Corn, Corn, Everywhere

Pollan, M. 2006. The omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. Penguin Books: New York.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma has ruined the grocery store for me.

OK, maybe it’s unfair to place all the blame on Michael Pollan. Let’s face it, even though I love cooking and preparing food, shopping for ingredients in the modern chain grocery store has never been the most peaceful experience. Stark, florescent lights, swarms of people playing bumper cars with their grocery carts, and row upon row of packaged goods wedged in beside one another; indeed, it feels like one of the farthest things from nature.

But now, I’ve become prone to seeing the majority of these grocery store goods as giant cobs of corn, protruding from the boxes and bags like beacons. So maybe it is more accurate to say that I see these goods as not much more than ground-up, processed kernels of corn, taking the form of corn starch, corn oil, modified corn syrup, or any other possible corn-based additive.

Just last week in the frozen food section I spotted a package of onion-flavoured hash-brown patties, the kind that only need to be crisped up in the toaster to be ready to eat. “Yum!” was my first reaction. I reached into the freezer and pulled out the box of perfect potato rectangles. Then it struck me: Corn. Look for corn. I slowly turned over the box and scanned the ingredient list. Ingredient number 3: Yellow corn flour. Suddenly they didn’t look so appealing…

Why was this suddenly so unappealing to me, when it was something I wouldn’t have thought twice about in the past? As Pollan says, we are “the true people of the corn”, or “corn chips with legs” (p. 23). Corn is something so prevalent in our diets as North Americans that it quite literally makes up a portion of our bodies. It is an inseparable part of who we are, and this is kind of frightening.

But it goes even further than this. Pollan has made me realize the very real and engrained consequences that corn has had for humans (biologically and socioeconomically), animals, and the Earth that we share.

When it comes to humans, one of the greatest revelations for me in reading this book was to learn about some of the people behind the scenes in the grand-scale corn takeover; namely, the people growing it. These farmers, like George Naylor, who Pollan comes to know well, live and work the fields of the Corn Belt of the Midwestern United States. They are producing more corn in a shorter period of time than has ever been produced in history, and yet they are simultaneously struggling to earn enough money to subsist. Frankly, this seems ridiculous to me, as well as greatly disheartening, and I think I can speak for a great number of us who have had no idea that this was even going on. It also leads to a never-ending cycle of cheap “commodity corn”, as farmers are propelled to find ways to produce even more corn (in order to live), leading to further overabundance of corn, and less money in the corn-growing business.

An image that struck me was that of the scattered corn Pollan observed at the grain elevator in Farnhamville, Iowa: “golden kernels everywhere, ground in to the mud by tires and boots, floating in the puddles of rainwater, pancaked on the steel rails… less a food than an industrial raw material” (p. 59). And so, Pollan goes on to explain, that is exactly what “number 2 field corn” is.

What led to corn as a commodity? In a word: petroleum. The sun as an energy source wasn’t enough for us, or rather, it wasn’t enough for a rapidly growing industry, and so “humanity began to sip petroleum” (p. 45). Pollan quotes farmer activist Vandana Shiva as saying, “We’re still eating the leftovers of World War II” (p. 41).

Yuck.

With this overabundance of corn there is a need to find something to do with it; one of the ways it is used is to create the corn derivatives that show up in our packaged grocery goods, as described earlier, and another way is to use it to grow animal protein on the modern feedlot, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO).

In this way, even the meat and dairy aisles are not free from the lurking reminder of corn; the corn that once filled the bellies of pigs, chickens and cattle, plumping them up and marbling their meat. I have to say that, as a vegetarian who is primarily fueled by disagreement with the factory farming industry, I thought I knew a thing or two about the making of meat as in our society, but Pollan was able to horrify me once again with the absurdity of it all. Essentially, CAFOs take cattle, “exquisitely adapted by natural selection to live grass…[and adapt them] to live on corn, for no other reason than it offers the cheapest calories around and because the great pile must be consumed” (p. 68). Pollan describes the feedlot itself as a “premodern city”, full of crowding, poor hygiene, death and disease. The sad part is, so much of this could be avoided if only these animals were allowed to live and eat how nature intended. But industry is not concerned with this.

I find Pollan’s writing impactful because he makes it personal. He makes it about us, as human beings, and he ties in characters that make the more “science-y” stuff he talks about have high stakes. For example, he gives corn farming a name and a personality with George Naylor, and he gives the feedlot a face with the brockle-faced steer he invests in and follows through his short life, 534. Suddenly, everything he is discussing can be seen as having real life consequences; something to care about.

 

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