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We’re Living on Corn!

Michael Pollan believes that America has a national eating disorder, and in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, he shows that it goes back a long way—at least to the early 1900s, when Dr. John Harvey Kellogg attracted crowds to his sanitarium at Battle Creek, Michigan. There the inmates endured all-grape diets and almost hourly enemas, yet despite the discomfort (or perhaps because of it) his quackery flourished and Kellogg soon found himself with competitors. Among them was Horace Fletcher, otherwise known as “the Great Masticator.” Fletcher recommended chewing each mouthful of food one hundred times. I still remember my mother instructing me in 1950s Australia to chew my food one hundred times on each side. Just how this doubling of the great masticator’s dictum occurred is unclear to me, but I can tell you that after the twentieth chew or thereabouts, most kinds of food were reduced to a bilious sludge.

Down the decades the food faddists have just kept coming, and today we seem to have more of them (even if they are less flamboyant) than ever before. Among the better known are the late Dr. Atkins with his low-carbohydrate diet and Dr. Sears with his Zone plan. Then there are the more obscure Dr. Brownell with the LEARN scheme and Dr. Ornish with a regime named after himself. Pollan argues that Americans are more susceptible to such fads because they lack a food tradition that embodies the wisdom of earlier generations. Maybe so, but faddish diets seem to be prospering everywhere, and the public has never been more confused, or more misled, about the simple matter of eating. Many of us, it seems, have more or less given up. A recent study found that one out of every five Canadians eats by selecting from a group of ten or fewer food types.1

As intriguing as they are, Pollan does not overly concern himself with diet fads, for he has an altogether more weighty matter in his sights: the dysfunction of the entire American industrial food complex. The situation is a lot worse than most of us dare imagine, for Americans are some of the most specialized eaters on earth. At the base of the national food chain is a single species of grass—corn—and its growth, processing, and sale constitute a titanic industry which is focused on increasing profits rather than health and well-being.

In America, foods as diverse as Gatorade, Ring Dings, and hamburgers have their beginning with corn. Indeed, huge factories transform its kernels into an almost unimaginable array of compounds. To illustrate how pervasive corn’s influence is, Pollan gives us the example of the chicken nugget, which he says “piles corn upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn” (because the chickens are corn-fed), as does

the modified corn starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter that coats it, and the corn oil in which it gets fried. Much less obviously, the leavenings and lecithin, the mono-, di-, and triglycerides, the attractive golden coloring, and even the citric acid that keeps the nugget “fresh” can all be derived from corn.

So dominant has this giant grass become that of the 45,000-odd items in American supermarkets, more than one quarter contain corn. Disposable diapers, trash bags, toothpaste, charcoal briquettes, matches, batteries, and even the shine on the covers of magazines all contain corn. In America, all meat is also ultimately corn: chickens, turkeys, pigs, and even cows (which would be far healthier and happier eating grass) are forced into eating corn, as are, increasingly, carnivores such as salmon.

If you doubt the ubiquity of corn you can take a chemical test. It turns out that corn has a peculiar carbon structure which can be traced in everything that consumes it. Compare a hair sample from an American and a tortilla-eating Mexican and you’ll discover that the American contains a far larger proportion of corn-type carbon. “We North Americans look like corn chips with legs,” says one of the researchers who conducts such tests.

You might argue that there’s nothing wrong with eating such a corn-rich diet. But you are what you eat, and Pollan provides much graphic evidence that the American way of eating spreads illness, waste, and ecological devastation across the globe. As its title suggests, his book follows the makings—from farm to plate—of four very different meals. The first is a pure product of the industrial complex that feeds most of us—a McDonald’s meal eaten in a car. Next he examines an organic meal, then a meal prepared from ingredients grown on an ingenious farm called Polyface in the Shenandoah Valley. Finally Pollan relates the making of a meal made almost entirely of ingredients he himself harvests from the suburbs and hills of northern California, where he lives.

Pollan’s research into the origins of the McDonald’s meal takes him to the farm of George Naylor in Greene County, Iowa. Like his neighbors, George is slowly going broke growing corn for what he calls the “military-industrial complex,” and he is only able to stay on the land because of a salary earned away from the farm by his wife. You don’t have to look far to find the cause of this, for the more corn George grows, the faster he goes broke. That’s because in order to grow more corn you need more expensive fertilizer, special seed stock, and machinery, which farmers can ill afford. Yet because they often need the big paycheck, and because they are urged to do so by industry reps and government agencies, corn farmers continue to grow larger and larger crops. They all hope for a good price for corn, but because so much is being produced, improvements in the price never seem to arrive.2 Iowa State University estimates that it costs $2.50 to grow a bushel of Iowa corn, but when Pollan visited in October 2005 the grain elevators were paying farmers $1.45. The only reason the system survives is that the federal government gives farmers substantial subsidies. Federal payments “account for nearly half the income of the average Iowa corn farmer, and represent roughly a quarter of the $19 billion US taxpayers spend each year on payments to farmers.”

Not only is the industrial corn production system destroying farm families, it is destroying the farms themselves. The soil on Naylor’s farm is beautifully rich and two feet thick. What you can’t see, Pollan tells us, is the soil that’s no longer there. Originally there was four feet of soil, but intensive crop growing has destroyed half of that natural bounty. Only corn diseases, debt, and the wind (which has increased markedly since fences and trees were torn down to make way for more corn) seem to be prospering in the bleak Iowa landscape described by Pollan.

In order to follow the food chain, Pollan buys a steer—a nameless creature bearing only the number 534—and follows it from the Blair Ranch in South Dakota, where it was born, to the feedlot where it is fattened for slaughter. Despite its having been branded and castrated at the Blair Ranch, Pollan thinks that No. 534 might look back at its time there as the “good old days,” for its life on the feedlot is grim indeed.

Cows have not evolved to feed on corn. Nor are they suited to living in crowded conditions while standing up to their ankles in feces. In the feedlot, however, they have little choice. The corn diet induces indigestion, which must be treated with repeated courses of antibiotics, and the cows seem to be miserable or vacant a lot of the time. They are subjected to this regime because it makes them grow fast, and in times past they were even fed the offal from other slaughtered cows, which is how mad cow disease came into the food supply.

Pollan describes a Karmic cycle in which the poor health of the feedlotted cows is visited on their consumers. Because they are not allowed to eat grass, their meat is higher in dangerous fats and lower in good ones than that of cows leading a more natural life. And the abattoirs where they are slaughtered need to be absolutely fastidious about hygiene, because bacteria on their skins thrive in the crowded, fecal conditions, and could easily contaminate their meat. Despite all of this, grain-fed beef has a cachet in America, where it is preferred by many for its alleged tenderness. I’m often offered it with pride, even by up-market restaurants that don’t seem interested in serving meat from cows that have lived their life on the range. Having read Pollan’s book, I’m now ordering buffalo.

Corn of course is used for many purposes apart from feeding factory-farmed chickens, cattle, and pigs. High-fructose corn syrup, for example, has replaced sugar in many processed food and beverages, and is now, according to Pollan, “the most valuable food product refined from corn, accounting for 530 million bushels every year.” But in trying to track down how such products are made, Pollan hits a dead end. The big corn millers—Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland—won’t let him into their factories, so he wasn’t allowed to see how the corn products Americans consume are the result of complicated chemical processing.

Reading Pollan’s book, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the food industry has confined many Americans to their own urban feedlots, in which they have grown obese, ill, and uncurious about the source or nutritional quality of their food. In this system, human appetites are simply another bottleneck to be overcome in the search for greater sales. Hence the “supersizing” now so prevalent at fast-food outlets. A segment of the American population, however, is making a break for food freedom. They can often be found haunting the organic section of the supermarket, and in his quest to understand how their food is produced, Pollan travels to the great California farms where most organic produce is grown.

In the 1970s the organic food movement was a local, small-scale affair which was established as an open act of rebellion, but those days are long gone. Today, organic farms are hard to distinguish at a glance from their nonorganic neighbors, and indeed they are often worked by the same crews of migrant laborers. It’s not all bad news, however, for organic methods are kinder to the soil, and they do not permit use of synthetic hormones and antibiotics. But still, organic food is subject to industrialization in ways that damage the environment. For example, it is often transported over vast distances, thereby burning much fossil fuel.

It’s only when Pollan arrives at Polyface Farm, in pursuit of his third meal, that we see a vision of production that seems miraculous in its capacity to nurture both us and the environment. The farm is owned by Joel Salatin, whose father purchased it in the 1960s when it was a run-down dairy farm full of erosion gullies. As a result of careful ecological sculpting, that land now produces 35,000 dozen eggs, 10,000 broiler hens, 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of hogs, 1,200 turkeys, and 1,000 rabbits every year. All this is achieved without artificial fertilizer, hormones, or antibiotics and, even more remarkably, Salatin has converted 450 of his 550 acres to forest! The birds and other creatures it harbors, and the woodchips it yields, all play vital parts in maintaining the productivity of the 100 acres of worked land.

  1. 1

    The Globe & Mail, March 7, 2007, p. A11.

  2. 2

    Since Pollan wrote, the demand of corn for ethanol production has recently seen the price rise to as high as $4.50 per bushel.

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