Thursday, January 13, 2011

Subsidy Sauce

Over the holidays my family and I stayed with my parents in the Cities.  One evening we had Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner.  At the bottom of the bag of biscuits and coleslaw were half-a-dozen packets of honey.  At least, I assumed they were packets of honey.  I grabbed one and prepared to tear it open, when the label caught my eye.

Honey sauce.  Honey sauce?  WTF?  (That's 'What The Fudge' to those who do not know me.  I only swear when I stub my toe--then I let loose like a Portuguese sailor.  Only I don't actually swear in Portuguese.  Although it probably would be less offensive if I did.  To non-Portuguese listeners, at least.)


Honey sauce?  Huh?  My eye read through the ingredients: high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, sugar, honey, fructose, contains less than 2% of: caramel color, molasses, water, citric acid, natural and artificial flavor, malic acid.

I was dumbstruck.  I probably shouldn't have been, but I was.  I have long known that HFCS has infiltrated food to an alarming degree, from pancake syrups to breakfast cereal to baked goods to canned fruit.  Why should I be so surprised about it showing up in a packet of fast-food sweetener?

What hit me hardest was the fact that since KFC decided to substitute HFCS (and CS) for honey, HFCS and CS must be cheaper to buy than honey is.  My brain tried to wrap itself around this deduction.  High fructose corn syrup is cheaper to buy, and hence produce, than honey.  Again, I shouldn't have been surprised.  Maybe discouraged is a better term.  Depressed and discouraged.

Consider the steps, and thus the human effort (and other energy inputs) required to make HFCS: buy/lease crop land, plow it up, add chemical fertilizers to the soil, purchase corn seed, plant seed, spray chemical herbicides on the weeds that sprout up, mechanically irrigate during dry spells, spray chemical insecticides on the bugs that show up, repeat the last three steps as necessary during the summer, combine the corn, truck it to the elevator, transport it to the processing facility, break the corn down using mechanical force and chemical solvents, extract the sweetener out of the corn slush, transport the sweetener to a packaging facility while disposing of the corn mash (likely to the local cattle feed lot or hog barn).  Back at the field the farmer still needs to fall till his field.  Add to all of this effort the material costs associated with it -- seed, fertilizer, herbicides, insecticides, tractors, tillers, planters, sprayers, combines, semi-trailers, elevators, processing machinery, chemicals, etc.

Now consider the steps required to make honey:  buy/lease pasture land, install hives, check on them a few times during the summer, give them some sugar water or medicine if necessary, extract the honey, transport it to a packaging facility.  If you have hives in the north you may have to do some weatherization to protect the hives during the cold months, but not in the south.  Input costs -- bees, hives, protective clothing, smokers, medicine, honey extraction equipment, trucks to haul it to a packaging facility.

Another thing to think about is the although the corn syrup requires a lot more effort to make, much of this effort is mechanized.  Admittedly, bee-keeping is more physically demanding work.  Which I suppose makes it less attractive to farmers.  But there's gotta be a more than a few high school students out there, particularly in rural areas, looking for a summer job.  How can paying a few people to help tend your hives outweigh the fuel, machinery, and chemical costs of growing and processing corn?

I suspect that it doesn't.  I suspect the truth is that making honey DOES cost less (considering all the inputs and indirect costs) than making high fructose corn syrup.  And it doesn't pump chemicals into the soil, and it doesn't wipe out insect life with herbicides, and it doesn't add excess nitrogen and phosphorous into our watersheds, and it doesn't erode topsoil from repeated tilling.

So why are we eating Honey Sauce instead of Honey?

Ask a farmer about subsidies, and she'll tell you they can't farm without them.  They are telling the truth.  The cost of growing corn these days is so huge (with all those costs I detailed above), that without the subsidies the farmers would go out of business.

Here is an analogy.  Let's say I have a pair of boots.  I like the boots, they fit well and I wear them a lot.  Over time, however, my feet change and the boots (exposed to rain and sun) wear and shrink, and they no longer fit.  In fact, my feet start to hurt from wearing them.  Now, I have two choices:  I could keep wearing these boots, which are extremely uncomfortable, or I could get another pair.  If I keep these boots, I'm going to feel a lot of pain.  So much pain in fact, that if I wear them I will need to take a pain-killer.  Ibuprofin should do.  Ibuprofin is cheaper than good boots, and I don't want to have to go to the store to pick out a new pair, so I choose to keep using my old boots.

Over time, my feet change even more, and the boots get holes in them.  I could still get a new pair of boots, or I could just take more painkillers.  More, and stronger painkillers.  It isn't long before I'm taking several Vicodin a day.  So, I'm not feeling the pain, but my feet are a wreck.  This goes on, and on, and on.  I'm paying lots more for my prescriptions now than I would on new boots, but by now I'm too old (and too proud) to switch. And frankly, I don't care anymore because I'm addicted to morphine.

So you see, subsidies are the morphine of agriculture. If the painkillers weren't there in the first place, maybe I would have bought the new boots, maybe farmers would change they way they do things.  Maybe we'd have more sustainable (ecologically and financially) farming practices.  Maybe we'd have healthier farm communities and economies.

And maybe we'd get packets of real honey with our biscuits.


Erin said...

Here's the problem, the honeybees are all dying or dead. No farmers want to take such a risk on them. The small farmer can't produce enough, and to the large farmer it's akin to throwing money out the window. I am taken aback by this packet as well, as I didn't know "sauce" existed, but I'm not surprised. The government needs to do something to subsidize farmers to take on the risk or sadly this will continue I think.

Erin said...

Also remember that the farmers ARE getting subsidized to produce all the corn... it is sickening, but happening.

Mama Pea said...

Speaking strictly about bees producing honey, I doubt that anyone could produce the honey cheaper than HFCS. Erin is right; we are facing a huge problem because honey bees are facing extinction. Many people don't realize the magnitude of this problem. Bees pollinate. Plants will not grow without pollination. Plants produce our food.

This isn't to say that what you said in your well-written post is not true. You put forth many good, true points.

We are in a bad, bad place concerning ALL of farming in this country.

Jo said...

Hey Erin and Mama Pea -- Thanks for your comments. It is true that honey bee populations have dropped dramatically in recent years. And I would hazard a guess that the intensive and chemical practices used by industrial farming plays no small part in the mystery. Perhaps if less people grew corn year after year in the same spot using broad spectrum herbicides and insecticides, and instead used a diverse crop rotation and organic farming practices, our bee problems might be reduced? Just a thought... :)

Anonymous said...

You honestly don't want to know what's in those "buttermilk" biscuits, either. Or the chicken, for that matter. Except you probably do know, which is why you probably rarely eat at KFC (well, that, and the nearest one is probably three hours away).

Ugh--it IS depressing. But we can affect change in our community, at least. We can give ourselves and our neighbors a choice. That is heartening!

Mama Pea said...

I think you're right on! The family farms that built this nation used to do exactly as you outlined. Once big business took over farming and forced the family farms out, we started down the slippery slope to destroying the very land (and water and animals and insects) that sustain us. How can bees (or PEOPLE) survive when ingesting poisoned crops grown on poisoned soil?

Mr. H. said...

A sad sorry state of affairs indeed and yes, most depressing. I liked your analogy a lot. You know that our country's food system is spiraling out of control when even the honey is full of preservatives and such. On a more happy note, we have been talking about raising our own honey bees in the not too distant future...we shall see. This was a great post.:)

The Apple Pie Gal said...

Your analogy was great! Sad and true, but still great. We have two hives and hope to increase to four this year. If the bees we have make it thru the winter and weren't killed off because we live so close to the farm fields that is...

I knew they were adulterating the honey on a wide scale, but seldom eat any of the 'sauces', so thanks for bringing this to our attention.

Sure is scarey out there.

Robin said...

One of the few times we ate at KFC we saw the honey packet and had the exact same thoughts you wrote about.

Leigh said...

Excellent post. Sad but true.

Here's another reason why HFCS is in everything, having in fact replaced not only honey, but sugar. Not only because of corn subsidies, but because of sugar tariffs. Good article here.

On top of that, I'd bet my last button that HFCS is made from genetically modified corn.

I Just Live Here said...

I think it boils down to volume. Theres 300,000,000 people in the US. You just cant make that much honey. Besides Ill bet most people throw the extra packets of Honey Sauce Away and thats just fine. Who wants them to throw honey away :P

MaineCelt said...

Hey, Jo-- Good observations & good blog! We keep honeybees in a "top bar" hive. Our goal isn't honey production--these hives are designed to keep bees happy & healthy rather than to keep them constantly producing. It's our first winter as beekeepers, so we have yet to see how well the system works & whether the bees survive, but so far they seem to be doing alright. We also plan to create a large "pollinator habitat" zone around our orchard and gardens with plants that provide early, mid-season, and late bee forage.

P.S. word verification is "prime." You're the prime winner of my blog's Pay It Forward contest. Congrats! You'll get something from me later this year!

Thistledog said...

I'm just climbing back into the blogosphere after an extended absence and your post was the first to be read -- what a great piece of writing, thank you. I very much agree with your other commenters, that analogy of painkillers ending in morphine addiction is just spot-on. Can we solve this? Not sure, but boy-howdy it surely is good to hear folks discussing it in the open. Great post, Jo.

Claire @ Be The Change - North Penn said...

Jo, brilliant post. That "morphine addiction" has so many ramifications: all that corn production also furthers our addiction to petroleum, both in mechanized production and fertilizer use. Then there's the freaky GM corn & matching GM herbicide that mean miles and miles of America where nary a weed will grow. Then there's the run-off dead zone in the Gulf, which was the size of New Jersey before the oil spill. I'll stop there! Btw, the "caramel color" in that Honey Sauce? Also made from corn....

manybees said...

I regret that I didn't find this post until now and must say that while your perspective on keeping bees and producing honey lacks real knowledge, I was pleased to see the disappointment that you and most of the comments have expressed about adulterated honey and "honey sauce." We in the professional beekeeping business in the U.S. have been fighting for years now to protect the concept of honey as only pure honey with no additives. We have expressed our strongest disapproval of the "honey sauce" marketed by KFC. We have fought for legislation to protect our market from adulterated honey imported from other countries. We are in the process of creating a criteria through which the buying public can be assured that the honey they purchase is pure, unadulterated honey, produced in the U.S.
Keeping viable hives of honeybees in the United States is an expensive proposition. Very few commercial beekeepers exist that dedicate their enterprise to honey production exclusively. Most generate the bulk of their income by contracting the bees for pollination work. We simply cannot produce enough honey to pay the bills.