My first experience in the food business was hunting chicken eggs on my father's farm near Verona, Illinois. He was a very conscientious farmer of 320 acres of land, 100 head of cattle, numerous pigs, chickens and other animals that made up our farm. My earliest memories are of farm life and farm chores, and until I moved away to college as a young man, raising food was my life.
Memories of the food we ate are also vivid in my recollection. I remember how my mother would go the kitchen while we were doing chores and whip up a huge "farm breakfast" for us eight children. We'd gobble the pancakes, eggs, fried potatoes, ham and sausage hungrily, and smother it all with butter and a variety of jams and syrups.
We raised most of the food that we ate, but everything was cooked in the usual American way. Peeled potatoes, meat with gravy, and vegetables cooked to limpness were our standard fare. Actually, my mother's cooking was considered quite good at the time. In fact, it was much better than food of 1993—over-processed, overcooked and over-sweetened. Our favorite meal was Saturday noon dinner — lots of great northern bean soup with a pork hock in it. When snack time came we had a little soda pop—three ounces — and a little of the other junk and convenience foods that were typical of the diet of many Americans in the '50s. Our folks rationed them because they were very expensive. There weren't nearly as many junk foods on the market then, so our eating habits weren't too bad, at least by today's standards compared to the diet of the '90s, our family's diet was very good. My family always planted a large garden so that we had lots of fresh vegetables to eat from June to November, and my mother did a lot of freezing and canning of the fresh vegetables, without adding any preservatives. My parents always bought many bushels of apples, which we stored in our well pit, and sometimes they even went to Georgia, to buy fresh tree-ripened peaches.
In October my father always went to the farmers in Central Wisconsin, and bought many bushels of potatoes, which we consumed with the skins on. But some aspects of our diet weren't the best either. My mother sometimes made our bread, but other times she bought bread to fill us up. This bread was always the cheapest white bread in the store. My father complained about the limp, pasty stuff, but there was no other kind of bread available in the stores. Dad would grouch that a 39-cent loaf contained only two cents of grain, and that it was the miller and the baker who were robbing us. In fact, my father complained about the taste and cost of all processed foods. He used to tell us about the time my Grandfather got his first spoonful of a newfangled invention called "corn flakes." Not fooled by the cereal's sweet taste, Grandpa proclaimed, "If you put milk and sugar on sawdust, it'd taste good too!'
Despite Dad's dissatisfaction with processed food, fresh fruits and vegetables were rather scarce during the winter months, and the only vitamin supplements we knew about were the ones we gave our livestock.
Nonetheless, we would always look forward to Mom's return from her weekly shopping trips; she would invariably stop for a dozen glazed doughnuts on the way home — and did we love them! My brothers and sisters and I could finish the whole package in no time, and I remember thinking that nothing in the world could ever taste as good as a glazed doughnut.
The lunches I took to the one-room school I attended were always white-bread sandwiches, and in high school I ate the typical starchy, fatty fare of the cafeteria. About all you could say for our school hot-lunch program was that it was indeed hot. We could go back for seconds, and we were encouraged to gorge ourselves on surplus spaghetti and other leftovers.
Looking back from the vantage of my subsequent learning, I now see some of the effects that our sugary, fatty, high protein diet was having on my family and friends. It was considered natural then, despite our huge breakfasts, that we would be hungry again in an hour or two. By the time we got to school, we were looking for something to eat, and we'd start nibbling on anything we could get from friends or local stores. It was also common that after a Herculean noon dinner we would all lie down for a twenty-minute nap, the weight of the heavy food in our stomachs making our eyelids just as heavy. A well-trained nutritionist would instantly recognize this as the hypoglycemic effect, the disorder that occurs when the blood-sugar level goes on a wild roller-coaster ride after you eat too much sugar and refined starch. We thought it was perfectly normal.
I also recognize that it was our eating habits that tended to make everybody I knew heavy. My father weighed 220 pounds, and my mother always watched her weight. Nearly all of the girls I went to school with had noticeable weight problems, but it just seemed so natural and normal for everybody to be heavy like that. It was a very rare thing for someone to be slim. The only one in my family who escaped chunkiness was my older sister, who always ate like a bird. She would never eat more than a tablespoon of any vegetable, nor more than an ounce of meat at a time. But there was a tendency to think that there was something wrong with a slim person, and we thought it was very strange that my sister did not eat like the rest of us.
One thing that food did not affect at first was my deliberation over what I was going to do with my life. In grade school, we had a workbook called 'Think and Do." My father loved that title and constantly repeated it to us kids — Think and Do. I believe that has helped me all of my life.
Another family saying that has impacted my life is from the tombstone of my Grandfather, who died the same month I was born. Each year on Father's Day, we would visit his grave and celebrate with a picnic under the mulberry tree my grandfather had planted. The epitaph on his tombstone reads, "He who helps others, lives not in vain." When I was trying to decide on a career, I had two good values to build on — "think and do" and "he who helps others, lives not in vain."
The day after I graduated from high school, I decided that I wanted to do something important with my life, and my high school guidance counsellor said I'd probably be pretty good at anything I tried. I decided to become a nuclear scientist. I left for Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin, with that thought in mind, but after my first physics course I decided that perhaps medicine would be a better field for me. When I attempted to get into medical school, however, I found I lacked the necessary money, grades or influential relatives to pull it off, so I began graduate studies in endocrinology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and later changed my focus to biochemistry.
It was my basic "do-good" attitude toward life that made me want to enter medical school in the first place; thinking that, as a doctor, I could help the under-privileged people of the world. With that road closed, I felt that biochemistry would be another field in which I could help solve the problem of world hunger. Unfortunately, I found that biochemistry and nutrition courses were not taught with that in mind at all. They were approached as dry, stuffy disciplines, devoid of enthusiasm or relevance to real life. I sat through the seemingly endless lectures on carbohydrate metabolism and enzyme transfer, hoping that the professor would devote at least the last lecture to explaining how all of this technical information we were jotting in our notebooks and cramming in our heads applied to real life and everyday eating. But when that final lecture did come, the professor would almost brush the subject off by telling us that these things were not to be worried about, and that a person would get all of the nutrients he needed just by eating a variety of foods on a regular basis. I was a bit disappointed, but I believed what he said and accepted it as being as valid as his explanations of molecular metabolic processes.
If I could have made a connection between the things he was telling me and the drowsiness, hunger, crabbiness and overweight of my youth, perhaps I could have seen the fallacy of my professors' nutritional advice. But I didn't make the connection, and neither did my fellow students, nor my professors, nor any of the nutritionists and biochemical academicians of the time. The reason is not difficult to understand: The education I and those who teach nutrition today got was from the men who got their own education in the '30s and '40s. In those days, whole vegetables and fresh fruits were, with little exception, the only kind to be had, and in the early part of this century the professor's admonition to rely on a varied diet would have been sound.
But in the years since World War II, fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains gradually disappeared from the American diet, and were replaced by a plethora of canned, frozen, processed and refined products, many of them having little nutritional resemblance to the foods before processing. In short, Americans had acquired totally different eating habits during the time between my instructor's student days and my own, and the change in the foods in the supermarket had sneaked up on the nutrition establishment, leaving the professors totally unaware of the hazards and tragedies associated with the new American way of eating. The crisis is that their students, the nutritionists of today, are almost as completely in the dark as they were!
In graduate school, before I learned of the real problems involved in American nutrition and the role of the Food Giants in intentionally bringing those problems about, I felt that as a biochemist I would be in the best position to help solve the problem of world starvation, a problem about which I was becoming increasingly concerned. One of the term papers I wrote was on Kwashiorkor. It is the disease of the bloated-belly, tragic-eyed children we have grown sadly accustomed to seeing in articles and documentaries about the world's starvation centers. Affecting perhaps as many as 70 million of the world's people, Kwashiorkor is caused by a protein deficiency that withers muscle and nerve tissues. Children in their formative years are the most heart-rending victims; they are seldom lucky enough to survive infancy, and even if a Kwashiorkor victim has that luck, the degenerative effects of the disease are almost irreversible. Entire populations have been grossly stunted by Kwashiorkor during times of famine and war, and it is this very stunting of the physical and mental resources of a people that makes it so hard for those in the "have-not" nations to achieve peace and plenty.
My research about Kwashiorkor disturbed me deeply. If only we could find the protein source so desperately needed to feed these starvation victims! But there is a greater tragedy to Kwashiorkor, one of which I was ignorant at the time. The real cause of the disease is not a lack of food, nor is it a problem of distribution. The real source of the problem is the way the major protein sources, usually rice and wheat, are processed before they get into the hands of the hungry. Whole, unprocessed brown rice is produced in ample abundance throughout Asia, and whole wheat is available almost around the world; but when the rice or wheat is processed, i.e., when the bran and germ are removed, the grain is essentially stripped of all major nutrient value. These Kwashiorkor victims don't have too little to eat. The tragic truth is that the food they do get has been ruined before it gets to their mouths. But I was as naive about the processing problem as are most nutritionists, and my thinking at the time was that a new source of food had to be found, a fabricated, man-made food if necessary, or the hungry would continue to succumb to Kwashiorkor. I was shocked when my research revealed how widespread the affliction was, and I decided that I had to go and see for myself what conditions were like in some of the countries where starvation was a part of daily life. So, in the midst of my graduate work, my wife and I traveled to Colombia, South America in 1967.
Many of the things we saw there we could have seen in New York or Chicago: the big cities, the crowds, the slums. It wasn't until we went out to the countryside that we began to see the really serious problems, and the underlying causes for them. We would ride on the local buses with the peasants returning to their villages. You can see a great many things from a bus window.
There were people leaning in front of their hovels seemingly with nothing to do; yet the land was teeming with fruit and appeared to be well suited to other types of crops as well. It seemed to us that there was a lot of unused land, and we didn't see people tending gardens or working farms. As I was later to learn, these peasants had been taxed or otherwise forced off their land, so the land could be purchased by rich ranchers who ran cattle on the land. While the evicted peasants starved, much of the land was destroyed by cattle destined for Burger King hamburgers. The animals packed the ground so tight that, when it rained, the water couldn't soak in but instead ran off and caused terrible erosion.
The peasants were being forced to move in ever-increasing numbers to the urban areas, where they would join the throngs of starving beggars in the city streets.
In Colombia there are very rich people and very poor people, and the places where they live are about as different as day and night. But, there is one common denominator, one recurring landmark as common to the shiny new apartment complexes as it is to the tin-hut villages: the Coca-Cola sign. I found soda pop advertisements were amazingly ubiquitous, and I travelled to very few places where the familiar red-and-white sign was out of sight. It cost only a few pennies a bottle in Colombia, and Coke was very popular. Just how popular it was became apparent when I attempted to help an old man who really looked like he needed something to eat. I gave the starved-looking man some money and asked him to buy two cartons of milk, one for me and one for himself. He returned with my milk, but he smilingly showed me that he had purchased a bottle of Coke for himself.
Coca-Cola has extended its growing empire deep into Latin America. For instance, Coke has seized control of 42% of the soft-drink market in Mexico. Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins have written of one small Mexican village, Olinala, whose 6,000 inhabitants put away about 4,000 bottles of Coke a day! 1
My encounter with the old man and many other experiences pointed out to me that the people of all classes in Colombia had made the Western lifestyle their goal and dream. People would beg and plead to buy a tourist's extra shoes, blue jeans and pocket radios, but turned up their noses at the nutritious foods that were growing in their own country.
Many times, nutritional grains and other foods had acquired a stigma as "poor people's food." Quaker Oats, a company for which I was later to work, was distributing a nutritious product in Guatemala at the time, marketing it specifically for a peasant clientele. This product was a mixture of various grains and was sold as a gruel, the kind of stuff you see them dishing out on C.A.R.E. commercials. When I worked for the company, I found out that Quaker was allowed to market its new line of toys in Guatemala if the company would also make a cheap, nutritious food product available. The company wanted to make money on their toys, so they made the product available without really caring if any of it was sold. It was put up in drab, ugly one-pound packages and marketed as poor people's food. Naturally, the poor Guatemalans had too much pride to be seen buying the stuff in stores, but a storekeeper told me that affluent people were his biggest customers for the whole-grain meal. When cooked properly and combined with fruit, the cereal had a delicious flavor that was far superior to oatmeal or rice. Yet it was shunned by the people who needed it most, because it didn't have an image of being some athlete's "favorite cereal."
I also learned at Quaker that the stuff sold so poorly that shop owners had to be bribed into carrying it at all. The shipments of meal came in bulk, packed 35 pounds to the bag. Also enclosed were 40 individual bags. The extras were supposedly provided in case some of the regular bags broke, but the store owners were covertly encouraged by Quaker to short each of the intended one-pound bags and thereby fill the extra five, selling all 40 at full price. This was the only way that many merchants could be convinced to sell the product, and even then, because of the lack of adequate promotion, it would sit on the shelves for months on end.
There was also a big push to get mothers to feed their infants baby foods and formulas instead of breast-feeding them. Billboards depicted smiling mothers who fed their babies with bottles as the perfect mothers, while suggesting that mothers who breast-fed their children were like an "animal." Thus, formula was the overwhelming choice of women seeking the Western lifestyle, but by mixing the formula with impure water, or over-diluting the expensive powder, mothers were subjecting their infants to diarrhea and death on a massive scale.
Despite the depressing scenes I had witnessed in Colombia, I returned to complete my graduate studies with renewed enthusiasm and concern. The trip, along with the studies of Kwashiorkor, convinced me that I should devote my life to helping hungry people by working in the established channels in the food industry. I had been impressed by the efforts Quaker had seemingly made in helping the hungry. I felt that by producing new sources of protein and other nutrients, enough food could be produced to solve the starvation problems of the entire world. At the time it had not dawned on me what the real cause of hunger in the have-not nations was; neither did I realize that, right at home in the United States, malnutrition disguised as "the good life" was claiming and ruining more lives than anywhere in the world. And I never dreamed that both problems were caused by the very corporations I planned to work for.
In my last year of graduate work I learned about a process for actually creating protein from things like natural gas. The process seemed simple enough: Commonly occurring micro organisms were fed on a petroleum product, dairy wastes, and other chemicals under controlled conditions. When enough of the microbes had grown and reproduced, they were removed from their growth medium, dried and used as feed. The process was in its infancy, and it had never been tried on a large laboratory scale, let alone commercially. Yet this seemed to be what I was looking for. My enthusiasm heightened when I attended at Rutgers University a convention of biologists and researchers who were interested in working on world hunger. I was very impressed by what I saw and heard. At the convention I met representatives of the Tenneco Corporation who later offered me a position on a research team which would attempt to make protein out of methane — natural gas — a superabundant material.
It seemed too good to be true that I could so soon happen on just the position I had always wanted. I was caught up, as were most scientists in the 1960s, with the idea that technology, the same technology that had ended smallpox and had landed a man on the moon, could solve all of mankind's problems. "Creating" foods out of otherwise worthless waste materials seemed to be just that kind of impossible dream — so impossible that it almost had to come true. But I, like the rest of the world, was soon to learn that, in too many cases, technology is at the heart of our problems; that it could be used toward devious ends as easily as it could be used to end human suffering. I pictured myself working with a big team to perfect synthetic protein, then building a few big plants in Africa or Asia, where the people would flock to work and to buy the protein. There was no doubt in my mind that if we could just create a cheap, nutritious protein source, the world would hail it as the end of world hunger. The only problem I saw was in perfecting the technology; I assumed that if we built a better mouse trap, the world would beat a path to our door.
My wife and I and our three children made the move to Piscataway, New Jersey, the site of Tenneco's research laboratories, in the fall of 1968. When I arrived, I found that our research director, Dr. Ira Hill, had gathered a small but excellent staff with whom to carry out the project. We had a diligent bacteriologist who searched the whole country looking for the heat-loving microorganisms we needed for the process. We had an analytical chemist to analyze our end product for nutritional value. We had a talented biochemical engineer to design our equipment and to do theoretical production studies. He also was experienced in methods of removing the protein-rich cells from the water medium. My job was to design and build the small-scale equipment for doing this job. I would get the various strains of bacteria from our bacteriologist, who looked at hundreds of strains to find the best, and grow them in a mixture of water, air and controlled nutrients. I would produce the bacteria on a small scale, then turn them over to the analytical chemist, who checked them for purity, safety and nutritional value. An outside consulting firm did the animal testing of our product, feeding the most nutritious samples to animals to check the product's palatability and effect on animal health. Each of the departments on the research team had several technicians.
When I joined the team in January, we were set to go. The company representatives stressed the time element, and seemed impatient that the process be developed in as short a time as possible. They didn't even take time to build an addition to their factory, but hurriedly cleaned out a storeroom for us to work in. There was a rumor that Tenneco's enthusiasm for the project was due in part to the prodding of a socially-concerned wife of one of the vice presidents. The rumor held weight because there seemed to be no one in the company who knew anything about biological processes. It probably seemed like a good idea to the corporate brass; such altruistic programs were good public relations at the time, and Tenneco was producing more methanol than they could sell. I don't think anyone in the company outside the research team expected us to succeed. It probably seemed outlandish to them that you could take natural gas, the stuff you burn in streetlights and kitchen ranges, and make food out of it. However, they did see the public-relations possibilities, and used the project in newspaper ads as one justification for their recent increase in gas prices.
Incidentally, this kind of thing goes on all the time. In the early '70s, Northern Illinois Gas ran large full-color ads in national magazines to inform the public that they were trying to make food out of methane to feed the world's hungry. When I tried to get a job with the project I found out that NIG was spending five times more money on the advertisements than they were on the research itself. They gave one or two researchers an annual $25,000 budget — hardly enough to keep a desk and a secretary. It was all window dress ing, but I would never have known about it if I hadn't tried to get a job there. When, in the late '60s and early '70s, it became evident to many people that we could not go on abusing our natural resources and destroying the environment in the obscene way to which we had become accustomed, it was ironic that "environment" and "natural" became the advertising catch phrases of the very giant corporations that had brought about the disintegration of the biosphere in the first place. Petroleum and food companies were the first to take up the hypocritical call for cleaner air and more healthful food. Since I was working for a company which specialized in both, it was perhaps inevitable that I would be caught up in a public-relations scheme.
But this did not concern us at the time, and we set enthusiastically to work, all of the staff frequently putting in 14—or 16 — hour workdays to keep the project moving ahead rapidly. It was one of the best-directed research projects I have ever seen, devoid of the interoffice politics and backstabbing that are so common in corporate endeavors. Every day brought us closer to our goal. By the summer of 1969 we had made excellent progress in isolating the strains of bacteria appropriate to our purposes and I began producing the small-scale batches. By the following autumn we had made enough of a quality product to begin animal-feed testing, and by the end of the year we were getting highly encouraging results from our testing.
The tests showed that test animals—mice — thrived on the protein, and our biochemical engineer had produced studies to show that our process was economically feasible. In short, we had done what few believed possible: We'd shown that protein could be made from natural gas, that it could be done successfully on a large scale, and that it could be done cheaply (a pound would cost about 11 cents to produce, and would provide eight people with 100 % of their protein needs for a day). And we had done it in one year — half the time we'd been allotted for completion! Naturally, we were very pleased. We felt that we had done a great deal of good for the world. As the end of December approached, we planned a jubilant New Year's Eve party to celebrate our success.
When we were called into the vice president's office on the afternoon of New Year's Eve, we expected a raise and a pat on the back. None of us could recall a research project that had accomplished so much with so little time, money and personnel. After all, with our process, a plant covering one square mile could produce enough protein to feed ten million people! We gathered expectantly into the office, where the vice president of Corporate Research sat behind his desk with an expressionless face.
"Gentlemen," he said nonchalantly, "the Board of Directors has decided to terminate your project, effective immediately."
Our jaws dropped. We sat in stunned silence as he assured us that the company would help find new jobs for us, that our families would be taken care of, that we didn't have to worry about the future. They were actually firing us!
The party that evening was one of the saddest I've ever been to. Gone was the enthusiasm and idealism; my co-workers assumed a defeatist attitude, and none seemed interested in continuing the project. Another job had just played out, and now we would have to look for new ones. Several discussed going into detergent enzyme production, which was at that time a very lucrative fad for biochemists. It seemed to me that I was the only one left who still believed in the project. The starving people I had seen and read about were still out there, still hungry, still dying by the thousands. And here in our very grasp was the means to end their suffering, to rid the world of hunger and its resultant diseases and to bring new hope to millions of people. With this heart-quickening prospect right in front of them, how could Tenneco possibly "terminate" the project? No matter what angle I viewed it from, it seemed unbelievable.
The thoughts tormented me for days.
Finally, when I could stand it no longer, I marshalled my courage and called the president of Tenneco. How could they do this senseless thing?
"Friend," he told me, "if I had a whole mountain of protein, I wouldn't have the slightest idea what to do with it. Who's gonna buy something like that?"
I was dumb struck. What about the starving millions? Was the profit motive all that counted for anything? I told myself that it could not be so, that somewhere there must be a company which would embrace the project and develop it to full potential. But I was still naive, and I still believed that the best way to make money was to make things people really needed.
My next job, for the powerful and pervasive Quaker Oats Company, would rid me of that illusion.
1. Prances Moore
Lappe and Joseph Collins with Gary Fowler, Food First: Beyond the Myth of
(NewYork: Ballantine Books, 1978), pp. 330-1.