Chances are, you had corn for breakfast this morning, corn for lunch and you’ll have a nice helping of corn tonight. No way, you say. “I had bacon and eggs washed down with a flavored latte before dashing out the door, a turkey sandwich, chips and Pepsi for lunch and I’m sitting down to a big steaming bowl of homemade stew tonight,” you insist.
Yep, corn alright.
In contrast to our ancestors, we’ve essentially become monovores who are oblivious to where our food comes from, says Utah State University researcher Fred Provenza. He concedes the corn example is a bit extreme, but urges consumers to scan food labels and to give some thought to the source of their food. We are what the corn-fed animals we eat are, and corn syrup is a frequent flyer on ingredient manifests of processed foods, he says. “As Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, writes, ‘We are the people of the corn.’”
Corn isn’t so bad, Provenza says, if it’s one of many things you eat and if its modern form still included the varied nutrients its wilder, less processed ancestor offered in days of yore.
“The problem is, our diets lack a diversity of healthy items,” he says. “As a result, we no longer experience the benefits of eating an array of plant-derived primary compounds that provide energy, protein, minerals and vitamins, and secondary compounds that provide health and pharmaceutical values. Plus, we’re eating meat from animals raised on domesticated pastures and grain in feedlots rather than natural diets.”
Natural landscapes are literally nutrition centers and pharmacies brimming with compounds vital for the nutrition and health of plants, herbivores and people, says Provenza, professor in the College of Natural Resources’ Department of Wildland Resources. “Regrettably, the simplification of plant species composition in agricultural systems to accommodate inexpensive, rapid livestock production, coupled with a view of secondary compounds as toxins, has resulted in genetic selection of a biochemical balance in forages favoring energy over nutrition and health.”
With all our technology and mechanization, we’re narrowed our food choices to a small range of options. Unfortunately, those options include ready access to processed foods high in sugar, carbs, fat and salt, for which we’ve developed an insatiable preference. “Little wonder we’re experiencing an obesity crisis that may get worse,” he says.
For the past six years, Provenza has worked alongside a team of researchers in a consortium called BEHAVE – Behavioral Education for Human, Animal, Vegetation and Ecosystem Management. The program was funded by a $4.4 million Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service. Staffed with collaborators throughout the world, the program aims to understand behavioral principles and processes that govern diet and habitat selection for both two-legged and four-legged animals.
BEHAVE researchers tackle such diverse topics as feeding habits of livestock, rejuvenating landscapes, alternative grazing systems, improving habitat for endangered species and wildlife damage management. Recent projects include training creatures – from birds to elk – what to eat and where to go, and teaching children healthy lifestyle habits using gardens as ecosystems and herbivores as models for understanding current issues in agro-ecology and society.
“One of our research goals is to learn how to create plant mixtures that provide the full range of nutritional and health benefits for plants, herbivores and people without the unsustainable costs of monocultures,” says Provenza. “That is, we want to use natural landscapes to achieve balance without fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides for crops, antibiotics and antiparasitics for livestock and nutritional supplements and drugs for humans.”
October 24-26, BEHAVE participants from around the world gather in Midway, Utah, for a conference titled “Creating Futures: Behavior in Principle and Practice.” Scientists and managers will discuss natural plant and animal communities as models for developing productive and sustainable managed landscapes.
“This year, the gathering will focus on the importance of diversity,” says Provenza. “Plant diversity enables the uniqueness of individuals of many species to be realized. Whether they are foraging in confinement, on pastures or on vast landscapes, plant diversity enables herbivores and peoples to experience the nutrition and health benefits of nature’s bounty.
“We’re bringing together the best and brightest scientists and land managers from around the world to talk about issues that touch all of our lives,” he says. “In the end, it’s all about behavior, ours and other creatures, and how we reconcile different views to sustain healthy landscapes.”
For more information about BEHAVE and the October conference, contact Provenza
at 435-797-1604 or visit the BEHAVE Web site
From Oct. 9-13, USU’s College of Natural Resources hosts a week of recreational and educational activities aimed at increasing awareness of natural resources study and research at the university. To learn more visit the accompanying article.
Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-1429, http://email@example.com