corn, corn everywhere

Spot the difference

Pollan, M. 2006. Industrial Corn. pg.15-119 in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a natural history of four meals. Penguin Group, New York, New York

Pollan comes to the sudden realization that the simple question, “what should I eat?” (pg. 17) can no longer be answered without first answering the questions, “What am I eating? And where in the world did it come from?” (pg.17). These questions set the pace for the pursuing chapters; a voyage of discovery where upon discovering that what were eating is more often than not clever rearrangements of corn Pollan tries to track corns lifecycle. This voyage starts at the farm, makes its way from there to the grain elevator, follows on to the feedlot or processing plant (depending on the purpose), from the processing plant it is cleverly rearranged and forced down our gullets through ever more illusive ways, from the feedlot it makes it way to the wholesome fast food meal.

The way in which Pollan organizes these chapters is masterfully done and allows the reader to systematically follow him on his journey to lift the veil off modern food production.

Corn is in everything! In beginning his journey Pollan discloses to the reader corn’s conquest in becoming undoubtedly the most successful food plant in America today. He provides a brief history of its emergence and how it has benefited humans as we have benefited it – using the same notion he introduced in ‘The Botany of Desire’ he ponders who domesticated whom. Corn’s emergence as such an important player in food today is owed to two characteristics; firstly it is easily bred for traits that we deem useful, such as uniformity, secondly as a result of offspring’s seeds not holding the characteristics of the parent plant, they are deemed useless and this has made corn easily commoditized.

Continuing his journey Pollan visits George Naylor’s corn farm in Iowa, part of the great American Corn Belt. Unlike the bygone era when farmers could use their crops to feed their families then sell their produce for a fair price, thus ensuring a good standard of living now they can’t do either. This raises the question for Pollan why is it that farmers continue to grow corn rather that other crops? The main reason as Pollan points out is an agriculture economic paradox. As corn grew in popularity prices dropped, faced with lower prices for their corn farmers became ever more efficient at growing more and more of it, thus driving prices further down. To curb overproduction, the government intervened and this helped both the farmer and the market. However this intervention has since been eroded, as such farmers trying to sustain their income in the face of lower and lower corn prices have no choice but to produce more, thus oversupplying the market and driving prices down, the vicious cycle continues.

Next Pollan makes his way to the grain elevator where farmers like George Naylor deliver their corn after harvesting. What immediately strikes Pollan is the vast quantities of corn just left exposed to the elements – there is something wrong with this picture. But alas this corn is not corn, well its corn but not the corn you or I know; it is “number 2 field corn” (pg. 58) – a commodity. Today no farmer’s corn is discernable from the next. Now all that matters is “moving that mountain of cheap corn, finding the people and animals to consume it, the cars to burn it, the new products to absorb it, and the nations to import it” (pg.62).

From the grain elevator commodity corn makes it way to one of two places, the feedlot or the processing plant. Sixty percent makes its way to the feedlot and this is were Pollan next visits. After buying himself a young steer Pollan hopes to follow its life, from birth to slaughter (I guess he can’t claim no animals were hurt in the making of this book). Visiting his steer ‘Poky’ at a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) shows the industries through colours, where the only thing that matters is getting cattle fat quickly regardless of “the cost to the public health of antibiotic resistance or food poisoning by E. coli O1H7:H7…the cost to taxpayers of the farm subsidies that keep Poky’s raw material cheap…[or of] the many environmental costs incurred by cheap corn” (pg.83).

Now Pollan tries to uncover what happens to the forty percent of commercial corn that doesn’t go these CAFO’s, well as we learn were certainly not eating it directly, its not even directly edible, it needs to be processed and this leads Pollan to the processing plant. Here corn is cleverly rearranged so that is can be added into food stuffs, these quote unquote clever rearrangements include: “citric and lactic acid; glucose, fructose, and maltodextrin; ethanol, sorbitol, mannitol, and xanthan gum; modified and unmodified starches; as well as dextrins and cyclodextrins and MSG, to name only a few.” (pg.86).

So far Pollan has discussed the effects corn has had in the supermarket, on the field, in the grain elevator, on the feedlot and in the processing plant. But the main question is what effect this corn has on the consumer, well in short disastrous. Food has not been dispersed evenly around the world as outputs increase, the rich are sick and the poor are hungry, in fact “The United Nations reported that in 2000 the number of people suffering from overnutrition—a billion—had officially surpassed the number suffering from malnutrition—800 million.” (pg. 102).

Pollan’s corn odyssey is now at a close and what a journey it has been. The end result is as spectacular as all the processes that led up to. And of course you would expect something amazing, beautiful and incredible to be the result of all the processes that have gone before, well here it is, brace yourself, “The meal at the end of the industrial food chain that begins in an Iowa cornfield is prepared by McDonald’s and eaten in a moving car” (pg.109) — lame.

 

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