Thursday, August 4, 2011


As all living things, the human species needs energy to do what needs to be done.  We get some of that energy through our social interactions (e.g.,  electricity) but the most essential part is what we need to keep the organs of our body functioning --  our liver monitoring glucose levels, our muscles keeping us standing or sitting, our neurons firing, -- and that is the energy we take in through food.  From a long term historical perspective, most of our past 200 thousand years on this planet has been a sort of parasitic existence, where we steal the energy that other things had harvested from the sun.  We gathered nuts and tubers and berries and hunted the animals that eat those same nuts and tubers and berries.  It was apparently highly successful, just as it has been with many other species that rely on plants to harvest their energy for them. 
            Then agriculture became involved.  By establishing a synergistic relationship with animals and plants (i.e., the process of domestication) we gave them life and they gave us more energy than we could get from our normal mode of hunting and gathering.  We expend a small amount of energy (cultivating the land, planting the seeds, harvesting the crops) and reap much more.  It is a good deal for us.  It is also a good deal for the plants and animals involved.  One of the truly vital things any plant species must do is disperse its seeds, and there is no better seed disperser than us, when we get a hankering to eat a particular kind of plant.  Consequently Zea maize (what we call corn) has a distribution that is millions of times larger than the distribution of its most recent ancestor, teosinte, a weedy grass limited in its distribution to the local areas in and around the central valley of Mexico. 
            But corn got greedy.  Rather than simply being satisfied with its comfortable mutualism with us, where we insure its dispersal around the world and it provides us with energy, it started demanding more and more energy input for less and less energy output.  Much as the infamous Audry II from “Little shop of Horrors” who demanded ever more human blood, corn has entrapped us and demands that we supply it with ever more energy-rich inputs, yet gives us less and less energy output, relatively speaking.  That entrapment comes through the industrial agricultural system that corn (and other crops) have imposed on us since the second World War.  We are forced to supply energy in the form of artificial fertilizer, energy in the form of pesticides, energy in the form of machines that run across the soil and on the roads in the distribution network.  And while corn (and its partners in crime, wheat, rice, beans, etc…) has it great, we are not doing so well.  Indeed, the tipping point was clearly traversed when corn decided to become a biofuel.  With our hardly noticing, it demands that we supply it with more energy than it gives back to us.  And according to basic biological principles, when one organism sucks energy out of another organism, beyond whatever energy it might offer in return, that is the fundamental structure of parasitism.  Corn has become an ectoparasite on humans!


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