The Omnivore's Dilemma

January 4, 2009

A couple salient points from Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma:

  • In the early 20th century, corn breeders looking to control the means of production crossed two corn plants from inbred lines (ancestors that had been self-pollinated over several generations) creating cloned corn that looked exactly alike, had higher yields than either parent, and seeds whose offspring yielded smaller production by almost one third. This hybrid corn offered its breeders the biological equivalent of a patent, forcing farmers to buy new seeds for every planting season, rather than relying on the plants to reproduce themselves as in the past. This created a corn breeding industry that poured money into R&D, promotion, and advertising for corn, and forced farmers into dependency with this assured return on investment.

  • After World War 2 the U.S. government found itself with a surplus of ammonium nitrate, a main ingredient in producing explosives, which happens to be a wonderful source of nitrogen for plants. After considering spraying American forests with this surplus chemical, the government instead thought it more profitable to use it on farm lands as fertilizer which nicely complimented the pesticides derived from poison gasses developed for the war. The policy of spraying crops to deter pests and encourage growth began, ironically enough, with the chemicals designed to kill.

  • Fritz Haber's discover of synthetic nitrogen was one of the most important innovations of the 20th century that no one has ever heard of. Prior to Haber's discovery, the only way to create usable nitrogen for plants was using soil bacteria living on the roots of leguminous plants or a shock of electric lightning to the soil. This limited the total amount of human life that earth could support through the growing of crops in nitrogen-rich soil. By 1900 it was thought that population growth would cease relative to the amount of crops that could be produced. But Haber's process to synthesize nitrogen changed all of that allowing a world with 2/5 more people. Without this synthetic fertilizer billions of people could never have been born. Haber developed synthetic nitrogen during World War 1, along with a variety poison gasses (including Zyklon B used in Hitler's concentration camps). His wife, a fellow chemist, killed herself over her husband's contribution to the war effort and Haber fled Jewish persecution in the early thirties to die ignominiously in a Basel hotel room in 1934.

The Story of the Surgery (part 2)

The day before my follow-up appointment, I received a phone message that Dr. Kashani's practice had moved out of Manhattan into a remote part of Queens, accessible by neither subway nor bus. I called Dr. Heche for help and she assured me that I was wrong. She knows Dr. Kashani very well and there was no possibility he had moved his practice off the island. She would give him a call to discuss why his staff was so confused. Several days and a few follow-up phone calls later, Dr. Heche still had no idea what had happened to Kashani. She gave me the number of a new ear, nose, and throat doctor, Dr. Isaac Nambar, so I could begin the process again.

After administering a hearing test Dr. Nambar recommended I go have an MRI. For a procedure designed to detect such life threatening illnesses such as tumors, the MRI wasn't bad, consisting of me laying motionless for about five minutes. I think I actually fell asleep. When the results of the MRI came back, Dr. Nambar said that I had a condition called otosclerosis, which is normally almost undetectable in MRIs, but showed up in mine. Otosclerosis is a hardening of a bone in the ear called the stapes, one of the smallest bones in the human body. Apparently, this happens most commonly to white pregnant women... and me. Commonly believed to be hereditary, this calcification of the stapes restricts its ability to vibrate as effectively as it should, thus resulting in diminished hearing and ringing in the ears. It didn't exactly explain the dizziness, but Nambar decided to refer me to Dr. Anthony Jahn to discuss surgical options.

The Story of the Surgery (part 1)

It was roughly a year ago, settling into a comfortable relationship with Sarah, that I decided I hadn't been hearing so well. Laying on my left side in bed, the television talking too loudly in the background, I strained to hear her, even when curled up close to me. I had had a persistent ringing over the last year that started shortly after dating Suzan which I attributed to too many years of loud clubs, concerts, or music rehearsals. But it had become distinctly louder since then. Covering my left ear, I heard a low rushing sound in the right like the sound of outer space in science fiction movies or a blanket of fuzzy white noise. Then some months later I started getting waves of dizziness, which were not entirely unpleasant, unless I was attempting to do something that required thought -- like work. Remembering that my mother had a condition called labyrinthitis that left her in a similar state when I was younger, I decided to go get tested.

Dr. Melissa Heche's office looked worn and outdated, like so many doctor's offices I've seen in New York City. Dr. Heche, herself, looked a little scattered, a nest of permed
auburn hair and hair clips poking out at odd angles and a tad too much makeup. Young and vaguely attractive, she didn't look much like a doctor save for the white lab coat and 1970s audiological testing equipment that reminded me of early elementary school hearing tests. After a number of probing questions about my lifestyle and habits, as well as a strict admonition as to how recreational drug use can cause impotence, she administered a battery of tests after which she sat me down looking unsettlingly sympathetic.

"You're correct. You've lost about fifty percent hearing in your right ear. Well below what you should be hearing for someone your age. Your other ear has slight hearing loss as well, though still in the normal range, so I'm not so concerned about that right now. But I'd like to refer you to a specialist. Please keep in touch and let me know how it goes."

Dr. Abbas Kashani had about the best bedside manner of any doctor I'd ever met. A good-looking, relatively young, Iranian ear, nose, and throat doctor, he inserted a long flexible hose with a camera at the end up my nose for a deep inspection. It was amazingly uncomfortable. Like having a probe deep inside your brain or the burning sensation of chlorinated water singeing your nose. After asking if I was British (apparently my diction is THAT good), he hoped optomistically that perhaps this was just an allergy issue and recommended that I take Allegra and a sprayed nasal steroid to try to burst the build-up of bodily fluids that could be compromising my hearing. I was to come back in a month to see if the strategy worked.