Pollan Corn Conquest Essay

In “The Plant: Corn’s Conquest,” Michael Pollan begins his first investigation into what he calls the “industrial food chain.” Most American consumers get their food from the supermarket, and Pollan uses several examples to discuss how far removed the supermarket—with its air conditioning, florescent lighting, and “machine-lathed” baby carrots—is from the natural world. By the time Pollan’s exploration of the supermarket reaches Pop-Tarts and Twinkies, it seems that he has established the need to investigate where these “foods” come from.

Although the American supermarket appears to offer a wide variety of foods—a representation of biodiversity—his investigation yields a surprising result. Corn, or Zea mays, is in nearly everything. It can be eaten as corn, it can be fed to livestock, and it has many derivative products that few realize have their base in corn. To illustrate his point, Pollan invites his readers to consider the chicken nugget. The chicken itself is fed corn. Cornstarch can be found in the glues that hold a chicken nugget together, corn flour is used in the batter, and corn oil is used to fry the nugget. Moreover, most soft drinks are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. It seems that corn is a part of us, and Pollan actually explains that scientists are able to track the amount of carbon in the average American body that comes from corn. It has come to the point that Americans rely more on corn than the Mayans did, so much so that Pollan refers to the American public as “processed corn, walking.” If people are what they eat, then it seems that corn has indeed conquered the American body.

Ironically, when Europeans and the Native Americans first met, the Europeans valued wheat at their staple crop. However, they soon discovered that a single kernel of corn would return far more kernels than wheat. Since then, Americans have been planting more and more corn. Pollan points out that Zea mays is especially easy to cross pollinate to create hybrid crops. Hybrids often combine the strengths of two types of corn to produce a superior crop. Until recently, the ease with which these strands of corn were cross-pollinated was a difficulty for corporations to control. Eventually, a hybrid was discovered that produced a superior yield in the first generation (or F-1) and an inferior yield in the second, creating what Pollan refers to as

the biological equivalent of a patent. Corn was now ready for corporate attention.

The article I chose to summarize and analyze is called “The Plant: Corn’s Conquest,” which is a chapter in the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Basically, Pollan begins the chapter by discussing America’s lack of a food culture and discussing the, to put it nicely, flexibility Americans have toward altering their diet. First off, he discusses how Americans have a fear of food that has developed when we seem to have forgotten that food is for us to consume and to enjoy and that we just must listen to our bodies to know when enough is enough. He cites countries such as France, where they live off of cheese and wine and butter, as an example of people with a strong food tradition and culture who don’t follow the strict standards of health set by America, yet they are thinner and happier (and probably healthier). After that section, Pollan had me pretty much entirely on board with whatever he was about to say; I’d just written a blog about almost exactly that, how America has this fear of food and is constantly on some fad diet rather than just following a food tradition and how it’s deteriorating the self-esteem of our nation, so I figured we were of like minds. Pollan followed this section with an in-depth analysis of the ubiquitous use of corn in every facet of American life. According to Pollan, the people of Mexico used to be considered “corn people” because their diet was so high in corn, mostly from tortillas, that almost 40% of their daily necessary calories came from corn. It was the staple in their diet and it’s true that, since you are what you eat, the carbons specific to corn had become part of their biology since they ate it in such mass quantities. However, now North Americans (mostly people of the United States) have replaced Mexicans as the corn people. Unbeknown to us, corn is in almost everything we eat. Corn is in the oil that fries our chicken nuggets, corn is in the wax that keeps vegetables looking fresh in the supermarket, corn is in the feed that we give the animals we eat – corn is in the diets of our diet. Corn is an incredibly robust grass with a lot of applications because it can not only be eaten off the stalk as is, it can also be dried and ground into a flour, or stored as seeds for future replanting. It also has non-edible uses such as becoming fuel for cares, oils for frying, waxes, décor, and so on. None of this is innately bad; corn is just corn, it’s a natural product and just happens to be very adaptable in its use. However, the issue arises in my opinion when we begin replacing things with corn because corn is a cheaper alternative.

Corn grows really well because it’s a grass, it’s a pretty well behaved grain, and the North American climate suits it well therefor we have an abundance of corn. Because of this, corn is used to replace the grass that cows would eat, it’s one of the main ingredients in a lot of dog food, it’s oils and waxes are used as fillers in other foods we directly consume, and it’s sugars are used to sweeten everything to suit the American palette. This I don’t approve of. To me, once you move away from what is natural in favor of what is cheap and what is more convenient, or worse what people will pay you to do, you’ve sold out. Animals that survive off of corn that shouldn’t don’t have the same digestive behaviors they would if they eat what they are naturally intended to eat. This is the same issue I had with one of our speaker the other day’s comments about protein in animal diets: yes they do need protein to function, no they do not need the protein of other animals that would never have existed in their diets in the first place. Grass-fed cows are generally healthier than corn fed cows because 1.) they are usually raised in a space that allows them more room to graze and behave as they would in the wild and 2.) because corn doesn’t offer them the nutrients that they should be absorbing, but because it’s the staple of their diet, their nutritional needs must be supplemented with antibiotics and other medications. Similarly, the American diet does not need this excess of corn, specifically this excess of corn sugar that is in almost everything that is processed and almost everything that we consume. There is an addictive quality to sugar that companies love to take advantage of, if you have cravings for their product you’re definitely more likely to buy it, and it all makes me feel like a herd animal myself being fed only the cheapest, lowest quality feed so that I may be sustained and fattened enough to be sold. It is fascinating to read about how all-encompassing the corn industry is: it’s literally in everything and in products I never would have suspected. It’s also interesting that it’s a distinctly American problem (can I call it a problem if companies and other people don’t seem to take issue with it?) because in his article, Pollan says that even in Mexico, the original corn country, their animals are still grass fed and they use cane sugar as a sweetener rather than corn syrup. I’m not sure there will be a change or what alternative there is now that the market is so saturated by the dirt cheap corn everything, but I hope when I die that if scientists take a sample of carbon from my, I am anything but a walking corn chip – however as an American, I still fear that even as an attempted conscious consumer this will still be my fate.

 

Sources:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

02 Jul This entry was written by Quinn Steven, posted on July 2, 2015 at 2:01 am, filed under Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL. View EXIF Data

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