of ingenuity and a prodigious amount of cash is what Pollan calls “A Republic of Fat”. The UN reckons that there are now a billion or so people with overnutrition – an interesting euphemism – which is more than the unfortunates with malnutrition, at around 800 million. So, there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone and it is probably technically possible to do it. Quite when we’ll get around to it is another matter.

The US takes the lead in the obese league with 60% of Americans who are overweight and 20% who are obese. It has not always been so. “Most researchers trace America’s rising rates of obesity to the 1970s.” which is coincidentally the era of Earl Butz. Maybe that’s no coincidence at all.

Pollan gets his label Republic of Fat from a book about America and alcohol entitled The Alcoholic Republic. Apparently, from the time of the Founding Fathers onwards, America was on a “collective bender” to the astonishment of European visitors. One wrote home, “Come on then, if you love toping. For here you may drink yourself blind at the price of sixpence.” Pollan reckons that the driving forces for both republics are the same things: too much corn and ingenious marketing.

At the top of the roll of honor for those marketers is David Wallerstein, who invented for McDonalds the “equivalent of a papal dispensation”: Supersize. McDonald’s empire has in recent times been losing market share which wasn’t helped by the film Super Size Me. This goes some way to showing that the Republic of Fat will not need a period like Prohibition to reform a clearly daft state of affairs.

A recent Freakonomics Radio podcast “You eat what you are”, which includes Pollan, suggests that reform is happening in the US, so soon back to slimmer Americans, with the rest of the world in tow with the end of world hunger thrown in. That would be nice. In the meanwhile, Pollan has updated the ancient Mayan self-description “the corn people” or corning walking”, “So that’s us: processed corn, walking”.