Butz’s big impact

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It was a sure bet that the headlines on Earl Butz's obit this week would focus on the racial slur that torpedoed his public life, and it was in every one I saw. But Butz, agriculture secretary under Nixon and Ford in the '70s, was perhaps one of the most influential figures in 20th century America, although not exactly in a salutary way. He blessed, and hastened, the demise of the family farm, for example, stating baldly and  unapologetically that farming was now the domain of corporations, and the family farmer would just have to get used to it. Is there anyone who would argue that that was a favorable evolutionary development for America? Even worse, it could be argued (actually, has been argued, by Michael Pollan in "Omnivore's Dilemma" and by Greg Critser in "Fat Land: How America Became the Fattest People in the World") that his policies are as responsible as any set of actions anywhere for the obesity epidemic in America. Undoubtedly, that wasn't his plan, but by urging farmers to grown corn "from hedgerow to hedgerow," he greatly increased its supply, which led to the development of high fructose corn syrup (they had to find a way to exploit the abundance), which found its way into practically every fast food and junk food product, and widened those markets. Further, the abundance of corn led to its becoming the feed of choice for cows, which is an incredibly bad idea with practically no positive effects, except that it's cheap. "Corn-fed beef," which is regarded as a boon in marketing, is completely nutty: Cows are ruminants, and meant to eat grass. The methane that results from eating corn builds up inside the several stomachs of ruminants and can actually kill them, a major mortality threat at feedlots. But corn fattens beef quicker than grass, so they just work around the death thing. And, when fields are grown in monoculture (growing the same crop season after season), they require more (petrochemically based) fertilizers and pesticides to keep them productive, neither of which can be considered good for the land. (No, I'm not farmer, and I'm not a biologist, just in case you were wondering. But I'm persuaded.) These are some of the things we got from Earl Butz. It hardly compares to the ribald, even contemptible aphorism  he uttered to John Dean on an airplane, not realizing Dean was under the hire of Rolling Stone at the time.


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