Monday, October 01, 2007

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Corn-Ethanol is frequently touted as a solution to our energy problems. As discussed on logical science's main site there are some major problems with this statement and there are many professors and even nobel laureates that claim "it would be better if we just burnt oil." In addition to the long list of complaints with regard to corn-ethanols poor energy economics, lack of scalability and 'worse-than-oil'* CO2 problems there are also massive health concerns. One of these health concerns is the under appreciated killer known as E. Coli.

E. Coli can cause several intestinal and extra-intestinal infections such as urinary tract infections, meningitis, peritonitis, mastitis, septicemia and Gram-negative pneumonia. According to peer-review research this little bug is a horribly under appreciated and growing problem:
the pathogenic potential of different groups of E. coli strains for causing intestinal versus extraintestinal disease, and (iv) increasing antimicrobial resistance. In this era in which health news often sensationalizes uncommon infection syndromes or pathogens, the strains of E. coli that cause extraintestinal infection are an increasingly important endemic problem and underappreciated "killers". Billions of health care dollars, millions of work days, and hundreds of thousands of lives are lost each year to extraintestinal infections due to E. coli.
Clearly E. Coli carries massive economic implications. Michael Pollen, who is a New York Times Magazine writer and Berkeley Professor, wrote a book called The Omnivore's Dilemma. This book has been discussed by NPR as well as several higher ups at the USDA:
... a corn fed cow forms a slime covering the rumen which prevents gas from escaping. The treatment is to put a hose down their esophagus to let gas escape. This happens to some, but not all of corn fed cows. A more common problem is liver disease. If the cow eats too much corn in a short period of time, the rumen can become inflamed and ulcerate. Bacteria are able to enter the bloodstream from the rumen to cause a liver abscess. Although now the farmer has to treat the sick cow with antibiotics, it is still more economical to treat disease than offer a grazed diet.
It would also appear that the E. Coli experts at Lehigh Valley Hospital agree:
Q: How can I make sure the food I buy is safe?

A: Cattle that are fed grass instead of grain have less E. coli O157:H7 in their intestines, but most of the beef in supermarkets is from grain-fed cattle.
To make matters even worse all of this antibiotic usage is literally breeding super bugs. A study of 56 E. Coli strains from 20 years ago and 15 different antibiotics found that every antibiotic was effective against every strain of E.Coli. But times are changing. A recent study found that "All E. coli exhibited resistance to five or more [antibiotics]". Many scientists blame the overusage of antibiotics in agriculture as a major part of the problem. And some scientists are worried that farmyard E.Coli will serve as a reservoir for antibiotic resistance genes and these genes might be transfered to other bacteria. Another study found that E. coli O157:H7 actually releases more toxins when exposed to antibiotics. The researchers concluded that patients might be at a higher risk of developing the life threatening hemolytic uremic syndrome and kidney failure when treated with antibiotics. So if antibiotics must be used it is more important than ever to have quick acting drugs. Antibiotic resistance will make that feat much more difficult.

Recently the NYT's reported a 21.7 million pound beef recall due to E. coli O157:H7. While this is certainly a special case it would appear that meat recalls aren't exactly a rare event. A quick search of the web reveals a 25 million pound recall in 1997 and a 19 million pound recall in 2002. Now to make the matter even more complicated it appears that E. Coli in the fecal matter of cows can contaminate crops on farms. The FDA claims the antibiotic resistant E. Coli outbreak in spinach in 2006 has been linked to cattle:
FDA and the State of California announced October 12 that the test results for certain samples collected during the field investigation of the outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in spinach are positive for E. coli O157:H7. Specifically, samples of cattle feces on one of the implicated ranches tested positive based on matching genetic fingerprints for the same strain of E. coli O157:H7 that sickened 204 people
So why are we feeding cows corn? Giant Miscanthus, a grass that can grow 13 feet high, is much easier and cheaper to grow than corn. It's even been trumpeted as a very promising bio-fuel.

Funding our nations corn and corn-ethanol industry isn't cheap. The NTU estimates every dollar of ethanol profit costs taxpayers $30 in subsidies. In 2002 congress approved a $190 billion farm-subsidy package with much of it going to corn. If you take away the multi-billion dollar corn-ethanol subsidies and add the costs of E. Coli related health care costs it would be interesting to see if corn could even come close to the economics of grass.

It's not just scientists that are attacking corn. Senator John McCain had also been on the offensive. Well, that is until it cost him the state of Iowa, a major corn growing state, when he ran against George W. Bush. In November 2003 McCain said:
"Ethanol is a product that would not exist if Congress didn't create an artificial market for it. No one would be willing to buy it … Yet thanks to agricultural subsidies and ethanol producer subsidies, it is now a very big business - tens of billions of dollars that have enriched a handful of corporate interests - primarily one big corporation, ADM. Ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve air quality."
Using surplus grain and corn cobs to supplement a natural grass diet and balance farming surplus is one thing but spending billions of tax dollars to feed cattle an almost exclusively unnatural diet when many scientists and even politicians claim that it does lots of harm and only benefits a select few is something entirely different. I don't have the time, money or manpower to perform a thorough analysis of this enormously complex situation to arrive at reasonably precise economic impact estimates. And e-mail communication with Berkeley Professor Tad Patzek has informed me that discussion of certain aspects of agriculture is discouraged. A bold claim but nothing worse than the widespread politicization and even blocking of research that has occurred in other fields. Maybe someone with ample resources will produce a Stern style report which will hand reporters more than enough ammo to report on the obvious.

Grass fed beef is supposed to be much healthier for you for nutritional reasons and many claim that it even tastes better. So maybe your local steak house and the average beef conisour will benefit from a switch to grass as well. But the most important thing is simply managing the high starch diet in a way that reduces the amount of antibiotics needed.

*Corn ethanols CO2 emissions are highly dependent upon the fuel used for brewing the beer, distillation (natural gas > coal), costs of transporting the corn over distances and many other factors.



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