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Lee Camp: Letter to Blackwater

The more we sip of Blackwater, the more we realize what a murky, muddy, mucky mess they've made. Once you look into it, you may not want to drink the Blackwater, but how about a liberal shot of political whiskey with Lee Camp of Laughing Liberally.

LET’S ASK MARION: IS THE EVIDENCE AGAINST FAT THIN?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Food Politics and What to Eat:)

Kat: Gary Taubes' new book, “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” presents the hypothesis that carbohydrates, not fat, are to blame for the obesity epidemic, and that the evidence linking a high fat diet to heart disease is unconvincing.

So why the widely held consensus that eating too much fat is bad for us? According to Taubes, it boils down to peer pressure, or a kind of group think phenomenon among nutritionists and scientists who blindly regurgitate the conventional wisdom that excess fat consumption contributes to heart disease. He calls this an “informational cascade,” and credits it with a flood of fallacies about fat’s supposed role in our current health crisis.

Taube’s theory got an approving nod from the New York Times’ resident contrarian John Tierney (aka “the thinking man’s John Stossel”) in Tuesday’s Science Times, but Tierney admits that Taube’s hypothesis remains unproved because the pro-low fat contingent won’t even allow it to be properly studied. Another New York Times science writer, Gina Kolata, began her review of Traube’s book by heralding him as “a brave and bold science journalist,” but concluded it by saying “I’m sorry, but I’m not convinced.”

You described the “Snackwell’s phenomenon” in What to Eat, whereby consumers eat a whole box of high-carb, fat-free cookies because they think “fat-free” equals “low calorie.” The low-fat fad has given rise to all kinds of dubious “innovations,” such as hogs bred so lean that they haven’t got sufficient fat on their backs to be able to survive outdoors. Lost in all this low-fat baloney is the fact that some fats are good for us, and others (such as saturated animal fats) aren't. Do any truly credible scientists dispute that?

It seems to me that most of us are simply eating too much of everything, be it fats or carbs. But I’m not a nutrition professor, just lucky enough to know someone who is. What’s your take on Taube?

Dr. Nestle: Gary Taubes' book arrived while I was in India and I can't comment on it because I haven't had a chance to read it yet. I gather that it comes down hard on carbohydrates. I continue to be impressed by how difficult it is to separate the health effects of fat, carbohydrate, and protein from the calories they provide, the foods that contain them, the diets as a whole, or the rest of the lifestyle that goes along with the diet.

Finding out what people eat is hard to do. Determining the health effects of dietary factors or patterns is even harder to do since humans make such awful experimental animals. Plenty of things about human nutrition are reasonably well established--the basic nutrients that are required and the amounts that prevent deficiency diseases, for example.  But it is much trickier to figure out the effects of nutrients on chronic diseases that are also affected by activity levels, cigarette smoking, alcohol use, and social factors such as poverty, stress, and lack of control. I can't help but be skeptical of journalists who think they have answers to questions that scientists have been grappling with for years.

In a situation in which questions remain, is it better to say nothing or to give the best advice possible based on existing knowledge? Intelligent people may differ on this point but I am convinced that people really want to know what diet is best for their health and want help making food choices. What seems amazing to me is that despite decades of arguments over fat v. carbohydrate, basic dietary advice for preventing chronic diseases hasn't changed in 50 years. I summarize this advice in What to Eat as don't eat too much (eat less, move more); eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; and don't eat too much junk food.

Oh, and the calorie question. It's not that people are overeating 50 to 100 calories a day (the amount in one or two Oreo cookies) and gaining weight. Most bodies can easily compensate for small differences in caloric intake and output. But, as I hear from pediatricians all the time, kids these days are consuming hundreds of calories more than they need, and sometimes thousands. Metabolism--in kids or adults--just can't handle that level of overload. In that situation, carbohydrates may be harder to handle than fats, but both will end up in the body as fat if those calories aren't used up in physical activity.

Fortunately, my precepts leave plenty of room for enjoying delicious food, and aren't we lucky to have so much around.

 

BLESSED ARE CUBA’S POOR, FOR THEY SHALL BE HEALTHIER?

Here’s a hypothetical for you: what would happen if our food and fuel supply was suddenly disrupted—and drastically reduced--for, say, a whole decade, forcing millions of Americans to eat less and walk or bike to work instead of driving?

It might be the best thing that could happen to us, judging from Cuba’s experience. As PRI’s Marketplace reported yesterday, Cubans currently have a slightly longer life expectancy than we do. Free universal health insurance may be a factor, but they apparently owe their longevity in part to an economic crisis that deprived Cubans of food and fuel from 1989 through 2000, according to a new study from the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1989 brought an abrupt halt to the food and fuel shipments that Cuba had long relied on. Overnight, Cubans found their daily caloric intake reduced by about a third, and were forced to walk or bike instead of drive.

During this “crisis,” the percentage of physically active adult Cubans rose from 30% to 67%, and obesity rates dropped by half, from 14% to 7%. Rates of diabetes and heart disease plummeted, with an across the board reduction in deaths from all kinds of disease.

I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago in which I noted that Americans had a healthier diet during World War II than we do now, thanks to rationing of fatty foods such as meat and a reliance on homegrown produce, aka the “victory gardens” our government encouraged us to grow.

Cubans coped with their sudden food shortage by converting vacant lots and backyards into verdant, ultra-productive models of urban agriculture in a now legendary transformation that guerrilla gardeners all over the world dream of emulating. Without access to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, Cuba’s home gardeners and small family farmers had to fall back on old-fashioned organic methods, which yielded an astonishing abundance of fresh, healthy produce. As The Land Research Action Network noted in September, 2005:

There can be no doubt that urban farming, relying almost exclusively on organic techniques, has played a key role in assuring the food security of Cuban families over the past two to three years. As an indication, more than 90% of perishable produce consumed in Havana is grown in and around the city limits.

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, I attended a talk the other night by Albert Bates, an eco-activist who gleefully foresees a fossil fuel-free future. One of the first photos in his slide show was a picture of him grinning, accompanied by the message “We are going to have an enormous change…and it could turn out to be something wonderful!”

If Bates seems weirdly cheerful about the prospect of our compulsive consumption being severely curtailed by “compelled conservation,” maybe it’s because he sees the potential for a Cuba-style revival in which Americans rediscover the lost art of walking and the pleasures of pure, unadulterated foods.

Does this scenario sound farfetched? Just last Sunday, Pat Buchanan warned of an impending economic crisis on The McLaughlin Group. With the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, the deflating dollar, and rising food and fuel costs, it’s not so hard to imagine. But would a decade of deprivation turn out to be just what the doctor ordered for our ailing nation?

Well, let’s look at how Cubans are faring today. Now that their economy has recovered, obesity-related deaths are creeping up again. Wouldn’t it be ironic if it takes an unhealthy economy to create a healthy population?

WHY THE WORLD’S OLDEST GRAINS ARE THE FUTURE OF FOOD

Millet's been around since the Stone Age, or maybe longer. Dinosaurs reportedly grazed on this ancient grain, and it’s been a staple for centuries in Africa, Asia, and India, in part because it’s so easy to grow. Millet needs only two months or so from planting to harvest, and thrives in the kind of hot, dry weather that’s becoming ever more common thanks to climate change. It’s naturally resistant to pests, so needs no chemicals to grow. How sustainable can you get?

Plus, it’s ultra-nutritious, with more protein than rice, corn or oats. Millet is also high in fiber, B vitamins, and essential minerals like iron, magnesium and calcium. It’s easy to digest and low in gluten. Oh, and it’s tasty, too—especially if you toast it before you cook it.

This amazing ancient grain has even inspired a millet-based movement in Japan called “tsubu-tsubu.” Tsubu tsubu is advocated by a non-profit organization called The International Life and Food Association (ILFA), founded in Japan in 1982 to research and promote "food for a sustainable future." While Tsubu tsubu is centered on millet, a traditional staple crop in Japan, it also encompasses other ancient grains including quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat and barley.

The tsubu tsubu movement is based on the belief that a plant-based diet offers a way to feed the world without causing catastrophic pollution and disease. Instead of chopping down rain forests and burning through fossil fuels to maintain our meat-based diet, we could be cultivating these easy-to-grow grains and meeting our protein needs without squandering resources, degrading the planet, and feeding the “globesity” epidemic.

So what do we do here in the U.S. with this marvelous millet? Well, we feed it to the birds. In America, a bag of birdseed is nearly the only place you’ll find millet; it’s one of the main ingredients in most commercially sold birdseed. Unless you’re a bluejay (or a birdfeeder-plundering squirrel,) you’ve probably never even tasted millet.

You can find it in health food stores, and it’s slowly creeping into the “dietgeist,” to borrow from those clever Ethicureans , but by and large, millet is utterly obscure and unappreciated in our culture despite the fact that billions of people all over the world have survived on it for centuries.

American agribusiness sinks most of our resources into chemically dependent commodity crops, planting endless acres of feed-grade corn, soybeans, and wheat. Our Monsanto-made monoculture has relegated venerable crops like millet, barley, and buckwheat to the fringes of our food chain when they ought to be front and center.

A growing number of family farmers across the U.S. are planting these heritage grains as the demand for more nutritious whole grains rises, so perhaps in the future millet won’t be just for the birds in this country. Italy’s Slow Food movement is (slowly) catching on in the U.S., so why not an American tsubu-tsubu contingent?

I hadn’t heard of tsubu-tsubu till I attended a talk the other night by Albert Bates, author of The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide & Cookbook. Bates, a cheerier Cassandra than crotchety Jim Kunstler, gave a terrific presentation (pdf) on the perils of peak oil followed by encouraging examples from around the world of the many ways people are working to create a sustainable future. As Bates noted, “There is only one alternative to sustainability—extinction.”

Yumiko Otani, the founder of ILFA, has a message on ILFA’s home page written in exquisite Hello Kitty-style syntax:

What we eat is environmental problem closer to our lives.

If our foods change, naturally our life changes too.

Open your mind to your diet!
We can eat food that:
nourish our mind, feed every cell,

makes the earth happy
and change the world.

Change our thinking and change our actions for a sustainable future!

 

Millet couldn’t sustain the dinosaurs, but maybe it’s not too late to save us.

The New TV Season: An Inside Look

Laughing Liberally previews the hottest shows of the 2007 season

This Old Hospital
Watch Norm Abrams and the gang fix up Walter Reed as critically wounded soldiers look on from their creaky beds in Building 18. Is it a hospital or a construction site? It’s both! Our workers won’t know whether to plaster the walls or the casts as they do an extreme makeover of this embarrassing eyesore as it recuperates America’s bravest. Look out, is that spilled paint? No, it’s blood! This hospital is a real fixer-upper! Viewer Warning: Contains vermin and other disturbing images. (PBS)

You Cannot be Syria’s!
Tennis legend John McEnroe hosts this docudrama which follows the adventures of intrepid explorer Johnny Mac and trusty sidekick Hans Blix as they search Syrian weapon stockpiles looking for Iraqi WMD’s. (The Discovery Channel)

The Devil Wears Pantsuits
A weekly Fox News panel discussion where eminent conservative scholars and theologians attempt to prove Hillary Clinton is the Antichrist to the dozen or so Fox News viewers that aren’t already convinced. Evidence presented includes quotes from ancient religious texts and unflattering photographs of the Senator and former First Lady. Hosted by “Democratic Strategist” Dick Morris. (Fox News)

Duck Blind Justice
Each episode follows Justice Antonin Scalia as he hunts with a celebrity guest who also has a case pending before the Supreme Court. Viewer Warning: To preserve the authenticity of the hunting experience, this program contains impact shots and questionable ethics. (Court TV)

Who’s Left?
Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, and Laura Ingraham gather each week to discuss the pervasive liberal media. Four hour talk show moderated by John Stossel, simulcast on Clear Channel radio outlets and CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News.

Fishin’ Accomplished!
A nostalgic look at George W. Bush’s years in the Texas and Alabama National Guard. “W” may miss roll call but he doesn’t miss a chance to hang with his buddies talkin’ bout the one that got away (the Vietnam War) with a little fishin’ and a lotta drinkin’ in a band of brothers that refer to themselves as “Swiftboat Veterans for Trout.” No violent scenes. This is must viewing…unless you know somebody, then you can skip it. (OLN)

All My Sons
Reality show which documents Mitt Romney’s boys’ service to their country in Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond. Romney, who once said, “One of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping me get elected,” has since vowed to have more children if necessary. “I’ll do whatever it takes,” said Romney. “I’ll have’em two at time if I have to, I love this country.” (ABC Family)

Let’s Do Cooking Right
Demonstrates a conservative approach to food preparation emphasizing wholesome ingredients and American-style cooking…no ethnic foods in this kitchen! Learn to cook fair and balanced meals for the whole traditional family (with the occasional exception for a dish like “Mary Cheney’s Meatless Chili”). Featured recipes in the series include classics like Oysters Rockefeller, but also contemporary entrees with a neoconservative twist like Water-boarded Sockeye Salmon, Alaskan Caribou Steaks (dredged in oil), and sinful desserts such as New Orleans Forgotten Cookies and Heckuva Job Brownies. Hosted by Katherine Harris. (The Food Network)

Touched by an AttorNey GenEraL
It’s bedtime for Gonzo in this one hour drama as each week the ghostly image of a certain A. G. hovers over the sickbed of a desperately ill patient and pressures them on important decisions. The shady apparition also materializes to fire U.S. Attorneys with witty quips like, “Hasta la vista, baby!” and, “You serve at the pleasure of the President, bitch!” Missing this show would be torture! (FX)

The House on Abstinence Street
Finally, a primetime soap for the whole family! This soap opera features no premarital sex, no extramarital sex, and no marital sex! Viewer Warning: May contain suggestive glances. Note: Critics predict the lowest-rated television show of all-time. (PAX)

Some Like It Hot
Examines the benefits of climate change…Imagine a future with coffee plantations on the North Slope, Spring Break on the Aleutian Islands (over 20 hours of daylight!), hosted by Patricia Heaton. Safe viewing for the whole family, no Gore. (The Weather Channel)

HBO ½ Hour Comedy Special: Dick Cheney Uncensored! Live from an Undisclosed Location
Cheney builds on the comedy act he delivered at the Correspondents Dinner in this new HBO special. Early reviews are mixed. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times calls Cheney Uncensored, “A Revelation!” while The New York Times said Cheney is “Funny as a heart attack.” Viewer Warning: Explicit language and extreme denial of reality. (HBO)

Best Week Ever
Sunday news magazine that looks back at the highlights of the previous 7 days of the Iraq War, emphasizing progress in reconstruction and GI’s distributing candy. Each show ends with a random list of U.S. soldiers who were not killed or wounded that week. At long last an unashamedly positive look at the Iraq War. Hosted by Elizabeth Hasselbeck. (The Military Channel)

Cavemen
A weekly roundtable featuring Don Imus, Isiah Thomas, and Hootie Johnson discussing women’s issues, with a special appearance by Sean Connery. Hosted by Geraldo Rivera. (Spike TV)

Whose Wife is it Anyway?
A quiz show where contestants are asked to match Republican Presidential candidates with their current and former wives. Hosted by Chuck Woolery (Game Show Network)

A Good Man Is Hard to Find
Reality show which follows the Bush Administration process for naming high level appointments, from open calls across the country to regional competitions leading to confirmation hearings before finding the one candidate who best strikes the delicate balance between incompetent yes-man and political hack. (C-Span 2)

Tax Cuts of the Rich and Famous
See how the other half (okay, top 1%) lives, as we tour mansions, yachts, and look over the hedge funds of the primary beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts. Co-hosted by Robin Leach and Billy Bush. Viewer Warning: Obscene wealth. (The Style Network)

Every Breath You Take
A dual examination of the Bush Administration’s domestic spying program and the emasculation of the Clean Air Act. (Airing on Oxygen...for a limited time)

FEAR MONGERS VS FISHMONGERS

It shouldn’t be hard to tell a true grassroots organization from an industry-sponsored Astroturf campaign; a real grassroots coalition springs from the fertile soil of citizen activism, whereas if you dig for the origins of an Astroturf group, you’ll find no roots at all—just a plastic mat of fake grass hiding slimy lobbyists intent on manipulating public opinion.

But I confess I’m baffled by the recommendation from the non-profit National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition asserting that pregnant women should eat a minimum of 12 ounces of seafood a week. This advice conflicts with current recommendations from the FDA and the EPA that pregnant women should consume a maximum of 12 ounces of seafood weekly in order to minimize their consumption of methyl mercury.

The experts behind HMHB’s recommendations concluded that insufficient consumption of omega-3 fatty acids--so crucial to fetal brain development--is a bigger problem than methyl mercury:

The recommendations come at a time when the debate about mercury in fish and an FDA/EPA advisory have created confusion for pregnant women, causing a reduction in their fish consumption. This leads to inadequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids resulting in risks to their health and the health of their children…

…women who want to become pregnant, are pregnant or are breastfeeding should eat a minimum of 12 ounces per week of fish like salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel, and can do so safely.

HMHB seems to have impeccable credentials as a legit grassroots group, but these findings were funded by a $60,000 grant from a seafood industry group, the National Fisheries Institute, creating what appears to be a blatant conflict of interest.

As Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told NPR on Thursday, "It's very troubling that the National Fisheries Institute is essentially paying for a public health message."

HMHB is not some fly-by-night, hastily assembled front group; founded in 1981, its members include the March of Dimes and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But the announcement came as a surprise even to some of HMHB’s own members, as NPR reported:

"I really think that's the wrong recommendation to be making," says pediatrician Frank Greer, chairman of the nutrition committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "We really should not be implying that women should be eating more than 12 ounces of seafood."

Christina Pearson, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, told NPR “We are members of the coalition, but we were not informed of this announcement in advance, and we do not support it."

The fact is that the fish industry is, indeed, suffering from a pr problem; consumers are so confused about which fish to eat, and how much, that many pregnant women don’t eat enough fish to ensure healthy fetal development.

So, even though I question the National Fisheries Institute’s methods of promoting their products, I support the goal of getting pregnant women—along with the rest of us--to eat more fish. If you have trouble keeping track of which fish is high in omega-3’s and low in mercury, print out a wallet-sized guide from one of these organizations untainted by industry influence:

Oceans Alive

Monterey Bay Aquarium

National Resources Defense Council (pdf)

Purdue University

Phony-ing it in

Clear Channel: "Rush Limbaugh's listeners are too stupid to think for themselves."

Via Salon:

The Clear Channel affiliate that airs Rush Limbaugh's show in Palm Beach, Fla., is refusing to run VoteVets.org ads dealing with Limbaugh's "phony soldiers" remark on the ground that the ads "would only conflict with the listeners who have chosen to listen to Rush Limbaugh."

To be fair, if your diet consists solely of swallowing bullshit, I imagine any abrupt change in that diet would cause a massive shock to your system. So, really, Clear Channel's just trying to protect the people. Good lookin' out!

As for Rush, I'm sure his drug-addled mind is just confused. It happens when you're a drug addict. Besides, how would he know what a real soldier is? The only soldiers he's ever seen are the ones he avoided serving with.

A NATION IN NEED OF A NANNY?

Americans are significantly fatter—and sicker—than our European counterparts, according to a new study from Emory University.

It’s not that French women don’t get fat. Some do, but, like the rest of their fellow Europeans, at a much lower rate than we do.

Well, sure, you say; it’s easy to stay thin when you’re smoking Gauloises instead of scarfing down Cheetos.

Only that may be a myth, too. The study found that Americans are not only out-eating, but out-smoking their European counterparts:

…about 17 percent of European adults are obese, compared with around a third of American adults. In addition, 53 percent of adult Americans are either former or current smokers, compared with 43 percent of those in Europe. American adults were also more likely than Europeans to have heart disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease -- all associated with obesity and/or smoking.

The study compared rates of obesity and disease among Americans aged 50 and up and their counterparts in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, and found that we’re faring worse across the board, “with many more Americans chronically ill than their European counterparts.”

And our lousy lifestyle is costing us a fortune, as the lead researcher, Kenneth Thorpe, told U.S. News & World Report:

"The United States spends more on health care than any country in Europe," Thorpe said. In the United States, in 2004 the per capita spending on health care was $6,102 -- about twice as much as in the Netherlands and Germany, and almost twice that of France.

If the prevalence of obesity could be reduced (and along with it, chronic disease), Thorpe's team estimates that health spending could be cut by $100 billion to $150 billion per year, trimming up to 18.7 percent off the nation's total health-care budget.

But that’s a big “if,” and it’s followed by an even bigger “how.” How do you get a nation of chip-chomping couch potatoes to shape up?

"I'm not sure obesity is a medical condition that lends itself to medical treatment," said Greg Scandlen, the founder of Consumers for Health Care Choices, a health-care lobbying group. "Certainly, it does suggest the need for more exercise and better diets, but that is a grandmother's advice. Do we need highly trained and expensive professionals telling people what grandmothers have told them for free for generations?"

Scandlen’s solution:

“Bring back P.E. classes, [use the] transportation system, use more bicycles and fewer cars, and urban design, get rid of escalators so people will walk up stairs."

But funding for phys ed is iffy, and funding for mass transit’s even iffier. Bicycles? Love ‘em, but in a culture where the car is king, our cyclists get the cold shoulder of the road all too often.

Which brings me to Scandlen’s next point; fewer cars. Yeah, and I’m all in favor of fewer guns, too, because when you try to pry Americans out of their beloved automobiles, they will shoot you.

Urban design? All well and good, if you happen to live in a city. Not much help if you’ve exiled yourself to the exurbs, which is what we call all that former farmland where rural folks used to grow real food that the rest of us used to eat.

Lastly, the suggestion that we do away with escalators and force folks to take the stairs. Do you want our health insurers to go bankrupt paying for all the new knees people would need? Every superfluous pound of weight puts stress equivalent to four pounds of added weight on your knees. Kind of a double-edged sword; can you lose enough weight climbing stairs to take the pressure off your knees before they give out on you?

Might be safer to take a walk, if you can find a pedestrian-friendly place to do it. Just be careful, and look both ways before you cross. I know that sounds obvious, but then, so does the “grandmotherly” advice that we need to eat better and get more exercise, and most of us ignore that, too.

So what becomes of a nation that disregards these eternal maternal edicts en masse? Two words: nanny state. Don’t like it? Put out that cigarette, ditch the donuts, and take a hike. Do we really want to be number one in health care costs, or boast the highest rates of heart disease? It’s a free country, I know, but our bad habits are really adding up.

Blackwater Runs Deep

Is privatized security really the answer? Have we forgotten the lessons of Robocop? Wasn't one "Republican Guard" in Iraq enough?

This is the description of Blackwater Worldwide from their website:

"Blackwater Worldwide efficiently and effectively integrates a wide range of resources and core competencies to provide unique and timely solutions that exceed our customer’s stated need and expectations."

Good stuff. There's nothing better than core competencies. Just a thought, though, you might want to stop "exceeding [your] customer's stated need and expectations." At least until the heat's off.

"We are guided by integrity, innovation, and a desire for a safer world. Blackwater Worldwide professionals leverage state-of-the-art training facilities, professional program management teams, and innovative manufacturing and production capabilities to deliver world class customer driven solutions."

I agree. Just as NRA members believe we'd all be safer if everyone carried guns, I believe we'd all be safer if everyone had their own private security firm. And “state-of-the-art training facilities” is right. No monkey bars in the desert for this outfit.

"Our leadership and dedicated family of exceptional employees adhere to an essential system of core corporate values chief among them are integrity, innovation, excellence, respect, accountability, and teamwork."

In case anybody's wondering...profit's place as a core corporate value at Blackwater? A distant 7th. Blackwater is a family, and just like any family, Blackwater has someone who gets drunk and causes trouble around the holidays.

This really is a great website, and even though it looks like an evil-action-movie-villain cliché, I've been assured it is real. There's a "proshop" and everything. [Is your daughter's Barbie safe? Can you afford to take a chance? Buy her a Blackwater action figure!]

All that's missing is a corporate slogan. Here are a few suggestions...

Blackwater: We kill more Iraqis before 9am than most people do all day
Blackwater: Army strong; corporate earnings
Blackwater: So secure it hurts

TAKING OUR CUES FROM MR. MAGOO

When did Mr. Magoo, the fifties cartoon character whose severe shortsightedness caused him to regularly stumble into catastrophic situations, become our national mascot?

America is suffering from a massive outbreak of myopia—it’s everywhere you look, if you can only see it. We’re bogged down in Bagdad—who could have foreseen that? Sub-prime mortgage meltdown—who would have guessed those folks might have trouble making their payments? Plummeting sales for Detroit’s gas guzzlers—who knew that gas prices would go up and fuel demand for greater fuel efficiency? Skyrocketing health care costs from diabetes and other obesity-related disease—would it be cheaper to foot the bill for preventative care than to pick up the tab for all those foot amputations?

The latest nominees for the “Who’d a thunk it?” hall of fame are the corn growers who planted all those amber waves of fool’s gold and rushed to build ethanol distilleries. As the New York Times reported last Sunday:

The ethanol boom of recent years — which spurred a frenzy of distillery construction, record corn prices, rising food prices and hopes of a new future for rural America — may be fading.

Only last year, farmers here spoke of a biofuel gold rush, and they rejoiced as prices for ethanol and the corn used to produce it set records.

But companies and farm cooperatives have built so many distilleries so quickly that the ethanol market is suddenly plagued by a glut, in part because the means to distribute it have not kept pace. The average national ethanol price on the spot market has plunged 30 percent since May, with the decline escalating sharply in the last few weeks.

As Tom Philpott of Grist prophesied last October:

As more distillers enter the market, ethanol's price -- and profit margin -- will fall. According to a recent Dow Jones article, there are now 102 operational ethanol plants, 32 under construction, and another 127 in various stages of planning.

If all of those proposed plants come online, Dow Jones reckons, the industry will soon be churning out 16 billion gallons of ethanol per year -- about four times the 2005 level. To do so, they'll eat up 5.3 billion to 5.9 billion bushels of corn. In 2005, ethanol took just 1.6 billion bushels.

That surge in usage will likely mean a big jump in the price of corn. And here's the catch: if the corn price surges, it will make ethanol production much less profitable…

…What we're looking at is the dirtiest four-letter word in the energy lexicon: glut. Which players in the market are the likeliest to fail if ethanol prices dip below the cost of production? Small fry like farmer-owned cooperatives. And what deep-pocketed player is likely to ride out the storm, then snap up a bunch of failed ethanol plants for pennies on the dollar? Well, that would likely be the biggest producer of all: Archer Daniels Midland. And what happens when ethanol production falls after a bunch of plants shut down? The price of corn drops, and farmers are right back where they started.

Of course, ethanol was never going to be a real solution to our energy problems, anyway. As Philpott noted in the same post, “even if the fuel's energy balance is marginally positive, that factor is probably outweighed by the vast environmental liabilities of large-scale corn production.”

Growing all this corn for fuel has so many downsides it’s hard to know where to begin: food prices are rising to keep up with the higher cost of feed; farmers eager to cash in on the ethanol boom are destroying their topsoil with repeated sowings of corn instead of rotating their crops, and the massive quantities of chemicals that agribiz corn farmers rely on are taking a terrible environmental toll which will only worsen as more acres of corn get planted.

We know that nitrogen run-off from industrial agriculture is feeding the algae blooms that choke our waterways and destroy marine habitats, but the frenzy to grow more corn is contributing to other environmental calamities we’re hardly hearing about. In Iowa, there’s growing evidence that a weed killer routinely sprayed on corn crops is weakening and even killing the Corn Belt’s oak trees, according to The Gazette (hat tip to Mikael Brown):

Department of Natural Resources foresters have collected circumstantial evidence strongly suggesting that a weed killer sprayed on cornfields is damaging, if not killing, oak trees.

"We don't have the smoking gun, but we have lots of evidence pointing to acetochlor," a leading corn herbicide, as the cause of oak leaf tatters, said Paul Tauke, chief of the DNR Forestry Bureau.

Since 2000, Tauke and his colleagues have been studying the role of acetochlor in oak tatters, an ailment that defoliates Iowa's state tree, and lace-leaf hackberry, a similar condition that affects hackberry trees.

Often the trees grow new leaves and survive, but scientists believe tatters stresses and weakens them, making them more susceptible to death by disease and insects.

Researchers are further troubled by evidence indicating the ill effects are often caused not by application errors, such as spraying crops on a windy day, but by volatilization, the process by which chemicals evaporate and accumulate in the
air.

They also worry that the chemical may harm other life forms, including people -- a prospect that no one is investigating.

And they are certain that acetochlor usage -- nearly 100 pounds per square mile in Iowa -- will increase given that American farmers planted 19 percent more corn this year than last in an effort to meet ethanol demand.

There are several scary aspects to this story; one, the fact that even when correctly applied, chemicals have a way of wandering off and doing harm beyond the boundaries of the farms they’re sprayed on; and, two, if this stuff is so toxic to oak trees, how good can it be for people? As the Gazette notes, no one’s even asking this question.

Corn-based ethanol is a federally mandated mistake, not a solution to our insatiable thirst for energy. Cellulosic ethanol, i.e. “non-feedstock bioethanol” made from switchgrass or sugarcane, has far greater potential for reducing greenhouse gas emmissions, but requires more research and investment before it can become a viable alternative.

Why isn’t our government looking to solar power, to wind power, to hydropower, to conservation, aka good old fashioned people power? Maybe because the sun, wind and water haven’t got powerful lobbyists drumming up support for them in Congress, unlike the corn industry.

As for the farmers who bet the farm on corn, I’m sorry they bought into the corn-based ethanol boondoggle, but, hey, who could have predicted the market for feed-based fuel would flounder? I mean, besides Tom Philpott, and a few thousand other visionaries who aren’t blinded by tunnel vision.

Mr. Magoo’s own myopic missteps were compounded by his stubborn refusal to acknowledge the mistakes his poor eyesight led him to make. Maybe he should throw his hat into the ring of Repubican presidential contenders—that is, if he can find it.

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